Bharatanatyam from the eyes of a middle class young girl in 1960s and 70s

C S Lakshmi @ Ambai Screenshot from video

C S Lakshmi @ Ambai
Screenshot from video

Dance Dialogues – Tales of Indian Classical Dance in Bombay

Back in April this year, Dance dialogues in Bombay organized a discussion titled “Changing history of classical dance in Bombay”. The panelists were Darshana Jhaveri (Manipuri), Daksha Mashruwala (Orissi), CS Lakshmi (Ambai) and Neha Kudchadkar (Kathak).

The motivation of the discussion was

How has dance been taught and learned over the years? With changes in the presentation of dance, there is change in the processes of choreography. How has this affected classical dance performance in Bombay, and, importantly, the patronage given to it? How is dance making understood through the eyes of artists, curators and scholars?

The video of the discussion was recently uploaded at the Dance Dialogues website via This is an excellent method to document living memories and in an openly accessible way. Thanks to Dance Dialogues team, especially to Ranjana Dave for making this happen.

Click here to see the video. (The audio is a bit poor with lot of traffic noise in the beginning. But, the audio improves after some time.)

The first to speak is Darshana Jhaveri, where she recollects her journey in Manipuri. This is followed by Daksha Mashruwala (timestamp 00:30 onwards) about her journey in Orissi. She started learning Bharatanatyam and shifted to Orissi later. The next discussant was C S Lakshmi, who writes fiction in English and Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai.

Don’t mistake me for belittling others in this post. The video in its entirety is a must watch to hear seniors talk and get a glimpse of how they went about learning the art. However, if I go in detail about what each spoke, the video defeats its purpose, plus this will be a long post. So, I will restrict with only Bharatanatyam here.

There were few things I noticed in that discussion with respect to Bharatanatyam (from 00:50:40 onwards). She spoke about her Bharatanatyam training under the dance couple U. S. Krishna Rao and U. K. Chandrabhaga Devi in the then Bangalore. She spoke mostly about Bharatanatyam in the post-independence era, taken up by girls from the middle class.

First and foremost, was the changing attitude of dance in terms of its respectability. She mentions Shanta Rao, where she says that she used to perform by wearing the saree below the navel, and that was considered scandalous. Then, she delves on her personal struggle of how the body is projected, when she was a young girl. The issues about the physicality (talking about it was a taboo) and the difficulty of understanding the Sringara based songs.

The other interesting thing that popped up was the deep-rooted stigma of dance and its infamous history among the audiences. While, the customary Bharatanatyam performance in a south-indian wedding has died a noiseless death (I ambivalent if I should be thankful to this or not), her experience of dancing at her sister’s wedding is a revelation. In spite of the groom and groom’s family walking out from the wedding hall, her defiance of performing a full Margam needs commendation. Well, that’s was the attitude towards dance then!

If one thing that strongly comes out is that one should not shy to ask questions about dance. One should not think it as a defiance against the gurus/teachers, but as an introspection without which the journey is not complete. Listening to her, I like her sense of humor.

The last discussant was the Kathak dancer Neha Kudchadkar (1:23:00 onwards).



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