Considered one of India’s eminent classical dancers, Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant is also a choreographer and dance scholar. For her contribution to the field of classical dance, she was conferred the Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar for Bharatanatyam. Although Ananda may be an officer with the Indian Railway Traffic Service, her fervour for classical dance knows no bounds. While she nurses her passion through two classical styles – Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi – Ananda is a prolific solo and ensemble performer who has performed across five continents. She also pioneered a first-of-its-kind Bharatanatyam practice app, called Natyarambha.
Asked to share an unforgettable moment from her stellar career in dance, she exclaims, “Many, actually! Meeting His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and performing before him, dancing at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, receiving the Padma Shri from none other than
Dr Abdul Kalam, performing four nights in a row to the backdrop of the Angkor Wat, travelling across the world, and sharing our cultural inheritance... oh, so many!” Here she gets candid.
Take us through your early life. When did you first realise you wanted to learn and perform classical dance?
My journey in dance began at the age of four, in a temple at Secunderabad. Here, a senior dance guru told my mother that since I had large eyes, I should learn dancing! And so, it was blessed; she eventually became my first guru,
Sharada Keshava Rao. I later learned under Pakkiriswamy Pillai. After winning a gold medal in the All India Dance Competitions, I was invited to join Kalakshetra in Chennai on scholarship to learn Bharatanatyam as a full-time dance student. I was only 11 years old at the time. Following six years of training there, I returned to Hyderabad with a diploma and post-graduate diploma, and became a dance teacher at the age of 17. I have been trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi by Guru Pasumarthy Ramalinga Sastry.
You have performed on international stages, too. Do you think Kuchipudi as a dance form needs a lot of exposure, so people abroad also understand it?
Today, both Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi are global styles, with students from almost all nations learning, teaching, and performing the art forms. I think we worry too much about making dance understandable. To me, dance, or for that matter any art, is less about intellectual understanding and more about experiencing and the storytelling. I have noticed that foreigners make an effort to learn about the art form before attending the shows. Young India too is learning and taking up Indian arts to be performers, and often for alternate careers as well!
Most of us gurus have waiting lists of students wanting to join. So the issue is not about artists, but about funding and support. Arts too need to be supported, just like sports. A government can only do so much. Thus, the onus lies with corporates to invest in arts, as that is the commemoration of a nation. I don’t think we want to face a situation where a youngster knows a certain Ed Sheeran but not M.S. Subbalakshmi, do we? It is important for both parents and society to invest in arts. Besides, I have always pitched for CSR as Cultural Social Responsibility!
What’s your opinion on the present Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi scenes?
It’s good. Some are either learning the dances or making them their main or alternate profession. While some are drawing strength from it, others are using arts as a tool to address social issues. What is needed is an investment in infrastructure. Hyderabad has only one cultural space: the Ravindra Bharati! We need more such performance spaces, festivals and opportunities to present
world-renowned as well as young and upcoming artists, and perhaps more audiences to watch the classical arts. The young need to look to India’s cultural wealth and not westward to seek approval. And yes, more importantly, media must cover arts adequately. To sum it up, society must own arts. I look forward to the day when corporates and businessmen make a handsome endowment for arts, something like the Rockefeller Foundation in the US.
What do you think about dance as a profession in India? Have reality shows given a boost to the field?
I am not at all comfortable with reality shows! Negativity destroys the young, too. While media is hankering after athletics and acrobatic dancing, art can never be about the competition! Dance as a profession can mean so many things; I wouldn’t call it a profession. Whether a performer or a teacher, you can navigate two careers, as I do, to continue your passion.
Learning Kuchipudi requires considerable effort and long-term dedication. Are young people in India willing to undertake the endeavor?
Absolutely! I have students in their late 20s and early 30s, who came to me at a very young age. That’s the staying power of passion, don’t you think?
What is your view on contemporary dance in India?
It is a genre that is growing steadily. Only in India, the contemporary form can emerge or evolve from other training systems, like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Manipuri, Chau, etc. Indian contemporary is a different genre and cannot be compared with the Western, where the history and grammar of the art form are completely different.
Any parting thoughts?
Yes. An appeal to all parents and teachers to nurture a child’s innate talents; for it is this fostering that will soon become a passion. Passion will turn into core strength, which needs to be nurtured. This will become the wellspring of positive energy that will help you deal with the challenges of life.
- as told to Sumana