Wordsmith of 'the hidden language between Body and Soul-DANCE' - Sandhya Raju

In conversation with the lady who is the definition of grace and creator of a new world of ecstasy and ethereal existence. Sandhya Raju is an ebullient and scintillating dancer who speaks to the world through her manifold rhythmic patterns, melodic gestures and subtle facial expressions. Having been trained under the legendary guru, she holds a vision of passing on the legacy to thousands more across the globe.
Interning IJ Sowparnika Koka
Published on: 27th June 2016
Sowparnika : Is it true that one stage performance that you watched has pulled you into the world of dance? Tell us more about how it happened?

Sandhya : At an age of eight, I happened to visit a stage show in Bangalore by my dance teacher Vempati Chinna Satyam and his troupe. It was called ‘Ksheera Sagara Madanam’ which was about the churning of ocean of milk between Devas and Asuras. It was an easy theme that a young girl like me could understand. The entire performance kind of mesmerized me. The girl who entered the venue and left the venue were not the same. I left the place but carried the entire picture of that show in my heart. I continued singing the same songs and enacting the play with my cousin with a lot of excitement back at home. My mother identified my interest and she enquired about the troop. The gentlemen happened to be the greatest teacher and a legend in the history of Kuchipudi. In addition to it, she discovered that he lives in the very same lane as ours and my mother thought that it was a great opportunity and I should join Kuchipudi Art Academy, Madras. As I was a kid of nine years, I had to wait for another year to be a part of it. My excitement and love for it was so high that keeping me away from dance for one year was impossible. So for an entire year, I kept watching 50-60 dancers performing, exotic dancers from other countries and the pictures of establishing dancers all around me. Finally on my tenth birthday, I could heed my heart’s calling and my purpose of life. It was more like day one of my life on a world I dreamt of.
Sandhya Raju
Sowparnika : How was that journey of 8 years and what inspired you to perform better each day?

Sandhya : Once I stepped into it, it was more like an addiction. It involves a rigorous practice of going there everyday and giving your best. It was more like seeing a pinnacle right in front of you and taking those steps that would ultimately take you there. I would count everyday that after the completion of first level I can go the advance levels. It is a sequence that would take you forward step by step. Here, the students are taught free of cost so it comes down to learning with perfection. So I used to tell myself that until I do this step correctly I wouldn’t be able to proceed to the next. Every step that I learnt would fill in so much of pleasure and it was like an achievement. I never cared about school or academics; dance was my priority. I used to come home and practice the senior steps secretly that we were forbidden from doing . My life continued to be revolving around dance.

Sowparnika : When did you decide to go the dance’s way?

Sandhya : It was in my twelfth grade, my teacher selected me for the lead role of Krishna for a play ‘Gopika Krishna’. At that point it was like winning an Oscar for me. Only in my dreams I was a dancing queen otherwise I called myself a terrible dancer. So I spoke to him for the first time ever saying that I might not be able to do it. But he believed in me and that leap of faith has changed my life forever. I chose to pick up the color of ‘Dance’ from the rainbow of life which offered me various other choices such as animation.

Sowparnika : It is said that ‘A Guru affects Eternity’. How has his influence been in your life?

Sandhya : Vempati sir was a very intimidating person whom I never spoke to but used to watch everyday. If he could spot us among so many or correct us, that was an ‘Oh My God’ moment for us. It was a love filled fear that we carried for him and he is our idol of worship. I was fortunate to having been trained by him. It was only because of him that I could put myself to rigorous hard work and bring out my heart in what I do. That stage of life under him has taught me to face ups and downs of life.
Sandhya Raju
Sowparnika : ‘We do not grow when things are easy, we grow when we face challenges.’ Share with us such situations in life that tested you.

Sandhya : The sharp turns of my life or the transition periods at various intervals have played a challenging role in my life. After the tour of Gopika Krishna, There were some major issues and I had to leave the academy. It was a heartbreaking moment because I thought I would never have to leave him and would take my last breaths at his feet. Following that was the phase that every girl would face in her life in the form of marriage when things came to a stand still and I thought my dance life has ended forever. Such phases of life have put me to rough tests.

Sowparnika : How did marriage change your life? How did ‘Dance – Your way of life’ rediscover you?

Sandhya : Moving away from Gurus, you cannot just continue doing it all alone. I had these people guiding me all the time. It was more like I was bound to them and my dance was coming as an answer to their energies. All of a sudden it vanished and that tore me apart. A friend of mine called Mythri suggested that I should start teaching dance and that would help me practice it on a daily basis.

Sowparnika : What impact did teaching have in your life? How did Nishrinkala come up?

