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As deep as a prayer, as joyful as a celebration
- Meenakshi Ravi
Photos: Vipul Sangoi

October 5, 2022

Britain's performance stages have been in bloom this year. After the pandemic retreat into zoom classrooms and instagram live performances, artistes have emerged again into the bright lights, and British audiences have been reminded of just how rich and deep the seam of creative skill runs in the country.

In a 2022 calendar that has been filled with dance highlights, Guru Samarpanam presented by Shalini Shivashankar on 25th September at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London was especially distinctive.

Shalini Shivashankar

A performance by Shalini would always have created a buzz given her standing in the British arts space. Her institution, the Upahaar School of Dance, is prolific, training and presenting numerous students of the classical arts. In addition, the dance festivals Shalini curates have become known for bringing some of the most unique forms of Indian art to London. A concert by Shalini would have always been an event. However, Guru Samarpanam was - as Shalini herself says - about much more than her coming back to the stage after a long hiatus. It was about the presence of her mentor-teachers - the Dhananjayans - the pre-eminent senior artistes of Bharatanatyam who, frankly, defy any simple description.

V.P. Dhananjayan (who is known in the classical community as 'Master' or 'Anna') and Shanta Dhananjayan ('Akka') have helped shape and define the art of Bharatanatyam for well over half a century. The institution they founded in Chennai - Bharata Kalanjali (BK) - has, like its founders, constantly refreshed and revitalised itself - be it in the choreography produced there, the approach to presentation, the pedagogy of the teaching. Deep roots in classicism and rigour have underpinned all of this. The Dhananjayans are dancers with deep musical knowledge and could almost as easily be seen as musicians with a deep knowledge of dance! They are teachers (They are committed to using Sanskrit terminology as extensively as possible - achaaryas would be the term they'd use), performers and cultural ambassadors. What is much harder to put into words is the quality of artistic inspiration they are able to impart across age groups. In the 'meet the achaaryas' gatherings arranged by Upahaar before and after Guru Samarpanam, there was a unique electricity in the interactions between the Dhananjayans and the numerous students and parents who came to see them.

This electric quality permeated Shalini's performance as well. Her margam was judiciously curated - at the centre was the 'Rama Nrityopaharam', a gem of the Bharata Kalanjali repertoire. The richness of the musical composition (in ragam Kharaharapriya and composed by 18th century musician Thenmandalam Narasimhachariar), the intensity of the storytelling and the intricacy of the Dhananjayans' choreography have made this piece a classic for students trained in the BK baani (style). Shalini glided through the piece with the dedication of a devotee. Her clean nritta (especially in the seriously challenging jathis) and sparkling bhaava would have lit up her numerous students in the audience - after all, there is a special appreciation students have of their teachers. To see the same person who corrects and guides them in class, put herself in front of them is not an experience many students get. Shalini's moments of complete sublimation in this performance came when she presented, 'Oru neram enkilum kaanaathe vayyente' - a Malayalam song about Lord Guruvayoorappan. Shalini's interpretation was - by her own admission - inspired by a rendition of this piece by Master that she saw in India. That inspiration - both of Master's exposition and the vision of Guruvayoorappan - suffused Shalini's being through the piece. It was evident she was transported and her bhakti rasa radiated off the stage.

Shalini Shivashankar

Shanta Dhananjayan, who led the orchestra - brought her characteristically calm and dignified bearing to the proceedings. While not unusual in Chennai, it's rare for audiences in the UK to see such masters of their craft do what they do - and the simultaneously efficient yet almost melodic delivery of the jathis by Shanta Akka was lovely to witness here in London. Alongside her was the effervescent Prathap Ramachandra on mridangam, the measured and meticulous Sarmpavi Uthayakumar delivering the vocals and a new entrant on the arts scene here in the UK, Shashank Puranik on the flute.

An unmistakable aspect of any BK performance (and Shalini's concert was equal parts a BK presentation and an Upahaar production) is the closing talk by Master. He was in fine form, alternating between sharing his thoughts on the name 'India' versus the Sanskrit 'Bharatham' to joking with the audience about modern attention spans.

In all, Guru Samarpanam was more than an evening of dance. For many of those who attended, it was a glimpse of how an evening can be elevated by the involvement of scholars as experienced as the Dhananjayans and a statement of intent from Shalini about the ethos she wants to infuse into the practice of Indian classical arts in the UK.

Meenakshi Ravi
Bharatanatyam dancer Meenakshi Ravi is a broadcast journalist by profession and works for an international broadcaster Al Jazeera English.

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