Watching Chitra Visweswaran crack the whip at her students as they rehearse for her latest dance drama, or watching her perform with maturity and aplomb, you just cannot imagine she was once too shy to get on the stage.
"In fact, after my arangetram was arranged and invitation cards printed, I was still too shy to even dance before my father, and he despaired and arranged for a substitute!" A friend was asked to standby and take over to perform for the invitees if Chitra refused to on the big day!
Well, perform she did, and hasn't stopped since!
In fact, even her dance school, Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts, is 25 years old. KutcheriBuzz caught up with her after her exuberant silver jubilee celebration - with twin a dance drama - Parampara and Pravaha - the dedicated to RASA, an organisation that works in dance therapy for special children run by dancer Ambika Kameshwar in Chennai.
Click here to see event report of 25 years of CAPA.
Tell us a bit about the early days when you decided to take up dance as a full time career.
I decided that when I was 15. As a child I had lived in London and Calcutta where my mother initiated me into Bharathanatyam and where my arangetram was held.
I wanted to stop studying, but my parents made me do at least my undergraduate degree!
I had got interested in the science of movement and spent a lot of time learning and practising. By this time my family had moved to Madras to pursue dance with a National Scholarship. The Sangeet Natak Akademi wisely thought that youngsters could bring in formal teaching methodology to the classical arts to help it thrive.
How was the performance scene in those days?
Those days, in the 1960s there were not many opportunities but the appreciation of the audiences was very good. Also the audiences were larger than today.
If we got 4 performances a year it was considered great! And that was very good because we dancers got time to learn and to mature, and it was considered very important for dancers to acquire a sound knowledge of music as well.
How is it now, over 25 years later?
Now it is a ratrace. Programmes abound. Peer pressure is high - "how many performances do you have?"
But that the interest is there is good. The youth revival in the context of classical arts has worked to a certain extent, but we have to keep pushing.
It is easy to get on your high horse and say that our youth should be interested in our heritage and classical arts, but here are so many distractions today - including MTV and V - if a child gives three days a week for dance it is great.
How many of them have the talent and the brilliance to make it a career?
There is something beyond that. This is a different field. You have to be mad. You have to be madly in love and madly committed to dance....
Tell us about your work as a teacher.
I have always done what I thought I have to do. Even if change is not accepted.
When I started the Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts I taught students themselves to do the nattuvangam. This was not liked by the 'traditional' people. Only the Guru should do the nattuvangam, they said, and only men could do it.
I first started doing the Thanjavur style and then switched to the Vazhuvur tradition. This was frowned upon and they said Chitra is mixing traditions!
I first started announcing the meaning and significance of the pieces I was performing - now everyone does it.
Any innovation or a departure from current practice is called rebellion. My then rebellion is now sampradaya!
I liked working on extension of the repertoire of the traditional Bharathanatyam recital and have been researching for new pieces. This is where the National Scholarship's intent worked. I was able to bring in the methodology of formal training to traditional dance and this has helped.
How do you feel now after being in dance for about 40 years?
Looking back I have never had a social life. In fact never had anything but performing, dancing and teaching! Always teaching!!
In the last couple of years I have been more selective in accepting performances though. Nobody is getting younger!
I accept only very very important recitals from the aesthetic/artistic sense or if it is for a cause. I don't dance at corporate house performances anymore, I prefer one of my students to get the opportunity, I direct them of course.
As you grow older and mature people expect more our of your performances, they expect it to be better. So I am not interested in performances where the physicality of dance is important.
Earlier it was important to to 10 performances - now it is important to do a performance worth remembering. And hence my responsibilities are greater.
What about other work related to dance
I also have other responsibilities - I am on various panels and decision making bodies like the Sangeet Natak Akademi. When one is younger one tends to take these things playfully. It is important now to serve with integrity as this is serving art itself.
The Akademi is encouraging young dancers and assessing different dance styles and reactivating the Yuv Utsav for this.
The regional committees are also being revived and this will bring a national awareness about artistes in various parts of the country and present them to a wider audience.
It is a fact that talent or ability is fine, but it requires to be presented properly. So it is important to have people on the Akademi panel who have received recognition as their voice and opinions will be heard and respected.
Tell us about your interest in special education involving dance therapy.
My brother Arun contracted polio when he was 3 and lost his ability to speak. He was also hyperkinetic and unmanageable at home though my parents tried very hard. He spent 27 years in the mental hospital since there was no other solution. Six to seven years ago I slowly tried to bring him home, and he had to be looked after like a baby.
A little while later he started losing motor skills and that is when I heard of Ambika Kameshwar and her work with special children. She was using creative dance movement to stimulate the motor and fine nerves.
Arun has benefited in a big way after joining Ambika's school - RASA. Moreover she teaches the children music to help them vocalise. And for the first time my brother is trying to talk - he tries to call me 'Akka' and that meant such a lot!
And he is such a happy child now and particularly to go to school. For no fault of theirs, for the lack of Government or institutional facility such as this no child should be entombed.
My own feeling was that it was dance that gave me a career and gave me a life. If it gives them a better quality of life then the family should be involved in helping them get it.
Chitra Visweswaran runs the Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts and can be contacted at No: 2, Sri Labdhi Colony, Alwarpet, Chennai - 600 018. Phone: 0091-44- 499 0036, 499 2566. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ambika Kameshwar runs Ramana Sunritya Aalaya Trust (RASA), and can be contacted at 25 B, Prithvi Avenue, Abhiramapuram, Chennai - 600 018. Phone: 0091-44-499 7607, 495 4584.