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It’s quiet and lovely at the club here; do you come here often?
Well, yes. The club is almost second home to me. I have been a member for about twenty years now. I joined the club at the right time; when you are very young, you don’t socialise that much with people from different age groups. You also realise that you can’t also always spend your evenings attending cultural events.
Did you do that a lot in your twenties and thirties?
Oh yes; those were the years of assimilation – of knowledge, of experiences. Every evening, back then, I used to be in kutcheris, listening to legends like Sri Lalgudi G Jayaraman or Sri Semmangudi (Srinivasa Iyer)… It was a period of soaking in.
What is your typical routine here, at the club?
I used to go regularly to the gym. I like to keep varying my exercise routine. Some months, I go to the gym regularly, then for a few months, I like to walk on the track. Sometimes, in the summer months, I like to take a dip in the pool. These days, I walk a lot at the Kalakshetra (campus) which is also close to my home in Chennai.
Do you have an active social life?
Honestly, I mostly end up socialising with people who know little or nothing about my dance. Occasionally, my face pops up in the newspaper with an award I’ve received or a review of my dance, and they read it. But frankly, I never pursue them to attend my performances, etc. After all, why force people into culture? Having said that, I also have friends, who are deeply interested in dance and music. I meet them, on and off.
You also write a lot; how did you develop that interest in writing?
I am an accidental writer; I studied English literature at Queen Mary’s College and by virtue of winning a gold medal in the subject, I decided – one fine day – to dip my pen into writing more formally.
Back in the 70s, early 80s, there was a magazine called Aside that was founded and edited by a historian called Abraham Eraly. One day, he said to me, “Why don’t you start writing?” I did, and the response was heart-warming. I haven’t stopped writing, since.
I’ve always enjoyed working with youngsters.
They make me laugh. I say outrageous things to them, and they love it… I treat them as equals. They are dancers too;
they just happen to be younger than me. It’s good fun being with them
Do you write regularly?
Yes; it’s a discipline I have cultivated over the years.
What about discipline itself? Did you cultivate that habit through your life in dance?
An artist actually learns from a very young age, the concept of time. In my case, I have always been particular about being to the point and brief.
Let me tell you a story. When I was the Convener of the Natya Kala Conference, in 1984, there was an elderly gentleman who would not get off the stage. I went to the mic - and I remember this clearly – and said, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen; you obviously now know that brevity isn’t this man’s virtue.”
Was he upset with you?
I’m not sure; I think he either didn’t understand or listen to what I said.
You are known for your sense of humour…. Has it got better with time?
I like a good laugh; I like to laugh about things. Sometimes, your sense of humour is well understood. Sometimes, it can be misunderstood. I don’t normally indulge unless I’m with good friends. But, of course, I have a milder sense of humour in public, speeches and so on.
Okay, so you were telling me about how an artist learns?
Yes, an artist learns how to express thoughts with clarity and focus. And, also how to build an idea, step-by-step.
I think that is a very important aspect to being in the performing arts. I don’t know whether this is applicable to visual artistes. But one of these days, you must come and see my paintings.
Paintings, really? I didn’t know you paint.
Yes, I do. I’ve been painting from since I was a child.
Last summer, all of May, I remember being holed up in an air-conditioned apartment and one afternoon as I was rummaging through my old photographs from across temple towns in south India, I saw a series of photos of temples. The perspectives were so beautiful that I wondered how it’d be to actually paint them. I have painted a dozen now.
What is the medium you work with?
Have you studied painting formally?
No. But I love to paint; the process of working with colours is very soothing. In fact, I’ve been wondering if I should organise a coffee-morning show sometime soon and showcase what I’ve painted.
Does painting inspire your dance?
Painting is connected with my idea of visualising dance. You know, perspective, space, colour. As a choreographer, I am constantly looking at these things. So consciously, in the productions that I create, I only do solo because, otherwise, I can’t direct.
I script the work itself in a way that the solo parts are mine; sometimes, I might be interacting with other characters on stage but not with a lot of people.
I like, and want to look at what the other dancers are doing and place them in the right position, organise their movements, etc. Plus, you see, my presence on stage is very different from theirs. So, I don’t want to create a confusion, an imbalance.
Also, in all humility, I must say my dancers are often doing some vigorous movements and I certainly don’t want to be doing that.
I sometimes wish I looked older with grey hair because I think I’d have more people clapping wildly every time I went up on stage. There is something about age that attracts people even if they are not beautiful at all. It’s strange
How do you choose the dancers you work with?
I have dancers who have been working with me for many years now; they come and go every time I create and choreograph new work. Sometimes, I ask around and someone sends me a dancer with potential and promise. Other times, I happen to watch someone perform and store it in my memory and when I write a script, I think of her/him. I remember this young dancer whom I watched in Malaysia. He danced very well and his ears were exactly like Mahatma Gandhi’s. So I decided to cast him in my work. He stayed with me, in my house for a whole month.
But all these dancers come from different dance schools, banis, right?
You see, in my work they are not doing Alarippu or Jathiswaram. They jump into it quite easily. There is some preparation that goes into the work and I address some issues with regard to uniformity. This is why I like to be in the director’s chair.
Dancers who have worked with you talk about what a riot they have with you during the process of creation? Is that right? How do you manage to be a serious dancer and let go at the same time?
I think it’s my temperament.
Were you always like this?
I used to be far more reserved when I was young. But I think as a result of meeting a whole host of people, the travel and the exposure, made me very extroverted. I’ve always enjoyed working with youngsters. They make me laugh. I say outrageous things to them, and they love it.
Plus, I treat them as equals. They are dancers too; they just happen to be younger than me. It’s good fun being with them.
You’ve also remained single through your life; have you enjoyed calling the shots on your own?
I think a sense of independence developed in me at a very young age. And it has just stayed with me. It is not as if am trying to exercise it where it is not necessary.
Do you ever miss having a companion?
No, you never miss something that you have not had. It’s like saying “Oh, I am missing a five karat ring on my finger.” How can one miss it?
Do you ever worry that age is catching up with you?
I don’t think about it. My body may be slowing down but I don’t know. I have not changed much; I am more or less doing the same things. If you think about it you are in trouble.
To be utterly honest, I sometimes wish I looked older with grey hair because I think I’d have more people clapping wildly every time I went up on stage. There is something about age that attracts people even if they are not beautiful at all. It’s strange.
Interviewed by Akhila Krishnamurthy
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