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Delhi's pioneer institution builder for Bharatanatyam passes away
- Leela Venkataraman

September 22, 2023

Pioneer in the setting up of an institution for propagating Bharatanatyam in the capital, the founder of Ganesa Natyalaya, Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan, is no more. The institution initiated in 1972 in Patna where she resided with her bureaucrat husband, was shifted to Delhi in 1974, with Mr.Vaidyanathan being posted to the capital. While the school at first functioned from a modest place, with the help of sponsors and well-wishers who were many, thanks to the fund of goodwill earned by both Saroja and her husband, it was in 1988 that the new building was set up in Delhi's Institutional Area. As an inevitably significant presence in the capital's dance scenario, since the 1970s, Saroja Vaidyanathan's absence is going to be sorely felt. And she will be deeply mourned by all her students, spread in different parts of the country and abroad.

Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan

Born in 1937 in Karnataka and trained in Chennai's Saraswati Gana Nilayam for Bharatanatyam, whatever may have been the immediate adjustments she had to make post marriage, from the early seventies when I made her acquaintance, she was known in art circles, as being blessed by one of the most supportive husbands any artiste could wish for. Instrumental in helping Saroja steer through the bureaucratic tangles while applying for, and finally being sanctioned, land in Delhi's Institutional Area, along with a loan from government (cleared through annual installments by the institution, in double quick time), Vaidyanathan's role was believed to be significant in helping Ganesa Natyalaya evolve as an institution in its own right, with no red tape encumbrances. Apart from the administrative support, one cannot forget how involved Vaidyanathan was with the actual productions of Saroja. In my mind's eye, there still lives the image of Vaidyanathan, clad in a skimpy dhoti tied very high, kacha fashion, with large-rimmed glasses worn low, and walking stick in hand, strutting briskly across the stage as Mahatma Gandhi - in a dance drama based on the Freedom theme. As a matter of fact one considered the couple so much as a team, that when Vaidyanathan passed away, one wondered how Saroja would take the loss. Soon, one came to know that she herself was made of stern stuff, and I recollect an interview I had with her a couple of months later, and her replying to a hesitant query from me "Oh, I have put all that behind me. I am on my own - and I am too busy for needless mourning. Life has to go on!" And that determination not to get swayed by thoughts of what is no more, was very much part of her. That same will power saw her, at the age of 86, still not fully recuperated after a heart ailment (and unaware of the still undiagnosed Lymphoma, already in its fourth stage, eating into her vitals), take the Habitat stage in a solo appearance, to lusty applause from a packed hall.

Part of the enormous goodwill she shared with all her students and friends, in a world where cut throat competition for fame is part of life, came from Saroja's naturally accommodative spirit. My assessment is based on her unfailing warmth to me, who had responded with mixed feelings, to many of her productions, in my writings. The example of how she accepted developments in her stride was also evident from the way she related with the elder son based in the States, with his foreign wife. Even the entry of the second daughter-in-law Rama into the family would have entailed some adjustments. As one of the most promising of Yamini Krishnamurty's Bharatanatyam students, she was from a different line in more ways than one. While introductions before her recitals soon began mentioning her as a student of Saroja, her dance style was different and both Saroja and she, as teachers, taught separate batches of students in Ganesa Natyalaya, though Rama was part of the group presentations of the Natyalaya initially. But Rama's own career advanced so fast that as one of the most coveted solo Bharatanatyam artistes of India, she rose to become an artiste in her own right. Rama's daughter Dakshina, as a student of Saroja, with exceptional talent for both performing and for choreography, became the pride of both mother and grandmother. And with age, as Saroja's body began to show fatigue, Rama stepped into the breach to look after the classes and gradually Saroja's dependence on her increased. In an unexpected phone call to me when I was in Chennai, Saroja in the course of a warm exchange (perhaps prompted by the need to exchange thoughts with one who was of approximately the same age) expressed how she had in her daughter-in-law a dancer who was not only talented, but also blessed with life offering her all the career chances at the right time. "I am blessed," she said, referring specially to the Music Academy award conferred on Rama.

In Rama, along with her daughter Dakshina, Ganesa Natyalaya has a secure future, and while with Saroja's absence, there may be stylistic changes coming in as an unobtrusive natural process, Ganesa Natyalaya as an institution will continue to function without hiccups. In terms of group discipline in any work, it is difficult to better Ganesa Natyalaya students. The institution just marked its fiftieth year. Saroja had lived to preside over this anniversary! To almost the last day of her life, Saroja had lived working for the cause she valued most. A life well spent!

Leela Venkataraman
Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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