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A sprightly 84, Radha Sridhar's wards still dance to her tune
- Jyothi Raghuram

September 14, 2022

Nectar In Stone remains one of the finest cultural documentaries made on Indian television till date. A Bharatanatyam school in Bengaluru, set up in 1969, has presented many memorable dance dramas in traditional format. Several dancers sprinkled around the globe and practicing this art, hail from this institute -- a cultural hub that celebrates Hindu festivals in traditional gaiety, an open house for hospitality, senior dancers enjoy a rare respect from its founder; all this in the leafy green environs of a house of a bygone era which breathes warmth and camaraderie.

Radha Sridhar

She is the epitome of a feisty feminist who has, contradictorily, lived a conventional life, yet relentlessly chased her dream of becoming a Bharatanatyam dancer and subsequently a successful teacher. This was in an era when learning dance was taboo, particularly for girls. The dance scene and fraternity owe much to her for laying the foundation for girls, and even married women to pursue the art. Her child-like simplicity is such that she may not even be aware of this her lasting legacy. No guesses here—she is Guru Radha Sridhar, who at 84, still has stars in her eyes, not just for dance, but for life itself!

Outspoken, with a touch of naivete, energetic, positive, unpretentious, creative, just about define her. Need an example? Here's what she says of the pandemic days and her Venkatesha Natya Mandir: "Immediately after the lockdown was declared, we started online classes, hitherto an unknown digital space. Five of my senior dancers were at it, as I'm not tech-savvy. Now I've learnt to handle it comfortably, but I am not for it. I don't believe in online teaching". What did those difficult two years mean for her dance classes? "I practiced my music; shared dance music records with my wards. None of us were ever away from dance". What an extraordinary octogenarian artiste!

Radha SridharRadha Sridhar

Any mention of Radha Sridhar is incomplete without recalling to memory her spouse, Sridhar, a pleasant, helpful and dignified impresario. "He was so cooperative. I miss him terribly". But the loss of such a loving life partner neither benumbed nor depressed her. Her grief was not for the world to see. Her life, after his passing, has been more of a homage to the one person to whom, she says, she owes everything. A pre-condition of marriage was that she be allowed to pursue dance. Unimaginably horrifying in those days! But dance she did, set up her dance institute too, and has few competitors who can live up to her zeal and repertoire, at 84!

"All my cultural orientations are thanks to the music and dance I've seen and listened to"; surely a lesson for dancers who rarely attend the recitals of colleagues. Learning lies as much in watching, in the performing arts. Losing her father when barely two, a mother who had to be in the village to look after an agricultural land as it was their only source of food, Radha was brought up by her grandmother. Keshava Nritya Shala, one of the earliest dance schools of Karnataka, headed by revered Guru H.R. Keshavamurthy, was her introduction to classical dance through Kathak. Four years on, with Bharatanatyam becoming popular, she switched over. A one-hour programme at the Hebbar Srivaishnava Sabha in the 1950s cost her a "huge" Rs. 80, of which her grandmother paid Rs.40. "My mother wasn't able to make it because she was in the village. I still feel bad about it".

Guru C.R. Acharya, Chitra, R.K. Usha, Radha and actor Sridhar
Guru C.R. Acharya, Chitra, R.K. Usha, Radha and actor Sridhar (1979)

Proficiency classes and practice sessions for scholarship holders at Venkatesha Natya Mandir continue to be conducted by her; a host of senior dancers including Ganesh N, Kusum N Rao, Supriya Shivarudrappa, Sindhu Purohit, Rashmi Rao, Aparna Shastry and Srimathi Anil Kumar, have handled her classes with competence, she says, reveling at their growth. U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi, from whom she learnt later, were progressive, pioneering dance professionals—elements which Radha incorporated into her own life. "My first male ward was film star Sridhar. My husband's family objected to it. But I sailed through this controversy too". Such battles were many, but invariably victorious, without acrimony. She was groomed by Muthaiah Pillai and Dr.Venkatalakshmma also. And it is not just Carnatic vocal that she is trained in. None other than T.A.S. Mani was her tutor in mridangam!

Nectar in Stone, on the famed Somnathpur temple, with dance as its focal point, Krishna Nee Begane Baro, a classy Doordarshan tele-serial, examiner at Bangalore University for dance and at the Karnataka State Secondary Education Examination Board, known for her sense of fair play, fighting for the cause of students at the cost of antagonizing her peers and seniors; Rasa Sanje, an annual festival of music and dance on since 1995, are among her proud emblems. She has groomed four generations of aspiring dancers; has choreographed over 20 dance dramas, all of them in Kannada, one in Samskritam.

Radha Sridhar

The central Sangeet Natak Akademi award this year is the most recent crown this much-awarded Guru wears.

The integration of dance, customs and family values in her life are heartwarming. A household where she, her son and family live together. Mahiti, the stage décor outfit for dance and music events, is another art offshoot, founded by her daughter-in-law Ashwini. Her son Sheshadri, in fact returned to India from the US, just to be with his parents. Radha Sridhar's daughters, Indrani Parthasarathy, runs the Abhinaya School of Performing Arts at Houston, and Ragini Sridhar, heads Natya Mandir in New Jersey, US.

Radha Sridhar

A traditionally done-up house with a much lived-in feel, adorned with carved wooden furniture, figurines, and dance photographs that trace her art world of at least 60 years, give the home of Radha Sridhar an old-world charm, reflecting the persona of an unpretentious promoter and preserver of Indian culture.

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

Lovely article, Jyothi! Am privileged to be Radha teacher's disciple. Kudos to my Guru. Here's wishing her a very Happy Birthday.
- Poornima Ashok .(Sept 15, 2022)

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