Bharatanatyam in Gujarat

by Sudha Thakkar Khandwani

It was the winter of 1949. I had just turned 15 and lived in Bombay where I had been, since I was 11, undergoing rigorous training in the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam at the feet of my young guru Anjali Hora Medh. Anjaliben, as we affectionately called her, was the first Gujarati dancer who had gone all the way to Madras to train in Bharatanatyam with Rukmini Devi in the early 1940s when her world famous dance school, Kalakshetra, was itself in its infancy and its connection with the Theosophical Society was strong and palpable. Rukmini Devi’s husband, George Arundale, was then the President of the Society, and Annie Besant’s reformist zeal was overwhelmingly evident in the way young Rukmini had defied the social stigma against dance and plunged into the feverish activities of reviving, reforming and even reconstructing the art of Bharatanatyam. The common connection with Theosophy and Annie Besant had also provided a link that had brought both Anjaliben and my family together, and ultimately it was this very connection, more than anything else, that had taken the celebrated young danseuse,“Baby Anjali,” away from a brilliant career in Kathak to immerse herself in a dance style that was very remote and inaccessible to the people of Bombay. My father had gone with her to Madras to enroll her in Kalakshetra. There she lived for five rigorous years, and moving in the world of legendary gurus Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Gauri Amma, and the great vocalist, Tiger Varadacharya, she imbibed not only Bharatanatyam, but also the Carnatic system of music and the Tamil language.

Now it was the winter of 1949, and a minor crisis had occurred in her artistic life. She had been invited by the world renowned Hindustani vocalist, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, himself a Gujarati, to perform two evenings of Bharatanatyam in a music festival that the great Pandit had organized in Surat in the memory of his own guru, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. She was delighted to be invited but was depressed at the thought that her usual musicians were tied up in Madras and would be unable to join her in her recital. When Omkarnathji heard of this problem he sprang a surprise on her and introduced her to two Tamilians from Baroda, both highly accomplished Bharatanatyam musicians. The younger of the two, Shri Kubernath Tanjorkar, was in his late twenties, and was not only a great nattuvanaar, but also a highly trained vocalist in both Carnatic and Hindustani systems of music. The older, Guru Chandrasekar, was himself a dance teacher and also provided mridangam accompaniment to Bharatanatyam dancers. They came to Bombay, rehearsed with us, and provided unforgettable musical support to our dancing at the Surat Festival. As a promising young student-dancer, I was included in the programme. Kubernathji sang for me too, and I am still thrilled to recall his melodious rendering of the slokas of two of my solo dances: “Ya Kundendu Tushara Hara Dhavala” and “Vadane Navaneetam.”

But I was young and took everything for granted without realizing the enormity of that historic moment in the making of which I too had unknowingly participated. Here was Anjaliben, the first Gujarati woman who had gone to Kalakshetra and brought back with her the gift of Bharatanatyam to Gujarat; and now she was teaming up with the two Tamilians whose families had made Gujarat their home more than six decades earlier and brought with them this ancient art of their ancestral land to the royal court of the Gaikwads of Baroda. None of us realized the romance of that historic moment. When Anjaliben had been taken to Kalakshetra, my father had written an article for the Gujarati press in Bombay titled “Gujarat in Adyar.” Now he was discovering the presence of “Tamilnadu in Baroda” whose beginnings were stretching back to the 19th century.

How and why did this transfer of culture take place? The answers to these questions revolve around the great historic forces of the building and break up of empires, the political patronage of the arts, and the royal alliances, through marriage, of princesses in distant kingdoms. It is well known that at the peak of the formidable building of their Hindu empire, the Marathas had ruled over Tanjore and had fully and freely immersed themselves in the local arts and culture. This is attested to, most eloquently by the numerous Bharatanatyam compositions of the Maratha kings, Sarfoji and Shaji, who were not only patrons of art, but also highly accomplished and knowledgeable creators of dance and music. With the break up of the Maratha Empire, various powerful generals established their own independent sovereignty over the areas under their immediate occupation and maintained their mutual alliances through intermarriages of their offspring. In this scheme of things, it was historically inevitable that when the Maratha princess Chimnabai I of Tanjore was married in 1880 to Baroda’s Maratha king Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, she would bring with her not only her artistic taste and knowledge of Bharatanatyam dance and Carnatic music to the courtly life at Baroda, but also a considerable amount of cultural resources in the form of a troupe of musicians and dancers as the wedding dowry. This troupe included two Bharatanatyam dancers, Gaura and Sarada, two nattuvanaars, and two teachers, Vadivelu and Sabhapati. This initial transfer set a trend, and in later years, other Bharatanatyam dancers were also brought to the Baroda court, among whom was Kanthimathi who retired after serving at the court for nearly 35 years and finally passed away in 1953. Guru Kubernath Tanjorkar, we discovered in 1949, was Kanthimathi’s son. He was initially trained by his mother and later by Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai.

Although Bharatanatyam, thus, came to Gujarat in the late 19th century, its awareness did not become widespread for a long time and its influence remained largely confined to the life at court and to a few popular festivals. It was left to another set of great historic forces, to combine and conspire to generate its great impact on the Gujarati society at large in the post-independence period. The integration of the native states into the Indian Union after 1947 virtually led to the elimination of royal patronage to the arts and forced the artists to take their arts to the larger society of common people. Some, like Guru Chandrasekhar, drifted to Bombay, while others like Guru Kubernath, remained in Baroda and started teaching Bharatanatyam more widely. The reformist and revivalist movement, through which Bharatanatyam had passed in Madras, had created larger awareness through controversy, and had managed to recreate acceptability and respectability for this ancient art form. It had also placed it on the larger national agenda for the revival of our cultural heritage with a sense of pride in its glory and greatness. This had prepared the Gujarati society to be more open and receptive to the glory of Bharatanatyam. Dr. K.M. Munshi, the well-known lawyer-politician-writer of Gujarat, founded Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and sought Rukmini Devi’s permission for Anjaliben to teach Bharatanatyam in his new institute. Just about that time, the newly constituted Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad University of Baroda took a most innovative step, unique to the Indian system of university education of its time, and created its Faculty of Fine Arts with degree programmes in Dance, Music, etc. Its visionary Vice Chancellor, Smt. Hansaben Mehta, promptly invited Anjaliben, first as Visiting Professor and later as the Head of the Dance Section to introduce Bharatanatyam as a degree programme in the university. This was a ‘first’ of its kind that soon began to draw enthusiastic response from students not only from Gujarat but from all over the country. Tamilnadu’s Bharatanatyam thus took deep root in the common cultural consciousness of Gujarat. After Anjaliben’s premature death in 1978, another distinguished product of Kalakshetra, Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar, was invited to be the Head of the Dance Section at Baroda. He too served there with great distinction until he retired a few years ago.

In the meantime, another centre of Bharatanatyam was opening up in Ahmedabad. The city’s millionaire physicist, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, while doing research with Nobel Laureate Sir C. V. Raman in Bangalore, came in contact with a highly accomplished Bharat-anatyam dancer, Mrinalini. Soon he brought back to Ahmedabad not only a lovely bride but also, through her, the gift of Bharatanatyam. With a wide-ranging vision and great dynamism, Mrinalini soon founded her well-known Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, where she began to teach Bharatanatyam to Gujarati girls and, in time, expanded the institute by inviting outstanding teachers such as Guru Kittappa Pillai for Bharatanatyam and Guru Acharyalu for Kuchipudi.

Soon other, Gujarati girls were emerging on the national scene as sought after Bharatanatyam dancers. Today’s renowned choreographer, Chandralekha, left her family, her hometown, and even her original name to go to Madras to sit at the feet of Guru Ellappa Pillai. She emerged as the “Second Balasaraswati.” Two other outstanding Gujarati dancers from Bombay who made their mark early on the national scene, were Sonal Pakwasa (later, Mansinh) who studied Bharatanatyam with Guru U.S. Krishnarao and Chandrabhaga Devi, and my own younger sister, Menaka Thakkar, who first studied the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam with me and later explored the Pandanallur style of Guru Chokhalingam Pillai with Guru Nana Kasar, the Tanjore style with Guru Kittappa Pillai, and Abhinaya with Guru Kalanidhi Narayan. Menaka and Sonal were also the first Gujarati girls to study Odissi dance with Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in Orissa. My own performing career was halted by a serious arm injury after which I continued to teach Bharatanatyam and choreograph dance dramas both in my own institute, Kala Nidhi Fine Arts, and in Bombay University’s National College as its Director of Dancing and Dramatics. At present, as the Artistic Director and Dance Curator of Kala Nidhi Fine Arts of Canada, I remain deeply involved in organizing International dance festivals and conferences where I present all forms of traditional and contemporary works of Indian dance, including my highly cherished Bharatanatyam.

Today, Bharatanatyam has become the single most popular dance form for Gujarati girls to learn and perform. There is no major city or town in Gujarat that does not have at least one school of Bharatanatyam, while cities like Baroda, Ahmedabad or Surat would have one on every major street. Tamilnadu’s Bharatanatyam is fast becoming native to Gujarat, reminding us once again that true art knows no bounds.

Sudha Thakkar Khandwani is the Artistic Director of Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Toronto and has been living in Canada for more than thiry years.