Renowned Mohiniyattam and Kathakali dancer Tara Nedungadi Rajkumar, broadened the horizons of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam by teaching and performing the art forms in the U.K. and Australia. Tara writes on the the post-colonial dynamics of Indian classical dance and how it helped her traverse different cultures and continents.

The year was 1964. The historic Viceroy’s Church in Delhi was celebrating the life and work of the retiring Archbishop. The chief guest was the President of India, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the venerable statesman and philosopher famous for his deep knowledge and wisdom.

It was decided that Mary Magdalene’s story should be presented in Kathakali at this august event because it would bring together unique cultural, religious and social factors/influences. Looking back, this was an astute step of programming.

‘Exceptional’ performance

Still in high school, I did not have the faintest idea of the importance of the occasion, nor of the important audience that I was facing. I only knew that the words of Christ resonated through the repentance of Mary of Magdalena in the words of the famous Kerala poet Mahakavi Vallathol’s poem: “Naatha thava…”.

It was an intensely emotional dance choreographed by my teacher Guru Madhava Panicker, Principal at the International Centre for Kathakali. My father TMB Nedungadi wrote the complete play Magdalena Mariam in Kathakali.

President of India Dr S Radhakrishnan congratulating Tara Nedungadi after her performance of Mary Magdalene at the historic Viceroy’s Church, Delhi

Only much later did it sink in as to what an honour it had been for me. After the performance, President Radhakrishnan came up to me and warmly congratulated me and holding my hands with caring words, said “You are still very young. What you have presented here is exceptional. Take this art with you wherever you go!” It was certainly a blessing.

Taking dance to foreign shores

Within a little more than a decade of that presentation, the highly acclaimed Yorkshire Ballet Seminars in Ilkley, UK, invited me in 1977 to present a Mohiniyattam and Kathakali performance and a lecture. The Chief guest was the legendary ballet dancer Dame Alicia Markova DBE. The organisers, dance critics and Dame Markova were complimentary of my work and indeed I was invited to present at two more annual Seminars in 1979 and 1982.

The icing on the cake was the invitation I received to perform Mary Magdalene at the historic York Cathedral, a revered sanctum of Christianity. It was a heart-warming cultural evolution!

The Director who founded the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars was the inimitable David Gayle MBE. I recollect complimenting him for including my non-mainstream dance topic in the Seminars. It was a wonderful experience entering the world of Ballet and communicating with a group of dance lovers and aspiring dancers, creating imagery and communicating stories from my tradition to ballet enthusiasts. David is a larger-than-life personality, genuine and committed to the cause of ballet. His capacity to recognise and nurture talent was amazing. As an Indian classical dancer, I was striving hard to build cultural bridges through my dance performances across the length and breadth of Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the Seminars turned out to be timely.

Dame Alicia Markova showed a genuine interest about the role and contributions of South Asian dance in Britain and was very appreciative of my work. I too was taken by the passionate dedication and work ethics of the ballet fraternity in Britain. I had just established the Academy of Indian Dance (now known as the Akademi ( ) in 1978-79 with the support of the British government.

Meeting cultural icons

We were looking for a patron from the British arts establishment. The exceptional outcome of my visits to Yorkshire was that Dame Alicia accepted my request and became patron of the academy. We were also extremely fortunate to have the legendary London-based Indian dancer Ram Gopal as an incredibly supportive patron.

In October 2019, I visited London and attended the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Akademi at the invitation of then Director Mira Kaushik and the team. During the trip, I was delighted to catch up with David Gayle, and Helen Whitton Bruce and Catherine Birch who had witnessed my Ilkley lecture-performances.

It was a wonderful trip down memory lane with David over lunch as we recalled our interactions and work. It is noteworthy and heart-warming that the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars and the Akademi have grown tremendously in stature and breadth of activities in the UK since those early days.

To be continued…

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Tara Rajkumar is a renowned Mohiniattam and Kathakali dancer, performing artiste and a guru. She resides in Australia.

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