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Dr. Sunanda Nair
- S.K. Venugopal

January 10, 2021

I continue with the series I have been writing about some of the fine gems in the world of Mohiniattam practitioners who made their mark with their profound contributions to elevate the status of the dance form, from that of a so called 'poor cousin of Bharatanatyam' to one of the most sought after dance forms globally today. In my earlier articles I covered the profiles of 3 very senior artistes who represent three distinct styles of Mohiniattam - Kalamandalam Sugandhi, Kala Vijayan and Nirmala Paniker. I now move on to an artiste who by age is much younger than these great gurus, but my intention is to cover yet another beautiful style or bani as they call it.

Her story is that of hard work and dedication with which she grew in stature much faster than anyone could imagine and stand quite tall among the top artistes in the Mohiniattam fraternity today. She follows another style in Mohiniattam which is popularly known as 'Nalanda Bani'. She is celebrated as a global ambassador of Mohiniattam by many in the media, for her contributions in taking the dance form across the globe. I am talking of Dr. Sunanda Nair, disciple of Dr. Kanak Rele. Born a Gujarati living in Maharashtra, Dr. Rele spent the best part of her life in doing research on Mohiniattam with much fascination and unparalleled commitment. Once initiated into training in this dance form during her younger days, with the friendly influence of some well-wishers, she took it up seriously as she already had a special interest in art forms of Kerala. Her affinity towards Kerala dates to the time she started learning Kathakali from Guru Karunakara Panicker during her younger days. The enthusiasm to delve deep into knowing this dance form gained momentum as Dr. Kanak Rele found some assistance through funding by Ford Foundation, to do the necessary research work.She then chose to travel all the way to Kerala with a small camera crew, and met with the legendary Gurus of Mohiniattam - Kunjukutty Amma, Chinnammu Amma and Kalyanikutty Amma. In those few days, she had some useful interactions with those great personalities and captured movements and moments which are now in the archives at Nalanda Dance Research Centre, Mumbai, as disclosed in one of her interviews.

After returning from her trip, she continued with her spirited endeavour in research and tried formulating body kinetics that she thought would be best suited for this beautiful dance form without moving away from the deep rooted basics typical of Kerala. She did not stop at that; she started a school of learning in the name of 'Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya' which got later affiliated to University of Mumbai offering degree and post-graduation primarily in Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. Coming back to Dr. Sunanda Nair, I would say these two souls are inseparable in many ways. Sunanda's role in popularising the 'Nalanda Bani' (style) is remarkable and her guru bhakti is a rare feature to find these days. She considers it her good fortune that she could be a part of Kanak Rele's many choreographies (More than a sixty of them, I am given to understand) portraying the ever so many nayikas and brilliant characters visualised and composed by her Guru in her own inimitable style. The common element in both of them is their background of Kathakali and their passion for Mohiniattam.

Dr. Sunanda Nair with her Guru Dr. Kanak Rele

Sunanda Nair was born to a family with not much of a background in the field of arts. Her father Balakrishnan was working in the pharma field and mother Sulochana a home maker, both basically from Palakkad, Kerala, but their karma bhoomi was Mumbai. Sunanda surprisingly started showing a lot of interest in dancing even as a small child. Her mother noticed this spark and decided to put her under training of veteran Kathakali artiste Kalamandalam Krishnan Kutty Warrier who as a 'niyogam' happened to shift to Mumbai after his illustrious career in Kerala Kalamandalam coaching greats like Gopi Asan and Sathyabhama teacher. She was just six years old when she started training in Bharatanatyam and began learning Kathakali from the age of ten. By the time she was 14, Krishnankutty Warrier Asan had already made her his senior assistant to coach students and later considering his advanced age, he asked her to continue running the class and entrusted his 'Shruthilaya Institute of Fine Arts' to her when she was just 15. Her commitment to the dance class was something to be admired. She used to even skip going for a movie with family or partaking in games with friends to be able to spend time in the dance class and practice.

It was at the age of 15 that her Guru Krishnankutty Warrier asan told her to find another teacher and explore different terrains in dancing. It was then that she chose to learn Bharatanatyam from acharya Deepak Mazumdar. The process of learning Bharatanatyam continued till she graduated in BCom from Chinai College, Mumbai, and joined JC College of Law to pursue LLB. She came to limelight the first time by participating in an inter collegiate competition when she was doing her 3rd year BCom. The college authorities were unaware of such a great talent studying there, but someone who was destined to play a role in her future progress, recommended to the authorities about her skills. That year she became the winner in Bharatanatyam at the inter-collegiate competition, representing her college.

It was about the time that she happened to watch a Mohiniattam performance of Dr. Kanak Rele. She got so fascinated with the dance form that she requested her teacher Deepak Mazumdar to recommend her name to Dr. Kanak Rele to join her classes. As destiny would have it, Dr. Rele spontaneously agreed, but on condition that she has to join her institution Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya and register as a student. After discussing with her parents, she decided to join Bachelor of Fine Arts in Mohiniattam course even while continuing her studies in Law, which Kanak Rele didn't object to. However, since obsession for Mohiniattam having taken over her mind, body and soul, she decided to drop Law and focus more on following her passion for the dance form. She graduated in 1989. Eventually she did Master of Fine Arts in Mohiniattam (1991) and became the first student in the country to have a Master's degree in Mohiniattam from Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya.

