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Regatta - Fifty golden years of Guru Girija Chandran
- Ambili Ramnath
e-mail: ambili.ramnath@gmail.com
Photos courtesy: Madhavi Chandran

September 7, 2022

Regatta Natya Sangeetha Kendra sails its way into its 50th year of purposeful existence under the stewardship of Guru Girija Chandran.

Guru Girija Chandran

'Regatta' which means a boat race, seems an unlikely name for a dance academy-but delve a little, and a beautiful connection becomes apparent. In the words of Girija Chandran, "The organisation was originally known as Regatta Cultural Society, registered under the Social Welfare Board - one that my father started with the aim of empowering women and making them self-sufficient. This was around the time that the Nehru Trophy boat race was in the limelight and a relative of ours suggested the name 'Regatta' as it implied movement forward - something that perfectly reflected the spirit of the organisation".

Initially dance was only one of the activities of the society, while training in book-binding, typewriting etc., gave wings to many women. Over the years the focus came to rest on dance, with Girija's keen interest. Soon Regatta came to be synonymous with the dance school whose students and presentations won the applause of many an audience.

On the 11th of September 1972, Regatta's dance school was formally inaugurated with the veteran Guru Gopinath lighting the lamp. That lamp lit by the Guru had continued to be its beacon. Always supportive, he was also appreciative of Girija Chandran's innovations in choreography and costume design. Girija also remembers her father, R.S.Pillai's tireless efforts to put her on the right track of learning a classical art form with the shraddha that it deserves. "For almost 10 years, Guru Suchindram M.M. Pillai stayed at our home, teaching Bharatanatyam to me and my sister Geetha Krishna Kumar. He would be accompanied by Suchindram Ramachandran on the mridangam, who also trained my brother in percussion. For years, our house reverberated with rhythms, music and dance, until M.M. Pillai sir could no more travel from Suchindram."

Intense desire to train in Bharatanatyam took Girija to the famed Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai in Chennai, but the venture did not prove satisfactory for her. However, it was after her marriage to Chandrasekharan Nair in 1980, that she found a true partner who was totally supportive of her efforts. Recognising his wife's passion, he made arrangements for Girija to go to Chennai and train under eminent Guru Adyar Lakshman. An enriching experience in every sense, Girija learned the full margam in a short span of six months under the guru. Simultaneously, she and her sister trained in Kuchipudi under Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. For Girija however, the interest in Kuchipudi was more in imbibing the skills of a teacher and choreographer in that dance form - something that she mastered with ease and precision.

Guru Girija Chandran
Guru Girija Chandran


Guru Girija Chandran

While the Regatta Natya Sangeetha Kendra, as it is known today, stands towering among dance academies and as an alma mater for several distinguished artistes of today, it must be noted that the institution has reached that stature on no slim grounds. Girija Chandran saw to it that the keystones of the foundation of the institution comprised of the systematic and scientific training that she sought to receive in all the dance forms taught in Regatta - be it Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi or Kathakali. Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboothiri, the Kathakali maestro, guided her in understanding the tenets of the theatrical art form, while later he continued to contribute his expertise to students at Regatta. Girija's skill in group choreography bears the signature of Saraswathi Malhotra, under whom she trained and won many a prize in group, folk and semi-classical dance.

Inspite of all the scientific training she received, Girija Chandran turned away from building up a performing career in dance, and instead chose to concentrate on teaching. Time has proved that she has done justice to her choice as she remains a Guru par excellence - one who fulfills all the qualities required of a teacher.

In 1997, Regatta celebrated its Silver Jubilee. Girija Chandran organised a 10 day Dance Festival to mark the milestone and many outstanding maestros performed live on stage. Girija's real intention on staging these performances was to expose her students to pure classical art, for them to learn about and accept nuances in style and to experience what it takes to become a professional dancer. The momentous event in Regatta's history proved to be a milestone of another kind for Girija - for it was then that she came into close contact with Guru V.P. Dhananjayan whose unstinted guidance opened up new vistas and further fine-tuned her teaching methodology. "From Sir and Akka, I learned so many subtle values, the importance of discipline and of making the students aware of our cultural sensibilities," says Girija. "The guidance that they have given my daughter Madhavi Chandran in discovering and honing her skills in the many aspects of professional dancing has proved invaluable. If today, she can handle nattuvangam and choreography with expertise, it is in no small way due to the Dhananjayans."

Guru Girija Chandran With Rajiv Gandhi
With Rajiv Gandhi

Annual dance festivals, camps and workshops are now a regular part of Regatta's curriculum and agenda. Every year, Regatta conducts two festivals - the Regatta Natya Sangeetholsavam, which coincides with their anniversary and the Grihanayika Festival. The former, while presenting eminent artistes before students and the general public, also provides the stage for the students to present items they have learned and perfected. At the event, distinguished gurus and topnotch artistes are invited to perform, motivate and conduct workshops and lec-dems.The array of such prominent personalities include Chandrasekhar, Dhananjayans, N.S. Jayalakshmi, Ashish Mohan Khokar, Shanta Serbjit Singh, Anita Shanmuganathan and Gowri Ramnarayan, to name a few.

