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It’s the 20th anniversary of Suvarna Fine Arts. Subhadra Devan talks to its founder and artistic director Ajith Bhaskaran Dass about his journey and vision
HE had his first public dance performance at 16. At 25, he started his very own school Suvarna Fine Arts and performed its first show with just four students.
Known for his innovative choreography of the 5,000-year-old dance form bharathanatyam, Ajith Bhaskaran Dass says that he always wanted to be both teacher and performer of the Indian classical dance.
“I’ve always wanted to teach,” says the 45-year-old lawyer by training, who learnt dance under Adya K. Lakshman and Ramli Ibrahim.
The Johor Baru-born artiste recalls his first dance choreography at 16. “I did it without training. It was a piece from a movie. The audience reaction was fantastic. At that time, Kamal Haasan was dancing in films so it was okay for men to dance.”
After being called to the Bar, and completing his arangetram, Ajith chose dance as a career and soon set up his school. Choosing dance instead of law was not easy.
“My mum’s initial reaction — she didn’t speak to me for two months while my dad’s major concern was whether dance would be a sustainable career. But they were supportive, and gave me my space,” says Ajith.
Any child choosing dance as a full-time career is still cause for much concern among most parents. “It’s difficult as a full-time job, especially classical Indian dance.
“You need to launch your career internationally, which I did, with financial backing. It was a risk.”
He was at first busy with his own solo performing career which saw him perform on the international stage. He has since performed all over Southeast Asia, India, the United States, Canada and Europe. He was invited to perform for
Unicef in New York in July 2005. Other accolades include being the first male Indian classical dancer to be featured in the International Arts Festival, Frankfurt, Germany in 2000.
“I was lucky to get foreign tours early in my career. I entered the international loop of classical dance performances right from the beginning. But I wanted to contribute something to the growth of Indian classical dance in Malaysia.”
With 400 students and four branches of his school in Johor, Ajith is happily busy today, finding time to teach and perform in Singapore and Los Angeles.
With his school, Ajith has put on annual productions since 1994, mainly in bharathanatyam, with some odissi and contemporary works.
The productions include Brahmasri (which was staged in Malaysia and Canada in 1995), Dancing Maiden Of The Dojo Temple (Japan Tour, 2003) and Ananda Absolute! — Shree Stree Sakthi (2009).
“My friends outside the dance fraternity think my life is an endless holiday because I do what I enjoy,” says the avid reader and traveller who also finds time to hang out with pals.
He also has his own dance troupe, Suvarna Dance Company, while his first four students are still with him today as teachers.
“I learnt with them. They helped me unleash my creativity,” says Ajith.
Bharathanatyam offers him “a fundamental alphabet with which I choreograph my dance — both abstract movement and interpretative abhinaya.”
He thinks there should not be a particular repertoire for the language of bharathanatyam.
“I believe that bharathanatyam is a living, breathing art form. A poet uses the words of a language to communicate. A creative dancer uses the vocabulary of dance language in similar manner.
“The magnificence and resilience of bharathanatyam should not be restricted to set parameters as this will deny its inherent vitality and adaptability to change.”
Ajith finds it very fulfilling when he sees his students perform. And his students do not have their dance debut unless they seriously want to continue dancing. His teaching includes an in-depth understanding of the dance rather than the steps alone.
“It makes them more complete so they have to know about the dance, and listen to lectures, even though they want to get up to dance.
“They must understand the concept of the dance, the lyrics to escape making Indian classical dance prosaic or formulaic.”
All Suvarna productions by Ajith as its artistic director are original choreography that expresses his innermost feelings.
“The choreographic process interests me. I like the excitement when embarking on my own idea. It was not a conscious move but a natural progression. My mind today speaks louder than my body,” says the principal dancer with a laugh.
You wonder then with choreography, why he dances still, to which he says: “Why do you breathe, walk... it’s as simple as that for me. When I dance, I am at peace with myself.”
To mark those 20 years, Ajith will perform along with 11 core dancers of the Suvarna Dance Company in Panchaayatana, exploring the Finite Manifestations of the Infinite.
The title comes from the Sanskrit words Pancha (five) and Yatana (God).
“Deities are not mere physical forms but symbols that represent a deep philosophy that manifest themselves in man’s thoughts and actions. A true seeker with insight knows that these images are creations of the mind, representing the many faces of reality,” he says.
“Instead of random pieces about Hindu gods, I’ve woven my thoughts around five deities, as expounded by Sri Adi Shankaracharya through the Smartha tradition of worship. The five deities are Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Surya and Ganesha.”
“The narration is important in Panchaayatana, as links.
“You will see the ritual worship, the system of pooja, in the whole dance. I’ve chosen composers from different eras, traditional and contemporary such as Lalgudi Jayaraman.
“I’ve also composed a melody, tuned by violinist Sashidharan Nair. It was quite difficult, as I’ve blended certain raags to certain ragas.”
It was a lengthy process to come up with Panchaayatana, and the dance rehearsals alone took three months.
Panchaayatana will premiere in Kuala Lumpur on July 13, accompanied by eminent musicians from Malaysia and Singapore before it is performed in Singapore’s University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore, on July 20.
Excerpts of the dance will be performed in Chennai later this year for the annual Narthaki Festival. It is one of eight projects planned for the dance company, back to back in the coming 12 months.
“I hope the audience will find a healthy discussion from the dance. I want it to be an experience rather than a performance.”