For Priyadarshini Govind, the excitement of performing in public is an unending inspiration. "It is like a devotion," says the Bharatanatyam exponent, who has been in the public eye, performing for over 35 years. "You want to excel each time you perform, and you do it not for your ego or money, but to thank the dance that has given you endless joy and honour your teachers, who have put their faith in you."
She was not even 10 when she had her arangetram (the first public performance) but learning has never ceased for her, she says.
Govind, one of the most renowned of Indian classical dancers, who has performed in more than two dozen countries has already performed in Toronto, Montreal and Baltimore as part of her current tour. She will be dancing in some more cities in the coming weeks. She will perform on November 1 at the New York University's Skirball Center.
The event is organised by World Music Institute, which has been holding world cultural events in the city for over two decades.
Govind talked about her passion and devotion in an interview that took her memory back to her school days in Chennai. She can easily think of a dozen stories about her classical dance teachers. A story she often tells involves Kalanidhi Narayanan, affectionately called mami by her students. Mami was showing Priyadarshini, who like her dance mates was in her early teens, the ways Gopi pleads with Krishna. Suddenly she stopped and looked at Priyadarshini and asked her. 'Do you or don't you want to learn?"
Priyadarshini was startled to see how the Gopi who was pleading for Krishna's love could become a stern and demanding teacher in a matter of few seconds. The young dancer learned that day how quickly a dancer has to transform herself by switching the characters.
She is often asked what are some of the things that cross her mind at every performance. Keeping the audiences engaged weighs on her mind all the time, she says.
"Never mind how many performances one has had, one has to think of each one as something special," she continues. "One must also remember that not everyone who comes for a classical dance performance is an expert. So the challenge lies in having a few items for those who are either new to the genre or have come to see the performance for any kind of reason, from accompanying a family friend or a spouse to checking out a dancer they have read a lot about. But every item has to have a very high standard. "
People often ask her the reasons for her successful career. "My teachers -- Swamimalai K Rajarathnam Pillai and Kalanidhi Narayanan -- told me when I was a teenager that it is important for an artist to put the I, the ego, well behind the performance," she says. "If there is no genuine humility, I think all aspects of one's art will suffer."
The Chennai-based artist is the mother of a 20-year-old daughter and a son, who is in his teens. She is the only member of her family who is a classical dancer. Her younger sister Vidya who learned the dance with her is an attorney near Princeton, New Jersey.
Govind says she owes to her mother a lot for fighting hard with her relatives and other family members while trying to convince them that Priyadarshini was right in pursuing her childhood passion for Bharatanatyam. 'If I became the lone dancer in a family of lawyers, it is entirely due to my mother's sweat and tears,' she said in an interview.
Her husband, who is a film production executive, knew even before they were married that Priyadarshini was determined to continue dancing.
'Mala knew where she was going right from the start,' Govind told The Hindu newspaper. 'I knew my goal but didn't know how to go towards it. Finally my husband said, 'Stop whining. Do what you really want to do.' That cleared my mind. I stopped dithering."
She was then 31 and the mother of two children. She had not been banking on marrying a man who would give her the freedom to pursue dance, she admits. That was why she had obtained a college degree in commerce and a diploma in mass communication. In addition to performing, she also conducts master classes for advanced students of dance all over the world.
"I tell myself and I tell my students all the time dance is not about external perfection," she says. "It's something that comes from deep within." So stresses the importance of not only learning the best way to move the body and express oneself but also understand fully the stories involved in a dance.
Her children are not into classical dance but Govind says they are among her strong supporters and enthusiastic fans.
A journalist asked her if she ever feels guilty of giving quite a bit of her time to her dancing. 'I try to lessen my guilt by saying to myself that I'd be a worse wife and mother if I didn't dance,' she said with a chuckle.
Text: Arthur J Pais | Photograph: Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos