21 April, 2014
- By Hema Iyer Ramani
From dawn to dusk, the cows roam around the city of Varanasi, mingling with the crowd of people, perhaps herding the crowd that has gathered in large numbers to absorb the magic of the city. These long horned ones walk undaunted, and it is a delight to see man and beast sharing togetherness even on those narrow crowded roads. The ghats, the music, the temples, the people, and above all the Ganges- all add up to the aura that the city has to offer. Little Manjari was born in this city and for twelve long years, she grew up savouring not only the delicious jalebis, rabri, and chai in matka cups, but also imbibing most unconsciously the very essence that Benares had to offer. The passive manner in which she absorbed details was almost akin to the very cow – the manner in which it eats food, stores and most leisurely brings up the cud later on, only to chew upon it with deliberation! Manjari spent the playing hours of her childhood in Benares, hopping, skipping, dancing and singing, and later listening to the best of Hindi and Sanskrit poetry, undiluted classical music like the Ganges of yore, and of course watching, learning and practicing dance even as her parents, the respected dance gurus, Jaya and C.V. Chandrashekar taught her the nuances of dance. And so it was that Manjari grew in a gurukulam home where she lived and breathed music and dance.
And so she grew in the land so beloved to the shehnai maestro, Bismillah Khan sahib and she relives the memories that the festival of Ganesh chaturti brought in Kishen Maharaj’s home, where he had a two-day festival, bringing forth the best of musicians and dancers- And so, if she heard N.Rajam once, she also listened to Rajan and Sajan Mishra as young lads themselves!The Chaithi function in Takur Jaidev Singh’s home again brought in more music – Girija Devi, Mahadev Misra, and music which covered a wide spectrum: it was here that she was exposed to the exploration of ragas, tumri, jhoola and so on –“But, at that age, I was more fascinated by the shower of the fragrant paneer roses, and we danced in ecstatic joy to receive the rain of roses, and if we heard a lot of great and fantastic music, it was at that time purely incidental!”
But, it was not just chaste Hindustani music or poetry that influenced her. The Hanuman Ghat was the hub of Tamizh culture, and so young Manjari also grew up participating in the traditional Golu that was prevalent in Tamizh families.
When she completed twelve years of age, Majari had to shift to Baroda- it was a change in many ways. Benares was more orthodox, and she had studied under the Hindi medium of instruction at school. Baroda on the other hand was more progressive, and soon exposed her to English medium of instruction, which she was easily able to adapt because of the exposure to the English language she had had at home ! If Benares had exposed her to Hindustani music, Rabindra Sangeet, Poetry, and so on, Baroda led her to discover folk music, folk dance and a wide spectrum of allied arts including the visual arts. She grew up learning to admire the works of Ghulam and Neelima Sheik, and so great was her admiration for them that when she began her journey to create her own productions, she involved Neelima Sheik to visualize her imagery on to the canvas occupying the stage through a tapestry when she choreographed her piece called Rati. Baroda thus opened her eyes to topmost artists, and it taught her to look at things with an open mind, and it also introduced her to the flavour that was western and modern. If Benares had introduced her to concepts of unquestionable reverence, Baroda encouraged her to think and rediscover herself- she was able to look at dance beyond what was being taught.
After spending seventeen long years at Baroda, Manjari spent two and half years at Delhi teaching all that she had learnt. It was in this period that she worked on Rati and later on Sufi poetry for Natyarangam’s Bharatasamanmayam. She was influenced by Gunankudi Mastan Saheb’s works, where he referred to the atma as male and paramatma as female. So if she was inspired by “ Ennai vital mapillai ethanayo/Unnai vittal pen enakku undo manonmani?”, she was equally drawn by a parallel thread that she found in Nanda Das’ lines- “ Humko tum bas ek ho / Tum ko hum si kori”.
Choreographing in later years after her training from her rich legacy of teachers who doubled up as parents, it was only natural that she was able to bring forth all that she had consciously and unconsciously imbibed in all those years- the act of rumification had begun. Every influence of her childhood days came back to her in a flash and she was able to relive the rich experiences through the art of choreography. Her training in music, dance, and her exposure to allied art forms proved to be boon through the various stages of production- choosing lyrics, choreography, thinking about the structure of the music, the aesthetics of costumes and so on. In her work, The Earthen Pot , she drew inspiration of a Hindi poem that she had learnt in her Benares days -Ek Gade ki atmakatha. So strong was her relationship with the poem that even as she worked on the music for it with her father’s help ,she retained sections of the poem, recording the recitation of the verses in her own voice. And, her rich experience with her teacher called Life also taught her to look at the poem from a mere physical level to transport it to the metaphysical world incorporating with her philosophy that she had imbibed. Again, when she worked onYashodhara ,it was fascinating to see the influence of her Benares days, which had exposed her to understand the Sanskrit interpretation of Ushas, and at the same time look at it from the perspective of a Hindi poem that she had read a long time ago about- “ hawa kahein, sooraj karein” when she speaks about the colour of the henna !
In 1984, Kalamandir Trust bestowed upon her – The Best Young Dancer award. Soon in 2004, Narada Gana Sabha awarded her with a Senior dancer medal and Indian Fine Arts Society recognized her talent and awarded her with The Best Teacher award. Recognizing her commitment to the arts, Guru Chitra Visweswaran ,President of ABhAI invited her to be part of the core committee to participate in the activities and decision making of ABhAI. This committed dancer surges forward unmindful of whether she wins awards or laurels – like the sacred cow, she walks with the herd, yet like the cow moves along to find her own pasture to feed on and to ponder, understanding very well that there is space for everyone to find their own patch on the grassland to call their own.