After her post-graduation, she started working in the institution as a lecturer and provided strong support to her Guru in not only imparting coaching to the students but also in enriching the repertoire of Mohiniattam. Here she had her opportunities to be a professional performer, a teacher, and a participant in the process of enriching the dance form, through multifaceted experiences in higher academics, stage performances, class room instructions and choreography. After a stint of 9 years, it was time her family decided to marry her off to a young man by name Capt. Anand Nair who was working in the Merchant Navy.

Sunanda considers the year 2000 as a very tough year, because she had to take a decision to shift to US to be with her husband. Obviously for her, her career in dance was the biggest concern. She landed in New Orleans to an environment very different from what she was experiencing till then. She narrates how a Malayali Association approached her requesting her to compose and teach an item in Thiruvathirakkali to their members and also perform a dance if she could. Her background not very much known in those circles, she took up the offer. After the program, the organisers and the crowd were so awestruck, that there were many requests for starting a class in that area. She did precisely that as it best suited her interests to pursue her dance. However, in 2005, the after effects of Cyclone Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans and shift to Houston. In Houston, she started her institution Sunanda's Performing Art Centre and it started flourishing with more and more students enrolling to train under her.

Even while she was in Houston, she used to undertake frequent trips to India and perform at various prestigious festivals like Khajuraho Festival (M.P), Konark Festival (Orissa), Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur festivals, Surya festival (Thiruvananthapuram), Ujjain Kalidas Samovar, Gujarat Modera Festival, Mysore Dussehra Festival etc. She never complained of tiring journeys and tight schedules. There have been occasions she says, she had to land early morning in Mumbai after 18 hours of flying, sleep for 2 hours, be ready for rehearsals, perform in the same evening and catch a night flight back to U.S. There can be no substitute for commitment if you want to pursue a career of your choice, she believes.

In order to further her career, she wanted to pursue her PhD after doing her post-graduation, but her Guru Kanak Rele was of the opinion that she might lose the vigour with which she takes her profession, eventually affecting her performances and that there is time for everything to happen. Finally, in 2012 she could convince her Guru to be her guide in pursuing the PhD and she followed it up meritoriously by completing her thesis on 'Intrinsic Lyrical Feminism in Mohiniattam' well before the assigned period and submitted her thesis to the University of Mumbai in September 2016. The gifted artist that she is, her depiction of characters is intense, yet so uncomplicated with expressions a rasika can understand and assimilate easily. She is blessed with an attractive demeanour best suited for the dance form and her very presence on stage can cast a spell over the viewers with the choice of her costumes, make up and the over all beauty in her movements. After a few months of her joining Nalanda, she got an opportunity to perform alongside her Guru and present a solo item, which received critical acclaim from senior critics. There was no turning back from that journey she commenced then. She has since been performing in India and overseas, winning accolades everywhere for her unique presentations.

Some of the awards of her eventful career include Kalarathnam (Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University, 2016), Kalashree, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award (2011), Nrithya Seva Mani award (Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, 2020), Muthirai Pathitha Vithagar (Natyanjali Festival, 2018), Nalanda Kanaka Nartana Puraskaar (Nalanda Dance Research Centre, 2017). Presently Dr. Sunanda Nair conducts her classes in Sunanda's Performing Art Centre, Houston (SPARC), Shrutilaya Institute of Fine Arts in Mumbai and also in Guruvayur, Kerala, besides taking online classes. SPARC also conducts dance festivals annually in Mumbai coinciding with her Guru Dr. Kanak Rele's birthday, The Kanak Festival and they do one in Houston called Narthaki. A number of students have trained under Sunanda Nair and many awarded reputed national scholarships and Doordarshan grading. There are more than a handful of soloists ready to become stars in their field of performance in the coming years, she says.

The predominant characteristic I have observed over the years is her openness to happily coexist with other contemporary dance styles and have cordial relationships with all artistes. Her initiative in Facebook called 'Mohiniattam, the Lyrical Dance' has many followers and she as the admin allows posts from all artistes without any discrimination so that the viewers can get to see a variety of performances. With her communication skills, she is very comfortable talking to an interviewer or doing a lecture demo, or in presenting her views in an open forum with absolute ease making it interesting for the viewers.

She is blessed with 2 children. The elder one Anirudh is a Chemical Engineer and the younger one Siya is in high school. Siya is wonderful dancer training in both Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam.

Venugopal S.K is a businessman in the field of Engineering projects, a singer, composer, accredited artiste in Light Music at All India Radio, auditioned and graded member of panel of speakers in Films Division of India, associated with Mohiniattam for over 4 decades as accompanying musician and music composer.

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