Monday, March 02, 2009

A feast for the eyes

Mohiniyattam exponent, Pallavi Krishnan, is always trying to push the boundaries of the art. Not many people know she is a Bengali

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1995, Pallavi Krishnan had gone to Delhi to part in a Mohiniyattam performance with her guru Bharati Shivaji and other dancers. Five years later she again went to Delhi, but this time for a solo recital.

Following the conclusion of the programme, she had a visitor in the green room. "Pallavi, I saw you five years ago in a group performance," the man said. "That day I knew you were going to become a good dancer. And today I am here to give you a gift, because what I prophesied has come true."

Pallavi took the gift and thanked the man. "After he left I felt so happy that I cried," she says. "That day I realised I had something within me that people could remember my performance even five years later. So, that gave me a lot of courage and confidence."

She later came to know that her visitor was the great sculptor and Padma Shri awardee, Ram V. Sutar and the gift was a statue of Ganapati.

Her elation is still so intense that she rushes into a room of her well furnished home at Thrissur and brings out the Ganapati. It is in red, with the legs and trunk flying about, as if in gay abandon. She holds it up and says, "Isn't it beautiful?" Her eyes are pools of joy.

It has been a long and eventful journey for Pallavi Krishnan. A Bengali, she grew up in Durgapur, and thanks to an irresistible inner urge, she started dancing when she was a child. At that time there was not much scope in the industrial town.

Nevertheless, because of her father's large collection of 'Rabindra Sangeet' records, and her aunt Mala’s ceaseless encouragement, she would listen to songs and dance on her own.

"There were no classical dances shown on television in those days," she says. She remembers that in her childhood she only saw two dance recitals: one was by Yamini Krishnamurthy (Bharatanatyam) and the other by Birju Maharaj (Kathak).

However, after her graduation in biology from Burdwan University, she decided she would go to the Vishwa-Bharati University at Shantiniketan to learn Kathakali. It was here that she met her guru, Kalamandan Sankaranarayanan.

On weekends, Sankaranarayanan taught her Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam. "He told me I had the grace and the talent to be a good Mohiniyattam dancer," she says.

By this time Pallavi’s desire had crystallised: she wanted to be a classical dancer and move to Chennai or Kerala. "I knew I had to get out of West Bengal because there were so few opportunities," she says.

During this period she saw a television serial, 'Noopur' with Hema Malini as the heroine. "I was so inspired," she says. "I imagined that, one day, like Hema Malini's character, I would live in a guru's house, wash his feet, cook his food and dance all the time."

When she told Sankaranarayanan she wanted to move to the South, he promptly invited her to come to Kerala to learn Mohiniyattam. Pallavi accepted.

In 1992, Sankaranarayanan took her to Kerala Kalamandalam in Thrissur district, and told the authorities, "This girl has come all the way from Bengal to learn Mohiniyattam."

In the test that followed, Pallavi so impressed the then principal, Kalamandalam Sathyabhama, that she was admitted in the third year of the four-year course. (Incidentally, she was the first Bengali to join Kalamandalam).

And her first day at the institution was unforgettable. It was Vijaya Dashami day and there was a dance programme. Pallavi sat in the audience.

She saw a man moving around with a camera. "I thought, 'He is so fair, he must be a North Indian,'" she says. "I was attracted to him at first sight."

The man was K.K. Gopalakrishnan, an art critic who works in the State Bank of India. Soon, they met and fell in love. They tied the knot two years later. And it is a marriage that has brought bliss to both of them.

As Pallavi says, "He wanted someone who loved art and I wanted somebody who could encourage and inspire me in my career."

And Gopalakrishnan gave Pallavi a valuable piece of advice. "He said teaching Mohiniyattam should not be my sole aim," says Pallavi. "I must become a performer. Because, for an artiste, public performances had a limited time span. He said I could do the teaching later.'"

But it was not easy for Pallavi to adjust to life in Kerala. "I did not know the language," she says. "It was a conservative place."

She had come from Shantiniketan which had a liberal ethos and women enjoyed a lot of freedom. But her hunger to learn was so great that she curbed her desires and even learned to write and speak Malayalam.

She speaks a reasonably fluent Malayalam, although there is a singsong tone to it. Very occasionally, a Bengali word slips in amongst the profusion of Malayalam sentences. Roots, after all, cannot be erased permanently.

Today, Pallavi is one of the leading dancers of Mohiniyattam in the country. And she is well known for her creative compositions. "I believe in traditional styles and themes, but at the same time I would like to do some cutting-edge work," she says.

She says the reason she decided to innovate was because she observed that most people preferred to watch Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi because it had colourful costumes and a faster rhythm.

"I decided I had to do something which is easily understood by the mass of people and yet, at the same time, is classical," she says. In the Lasya Academy, which she has set up, Pallavi creates a lot of innovative choreography with her students.

The Delhi-based Mohiniyattam legend, Bharati Shivaji, who attended Pallavi's performance in the capital recently, says, "She has matured as an artiste and her creative instincts are very good."

C.P. Unnikrishnan, a researcher on Kerala's art forms, feels that Pallavi has been able to blend the 'nrtta' and the 'abhinaya' aspects very well.

"She gets inputs from experts in literature and eurhythmics and incorporates them wisely in her productions," he says. "She also has the ability to present themes without distorting the essentials of Mohiniyattam."

Her career has now taken flight and she does numerous performances in India and abroad. Asked to compare Western audiences with Indian ones, she says, "In the West people have to buy tickets to see the event. Hence, they are serious-minded and want to enjoy the programme. Nobody will leave during a recital. If they enjoy the dance they will give a standing ovation."

On the other hand, audiences in India watch the shows free. As a result, the attitude is lackadaisical. "Even when you are dancing well, people will walk out," she says. "It is so insulting."

Pallavi says there should be a rule that people can leave only when an item concludes or during the interval. "People in India don't value dance so much because they are seeing it every day," she says.

But this indifference has not deterred Pallavi. Asked about her future plans, she breaks out into a beatific smile, and says, "I want to dance well and for as long as I can. Only when people shout, 'Hey, you have become an old woman!" will I stop dancing."

Sojourn in Dhaka

Last year, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations along with the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, Bangladesh started a six-week programme, spread over three years, to popularise Indian classical dance forms.

For Mohiniyattom, Pallavi Krishnan was chosen to conduct workshops and give a few performances.

There were 50 students in the beginning and they ranged in age from 15 to 25. "Initially they were skeptical because they had never heard of Mohiniyattom," says Pallavi. "But they changed their mind after attending a couple of classes. Now they are besotted."

Of course, Pallavi readily admits that her fluency in Bengali helped. "I was able to communicate very effectively," she says. She told them stories they had never heard before: from the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha.

When she returned they sent plaintive e-mails asking her to return. Wrote Laxma Sidiqa: "We miss your classes so much." Samiun Zahan said: "Didi, I am practicing very hard, but we miss you so much. Please come soon.'

Pallavi has paid heed to the call. On February 17, she has gone for another six weeks to Dhaka. And like in India, she has already spotted some talented students. "But they need to work hard," she says.

Pallavi has family roots in Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal), so in one way going to Dhaka is like going home.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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