The Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards: What it means to them
Compiled by Lalitha Venkat

March 26, 2010 

Every year, the announcement of the SNA Awards is eagerly awaited with a lot of guessing and animated discussions doing the rounds. While names of some nominees were quite expected, a few did spring pleasant surprises, like the Akademi Puraskar for a senior Theyyam artiste and senior dance critic, a recognition that has been a long time in coming. Some of the awardees share their personal joys with us.

UK Kunjirama Paniker, a senior Theyyam (ritual dance) band Kurunkuzhal (short pipe) artiste from Kannur (Kerala) receives the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award this year. It is the first time that a Theyyam artiste has been awarded by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi. The Theyyam community around Kunjirama Paniker are in a great celebrative mood because for the first time a performer from one of the most ancient ritualistic art forms is getting an award from the SNA.

At the age of 35, Kunjirama Paniker performed Theechamundi (mother goddess dancing in the fire) at the Velloor Illam and hence received the title of ‘Paniker.’ He is also a well versed performer in the roles of Krishnamoorthi, Bhairavan and Gulikan. Later on, he specialized in playing the wind pipe instrument Kurunkuzhal with extraordinary skill of breath control. This technique of playing the short pipe by storing a large amount of air in his bellows like cheeks is a very rare technique that requires special talent.

Says Kunjirama Paniker: "I have been in this field as a professional artiste since I was 20, following the footsteps of my father, learning and performing under his guidance. We were doing our family profession. Even though we get local recognition, I never even dreamt of getting something like this at the age of 85. I started my career as a performer. When I grew older I found that there are hardly anybody who could play the Kurunkuzhal accompaniment for Theyyam, therefore I decided to specialize in it with the breath technique very unique to my tradition. I hope with this recognition, atleast in the evening of my lifetime, some young people may be attracted to learn this technique. I am thankful to the Sangeet Natak Akademi for bringing their great national recognition to my remote village in Kannur."

Leela Venkataraman started her career as a writer on dance, beginning as the Dance Critic for the National Herald in 1980, after which she was with another daily, The Patriot. Selected as the Dance Critic for The Hindu when the paper began its Delhi edition, she has been with the paper ever since, her Friday Review column earning a reputation for being the most incisive commentary on the dance scene in the capital.

"Leela maami" as she is fondly called, shares her reaction to getting the SNA Award.

"All I can say is that it gives me a feeling that when things are to happen, they just happen. Needless to say, I have a feel of satisfaction that hard work has been noticed. I have always tried to be a responsible critic to the best of my ability, and have at times earned hard feelings from dancers for writing the truth as I see it. Long back I began to accept this as an occupational hazard and refused to change to a public relations type of writing. My remarks even when unflattering have never been couched in unparliamentary language, something that I have always believed in. At times, I have had a feeling of deep loneliness, for there are thoughts which cannot be shared. I also have realised that there are many aspects at work in the dance scene and even the frankest critic cannot write all that one would like to. There are things which can never be printed without creating an upheaval of a type that is not desirable. So such thoughts are kept to oneself, and will go with one to the grave.

No matter what I have to say about a performance, I have always realised how much hard work goes to put a recital on the stage. I am very appreciative of the younger lot of dancers who take criticism in the right spirit and do not flinch when told something is not correct. Most of our good dancers among the younger crowd will go far because they have the right approach. And I strongly feel that it is this group that really needs constructive criticism. For long, I have felt that for the dancer who has really arrived so to speak, there is little need of a critic's writings - not that the power of the pen can ever make or break any artist - it can however give a boost to the young dancer at the right time.

Talking about senior dancers who have always been very uncomfortable with criticism, a close friend of mine told me what happened recently when he asked a highly placed person of Times of India as to why the paper had stopped critiquing articles, the answer was that the staff had got fed up of the constant whining of dancers who could never take any criticism and had decided that it was best to do away with assessing dance performances! He said that political interference was also sought in cases against certain critics. The paper felt enough is enough. Will The Hindu take a similar view? Hope not!" 

Ananda Shankar Jayant is jubilant. "I'm on top of the world! This is indeed an extremely very special award, as it is your own peers and seniors in the field and the allied art forms who choose you. I thank the Almighty, for this great honour, and accept it with humility, recognising the great responsibility it places on me. I feel blessed, to be selected for this award, my second national award in 3 years. (My Padma Shri happened in 2007). I dedicate this award to my parents, my gurus, especially Athai, and to my husband Jayant Dwarkanath, for being my outer eye, my best inspiration and my most constructive critic. I also would like to thank all my seniors in the field, critics and art presenters, who have been my greatest source of strength in this journey." 

Vyjayanthi Kashi believes that one always gets to reap the harvest that one has labored for. "Great news that every dancer would love to hear… and that too, on a day like Maha Shivarathri! A sense of gratitude gushed through my whole body and senses. I bowed down before my mother Girijamma who lives with me and who is responsible for my being a dancer today. I saw her eyes fill with tears of joy, as if to say her dreams of making me a dancer had come true. In the process of this long journey, while many look at me with love, admiration, appreciation and honor, there are sure to be others who may even question the presentation of the SNA award for Vyjayanthi Kashi while there are so many other senior artistes and deserving gurus.

Well, all I can say at this juncture is that destiny has its own designs for each and every one of us and we partake humbly of whatever is handed over to us. The moment the news of my SNA award was announced in the papers, Guru Ramanna, now aged 78, called me. I heard him cry with happiness at the other end of the phone and whisper, "I am proud of you, Vyju." Today as I recall my first review and the consolation of my Guru Acharyalu who said that I was one of his best students, I am happy that the "not fit to be a dancer" statement made me work hard enough to receive the SNA award.  How I wish my father, Guru Korada Narasimha Rao and Guru Prahlada Sharma were all alive to bless me and guide me towards the next steps which I am sure will be more responsible and more difficult. I have decided to organize monthly programs and workshops in dance through this year starting from April 2010 at Shambhavi Dance Theatre to celebrate this award."