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The unmatched Prathibha

Have you ever wondered what is that makes a dancer attractive? That when he or she walks into a room and we presume he or she is a dancer? What’s the aura all about? Well the very same questions crossed my mind almost 22 years back when I first saw renowned Bharatnatyam exponent Prathibha Prahlad.

At the famous and super crowded Pune Ganesh Festival way back in 1990’s the accomplished dancer swayed wearing simple red and green Kanjivaram Saree with minimalistic make up and jewellery. But despite being in a crowded place all eyes including mine turned towards her. That is when I knew the power of a dancer’s personality. Somewhere deep inside me too had a dream to be like her, dynamic, powerful, beautiful and most importantly charismatic.

I waited for a long time in a long queue like a star struck person to say a hello, but could not develop the courage to talk when I got closer to her. The aura she carried was so strong that it left me speechless. But now, this year she has been awarded the prestigious Padma award, so I had a chance to talk to my most admired dancer.

I connected with the dancing diva who also has a stamp in her honour on a social networking site. To my surprise, the moment I introduced myself she remembered me and said, “It’s been long we met you have become a choreographer now, it’s good to read about you in news.” Now it mesmerised me even more that the dynamic aura also topped with an elephants memory and it was no wonder the government of India has given the dancing diva the 4th Highest Civilian honour of a Padmashree.

We exchanged mobile numbers and finally after more than two decades, I had a conversation with the Sangeet Natak Akadami Awardee.

‘Padma Shri has come as a people’s award for me’

In his latest interview noted Bollywood dancer and choreographer Sandip Soparkkar talks to Smt. Prathibha Prahlad, who is veteran of Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi and has made several contributions to the world of dance. Prahlad is a multi-faceted performer, educator, choreographer, arts administrator, author and visionary. She has more than forty years of experience in this art form and is also founder festival director of the famous Delhi International Arts Festival. Below is the full transcript of Soparkkar’s interview with Pratibha Prahlad.

Why did you follow Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi with no other dance form?

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I grew up in Bangalore in the 1960s, where the only forms one could learn then were Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Near my home was a dancer called Smt. Sunanda, who took dance classes. I used to be in her house every day after school between the ages of four and eight. I naturally picked up Bharatanatyam and my teacher introduced me on the stage when I was six years old. From her, I moved to learning from another teacher and thereafter Prof. and Smt. U.S Krishna Rao, the doyennes of dance in Karnataka. My learning and performing was a happy, organic part of my childhood – I don’t remember what I did before dance happened!

When I decided to become a professional, I was 16 and in college. I used to go to Madras every weekend and stayed and learnt from Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan, the grand master of ‘abhinaya’. She introduced me to Guru V.S Muthuswamy Pillai, under whom I trained for 10 years. In the afternoons in Madras, I attended the Kuchipudi dance Academy run by Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, whose choreographies fascinated me. So, in a sense, Bharatantayam and Kuchipudi chose me I did not choose them.

Who do you think is your idol in dance and why? Who you think is the best Bharatnatyam dancer in today’s times?

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My idol in dance will always be Padma Vibhushan Yamini Krishnamurthy. For one, I belonged to that generation that was inspired by her dance. When I was six years old, my parents took me to see her performance in Ravindra Kalakshetra. The hall was packed and I had to watch her dance perched on my father’s shoulders. My mother remarked then that I should one day be as good a dancer as her and I think subconsciously that drove me to practising like one possessed.

From the generation after me, I did enjoy watching a few younger dancers like Janaki Rangarajan, Mythili Prakash, Jyotsna Jagannath and others -but I’ve barely seen them perform 2-3 times.

How does it feel like having a Stamp in your name? How did it all happen?

The Stamp story is pretty unique. I received a call from the Department of Posts & Telegraphs in 2011 and the conversation was about releasing a ‘First Day Cover'(for stamp collectors) with the Logo of Delhi International Arts Festival and its mission statement. I was super excited because in so many ways, this was the biggest honour and recognition for a Festival, which was now a big brand that I created and toiled night and day to make a reality. When my colleague went to have a one to one meeting with the officers, she was told that she should send a recent portrait photo of mine.

On the day of the release, which was the opening day of a fabulous exhibition of Stamps and First Day Covers, I was told that they had decided to honour me with a special ‘My Stamp’ of Rs.5. It took me a while to realise that I could now send letters with my stamp on the envelope. Of course, it was a limited edition release and I still keep some as a badge of honour and pride.

You started Parasiddha Foundation Forum for Art Beyond Borders and Delhi International Dance Festival, how did you think of so many festivals? And how do you manage them all?

Prasiddha Foundation started in 1990/1991 as a dance organisation that every dancer / musician has. I was teaching, performing and the Organisation was my dance school. But Prasiddha had a destiny of its own. Soon I was approached by a tobacco company to mount huge festivals of classical music and dance. Of course the company was trying to promote itself. But how did it matter when so many musicians and dancers could get a fantastic platform to perform? So I said yes and did a historical festival in Bangalore, which had people standing in queues to enter a classical event, hitherto unheard of in Bangalore.

