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The grace of Kuchipudi - Sreelakshmy Govardhanan
Arts Speak

The grace of Kuchipudi - Sreelakshmy Govardhanan

Divya Menon

"Artists are the most fortunate people in this world".  Those are the words of Sreelakshmy Govardhanan, who, like a prism that reflects different hues, is a person of many dimensions. She is a psychologist, an internationally acclaimed exponent of the Indian classical dance form Kuchipudi, a teacher, a traveler, a perpetual seeker, and somewhere in between these various layers, there is also a philosopher whose policy is to live and let live. The young danseuse from Irinjalakuda who runs the Avantika Space for Dance may seem bohemian at times, and yet when on stage performing Kuchipudi, she transports viewers to an ethereal realm, to the lanes of the Kuchipudi village, a rustic corner of the Country where time stands still intensely locked within the traditions of an ancient dance form.

The grace of Kuchipudi - Sreelakshmy Govardhanan

For the uninitiated, Kuchipudi is one of the eight major classical dance forms of India, and this particular form originated in the Kuchipudi village (formerly known as Kuchelapuram) in the Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh. The village has not only lent its name to the art form but also its culture that has been incorporated so naturally and tastefully into the art.

In this village lives Guru Pasumarthi Rattiah Sarma, a teacher of the highly theatrical Kuchipudi Yakshagana tradition, one of the few Bhagawathulus remaining in the Country. Sreelakshmy Govardhanan says, “There is a big difference between a teacher and Guru. While a teacher imparts knowledge, a Guru removes darkness. While there are many teachers in this world, a Guru is a rare phenomenon – the only one who can show the right path to the student”.

Speaking about Guru Pasumarthy, she adds that apart from the science of the art form, his humility is his greatest message and that the process of learning from a master of his caliber who is a perennial source of inspiration and knowledge is verily a process of self realization and development, a procedure of carefully carving and honing one’s personality to manage life for negotiation of life in this transient world is no less an art. However, mastering the dance form at the feet of Guru Pasumarthy was not easy with several blocks on the road ahead; Firstly, for Sreelakshmy who then had no knowledge of Telugu  - the only tongue familiar to her Guru, language posed a major barrier. Quite early into her induction she realized the importance of mastering this language to master the art itself. From this insight was born her deep reverence for languages and the conviction that a grasp of the language is imperative to absorb the vocabulary of the art. “Learning language is vital to the art for if you didn’t know the language how would you know what the song is about and what the characters are trying to say? And without that very important lyrical knowledge, how would you perform or create the mood?” Perhaps it sounds unreasonable to expect say a German for instance, in love with Kuchipudi to learn Telugu before commencing but then it becomes essential at some point because language of the lyrics, the performance language and the body language are all interwoven into the fabric of the dance form and today with globalization that has shrunk the world into a village this is no longer difficult and the scene is one of so many different possibilities.  Further, coming from a life of luxury, the austerities that awaited her at the village quickly necessitated that she re-model herself and reset her benchmarks of living to suit her new circumstances for going back sans the essence of Kuchipudi was unthinkable!

The grace of Kuchipudi - Sreelakshmy Govardhanan

Spiritually and philosophically one might appreciate the truth that the path to a Guru is not easy and one must go through different experiences; traverse various landscapes of awareness, until there is a deep thirst within to unearth the essence of what one is seeking and it is at this point usually that a Guru manifests completely out of the blue, almost like a savior. This experience or process of finding one’s Guru is perhaps a story that is common to most seekers of truth, be it in art or life in general.

Retracing her steps, Sreelakshmy Govardhanan, took baby steps into dance at the age of 3 and a half when all that mattered was to be able to ‘dance’ carefree, a luxury that only the innocence of childhood can offer. Her first teacher was Muriyadu Muralidharan who taught her dance when she came home from Dubai during her school vacation. Having returned from Dubai at the age of 6 she enrolled as the student of Kalamandiram Jyothilakshmy followed by classes under Sreekala Menon until the age of 12. Further she went on to learn dance, specifically in the Kuchipudi tradition under Sunil Nellayi, a stickler for discipline from whom she learnt the art of balancing the pot on her head, a characteristic property of this form of dance, the other being the plate. At the age of 16, she became a student of Vasudevan Namboothiri, an expert in ‘off the cuff’ choreography. As she watched with wide eyed amazement, the seeds for the future expert choreographer were already sowed. This was also the time when she came in contact with a wonderful set of musicians who performed with her teacher and she fondly recalls this period as a great ‘artistic satsang’!

After her degree, she finally crossed border into Karnataka to learn under Vaijayanthi Kashi in the Gurukul tradition. This is where the solo performer from Kerala experienced her first cultural shock as part of a group of performers, where she had to learn the space dynamics of group performance. Here she learnt the value and beauty of ‘group cohesiveness’. Learning under this particular teacher gave her the opportunity to travel far and wide in the Country unleashing the maverick traveler in her and it was also during this time that she completed her Masters in Psychological Counseling.

