DR. ANITA RATNAM
"You bring such joy when you dance!" This has been the mantra shadowing my performance career for over five decades. Yes… 50 years of dance. Since my Arangetram in the hot and humid Abbotsbury Wedding Centre (now a five star hotel) in Madras, that bubble of joy that floats within me has not subsided or diminished, each time I step on stage. I owe that moment of joy, for that instant of gratitude and the steady flame of exuberance to the influence of my first guru, Rajee Narayan.
Rajee 'Aunty' was the name I knew her as. A family friend, she was a favourite with my parents, who were delighted when she agreed to teach me formally. I remember sitting on her lap while she sang a folk song or a kriti, imitating her 'putting taalam' while slapping her thigh. I thought it was a delightful game and would hit her other thigh as hard as I could with glee! She encouraged me to move in any way I was inspired to, when I heard various western songs and the then popular hits on radio. In the small verandah of our rented house in Mylapore, I would sway and twirl with the confidence of a prima ballerina, to her voice and hands clapping together in rhythm.
I did not learn in the formal way that Bharatanatyam students do. I did not hear the sound of the wooden 'thattu kizhi' until much later. The infinite beauty and wonder of Indian dance forms was slowly unpeeled to me like a first time rider on a glittering carousel. A little Kathak, Manipuri, snake dance, 'tambalam' brass plate dance, 'Kurathi' gypsy dance - I learnt them all.
My favourite memory was at my grandfather’s 60th birthday celebrations in 1962. A giant pandal had been erected on the lawns of our Mylapore home and I performed the 'Dance of Multiple Costumes'. For each entry and exit, I would appear in a new look… an ingenious idea where sleeves and parts of the costume could be just peeled off to reveal a new under-layer of colour and texture. I cherish that memory and the astonishment of the audience.
Once, when I was preparing for my entry for a short Kathak solo in my school's Annual Day, I was so eager to jump onto the stage that I forgot to remove my shoes! I ran in with my footwear, much to the dismay of my mother in the wings and my principal in the front row! Later, when asked why I had done such a silly thing, I said "I wanted to jump onto the stage!" in complete child-like disclosure! Back home, my mother shared this moment with Rajee aunty, saying, "You should curb her enthusiasm for performance." Rajee aunty just hugged me without saying a word.
These initial years of gentle coaxing and sharing were the formative impressions of dance that I hold very dear. I am so grateful for the love and generous knowledge that Rajee aunty has given to me so freely. Her departure to Bombay for personal reasons left a huge void in our lives - personally and artistically. My later introduction to the late Adyar K. Lakshman, who took over my teaching from 1965, was a whole new chapter.
When the great Balasaraswati saw me perform at the Madras Music Academy in the seventies, she remarked that 'I devoured dance like a hungry artiste.' I owe that comment entirely to the love and gift of dance from my very own Rajee Narayan.
I love you Rajee aunty… You will never know what you have given me. Only my body, muscles, sinews and limbs will remember... Thank you.