The success of that event led to curating regular annual music- dance festivals ‘Sharad Vaibhava’ and ‘Eka Aneka’ for 12 years. These became iconic festivals and several artistes from Karnataka who were not recognised at the National level came to the forefront. In 1995, the District administration at Bellary and Karnataka Tourism partnered with Prasiddha to put up the mammoth ‘Vijayotsav- Hampi Tourism Festival’. I did this for three years and handed over the Festival to the Government of Karnataka.

Forum for Art beyond Borders is a Delhi registered NGO, which was started to organise the Delhi International Arts Festival in 2007. FABB, so far does only the Delhi International Arts Festival. Though the Trustees are very different in both these organisations, the office works for both as they are involved in promoting arts and artistes and preserving our heritage.

Why did to relocate from Bangalore to Delhi?

I decided to become a mother in 1998 and have lovely twin boys. I relocated to Delhi for protecting the children from unnecessary and unwanted attention and to bring them up in a conducive, normal environment.

You were honoured with The Padma award. Did you think you deserved it long time back? (I think you deserved it!)

Thank you for saying that I deserved it long back. In fact, the thousands of messages, letters, emails, I received from people from all over the world said the same thing. It was overwhelming to know that so many people, be they high ranked bureaucrats, politicians, spiritual leaders, artistes, gurus ,the artistic  & journalistic fraternity and so many members of the audience that I never knew of, cared about me and my art and followed my artistic journey.

I am very grateful. For me, the Padmashri has come as a people’s award as all of them very genuinely happy and relieved that the Nation had finally recognised my contribution.

You have always been into controversies due to your beauty as well as your dance and connections? What do you have to say about this?

I try to ignore controversies. People who are narrow minded or jealous tend to knit stories and controversies around a person only to undermine and gossip. I have never had the time or the inclination to be playing small, dirty games. I wish more and more people would be straightforward, decent and stop fishing in slush and use their time creatively. I have lived my life openly and frankly and have nothing to hide. I take ownership for my decisions in life and will continue to live on my terms and conscience.

‘Vande Mataram’ made headlines is one of your most talked about choreographies, where all classical dance forms came together. How did you conceive it and why?

The first multi-style huge production, I choreographed was in 2002, called ‘Panchajanya’- sights and sounds of India. It was for the first time that I worked with multiple dancers from five different dance styles and wove these styles between rhythm and melody. I worked very, very hard on the concept and the artistic direction. We had a 40 member choir conducted by Madhup Mudgal and a percussion ensemble of 30 members, conducted by Sri Ganesh. Between the melody and the percussion ensemble came the five major dance styles of India.

Strangely, some of the dancers, who had lent their students to me to partake and who closely watched the manner in which it was done, broke away, in 2004, when the Government changed and did their own choreographies, imitating mine. Those were really just each dance form doing a number from its own repertoire in groups and finally all of them coming together on stage. I thought this was unethical and not special, but these groups managed to get prime performances and travel to many places in the world, courtesy the UPA Govt.

So, I decided to choreograph Vande Mataram – with all eight styles of classical dance plus the martial art form of Chhau. Vande Mataram got a standing ovation on its debut. Never had people seen all the dance forms, individually and collectively knitting a beautiful kaleidoscope of India.

We have performed quite a bit, but again several dancers and teachers have copied, imitated and done smaller versions of Vande Mataram, called it by different names and even till today perform everywhere.

Which brings me to the question of patenting and IPR of artistic works in India. We have no laws and no protection of creative works – especially in classical dance and music. Those who are ahead of the curve always loose out to others who copy and re-do the choreography. Honestly it all this pains me.

You have been on board of CBSE for dance syllabus, setting papers etc. Do you think India is still only looking at Indians dances? Today we have loads of international dance forms too in our country. You think we should introduce international dances too as part of dance syllabus? If so, what can be done to support it?

The problem with India is that we have not been able to successfully teach our culture and art forms to our children. The result is obvious lack of interest and knowledge about our traditions, culture and art forms. Moreover, we have two generations now, that worship anything that is western and in the movies. It is almost as if the culture of India is Bollywood.

I feel pained that we are unable to bring into the curriculum studies on art history – be it ancient, middle or contemporary. Arts management is yet not a coveted management programme or job. I strongly feel that knowledge of our art forms gives us a firm base and understanding of the diversity and plurality of our people. This should be the foundation or base.

Once a student is sufficiently informed about this, history and practice of art forms from other parts of the world can be introduced. The student will then be able to make comparative studies and bring new and path breaking knowledge and work into the field. But all this can happen only if people revere their cultural traditions and arts and heritage.

Pratibha means talent and undoubtedly parents of Prathibha Prahlad gave her the right name, because the ‘Pratibha’ and knowledge of this vibrant and pulsating dancer is totally unmatched. Through this interview I would thank Prathibha Prahlad for being a Dronacharya of my life. I want to tell you all that I feel glad and extremely fortunate that when I was maturing as a person and as a dancer, God made me bump into a person like her who unknowingly influenced me and helped me develop a personality that describes a dancer perfectly.

Sandip Soparrkar


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