By V.R. Devika
"Why?” The question continued to tantalise Shyamala Surendran as she walked in the hot Chennai sun from Bharatha Kalanjali back to Kalanidhi Narayanan’s house where she stayed as a paying guest. “Why am I doing this?” At the age of 32, Shyamala had given up sailing the high seas with her merchant navy captain husband, admitted her twelve-year-old son at the residential Rishi Valley School, Madanapalle, and taken to attending Bharatanatyam classes at the Dhananjayans’ dance school, where she learnt sabdam and varnam along with children young enough to be her daughters. Why indeed, when she might as well live the good seafaring life, attending naval balls in soft georgette saris around the world?
“The question always disappeared the moment I stepped into Bharatha Kalanjali,” says Shyamala. “And the moment I sat before Kalanidhi Mami to watch her unfurl a whole new world through a padam, I was enthralled.”
It all began with a chance encounter when her husband’s ship docked in Madras in 1976. Captain Surendran and Shyamala were invited to the house of a naval colleague whose daughter was learning from Bharatanatyam guru Krishnan. When an excited Shyamala told them she used to take part in dance programmes too back in school and college, Krishnan assured her that it was never too late to begin again. Shyamala was however sailing the seas with Surendran.
Imagine her astonishment when she met the same Krishnan when it was time to admit her son in Rishi Valley School! Krishnan, who now taught Bharatanatyam at Rishi Valley, repeated to her that it was still not too late to learn Bharatanatyam. Afterwards, at Bombay, Shyamala happened to meet guru Raghavan Nair who had taught Kanak Rele. She boldly performed Natanam aadinar, the only piece she had learnt in college, after which Raghavan Nair insisted that she take up dance again. “All the way from Bandra to Colaba, I kept pestering my husband about learning dance.” Eventually, it was decided that Shyamala would take some time off from sailing, live in Kochi and learn Bharatanatyam. Krishnan had mentioned that C.E. Janardhanan, a disciple of the Dhananjayans, had moved to Kochi to begin teaching Bharatanatyam there. Shyamala contacted Janardhanan and became his first full-time student. He encouraged Shyamala to not only prepare for an arangetram but also hone her skills before that from his gurus, the Dhananjayans, at Bharatha Kalanjali, their school in Madras.
“When I arrived in Bharatha Kalanjali, I saw the Trio Sisters—Radhika, Gayathri and Shobhana—Nirupama Nityanandan, Padmini and others learning the Athana nrityopaharam. I was both overawed by them and nervous about my own skills. Dhananjayan sir gave me confidence, saying the others had learnt for many years and there was no need to compare myself with them. That was when I resolved to continue to learn seriously.”
Shyamala decided to take a year off, stay in Madras and immerse herself in advanced lessons at Bharatha Kalanjali. “I did feel guilty about letting my husband sail by himself but he told me, ‘You have only one life; go ahead and indulge in your passion for a year.’” Indeed, it was at Bharatha Kalanjali, where we shared the distinction of being the “oldest junior students of Bharatanatyam”, that Shyamala and I became intimate friends.
When she needed a paying guest accommodation in Adyar, Radhika Shurajit found her one in Kalanidhi Narayanan’s house. V.P. Dhananjayan also asked Shyamala to learn some padams from Kalanidhi Mami, a doyenne in her own right. Along with Kamala Janakiraman, another paying guest, Shyamala discovered the creative tour de force that was Kalanidhi Narayanan. “It was such a fabulous thing for me to stay at Kalanidhi Mami’s house. She had an excellent library of art books and so many stories to tell, all of which I eagerly lapped up. She also took me along to every cultural programme in town. We would pack dinner and eat it in the car to save time. We attended several concerts and did not miss a single day of the Natya Kala Conference at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.” This was to become a lifelong habit as well.
It was a lecture by Kanak Rele at the Natya Kala Conference that opened Shyamala’s eyes to the beauty of Mohini Attam. She went back to Kochi and began to learn Mohini Attam from Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, driving down to Tripunithura every day for classes.
In 1987, Shyamala converted her garage into a school where she taught Bharatanatyam and Mohini Attam. She named the school “Dharani” after her mother-in-law. Shyamala felt Bharatanatyam teachers in Kochi and surrounding areas needed help. She began to organise regular workshops for them in nattuvangam, abhinaya and dance theory. Those who conducted these workshops included her gurus Kalyanikutty Amma and Kalanidhi Narayanan. Kamalarani of Kalakshetra conducted workshops on nattuvangam, while I visited regularly to take classes on dance theory. As the number of students learning Bharatanatyam, Mohini Attam and Carnatic music grew at Dharani, Shyamala noticed several mothers hanging around, waiting to escort their daughters back home. She began bhajan and veena classes for them, as well as Mohini Attam and Bharatanatyam afterwards. Today, several mothers actively participate in Dharani’s annual day programmes as well.
With a view to bringing high-quality cultural programmes to Kochi, Shyamala started Society Dharani in January 2000, with paid membership to watch fine performances in an aesthetic setting. On the morning of each performance, Shyamala would personally supervise the transportation of about fifty potted plants from her garden to the Kerala Fine Arts Society Hall. A specially commissioned jute backdrop and side wings designed by V.V. Ramani, carefully maintained at Dharani, would also be transported to the hall, where the sound and light controllers sat in a space artistically cordoned off by jute artefacts and potted plants. Shyamala is one who never fights shy of picking up a broom and sweeping the green rooms and the stage before the performances. Society Dharani has showcased some of the finest performances Kochi has ever seen, including Shyamala’s own productions in Mohini Attam and Bharatanatyam. Shyamala’s dance drama Tatvamasi, based on the legend of Lord Ayyappa, has seen several hundred performances and touches hearts every time.
(The author is a cultural activist, critic, and managing trustee, Aseema Trust)
Sathi Kamala Hall
When she realised there was a need for an inexpensive space for young dancers to perform and brainstorm in, Shyamala Surendran sold a piece of land in Kannur that she had inherited from her mother and invested in creating an intimate, aesthetic performing space at Dharani. Her thatched-roof dance hut was demolished and two spaces for classes were created. Over them, bridging the terrace of her home, Shyamala built the Sathi Kamala Hall—a natyamandapa with its distinctive Kerala architecture. The hall was jointly named after Shyamala’s mother Sathi Devi, and Kamala Janakiraman whom Shyamala had met at Kalanidhi Narayanan’s house and who met with an untimely death in a bus accident in Colombia.
Shyamala remembers Kamala Janakiraman with great fondness. Kamala’s father Janakiraman was employed in UNICEF, Paris, and brought Kamala every holiday to the Dhananjayans for Bharatanatyam classes. After high school, Kamala decided to take a gap year and stayed at Kalanidhi Narayanan’s home to learn Bharatanatyam from the Dhananjayans. Later she worked as a human rights officer for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. She had kept in touch with Shyamala through the years, visited Kochi often and urged Shyamala to start Dharani and even sent money when Shyamala needed it.
Sathi Kamala Hall at Dharani was inaugurated by Shyamala Surendran’s gurus, the Dhananjayans on 26 June 2016. I was there as Shyamala’s best friend and also lit the lamp along with our gurus. I also made a presentation on “Nataraja and the Cosmos” for the students of Dharani at Sathi Kamala Hall the next day.
The hall can accommodate about 200 people and can serve the dual purpose of a mini theatre and a classroom. It has good acoustics and needs no amplifiers. It provides an aesthetic ambience for art enthusiasts in Kochi to relish the performing arts.