D.K. Pattammal

Friday, 6 November 2015

Dr S Raghuraman: A versatile scholar

By Anjana Anand

Dr. S. Raghuraman is so versatile that it is said he is not only jack of all trades but also master of all. A Tamil scholar whose passion for the written word has made him a walking encylopaedia, Dr. Raghuraman’s contribution to the world of Bharatanatyam is exceptional. His generosity with sharing knowledge and unfailing optimism have made him a mentor to artistes of all levels. Sruti had a chat with this professor with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step!

How did your love for the Tamil language begin?

Although my family is from Tamil Nadu, there are no Tamil scholars in our family. In my school days, I used to be active in Tamil debates and literary activities. My interest in Tamil was further ignited by my teacher in the 10th standard. My family expected me to go into the engineering line like the rest of our family members. It was unheard of for middle class Brahmin boys to take up higher studies in the Tamil language. However, I was clear about my future. I started my higher learning at an institution at Dharmapura and completed my course there. The aim of this institution was to promote Saivism and Tamil.

In what ways did your teachers inspire you?

Looking back now, I realize that the great teachers whom I came across not only taught me the subject but fuelled my love and wonder for the Tamil language. They gave of their knowledge freely and without hesitation. Their passion for the language made this possible. They were giants in the field. When I began my Masters at Madurai University, I was awed by the teachers I came across. It seemed to me that they were born to teach their respective subjects!

Did you start teaching immediately after graduating?

No, I actually took a small diversion! I started government service as a group 2 officer in the Tamil Nadu Cooperative department. It was only for a few months. I learnt quickly that this was not my calling. I resigned and waited for a job opportunity. An opening in A.M Jain College came up and I started my career in the Tamil department. I taught there for 27 years and retired as Associate Professor in Tamil.

From the world of Tamil literature, what brought you to the Bharatanatyam field?

To be honest, I had absolutely no connection to the fine arts. My first association with artistes happened purely by chance when I married Dr. S. Ramanathan’s daughter, Vanathy. I attended a few performances but nothing really caught my attention. The turning point came when my nieces in the US wanted to do their arangetram. They requested Vanathy to sing and asked her to meet the Dhananjayans to get trained in singing for Bharata Natyam. Till then, she had been a concert performer. When she went to meet Dhananjayan Sir, he said, “You still have time for the arangetram. Come and sing for a programme tomorrow!” From that time onwards, Vanathy became a vocal accompanist for dance. Little did I know that this would be a turning point for me as well! 

How did your interaction with artistes begin?

Initially, dancers used to come home to work with Vanathy on existing songs or new productions that she sang for. They would sometimes request me to give them Tamil compositions for their thematic productions. Sometimes I would find the dancer’s interpretation of the lines did not match the actual meaning or ‘dhvani’ of the words and I would advise them on the intent of the poet.

Please tell us about some of the productions you have worked on.

Some years ago, Lakshmi Ramaswamy, a disciple of ChitraVisweswaran, completed her Fulbright scholarship and was asked to perform a thematic presentation of love songs based on Tamil culture and aesthetics. This time instead of sourcing songs of ancient Tamil poets, I offered to write the poems for the production. After that, we worked on many productions together. In the last 16 years, I have worked with many dancers and contributed to about 360 dance productions - of which I have written lyrics for about 300 of them. Some of the other dancers I frequently work with are Jayanthi Subramaniam and Padmini Krishnamurthy from Muscat. There are many dancers in Europe and Sri Lanka who want productions in Tamil as well.

Do you also write the lyrics for the margam?

Yes, I have written many varnams and padam-style compositions.

You have been a research guide for many scholars in Bharatanatyam. At which point did you become interested in the theory of dance?

When I started writing for dance productions, I wanted to have an overview of the history of dance. I started reading voraciously. In fact, it became an obsession. I read any book on dance that I got my hands on. While reading various versions of the history of Bharatanatyam, I felt there were many gaps and unanswered questions in the story.

You have published some very interesting and controversial observations about the accepted history of Bharatanatyam. Please explain.

