A day after Onam, actress and Bharatanatyam exponent Shobana Chandrakumar is up early, tying up last-minute loose ends for her latest ensemble ballet titled Krishna, for Banyan Tree, an organisation that promotes classical dance and music. “There’s so much to do. There always is,” she says. Aside from the dance itself, she also has to incorporate screen projections, sounds, effects and other technical props to enliven the performance. This is where her experience as an actress dealing with sound and light technicians comes in handy, she says.
Being an actor also helps enrich a dancer's abhinaya (emotive skills). When actor-danseuse Hema Malini first stared training under the tutelage of Guru Vazhavoor Ramaiah Pillai, most people raved about her nritta (pure dance). But, she was often told that her performance was devoid of natya (emotion). "Years of playing so many characters on camera taught me to emote better. Now, I don't need to even think about it. My expressions automatically sync with the situation," she says.
Similarly, her films benefitted from her dance career as well. She laughs as she recalls her "rigid and stiff" movements when she first started dancing under the baton of Bollywood choreographers. "After years of being trained in the lyrical Tanjore style of Bharatnatyam, I would cringe at the latkas and jhatkas I was expected to do." But after her first few films, her own style became accepted. "They made peace with my style, and films like Mrigatrishna, Pratiggya, Kinara and Lekin used my dancing skills beautifully."
While classical dance only involves the use of music, the use of dialogues like in the movies can also enhance a ballet. Hema Malini uses her voice quite often while Shobhana gets other actors to lend their voices. "I don't believe that everything must be underlined. But by using dialogues, we're trying to reach out to more people," she says. In her performance of Krishna, Shabana Azmi will be the voice of Gandhari, Radha will be voiced by Konkona Sen Sharma, Devaki by Radhika, Draupadi by Nandita Das, Bheema by Prabhu, and Duryodhan will speak in Milind Soman's voice.
The sound of the ballet has been designed by Oscar-winning sound engineer Resul Pookutty. Along with Rajeevan's art direction, this adds to Shobana's own choreography which bring together classical, folk and contemporary styles.
But whatever effects a performance may have, its core has to be the dance. “Without this, the show will look gimmicky, and too many effects take away from the performance.” Hema Malini adds that this exposure due to the media has also made technical props and gadgetry unavoidable. "Audiences want the effects to add to their overall experience and simply dancing to a mythological tale is not enough anymore,” she says. For example, she has to hire a special projector for a performance of her ballet Radha-Krishna at New Delhi's Siri Fort auditorium next week. "The stage is so huge that regular projectors will not work. Overall, it is almost like putting together a movie."
Both actor-dancers lament the waning of patient audiences who would sit through two-hour pure classical dance recitals. Hema Malini says her discovery of changing audience tastes came as a rude shock: "We shot Johnny Mera Naam in Nepal. A few months after its release, I was invited to dance there. From the moment I began the alaripu, the audience started hooting, and by the time I went into the varnam, I had to stop as they wanted me to dance to film songs. I left in the middle of the concert." She realised that the Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu or Kannada compositions were lost on audiences. "That is how I did my first ballet, Meera, in contemporary Hindi, which everybody understood and the style caught on."
Having managed to merge classical and Bollywood dance styles, what's next for these divas of stage and screen? Shobhana says Krishna will keep her busy for a while, and Hema Malini wants to take a break from mythology for her next — Ganga. "It will be interesting to see how much I can explore real-time issues through dance."