Very special is Grihanayika, too. It showcases senior ladies - career women as well as homemakers - who had either nurtured dreams of learning to dance or to dance on stage and yet others who have had to give up their passion for dance, somewhere along the way. For them, Grihanayika is indeed a godsend.

Guru Girija Chandran

Apart from Regatta's own festivals, any major cultural event, especially in Kerala, would not be complete without the participation of Girija Chandran's institution. Over two hundred productions based on folk themes, topics of socio-cultural and national relevance, literary themes, etc. have been presented with massive participation of students. On the occasion of Regatta's 40th anniversary, old students from all over the world performed on stage and a thematic presentation 'Sapthaswaram' featured around five hundred students performing in different forms of classical dance. In dance drama, Girija's choreographies such as Ayyappa Charitham, Anjaneya Charitham, Markandeya Charitham, and Bhakta Meera were widely commended. Noteworthy too, are her choreographies on the poems of Subramania Bharati, apart from several tarangams and varnams in traditional style. Classical dance set to the rhythm of African drums, presented at the 85th birthday celebrations of Nelson Mandela was unique, as were the presentations at the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the thematic 'Unity in Diversity' performed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2017. Girija Chandran's students have made their presence felt at prestigious dance events like the Soorya Dance and Music Festival and the Mudra Dance Festival, as well as in foreign shores under Regatta's banner.

Even from a young age, Girija wielded a facile pen and wrote the lyrics for folk and group dances, which won prizes at youth festivals and which are popular even today. On the academic front, she has authored Bharatanatya Chinthamani (1985) and Abhinaya Darpanam (1999) in Malayalam, which are valuable reference books for students of dance.

Guru Girija Chandran

Formal appreciation for her work and contributions are awards and honors that have come to her, some of the prominent ones being Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award in 2011, Best Choreography Award by the Department of Tourism, Kerala, Kala Bhaskara award by Dhananjayans' Bharata Kalanjali, Lifetime Achievement in Classical Dance Award in 2011 by the Adoor Bhasi Cultural Forum and 'Nirtha Bindushi' award in 2012 by the Devadasi Festival, Odisha.

Over the past fifty golden years, hundreds are the students who have experienced the thrill of wearing the chilanka on their ankles, doing the adavus in precise rhythm and going on stage with the excitement of being under the arc lights. While for many the experience has added to the richness in their lives, for some, it has been life changing in that dance has become a meaningful career. Neena Prasad, Gopika Varma, Gopu Kiran, Sreelakshmi and Methil Devika are some of the recognised artistes who have been groomed in their early years by Girija Chandran. Her own daughter Madhavi Chandran is another talented artiste who is trained in many aspects of professional dancing, including doing the nattuvangam. Tutored under renowned gurus like the Dhananjayans, Vempati Chinna Satyam, Kalamandalam Narayanankutty (Kathakali) and Kalamandalam Geethanandan (Ottam Thullal), Madhavi holds a Master's degree in Bharatanatyam from the Sastra University, and is a Doordarshan A-graded artiste in Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam. Along with many national honors, she has been the recipient of the Best Bharatanatyam Dancer (2010) from the Music Academy, Chennai. All this has equipped her to play a vital role in Regatta Natya Sangeetha Kendra.

Guru Girija Chandran


Guru Girija Chandran

Today Regatta has the distinction of being the biggest portal for systematic training in the classical dance forms of South India, with branches and chapters all across the state. The teaching pattern lays stress on theory and practice alike, along with introduction to allied disciplines like music, cultural history and Sanskrit. "In the earlier years, students used to come to us with the intention of training and participating in Youth Festivals. And they have won prizes galore, too. However, over the years, I have managed to convince students to steer away from the rat race of competition and focus on understanding and respecting the sacredness of the classical dance forms. I have motivated them to love the art for its sake and encouraged them, where possible, to take up dance as a worthy career", says Girija Chandran with conviction. While doing all of this, she has not forgotten the original intention of her father who started the society - that of women's empowerment. Quietly, unsung, Guru Girija Chandran gives free training in dance to needy girls and offers them employment as dance teachers in due course.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Regatta would be that it has made training in pure, classical dance, accessible to all strata of society.


Ambili Ramnath
Ambili Ramnath is a freelance journalist and dance critic based in Thiruvananthapuram. Besides dance, she writes on topics related to culture, travel and spirituality which are her areas of interest. A post graduate in Economics, she devotes time to voluntary social and charitable activities too.