To begin with, every book I read suggested that the origins of Bharatanatyam were attributed to Sanskrit roots and that the Tamil people merely inherited this art form from outside. The more widely I read, the more I realised that Bharatam is an art form of the Tamil people that was merely documented by Sanskrit scholars. Over time, people came to believe that Bharatanatyam had its origins elsewhere. Many similar misconceptions have been propagated. I have written about some of my research findings in my book Tamizhar natana varalaaru. I have also published a book Natana kalaichol kalanjiyam explaining various terms in natya.

What has been the response to the book?

Many scholars and dancers have found it to be an eye opener. Some dance schools are using the book for dance history references. I feel that understanding the history of an art form is essential when learning an art form. Students have to understand why an art form has evolved in a particular way to take it forward.

At what institutions have you been teaching?

I taught at the Madras University which started Bharatanatyam as part of the music department curriculum under Dr Premeela Gurumurthy. I taught the Masters course for three years. When I released my book at Kalakshetra, Leela Samson invited me to be a visiting faculty. Being part of Kalakshetra has been a wonderful experience. I not only had a chance to interact with dancers but also the opportunity to be involved in a production commissioned by the institution – ‘Masquerade’ choreographed by Sheejith Krishna. I am a research guide for Bharathiyar University, Coimbatore. Many dancers have opted to pursue postgraduate and doctoral research in this field.

What awards have you received in your field?

The Bhaskara Puraskar as Ilakiya Bhaskara

Senthamizh Chemmal by Tirukkural Aiyvu Mayyam

National Award for script writing for the drama ‘AndhiVeli’

Outstanding services to dance and for lyrics by Saila Sudha 

How important is the understanding of theory for a dance practitioner?

I can’t overstate the necessity of theory of an art form for a performer. True, the classical Indian art forms were passed down from generation to generation through the guru-sishya parampara. The student imbibed everything the guru taught him without question. However with the institutionalization of art forms, it has become necessary to lay down a framework for teaching. Theory plays a major role here. It gives the student a holistic understanding of the art form, its history and its role in society. Dance does not exist on its own. It is intrinsically connected with the allied arts of sculpture, music, and literature to name a few. You need an understanding of costumes, stage and conducting an orchestra. How can you become a fine artiste unless you know all these allied forms?

You have lectured extensively about abhinaya and rasa and their importance in Indian art forms. For a student who already understands the nuances through practical training, how does the theory help?

Dance is a visual art form and needs all the expertise of a guru who teaches one the art form by observation. However the study of the rasa theory, for example, gives a student a different way of looking at the subject. It makes one think for oneself and understand the process of communication. For some, this may come naturally while observing the guru over the years. Today, we do not have that luxury of time and individual attention. We have to pick up knowledge through different learning tools and an academic approach can help open the mind to new possibilities. Our ancient Tamil and Sanskrit texts have codified techniques of art forms in such a sensitive and thought provoking way.

An understanding of literature is an integral part of being an artiste. Only if we understand how to appreciate words and their power of suggestion can we translate them into a visual. If not, the interpretation of the sahitya will remain superficial.

Can you recall some of the lectures you have given?

I have given many lecture demonstatrions on Dance and Rasa and Ashtanayika-s of Sangam Age for the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi. Other topics include Sensuality and Mother goddess worship for Natya Darshan, Kartik Fine Arts, Chennai.

Do you feel that a theoretical base unifies different banis and opens up more opportunities?

Without a doubt. Kalakshetra is one of the few institutions where students follow a bani for their six years of study. In other colleges, we have Bharatanatyam students coming from various banis. It is not possible to standardize everything in the practical classes. Instead, a study of theory becomes the common base from which individual dancers can have a better understanding of the art form and continue dancing in their respective style. Today, many students of Bharatanatyam have moved into diverse fields because their artistic base helps them to flourish in other careers, be it acting, modelling, fashion designing, or arts administration. The list is endless.

In short, we have to come to terms with the fact that society has changed. The purpose of dance has itself undergone a change. The dancer of the 18th and 19th century is not the dancer of the 21st century! New possibilities have evolved and we must recognize and change our pedagogy to suit this evolution. That is the only way in which Bharata Natyam will remain relevant to the artiste and to society.

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