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B Bhanumati: Her art reflected her beauty
- Jyothi Raghuram

May 28, 2021

"Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, beautiful old people are works of art"; in no aspect of her art or personality was Guru B. Bhanumati old. Sparkling with childlike enthusiasm, reflected enchantingly in her eyes, lively and spirited, she pioneered many firsts in classical dance. From the Eighties onwards, she quietly and unknowingly created a revolution in the dance field, bringing down the artificial walls around dancers and dance institutions.

Perhaps even the dance world has not comprehended this, so unobtrusive was her world, so low profile was she. Her Bharatanatyam dance school, Nrityakalamandiram, was not out of the ordinary at the surface level. Students milled her class as much for her warmth as for her ability to bring out the best in them. At Nrityakalamandiram, there was no pause, leave alone a full stop. Each ward of Bhanumati took back something precious with them. Even if dance is not for all, either to perform or teach, she groomed every student to be a dancer worthy of her dance school - a reputation that withstood the tectonic shifts in digital technology, taste, and the re-configurations of the very purpose of dance.

Personal dignity, arising also from a deep respect for dance, a touch of class in aaharya on stage and sartorial sense off it, an introduction to dance theory, Carnatic music, anecdotal glimpses into Samskritam texts and scriptures, applauding fellow dancers, belief in the divine that went hand-in-hand with a sense of humility about one's own self, was in fact the education one got at her school. Bhanumati personified all this; dance was only a medium.

Time was when a rigidity pertained to dancers switching teachers or even learning a few dance pieces from another. The in-depth, emotional quotient of Bhanumati's communication with her wards showed in their expressive outpourings on stage; so deep was their sense of identity with the delineation. Inadvertently becoming an expert in teaching abhinaya - an impossibility because it has to come from within, whatever the external inputs - Bhanumati chalked out new pathways. Dancers, even teachers, gravitated to her, picking up the subtle nuances of abhinaya. This was a new lateral movement on the dance scene. Scores joined her as full-fledged wards.

The ramifications were many. Migration to other dance schools, without fear, became acceptable, blurring demarcations of style, helped intermingling in the fraternity, and brought dancers together for collaborations later on. Acceptability and fellowship were the hallmarks, Bhanumati's open-mindedness arising from an open heart that embraced everyone as a spark of the divine. This in essence was her striking personality trait, from which arose her shy modesty.She embodied beauty in every sense of the term, her presence marked by grace and serenity.

"Pure-hearted, ever-smiling, and open to ideas, Bhanu encouraged youngsters from other dance schools too", says Usha Datar, herself an institution in classical dance. "Working with her for Ganga Gowri Vilasam some three decades ago, was a memorable experience. She was a wonderful choreographer. I was amazed at her simplicity".

Bharatanjali, the professional dance troupe for group features, was not just an outlet for her creativity. Meant to develop a larger canvas for dance, as distinct from the solo, Bharatanjali was a concept to explore and delve deeper into Indian dramaturgy, music, and ancient texts and adapt them to stage. So effective were the presentations in entertainment and message that they laid claim as a tradition albeit new.

Conceived way back in 1994, one looked with curiosity and trepidation at this venture, wondering whether it had staying power. Bhanumati was convinced that Bharatanajali could hold center stage as much as a solo would. It did, in essence as well as in production values. Even abstract concepts such as truth, ahimsa, communal harmony, social equality, and rural empowerment as espoused by Gandhiji, came within the easy grasp of the audience, as in Sandisha me Shantim, a landmark work for its choice of an abstruse, unorthodox theme choreographed in conventional mould.

Satyanarayana Raju, then a fledgling dancer attempting to be noticed in a predominantly female field and feminine art, took abhinaya lessons from Bhanumati. Today, he is an ace soloist (which is saying a lot for a male dancer) with outstanding skills in abhinaya, and a remarkable choreographer; Satyanarayana Raju's poignant portrayals inspire and elevate. "More than anything else, she was a large-hearted person; a sincere, patient teacher, who went into minute details, especially in the explaining of the lyrics of a composition, word by word. She insisted that we take our teachers into confidence about learning from her. As for me, I would just sit gazing at the myriad expressions flitting across her face; I was entranced", he says.

The stage was a sacred space to create something substantial. It beckoned her, via an admiring audience, to perform. Yet her outings were few, by choice. Of vivid recall are her abhangs, particularly Jaagi Radha and Ughada Nayana Deva, evocative because of her manodharma. "Sringara needs to be subtle and refined", was her refrain when questioned about the intertwining of bhakti and sringara.

Siblings Archana and Chetana, part of Bharatanajali since 2004, feel rudderless today. "She was our mother. She led by example. An epitome of love to her students, many of us developed a passion for dance because of her love towards us".

Bhanumati's life was certainly not bereft of aesthetics. Her friendly smile enveloped everyone in its warmth. She as easily turned teary-eyed when touched by emotions. She became the character on stage, her eyes glistening with feeling. Grace was her style statement.

Adieu, blessed one. You touched even those who briefly passed your way.
(Guru B Bhanumati passed away on May 24, 2021.)

Jyothi Raghuram is a senior journalist and art critic based in Bangalore.

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