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Guru Pujan and Nartan Karmanusthan Utsav 2022
- Tapati Chowdhurie

November 12, 2022

Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi exponent Smita Shastri held an exceptional kind of celebration to mark the Golden Jubilee year of her dance institution Nartan. This could be celebrated after her school completed the 51st year of its foundation, because of the pandemic that shut the whole world for more than two years. It was her heart's desire to celebrate her 51 years of dance journey and organize a Karmanusthan when Sangeet Natak Akademi honoured Bharatanatyam maestro Guru Kalyanasundaram with the much coveted Ratna Award. She said about him that, "He is a complete package and a perfect teacher." His son Harikrishnan Kalyanasundaram is taking the legacy forward.

For Smita, dance has been a mission and passion, it is not merely confined to her body, it belongs to her heart, mind and soul. As soon as the formalities of giving the Ratna Award to Guru Kalyanasundaram by Sangeet Natak Akademi was completed, Smita was positively charged to hold her mega "Guru Pujan" to uphold the contribution of not only Guru Kalyanasundaram, but also those who have contributed towards making her what she and her institution Nartan is today. To mark the occasion she paid special honour to her gurus and those named and famed people who made a difference to her, which included performers, mentors and critics as well.

Guru Kalyanasundaram, a torch-bearer of the Tanjavur tradition of Bharatanatyam from Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatanatya Kalamandir, Mumbai, belonging to the 7th generation from a family of Nattuvanar Parampara of traditional dance teachers had been Smita's guru. Smita showed her respect to her guru in the traditional way of washing his and his wife Mythili Kalyanasundaram's feet to symbolically pay back the wealth of learning she had received from him. She paid her homage to Chatunni Panicker, her first guru.

Smita Shastri completed her Bharatanatyam arangetram under Kittappa Pillai, when she was under his tutelage from 1960 to 1962. It was Guru Kittappa Pillai who had inspired her with his words, "You have a future in dance, but you should have spark in your eyes." Chandrasekhar, the worthy son of the maestro, was invited to Ahmedabad by Smita Shastri to show her respects, for the knowledge she received from his father.

A day of reckoning came to her when she saw Kuchipudi dance performed by Yamini Krishnamurthy. She took to it with no further ado and started training under Kuchipudi guru C.R. Acharyalu, who had been instrumental in creating an abiding interest in Kuchipudi in Smita and many others. It was he who had found it worthy to highlight the 'Simhanandini' item from Kuchipudi as was practiced by the devadasis and had taught this art form to his daughter Voleti Rangamani who expanded its repertoire and made it popular in India and the West. It appealed to the audience more, because of the technical element involved in drawing with feet pictures of a 'lion' or a 'peacock' or a 'lotus' on a canvas after smearing the feet with coloured powder. 'Simhanandini', 'Mayura Kautvam' and 'Mahalakshmi Udbhavam' are his creations. Smita Shastri had invited Voleti Rangamani who is taking forward the legacy of her guru and father.

Besides her gurus, Smita Shastri felicitated celebrated dancers, dance writers and critics. Kathak maestro Kumudini Lakhia who has taken many steps forward to enrich and modernize the genre inspired Smita greatly. She was felicitated. Kuchipudi exponent Vyjayanthi Kashi, the artistic director of Shambhavi School of Dance who has many firsts to her credit, like running a Kuchipudi Gurukula in Bangalore, was honoured. Lata Surendra, a disciple of T.S. Kadirvelu Pillai, is a dancer with phenomenal language skill, who deserved Smita's respect. Odissi exponent Ranjana Gauhar who once claimed to be a "Odiya girl born to Punjabi parents" is no less in her accomplishments. Both were acknowledged. Dance gurus and partners in life, Radha and Mohan Pillai, came all the way from Mumbai to be a part of this celebration and accept Smita's heartwarming felicitations.

Kuchipudi Guru K V Satyanarayana, a disciple of Korada Narasimha Rao, Dr.Vempati Chinna Satyam and Vedantam Prahalada Sarma - who is a dancer, writer and artistic director, had taught Nartanites a segment of Bhama Kalapam in a workshop. The disciples of Smita performed this shortened version of the Kalapam at this unique festival. A globally famous name among the Kuchipudi maestros, the talented and utterly devoted to Kuchipudi, Guru Satyanarayana runs the 'Sri Satya Kuchipudi and Janapada Nritya Academy', which offers the best performances and best training in the disciplines of Kuchipudi dance was venerated by Smita Shastri with great humility.

After the felicitation ceremony, the performance of Nartan School of Dance commencing with Shaiva Shlokam was preceded by Ganesh Stuti as per tradition. The performers, mostly undergraduates, sought the blessings of three different manifestations of Goddess Durga in ragamalika consisting of ragas Revathi, Panthuvarali and Bagesri. The performers were all in top form, beseeching Vighna Vinayaka to allow them to render their aesthetic presentations with his blessings.

The dancers were the cynosure of all eyes as rasikas remained glued to their seats till the end. The highlight of the evening was Smita Shastri's presentation of "Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu….", proving that age is no bar for any dance related activity; it's only a number. Smita's students' performance that followed impressed the rasikas. Temple dance in Kuchipudi style, "Simhanandini Mahishasuramardini" nritya performed was set to raag Kalyani and talamalika. Angasuddhi and aramandi, the most important aspects of nritta, were scrupulously executed by the youngsters, with no movement out of place. It was vivacious and vigorous, befitting the piece performed.

Nartan Karmanusthan Utsav 2022
Nartan Karmanusthan Utsav 2022

In the shortened piece of Bhama Kalapam, Smita Shastri allowed all the dancers who were taught the piece in the workshop to enact the role of Bhama in a group dance. Subsequently of course it boiled down to one - Prashita Khurana, a very talented dancer - when she had altercation with Krishna in the manner of a 'uttama nayika' that Bhama traditionally is. In an argument with Krishna she can merely chide him by striking him with her braid, which was indeed comic. The disciples of Smita Shastri are highly accomplished girls, adept at taking Karana poses which takes a great deal of practice.

The question-answer session between the Sutradhar and Satyabhama is not only entertaining and interesting, it also provides a glimpse into our past practices like not taking the name of the husband. Her description of her consort reveals to the Sutradhar who he is. At the core the yearning of Bhama and the venting of her anger is the symbol of the desire of the Jeevatma to meet the Paramatma. It was indeed a grand celebration by Smita Shastri.

Tapati Chowdurie
Tapati Chowdhurie trained under Guru Gopinath in Madras and was briefly with International Centre for Kathakali in New Delhi. Presently, she is a freelance writer on the performing arts.

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