Shanta Dhananjayan was one of Rukmini Devi's favourite students. She joined Kalakshetra when she was eight years old and went on to play memorable roles in Rukmini Devi's productions.
She later married Dhananjayan, another Kalakshetra student. They became a much sought-after dance couple. They now run a dance academy, Bharata Kalanjali, in Chennai.
Shanta was busy training her students for a tribute she had created in honour of Rukmini Devi. She took time off to talk about her guru.
I was born in Malaysia. I lived with my parents in Singapore and Malaysia until I was sent to my grandparents in Kerala [ Images ] so I could have an Indian education and pursue my passion, dance. Even as a child, it seems I was very interested in dance.
Though I was to go to Shanti Niketan, my parents were not too happy that I would be so far away from Kerala. So they chose Kalakshetra in Madras, which was close to Palghat where my grandparents stayed. I consider myself fortunate that they sent me there.
I joined Kalakshetra in 1952, at the age of eight. Rukmini Devi was then touring the US. I heard others talk about this wonderful lady called Athai and I wondered who she was [Rukmini Devi's niece, Radha, used to call her Athai (Tamilians call their father's younger sister Athai). In no time, Rukmini Devi became Athai to everyone at Kalakshetra).
She returned after a couple of months and a great welcome was arranged for her. The teachers included me among the little girls doing the kolattam. I was proud to dance for someone so special!
When I first saw her, I was awestruck. She looked so wonderful.
I cannot forget the dance dramas she produced. When she decided to cast me as Radha in Gita Govindam, I was shocked! I was taller and bigger than my classmates. Balagopal, the boy who was chosen to play Krishna, was much shorter than me. I wondered why she cast me. But she had an eye for details that others don't notice. According to the story, Radha is supposed to be older but had to look innocent. She cast my own teacher, Sarada (Hoffman), as my sakhi. This intrigued me even more. The sakhi in the story is like a guru who has to help the two souls to come together.
I was elated to be chosen as Radha, but I was scared as well. I had to live up to Athai's expectations. She used to call me and the musician to her house at night to practise the ashtapadis (verses about Lord Krishna). Since it was a sringara kavya and I was just 15, she also taught me the more mature aspects of abhinaya (gestures). When I look back now, I realise how fortunate I was to have learnt directly under her.
I knew she had a soft corner for me. She was always nice to me. I was happy when I was with her.
She had a tremendous sense of beauty. She made everything beautiful. There was beauty not only her dance but in all aspects of her life -- the way she draped her sari, the way she put things in their place, the way she conduced herself... When she created something, it looked so easy and elegant. She had that special gift.
I would say, Rukimini Devi and Kalakshetra were responsible for my life. It was not just dance that we learnt there; we learnt to live beautifully. I sometimes wonder whether we can share the same things with our children. She was like a big banyan tree under which everyone flourished.
My most memorable experience was when I decided to leave Kalakshetra to join my parents in Malaysia. Athai was very reluctant to see me leave. She said, 'Why do you have to go permanently? You can spend a month with them and come back.'
There was a South East Asian cultural event in Singapore. Kalakshetra represented India [ Images ] and I was representing the Malaysian Indians. I was doing a Malay song interpreted through Bharatanatyam. This kind of work was not done those days and I was not sure how Athai would react. When we started performing, I saw her sitting there to watch what I had choreographed.
Later, when she called me home, my heart almost stopped. She said, 'I didn't know you had this creative aptitude! It was very beautifully done!' She also said, 'Enough of staying with your parents. Come back and work with me.' That made my day.
After I returned to Kalakshetra, I married Dhananjayan. Athai organised a beautiful reception for us under the banyan tree.
I was four months pregnant when I acted as Shakuntala!
I still remember our stay in Assam. I think it was in 1960. Rukmini Amma and I shared a room. I performed even though I was very ill. When we returned to our room, I collapsed. She said, 'Shanta, you danced so well even though you had such high temperature. Shall I massage your feet?' She then started massaging my feet. I jumped out of bed. I could not bear the thought of my guru touching my feet.
Our tour to Australia [ Images ] in 1966 was also very interesting. Many in our group did not like vegetables like artichoke and asparagus that were available there. Athai and I loved them. We also loved the cheese. She would call me, 'Come Shanta, let's try some new vegetables and salads.' My classmates would tease me for our funny taste.
The biggest compliment I received from her was, Shanta, you are a nice girl!
Shanta Dhananjayan spoke to Shobha Warrier.
Image: Uday Kuckian