First published in The Bengal Post on 12 Feb 2011
When CV Chandrasekhar, Bharatanatyam guru and this year’s Padma Bhushan awardee, dances before the beautiful Panduranga idol at Tennangur, a hamlet in Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu, it is an act of total surrender. What is special about this offering is that its sense of abandon is accompanied by total control and precision, perfect abhinaya or expression and nritta, or footwork, in the best classical traditions. The dancer is a mere 75.
For Chandru Anna, as every dancer young or old addresses him, it is part of an annual ritual in which he leads some 30 to 40 students and teachers of his art form in a three-day workshop, held at a large facility adjacent to the temple in this centre of pilgrimage. On two evenings during the workshop, all the participants dance before the deity, swinging into ecstatic action during the dolotsavam, when the idol is worshipped in a cradle, and the garudotsavam, a procession around the temple, with the local residents and visiting pilgrims joining them. So many professional and amateur artists coming together in such a joyous celebration of their art in a temple ambience must indeed be a rare spectacle
The workshop called Natya Sangraham, now in its twelfth year, with Chandrasekhar presiding over eleven of them (he missed one through illness), is organised by Natyarangam, the dance wing of the Narada Gana Sabha, one of Chennai’s major sabhas, typically south Indian institutions that conduct music, dance and theatrical programmes for their subscriber members and the general public. Experts from the fields of dance, music, poetry and theatre engage the participants, mostly young dancers and dance teachers, in academic and practical sessions on predetermined topics. The daylong activity is stimulating and rigorous, but the delegates are housed in considerable comfort and served delicious vegetarian food. The informal post-prandial ‘tinnai’ sessions at night are an opportunity to listen to stories from the rich past of the stalwarts and discuss current issues affecting the performing arts scene. The whole event has the blessings of the movement behind the temple, the GA Trust—founded by the followers of the late Swami Gnananda Giri—which among other things extends the best in education and healthcare to a number of villages in the vicinity. Adding to the atmosphere is the architectural beauty of the temple—built under the auspices of the late Swami Haridas Giri, Gnananda’s disciple, in the authentic old style of the Puri Jagannath temple—and its gopurams in the Pandya style.
I first came into contact with Chandru Anna, when he and Leela Samson, at present director of Kalakshetra of Chennai and Sangeet Natak Akademi, gave a thrilling performance of a tillana—the southern equivalent of a tarana—in praise of Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra on her 80th birthday, more than a couple of decades ago. A youthful fifty-something then, Chandrasekhar was then head of the department of dance in Maharaja Sayajirao (MS) University, Baroda. An alumnus of Kalakshetra, which he joined as a boy in 1945, Chandru Anna later went to Benares Hindu University where he did a masters in botany and taught for a while before moving to MS University, where he eventually became Principal. He served there till his retirement, relocating at Chennai some ten years ago. His wife Jaya and daughters Chitra and Manjari are Bharata Natyam dancers, too, and the Chandrasekhars are well known for their many productions that include both solo performances and dance drama. Chandrasekhar has choreographed and produced many dance dramas including Bhumija, Meghadutam, Ritu Samharam and Aparajita, showing a marked liking for the classics of Kalidasa. Jaya learnt Bharata Natyam from Lalita Sastri of Delhi, Kathak from Birju Maharaj, the maestro of the Lucknow gharana, and Odissi from the one and only Kelucharan Mahapatra. She too taught at BHU, MS University and later at her own institution Nityashree in Baroda.
Chandrasekhar is a rare amalgam of varied influences. A south Indian who started school in Delhi, he graduated in dance from Kalakshetra and botany from Vivekananda College, Madras. Well versed in Carnatic music, he grew comfortable with Hindustani as well as folk forms of music during his long years in Gujarat. His travels overseas, beginning with his tour of China in the 1960s as a member of a cultural delegation, brought him a sophisticated awareness of art forms and trends everywhere. While quite at home in so many diverse milieus, Chandrasekhar remains firmly rooted in the austere traditions of the classical dance he learnt from great gurus at Kalakshetra. Clean lines and good taste characterize his every move.
A vastly experienced performer and guru, and among the most accessible veterans of his art, Chandrasekhar is superbly fit and still able to dance like a young man. He is a giving teacher, holding nothing back while sharing his accumulated wisdom with his students and the participants at the annual workshop.
The high point of this year’s Natya Sangraham was his demonstration of a complex, physically demanding composition of his to the accompaniment of thunderous applause from students and faculty. It was a memorable moment that brought tears to the eyes of the onlookers.