An Interview with Vidya Sankaranarayanan from Brihadisha
The meaning of Vidya in Sanskrit is knowledge, but many more adjectives sprang to my mind during this interview. Vidya to me came across as a highly passionate, principled, strong and fiercely independent woman. She is a remarkable dancer who has been blessed by some legendary teachers in the world of Bharatanatyam. Here are some snippets our very interesting conversation.
Please tell me how you came up with the name Brihadisha for your dance school?
Brihadisha is the primary idol in the Tanjore temple. Tanjore is where my Guru hails from, and where I learned Bharatanatyam. I relate Tanjore to my Guru, Shri K.P. Kittappa Pillai. His family was settled in Tanjore for several years, and were patronized by the Maratha King Sarfoji. I spent most of my summer holidays learning dance at my guru’s home. It was a second home to me. My guru’s ancestors have written several compositions on Brihadisha. To me, Brihadisha and Tanjore are synonymous to each other so I felt it was apt to name my dance school Brihadisha.
What inspired to learn Bharatanatyam?
It looked like my destiny had Bharatanatyam written all over it. I had the opportunity to learn dance from the best teachers of Bharatanatyam thanks to my mother. My mother, Smt. Saraswathy Sankaranarayanan, is a trained Carnatic musician who retired as a professor from Annamalai university. Music was an integral part of my childhood. My sister and I were both trained in Carnatic music. My mother used to sing for the dance performances for many dance stalwarts and also for my guru’s disciples. Shri Kittappa Pillai and his family were extremely close to our family. Great musicians and dance stalwarts visited my home to meet my mother regarding dance performances. It was through one of these opportunities that I got to meet my guru, Shri K.P. Kittappa Pillai. My mother seeing my interest in dance approached Shri Kittappa Pillai, and requested him to teach me Bharatanatyam. He was extremely generous to oblige and I had grabbed at the opportunity with both hands.
It was interesting that when I signed up to learn dance, Shri Kittappa Pillai was 70 years old, and not teaching any new students. He told my mother that he would teach me to dance, and if it was meant to be a part of my destiny then so be it. Even as a child, I loved to dance. I am told I was never shy, and felt very comfortable to dance even amidst crowds. So, that is how my journey as a Bharatanatyam dancer got started.
Tell us more about your experience learning dance under Shri K.P Kittappa Pillai’s tutelage?
Before I start about talking about my guru, I need to mention the Tanjore Quartet. The four brothers ( Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu) collectively referred to as the Tanjore Quarter were responsible for giving shape to the dance form Sadir or Chinna Melam. Their family continued to render compositions for dance that held Tanjore quartet’s heritage and beauty at its core. My guru, a direct descendant of one of the Tanjore Quartet brothers continued to carry the torch of the Tanjore/Pandanallur tradition of dance.
My experiences at my teacher’s house were very interesting, and it is very rare to find this kind of bond in today’s world. When I started learning to dance, Shri Kittappa Pillai was 70 years old. All of his students were well accomplished dancers like Vyjaythinmala, Hema Malini, Srividhya Natarajan (who is also my mentor) and many more. He took an exception with me, and decided to teach me Bharatanatyam. He would sit down and instruct me on every single step following his hereditary practice in which dance masters (natuvanars) taught. It is magical and beautiful that rhythm and music meshed together under his guidance into beautiful dance compositions. Under his guidance, I understood the aesthetic beauty of the complex Tanjavur/Pandanallur style. There were many days when I just listened to my guru talk about dance or watch others perform. Every bit of this experience helped me hone my dance skills.
I have always been inspired to stay true to my guru and the roots of Bharatanatyam thanks to his teachings. It isn’t just dance that my guru taught me but values, principles and commitment to be honest to my art that I hold close to my heart. My guru once asked me to perform with another student of his, Hema Malini, in her television debut – Noopur. Hema Malini was a big movie star in India but she had the utmost respect and humility for our guru. These are qualities that a teacher inspires naturally in a student to hold onto for a lifetime. I truly hope that I am able to deliver a small portion of what my teacher taught and inspired in me.
I am sure there has been several milestones in your career. Can you share a few with us that you cherish and hold close to your heart?
One of the most delightful moments in my dance career was when the legendary late Srimati T. Balasaraswati’s daughter, late Srimathi Lakshmi Knight approached my mother to ask if I would be a part of her school and to learn Nattuvangam. Srimathi Lakshmi Knight also gave me a deeper understanding of abhinaya, the exploration of mood and feeling. The style was subtle and wonderfully imaginative.
Both the schools (Shri Kittappa and Srimathi Balasarawathi) are legendary for teaching Bharatanatyam worldwide. They styles are extremely distinct, and beautiful. I was exceptionally blessed to study under such stalwarts. I
I also had the opportunity to come to the United States as a resident artist when I joined Balasaraswathi School of Music and Dance. My training bestowed upon me multiple awards including the prestigious Tamilnadu Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram Scholarship for Dance and Nattuvangam. I consider myself fortunate to have such great teachers in my life. I have learned so much from them and my dance truly is a homage to their style and form.
I was felicitated with the Best Performance Award at Bharata Nrithya Utsav in 2015. Another very special moment to me was when I performed at the inaugural function of In Dance in Toronto. What touched me was how the audience not only enjoyed my performance but found my dance to reflect the style and form of my great teachers, Shri K.P. Kittappa Pillai and Srimati Lakshmi Knight. There is no greater reward to an artist than to be told that you reflect your guru. Besides these, I have had the opportunity to perform at various stages, and each and every performance is very special to me.
Who is your role model in life?
My mother, Smt. Saraswathy Sankaranarayanan, is my great inspiration. She was a musician and a retired professor from Annamalai University. She is a very strong woman, and strived hard to ensure that her four children got the best opportunities in their life. She was there whenever her kids needed her. She managed home, work and every role she took up. My mother is truly responsible for making me the person I am today.
Do you have any suggestions for women considering their own dance or music school?
After having setup my own school, I think I have suggestions that could be helpful for budding entrepreneurs. Most artists are extremely passionate and true to their art. There is a certain ego that an artist must have to continuously improve themselves while also having an ability to appreciate another artist and learn from them.
When you setup a dance school as a business, you have to understand it is difficult to be successful without making compromises. It doesn’t mean that you cannot stay true to your principles but you may not be able to practice the art form the way you would like to.
In today’s fast food world everybody expects results to be instantaneous. When we learned dance, performances and shows were not something we or our parents discussed with our teachers. Today, shows are considered to be milestones by children and their parents. There is nothing wrong with it considering that is the trend, but it also leads to the teachers compromising on the art form.
So, if somebody wants to start a school I applaud you for having the initiative and drive, but be prepared to know that art and business are not the best of friends without some compromise. If you want to pursue dance as a passion, it may be more beneficial and fulfilling. Anyone starting their own business will need to be prepared to face the reality which is: Make a choice whether to be true to your art or to create a successful business.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Be Bold for a Change. What does that mean to you?
My mother had already made the change for me. Despite being from a conservative family, she paved the way for me to pursue dance and to be true to it. She helped me travel the world when it was not so prevalent with orthodox families in India. I feel inspired and motivated by my mother every single day in life, and believe she helped me carve my identity and success. My mother was the catalyst to the biggest change in my life, and she got the dice rolling for my dance, my life and my success.
We thank Vidya for her valuable time and incredibly insight into the world of dance!