Soon after, she became a student of the renowned Manju Bharggavee known for her grace and beauty – a task master of sorts under whom she developed clarity in every move, the importance of measured movements and the beauty thereof.

She was 27 by then, returned to Kerala and worked in a college but not for long. The restless seeker and dancer in her once again propelled her onto the trajectory of a wanderer in search of the roots of Kuchipudi. The rest is history as they say!

The Gurus of the past taught through their life itself but today that is not possible for there is a deep chasm between the generations. Bearing this in mind, she runs the Avantika Space for Dance, a school where she teaches Kuchipudi adapting it to the modern scenario of the art form which is more of Ekaharya Kuchipudi or solo performance. One not to be bowled over by numbers, she has only about 20 students to whom she teaches Kuchipudi whilst subtly nurturing and molding them to face life ahead.

She firmly believes that learning a dance form is not something restricted to the histrionics and movements of the dance alone but it is essentially a method by which students learn the art of giving and growing into wholesome individuals. Undoubtedly the responsibility of the Guru is not small! She is strict at times, at other times playful; sometimes she is a friend, at other times she is a mentor and then again, ever so often, she is a mother to her students. She often takes them to watch art performances with the aim to build the 'rasika' or the aesthete in them, a state of mind she considers cardinal to artistic growth. Demolishing the boundaries and limitations instituted by conventional definitions of the bond between a guru and a shishya is something that comes very easy to her.

Over the years, many accolades and opportunities have come knocking at the doors of this supremely talented dancer who has epitomized the concept of ‘abhinaya’, and some of these are the Kalashree from Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academi, Binfield Endowment from the Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai, Bharatham Yuva Kalakar, Kala Ratna, Singar Mani, Natya Ratna and Nalanda Nrutya Nipuna. She is also an empanelled artiste in the ‘established’ category of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and a graded artiste of Doordarshan.

Her performances have taken her to prestigious platforms and festivals of Indian dance across the globe in places such as the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Colombia, Jordan and the Middle East. In 2015, as the lead of the Kuchipudi Team at the ‘Make In India’ program at Hannoer Messe in Germany, she performed in the presence of H.E The Prime Minister of India. She was also invited to choreograph a confluence of Indian dance for the inaugural event of ‘Marhaba NaMo’ in Dubai.

The grace of Kuchipudi - Sreelakshmy Govardhanan

Some of her full length thematic productions are Soorpanakaha, Radhe, Sita Swayamvaram, Silappatikaram, Saptagiri, Poothana Moksham, Mandodari Sabdham, Rama Margam and Madhura Vamsi. In addition to these she has been conducting talk shows, workshops and lecture demonstrations extensively and she particularly cherishes her workshops with little children for children are powerhouses of talent, expression and inspiration. There is never a dull moment with them and there is simply so much to learn from their innocence and the way they approach the art. A child unaffected by the eccentricities of a material life is only drawn to the sheer joy that dancing imparts and this she says is the attitude that one must carry into a full blown career in dance.

There is an impatient backpacker in her who is rather unpredictable and whimsical, ready to launch herself into travel mode at any time and this spontaneity is perhaps what one finds in her dance as well. She considers her travels imperative to her growth as a person, as a teacher and as a dancer for interactions with people, different cultures, seeing different places are all crucial to her existence. Her philosophy of life is all about openness and genuineness and you find this extended to her principles in her art too as an absolute admirer of any and every form of art.

She nurtures a dream and she calls it ‘far-fetched’ yet she dares to dream of building a gurukul in the lap of unrestrained nature where students can ‘live art and learn life’ as both are intertwined into what we call existence. In a few crisp words – an act of going back to nature!

At the age of 27, when the road ahead seemed misty and morale was at its lowest ebbs, she was invited to perform at the Ankur Festival in Kolkata and despite poor spirits, she gave an epic performance where she choreographed impromptu on stage almost like in a trance, in response to a divine calling. What transpired there to this day remains the most unforgettable memory of her life.

Elsewhere in a village in Karnataka, on an open stage, one day she danced to her heart’s delight to a mesmerized crowd, under mirthful skies that poured forth rain And then in Konark among statues as one of them, grace personified. The list is endless.

Capturing Sreelakshmy the dancer with twinkling eyes and nimble feet, within the limits of an article of a few hundred words has been a daunting task and this perhaps is a feature common to most prodigious exponents of any form of art for the more you try to unravel their mystery, their enigma only gets deeper. With one still trying to seek clarity to as to who she is - a traveler,  a seeker, a thinker, a Guru or a dancer, the mystery remains essentially the same!