Responses
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I have been blessed to be a disciple of Guru Girija Chandran of Regatta Dance Academy for the past 7 years and I am immensely happy that I could be a part of her tutelage. These past 7 years has been a memorable and passionate journey for the artiste in me and am very sure that whoever is a disciple of Girija Teacher would give a similar response. The discipline and knowledge which she instills in each student is so profound that it becomes a part and parcel of your daily life. Kudos to Girija Teacher and Madhavi for bringing Regatta a pioneering Institute of Dance and Culture. All the very best to all the Regattians for conducting the 50th year and am so proud to be a part of the endeavour.
- Sreelekha Dinesh (Sept 14, 2022)


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A well written article about my beloved teacher and a truly visionary woman. I had the privilege to learn from this legendary guru for over a decade and the learnings from Regatta continue to be my guiding light in not just arts but in many walks of life. Congratulations on the 50th anniversary and best wishes for many more!
- Seema Gopinath (Sept 12, 2022)


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Very apt article about Guru Girija Chandran,Really proud and that both my children are learning not only dance but much more than that. Looking forward for the 50th anniversary celebrations. Thank you teacher and chikku for everything. Proud to be a part of Regatta.
- Sreeja (Sept 12, 2022)


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Truly legendary! Congratulations on 50 glorious years and here's to many more. More than a decade of being her student and she has taught me lessons that I am using in so many areas of my life along with dance. Thank you, dear teacher. Proud to be your student.
- Arundhathi (Sept 12, 2022)


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Ambili Ramanath has written a well-researched tribute with facts and interesting facets of a sincere guru, who has striven hard for decades. Having known Guru Girija Chandran for 2 decades now, I feel she is a genuine lover of art and truly an upasak of Saraswati. In Madhavi, she has a good continuity and both serve the cause of art, very well. A national award is due!
- Ashish Mohan Khokar (Sept 11, 2022)


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Very well written article about an inspiring personality and her amazing contributions to art and artistes. Though a relatively new student of hers, I hold utmost love and respect for Girija teacher . May God bless her with good health and long life!
- Sherin (Sept 11, 2022)


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50 years of Regatta's journey is the story of Girija teacher's surrendering and commitment to the art form-dance. Somehow it is my story too. I was one of the first students of Regatta, and naturally it became my second home and my family. The dance she planted in me is still there in my soul. For me it wasn’t only dance school but a personality developing centre too. I still remember how I used to get best student for academics in Regatta Annual day functions.
Girija teacher’s vision of a Centre for dance forms, now completes 50 golden years and stands tall and proud. I can keep on writing about Girija teacher, her achievements, her success, her sacrifices and her everlasting determination. Let her and her school shine brighter, and let many more souls be blessed with her gift of teaching.
- Anju Murthy (Sept 11, 2022)


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Regatta family stands proud together as we all come together to celebrate 50 years. I still remember the pomp and splendour with which we celebrated 25th anniversary and it just feels like yesterday. Teacher has groomed so many of us. Her home and heart were always open to the ones thirsty for knowledge. Growing up, Regatta was my second home, where I found solace in dance. She has been my mentor and guide all through my life. Words fall short to explain the love, gratitude and regards that I hold. Wishing Teacher and Chikku, the best of luck! I look forward to the grand celebration of dance, love and passion. Thanks for the beautiful article!
- Divya Reghunathan (Sept 11, 2022)


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A very well written article and apt write up for a strong lady by Ambili Ramnath. Guru Girija Chandran, a person who was eligible for a bank job, gave up the cushy job and opted to come into a field where there was uncertainty. She worked hard to create one of the premier Natya institutes in Kerala through sheer determination and hard work. She has produced students who are all over the globe. The 50th yearlong celebration comes to a finale in December 2022 with performances by students from all over the world as well as prominent performers in the field of Natya. Wishing Girija teacher and the whole team all the very best.
- Suresh Kumar Sridharan (Sept 11, 2022)


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Pranams to my dear Guru Girija Chandran!  Girija teacher is a Maha Guru, indeed a teacher of teachers! It is her total dedication to Natya Sastra and strict discipline in all aspects of dance that has made her a great guru and Regatta one of the leading dance schools in India. Congratulations to Regatta on reaching the milestone of half a century!
I was fortunate to receive Girija teacher’s blessings and learn Mohiniyattom under her watchful eyes. She encouraged older ladies with interest in dance to resume and sharpen their talents and provided a stage for them – ‘Grihanayika.’ This way Guru Girija Chandran was giving fresh wings to many homemakers and career women.
May Devi Mookambika’s blessings be showered on Guru Girija Chandran and bring her and Regatta school greater accolades!
- Priyadarsini (Sept 11, 2022)


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The strong and inspiring woman, who made artistes across the globe, marking 50 years of expertise in the field. So proud to be the disciple of this great personality- OUR GURU!
- Neethu Sajith (Sept 11, 2022)


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A well deserving tribute. Kudos to Narthaki, a forum that deserves big applause for featuring such great personalities. Special appreciation to the writer Ambili for her lucid language.
- VP Dhananjayan (Sept 7, 2022)


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