Dr. PADMAJA VENKATESH SURESH
(post by Madhavi Ramkumar)
Bharatanatyam exponent Dr.Padmaja Venkatesh Suresh, head of the Aatmalaya Academy of Art and Culture, Bengaluru, assumes the roles of performer, teacher, researcher, author and writer, speaker, administrator and organizer with equal ease. Having taken the art to numerous venues in India and abroad, she also launched ‘Kalachaitanya’ a scheme to reach out to underprivileged children in villages, small towns and cities across the country. Her books ‘Tantra the Science and Natya the Art – The Two Faceted Reality’ and ‘The Liberating Dance – Natya Tantra’ as well as articles in a number of major publications attest to her spirit of enquiry and her academic and intellectual approach to the roots, origins and practice of the art. Winner of several titles and accolades, she continues her deep commitment to Bharatanatyam and other aspects if Indian culture during the current pandemic through multiple programmes on various social media platforms.
In a recent email interview, appended below, Dr.Padmaja Venkatesh Suresh makes several informed and thought provoking points that illustrate her basic philosophy and the core of her identity as an artiste.
What is the most important lesson you have imbibed from your guru Sri.K. Kalyanasundaram?
The most important lesson is VIDYA DADATI VINAYAM. Masterji always nurtured Guru Bhakti and allegiance. The more one knows, the less is the exhibition as one sees the divine hand in everything. It is the Lord who prompts one towards knowledge and action- this he repeatedly exemplified during class and programmes. The quality of class was far weighed than the quantity of lessons. It is a mutual bonding, truly like life-long foster parents, seen in Guru- Sishya relationship that I have experienced.
Do you follow the same teaching methods as your guru? If not, what are the changes and the reasons for them?
I try to emulate the same ways in teaching the practice and Parampara of Tanjore lineage but have made additions in giving regular theory lessons which was not the case when I learnt from a Guru like Kalyanasundaram Saar who belongs to the traditional families where oral practical training was the mainstay. My students write notes too and are sometimes given video and audio recordings. The present generation should be simultaneously exposed to academics and research in the arts too.
How did your father Sri Chakyar Rajan, who is foremost among your mentors, inspire and guide you?
My father taught me to be an amicable and simple person, easily able to adjust to different environments of stay and travel. Hardwork, perseverance, innovation and faith in God came from father naturally. He instructed me regularly in Sanskrit and suggested that one can improve by watching veterans in the field. Chakyar Rajan was a legend whom still many people love for his humorous way of looking at life, management skills and philosophical guidance and certainly I am thankful to my stars for these roots.
Do you believe our classical arts including Bharatanatyam have metaphysical and esoteric aspects, and a higher spiritual purpose? If so how can they be correlated to the current social milieu and the financial necessities of the artiste?
If we can take the example of Rishi and Raja in our daily lives, we can make a balance. The material pursuits along with social acceptance feature in the world drama that keeps changing scenes relentlessly. The King in us is bent upon achieving goals. Every moment we pause and reflect, we start breathing effortlessly by connecting within like the Sage and also examining our moral principles. The transactional and transcendental have to go hand in hand in our Karmic journey, these assets and liabilities in the balance sheet have to be worked out. The metaphysical introspection as a classical dancer gives the advantage of witnessing the various happenings SHAKTI, with a sense of detachment as the PEACEFUL SELF IS RESTING IN SHIVAM.
How important do you think knowledge of music, language and literature, and exposure to other art forms is for a student of dance?
Knowledge of most of the chapters in Natya Shastra and the last chapter on dance in Sangeeta Ratnakara are basic requirements if you wish to achieve a level of expertise and long-standing mastery. Besides these treatises, Abhinayadarpanam is good for Bharatanatyam as other texts are for respective dance forms. The dancer should know the song danced, byheart and to be able to sing with Talam even if not possessed with musical talents. The background of the poet is also important to interpret correctly the intention.
What impact can lecture demonstrations, seminars and discussions have on the practice and evolution of a performing art?
The positive outcomes of these seminars, etc are already being seen with wide dissemination of knowledge and emerging young scholars. But caution is to be taken to prevent plagiaristic tendencies which are increasing as people tend to easily extract papers and replace with cosmetic changes. Research has to be original, arduously undertaken and credits given keeping in mind the ethical standards. Shastra has to to go integrated with Prayoga as it is a performing art.
Do you think the traditional margam is still relevant in Bharatanatyam? What is your opinion about the depiction of contemporary social issues as part of the repertoire?
Margam has to be refurbished as it is a spiritual journey to unite with the Supreme in the central piece built up in the crescendo. It follows an inconspicuous sacred design and marks the dimensions in a temple, hence even if the platform is a proscenium stage, the ambience becomes potent as if a ritual has been undertaken. The Margam measures the true mettle of the dancer and no other performance can come close to this in terms of both personal and community benefits accrued. Innovations can be separately presented as and when the need arises but not to meddle with convention.
What were your objectives when you took Bharatanatyam to large numbers of underprivileged children? How successful have you been in attaining them?
I have been satisfied that I could dedicate several professional hours of work in training the underprivileged fora sustained period of over 12 years through government schools, rural NGOs and other institutions. There are times when suddenly some young ladies walk up to me after a performance or a college event or even at a store saying that they were in such and such school and have been able to further the training or use the skills to secure better occupations. The handful who came to Arangetram stage and completed it became teachers and often learn further from me. We continue to hold such workshops. The Rashtrapati Bhavan programme became history for many children who have their dancing photographs with Dr. Kalam, for posterity. Looking back, the objective to touch upon lives, to create oppurtunities for the deprived and to share knowledge is a gift from Almighty.
What do awards, prestigious venues and official recognition mean for you as a performing artiste?
Awards create added motivation but for a short while as the deeper quest is what drives one constantly. Venues never mattered, whether a municipal school or a high ranked Sabha, one has to do the best on stage and strive to connect with the audience. The moment the music starts, it is a total surrender. There is no PADMAJA...almost all performances brought out the magic and continue to do so. The Shikshak, Shodak, Sevak are all acting their roles through me but I AM happiest in Advaitic state as a humble NATYA-SADHAK.
Do you believe the changes brought about by the current pandemic, especially the use of technology and social media platforms, will influence the progress of the Indian performing arts in the long run?
The Pandemic has given inner meaning to our pursuits. How much we need against wants in every part of life became our choice. The arts taught virtually and the webinars are all keeping us connected but the REAL is missing. RASA cannot be derived through an external device. The change is a stop gap and hopefully, like we get further energized after an EKADASI fasting, this too can lead to progressive strides after normalcy returns. The noise on social platforms is unbearably loud and mediocrity has risen to the forefront. New benchmarks that give room to constraints but cannot stray from the trodden path have to be made. The situation is tough for upcoming artists but serious study can be fostered for the future of the art.