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On being mentored and the Pratiroop Project: Voices in my head
- Mythili Maratt Anoop
e-mail: mythili.moham@gmail.com

March 8, 2023

There are life-changing moments in every dancer's path. For me, meeting Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan and getting an opportunity to perform in his Radha Madhavam for the Kinkini Festival was one such moment. With just two full days of practice with the artists, we went onstage. After the performance, I asked Asan for his feedback and what he told me reaffirmed my faith in myself, on the one hand, and my thirst to learn more, train more and fix my flaws. There were unkind words from gurus earlier and doublespeak from a critic that had wounded me. But even in those few days of interaction, I saw many gleams of what a brilliant teacher Balakrishnan Asan was, apart from being a great artiste. To become a teacher, a generosity of spirit is an unnegotiable criterion and Asan had an abundance of that. I could see that his keen observations and suggestions would be spot on, and his comments were never of the kind that would break my spirit, or make me wonder if I should stop dancing altogether.

Sadanam Balakrishnan
Sadanam Balakrishnan
Vyjayanthi Kashi
Vyjayanthi Kashi

There's been too much focus on the body and mere imitation in teaching / learning of the classical dances. Of course, thanks to reality shows and insta-reels, what you see and what you show, visual gratification is of prime importance. But in classical dance, after the learning of the technique, imitation needs to stop. Asan kept reminding me in every class: "Don't follow anybody and that includes me. These are my suggestions; you should come up with your own interpretation. Don't copy anybody; not even yourself. Every performance of even the same piece should be different."

That made a lot of sense to me. It was not about by-hearting and replicating choreographies any more. There was some part of me that wanted to break out of this market place of workshops and classes where choreographies and music was sold; the bigger the brand, the more the price. With a suitcase full of such learnt choreographies which I performed rarely, I started realizing their value not in terms of how many times, I could or would perform the piece, but in terms of the techniques I was able to learn. Somehow, I wanted to wean away from performing learnt choreographies, even though it was a habit hard to break. Great choreographies by great gurus that connoisseurs already knew about and lauded. Practice, internalize, replicate. But I decided, I wanted to step out of that space of comfort. I wanted to work alone, even if it meant that there were no institutions to back me, or influential people to forward my performance or even stages to perform.

Kathakali padams fascinated me in their range of dramatic situations and emotions. In contrast, a great part of Mohiniyattam choreographies began to seem mono or di-chromatic. My mind would dance with possibilities while I sat through each class with Balakrishnan Asan in quiet, fascinated, sometimes awkward reverence. Every class was packed with thoughtful provocations on the subtlety of emotions, nuances of characters, the subtexts in every line, the allusions to myths. I made notes profusely, knowing well that they were scribblings not pleasing enough to re-read. I made sure to record every online session, so that I could revisit it, and I count them as my greatest treasure.

Mythili Anoop in Pratiroop
In Pratiroop

Pratiroop, the cross mentorship project by Warrier Foundation, happened at this juncture, and the text of exploration naturally had to be a Kathakali padam. The possibilities of a particular padam by Kottayam Thamburan, in which there is conversation between Panchaali and the demoness Simhika, offered a great challenge and was a temptation I couldn't cast aside.

If Asan's presence for me was a quiet luminous lake of many riches for me to delve into, Guru Vyjayanthi Kashi was a brilliant storm of all things benign. Always probing, never letting me lapse into a lazy spell, unrelenting in her comments and expectations, but with infinite patience. She wanted the best from everyone, the script, the musicians, and me of course! She would never settle for less, and that was a life lesson for me!

I was always in admiration of how quickly Vyjayanthi akka slipped into a character and her world, and how her mind instantly started working as the character's mind would. Her suggestions on using the techniques of my form and music in the most unconventional ways to best bring out the dramatic forces were brilliant. All components of the dance language had to be tuned to the specific situation, she was uncompromising in that, and I was amused at how she gave tasks to the musicians, which perhaps no other dancer had demanded of them.

Akka never settled for anything, let me repeat, anything, the way it was. Not even the brilliant writer Kottayam Thamburan's lines. Of course, there is no refutation of literary brilliance. It's a woman's mind at work. She had to ask questions, she had to reason, and for her Panchaali could not be a mute listener to the vile Lalitha. She could not be the gullible queen, powerless in the absence of her husbands, easily persuaded by a rakshasi. She was a shrewd woman, with abundant powers, a woman born of fire. Her interventions altered our script radically and Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan, wrote additional lines to present Panchaali in a new way in the padam.

Mythili Anoop as Lalitha
As Lalitha

Through our sessions that lasted all through a month, I faltered, fumbled, and even disappointed Vyjayanthi akka initially. But she played the true mentor. She would show me how she would do it, and ask me to do it in my style. She never choreographed any sequence for me, but time and again expressed her disappointment with what I had done in some parts and urged me to redo them. But I learned immensely and her sharing of the craft of choreography was a great dance life lesson.

The Pratiroop project was not a comfortable place to be in. It was not about any of the thirty choreographies I learnt in my whole life, but what I could abstract from them and bring to the table right then, right there. When I got a hang of what Vyjayanthi akka expected, I enjoyed the process, I started anticipating what she would say, and I had a Vyjayanthi akka working in my head. I think that's what great gurus become. They become voices in my head directing me Balakrishnan Asan and now Akka.


Mythili Anoop
Mythili Anoop is a Mohiniyattam artist, holds a Phd in the Semiotics of Mohiniyattam from IIT Bombay, and is working as Associate Professor and Coordinator of the new Fine and Performing Arts Department at GITAM University, Hyderabad campus. She also runs her institute, Moham Attakalari in Hyderabad. She can be contacted at: mythili.moham@gmail.com / mmaratt@gitam.edu


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