Ahead of their much-anticipated presentation, Smriti-Patham, as part of the August Dance Residency of their premier institution Bharata Kalanjali at the NCPA, Bharatanatyam doyen V.P. Dhananjayan shares the ups and downs of life with his partner on and off the stage, Shanta Dhananjayan


In 1953, my first train journey from the remote village of Payyanur in north Malabar along with another boy, Balagopalan, brought us to the green environs of the campus of the Theosophical Society Adyar in Chennai, back when it was called Madras. I went from a thatched house to a small cottage where the world-renowned Kalakshetra was housed between 1936 and 1962.

When we first arrived at Kalakshetra with Chandu Panicker, Shanta was the first girl introduced to me and Balagopalan. Panicker requested the then nine-year old Shanta to take care of the ‘village brats’ conversing in the only language we knew at that time, Malayalam. Was that love at first sight? Like Rama and Sita meeting in the gardens of Mithila, the two of us first met in the gardens of the Theosophical Society. Later in life, we did go onstage as Rama and Sita in Kalakshetra’s Valmiki Ramayana series and many other major roles followed over the years. Shanta became my life partner on 24th August 1966, when we exchanged simple ‘tulsi maalas’ (garlands) straight from the altar of the famed Sri Guruvayur temple in Kerala.

Kalakshetra nurtured us with all we needed for a successful and productive life. Shanta and I served our alma mater for over one and a half decades, and, out of sheer economic compulsion, we chose to leave the institution and start Bharata Kalanjali in 1968, housed under another small, thatched roof, with just one student. With no financial backing or godfathers to support us, it was an arduous journey. However, with steadfast conviction and courage, we pulled the yoke together to plough the field with success. Discipline, devotion and dedication were the watchwords—a ‘3D’ formula for success that led to a creative life full of adventure, a life that was often pleasant and sometimes not so pleasant. We are grateful that Shanta’s parents stood by us through thick and thin.

Our creative journey commenced with the establishment of Bharata Kalanjali because that is when I found the courage to be bold enough to break away from so-called tradition. However, this meant facing criticism and brickbats from the arts fraternity, especially our alma mater, and from colleagues and contemporaries. We met them with equanimity and continued the journey, breaking the barriers of politics, nepotism, bureaucracy, jealousy. Opportunities came to us on their own and we made the most of them. We chose to project our art but did not use it for self-promotion. We chose to maintain a certain grace, to honour our sanskriti and to promote, preserve and propagate our heritage.

Crests and troughs

In the almost six decades of our journey with Bharata Kalanjali, we have traversed the globe and received much acclaim. Within the canvas of Bharatanatyam, we have painted multifarious subjects that were educative, enlightening and entertaining. We have collaborated with acclaimed artistes, including Ravi Shankar, Jacques d’Amboise (principal dancer and choreographer at the New York City Ballet) and Heinz Poll (Founder of the Ohio Ballet). Our collaborative ventures have included choreography for Jungle Book, commissioned by Cuyahoga Community College and the Cleveland Cultural Alliance; Ghanashyam, commissioned by the City of Birmingham Touring Opera (now called Birmingham Opera Company) and Chakra: A Celebration of India, a production of the National Dance Institute in New York.

While we have experienced great success, we have also faced failure. After building and running an arts and cultural centre, Bhaaskara, founded on the models of Tagore’s Santiniketan and Kalakshetra, in Kerala for 10 years, we had to give up because of financial constraints and local politics. Bhaaskara was built in the style of temple architecture on a hill in the village of Kaithapram in north Malabar. Though it remains a sight to behold, our hard-earned life savings were gone with it.

After the heartbreak of Bhaaskara, a historic milestone came our way. We completed 25 years of conducting the Gurukulam Summer Camp at Yogaville, Virginia, USA (under the guidance of Swami Satchidananda) from 1989 to 2013. This continued project and association gave us immense satisfaction. It was a pioneering venture contributing to the Indian diaspora and changing the attitude and misconceptions about Indian culture among the younger generations of American Indians. We could justifiably be proud of changing the scenario and paving the way for our musicians and natya practitioners to have lucrative careers both at home and abroad.

Our pioneering work started with an out-of-theblue invitation we received from the New York State Education Department in 1976, requesting us to enlighten young American children about the culture of India through lecture-demonstrations in educational institutions. We spent two months visiting not just cities but even nooks and corners of the State of New York, giving lecture-demonstrations and stage performances with just two musicians accompanying us. It was an unforgettable experience. It strengthened our confidence to face arduous situations.

When culture met commerce

Towards the end of our artistic and decidedly noncommercial journey, destiny brought us a new experience in the commercial world of modelling for Vodafone commercials. The success of those commercials made us famous—we came to be known as the Vodafone Couple. This unexpected exposure brought us several more commercials that fetched good earnings and increased our popularity, possibly much more than we had experienced as a natya couple. These commercials introduced us to the feature film industry in Tamil and Malayalam where we experienced a totally different world. We took it as a challenge to tide over the stigma attached to the commercial world and make the experience a part of our learning.

In principle, we have never pursued honours and accolades. They seemed to appear one after another in search of us. In retrospect. it is satisfying to have been honoured and decorated with national and international recognitions for our service to our Bharatiya kala and sanskaar.

The journey of our life has been a contented and happy one, striding through the good and eschewing the bad with a positive approach. Indeed, our life is an open book and, with no exaggeration, we are made for each other. Leading an austere, principled and disciplined life, we feel honoured to serve as role models for our students and anyone else who might be inspired by us.

While mapping our artistic journey around the globe, I must acknowledge that the NCPA is amongst the most prestigious art centres not just in India but renowned the world over. We have performed at the NCPA many times over the years and we are looking forward to performing here once again.


This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of the On Stage.