Sandhya : Considering my friend’s advise, I started teaching at an academy for a bunch of students. I have learnt a lot about dance while teaching them. It was all about how to approach the different steps, understanding the geometry of positions and breaking it into simpler steps for them to follow. It has helped me grow because unlike just dancing I had to decode it with lot more thinking. Initially I was a very strict teacher who would literally throw out students who weren’t very passionate and at that point I was looking for people who can form my group when I perform. But with age and maturity I realized that dance can mean different things to different people and I can’t look for another Sandhya in everybody. I would rather remain a solo artist.

Then, my husband supported me saying that I should start a dance school of my own at one of our property. He was always my pillar who never wanted me to get struck at home and be a housewife. When you are wealthy and have help at home, he says I should go out and conquer my dreams and aspirations. He has always respected me and at every stage of life exemplified a happy family.

Sowparnika : Have you trained people from outside India?

Sandhya : So far I have not taught any foreigners. I have been to abroad and conducted workshops but it was for the Indians there. I did work with people from different countries who were my classmates but never actually taught them.

Sowparnika : Is there a difference in how people receive dance in India and outside India?

Sandhya : Most of the time, we have Indians who come and watch our performance. So they come to feel a piece of India and to have a connection with their rich culture and traditions. They come with undivided attention and to fill their soul. But in India it is very different. Most of them come because their friend has invited them. We still have platforms where passionate people who appreciate art come there so as to take the essence of art. But outside India it is more special because you are representing your nation and culture.

It was a very special experience at Paris because I was performing to the French people, an alien society. They do not understand the language or the history behind it. So their understanding and appreciation was from a completely new dimension. It was a different experience altogether.
Sandhya Raju
Sowparnika : In your performances, you often play various characters in quick succession. How do you bring out these varied emotions?

Sandhya : Dance is a common thing highlighted in Kuchipudi. But unlike other forms of dance, it is lot more exaggerated. Kuchipudi is basically a dance drama style. Unlike Bharatnatyam that originated as a solo form meant to be a devotional dance to the idol in the temple, Kuchipudi began as a rustic form of dance consisting of a bit of dance, music and drama. Here people would take up different roles and perform to the lay audience in order to enrich them, entertain them or spiritually connect them to the God. When you see a solo performance it is a small tribute or owe to the drama tradition. We call it a Tarangam where we take an episode and expand it by performing it for five minutes to narrate the audience the story and also exhibit our talent. It is for the audience to relive the scenes.

We have various episodes like to quote a few Dhuryodhana winning over Kauravas and Draupadi’s prayer to Krishna, Rama’s battle with Ravana, GajendraMoksham- elephant being attacked by crocodile, scenes between Lord Krishna and Gopikas and many more. They constitute a twenty minute part of a stage show. It is my absolute favorite and the part that I love about dance.

Sowparnika : Are you now playing the role of an entrepreneur for the establishment ‘Call Health’?

Sandhya : I’m not an entrepreneur. I basically come from a business family. I have personally invested into Call Health. We have professionals running it and I do not involve in it. I just played a silent role as an investor.

Sowparnika : Your shortfilm ‘Natyam’ has come up beautifully. How was the whole experience working for it? Is Kalyani much of Sandhya Raju?

Sandhya : The digital media attracts me more than a live performance. A huge amount of money and time is put in a live performance which ultimately reaches a crowd of 500-1000 for one day and one performance. But the same amount invested in such a digital media venture gives it immortality and an outreach to wider audience. This is the business side of me talking. When my director Revanth came up with the project natyam saying that it is meant to go onto the youtube and not theatres or film festivals, that particular aspect has excited me. Hearing that it is all about dance and I will have to give a performance in the end, I just jumped into it but then while shooting I realized that it has a lot to do with the acting part and conveying it all correctly. My director really helped me a lot with that. I also got to do choreography for this short film. Unlike my stage shows, every shot can be planned so it makes it a lot more interesting to manipulate the choreography for the camera. It was a very different experience because you are neither doing it for an audience nor co-stars as in theatre but for the camera right in front of you.

Kalyani is exactly a flip side of me. I’m not a submissive person and was never stopped from dancing; my father is not a person who would force me into anything; I didn’t have a boyfriend; my husband is not someone who wouldn’t have time for his child’s performance. So it is a completely different character. My biggest fear would be not turning into a girl like Kalyani and I thrive for it everyday. I wouldn’t want to give up on my dreams and regret about it later. Also being a nature lover, Sandhya possesses a future dream to create a natural corridor for the movement of wild across the sanctuaries in various regions of India by connecting them through a narrow green layer. Sandhya aspires to spread this divine art form that she inherited from the luminary Guru to all the parts of the world with a selfless motive. A vehement lady who is thriving to take this Kuchipudi – a poetic expression of life to the future generations is like no other.
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