Dhananjayans: an illustrated life

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Offstage tells the story of the distinguished performing duo through the visual arts

In the wings tells the story of the distinguished performing duo through visual art

Transcribing a heritage of movement is like capturing the breeze passing through a glass jar. Something so fleeting and embodied can be written or filmed, but the emotional nuances can rarely be captured. Biographies give us a behind-the-scenes look at the dancer’s character while films focus on documenting the performance. But is there also a different medium that can be used to tell a classical dance legacy?

Vice President Dhananjayan

Vice President Dhananjayan | Photo credit: Courtesy of: Offstage

Vice President Dhananjayan’s son and photographer, CP Satyajit, artist Satwik Gade and publisher Poonam Ganglani have answered this question in the most unexpected way – a visual book that features three artists in one illustrated work, straddling the worlds of picture books and comics to document the life of the Dhananjayans. Merging the forms of dance and visual arts in this way is an innovative approach to the idea of ​​telling a biography.

Classical dance and the visual arts share strange resonances. Both forms favor symmetry, lines, expressions and narrative clarity. Both also use placement and color to communicate characterization. Yet translating from three-dimensional to two-dimensional form can be a delicate experience that requires a delicate balance between stillness and dynamism. In the wingsa visual account of anecdotes from the illustrious career of the Dhananjayans achieves this.

Untold Stories

The title, In the wings, is an ode to often untold stories about the dancing duo. In the first story, “Auld Lang Syne” by Satwik Gade, an illustrator based in Chennai, we get a front row seat to the “Jungle Book”, a production ahead of its time. It was billed as a collaboration with Heinz Poll of Ohio Ballet, featuring a ten-year-old Akram Khan as Mowgli. The story tells us how the production was conceived, how the ballet dancers wanted to learn facial expressions, and the joint efforts of Shanta Dhananjayan and famed designer Christina Giannini to create the costumes for the show.

VP Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan

VP Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan | Photo credit: KV Srinivasan

The ‘offstage’ theme continues in the second story, ‘Lines & Curves’ by Alamelu Annhamalai, a visual artist based in Chennai, recounting a humorous incident where Mr. Dhananjayan was driving a white ambassador and accidentally hit a scooter, which belonged to a parent of one of his students. Beautifully illustrated in black and white, the story’s humor reveals the personality of the legendary dancer. The third story, ‘Tour de Force’, by Rohit Bhasi, a Bengaluru-based illustrator and painter, colorfully recounts the experiences of a Nigerian tour the artists undertook with their troupe, exposing several organizational issues ( many of which still prevail), while remaining faithful to the humorous vein of dancers exploring a new country. The story reveals a rare aspect of a performer – the negotiation of cultures, the management of people, and the comedy of errors that can arise from different communication styles. Stories like these, while told lightly, have the potential to spark deeper conversations about ballet and the struggles within it. As the most experienced artists in the field, it is inspiring that the Dhananjayans are leading the way and setting the tone.

book pages

Book Pages | Photo credit: Courtesy of: Offstage

The Balancing Act

Speaking of the book’s choice as a collaboration between fine and performing art, Anupama, the Dhananjayans’ daughter-in-law and one of the project’s creative leads, candidly states, “So much has been written about them that it would have been trivial to publish another archaic account of their history or their accomplishments. Revealing the lesser-known aspects of Dhananjayan life was very important to the creative team, emphasizing the power of visual storytelling.

Additionally, the book offers subtle and nuanced commentary on many aspects of the dance itself. For example, in the first story, the reader is confronted with the line “Bharatanatyam in its present form is very new – only a 20th century art form.” This account is a refreshing acknowledgment of the complicated history of Bharatanatyam and its usual presentation as a two-thousand-year-old form with roots in temple sculpture. In the last story, it is also evident that the illustrious career of the Dhananjayans was made possible by the support of Shanta’s mother in raising their children. Today, many dancers still struggle to balance family responsibilities with an itinerant dance career, often giving up on one or the other.

In the wings has, in a way, set a precedent, and it is hoped that it will inspire many others to tell their stories with honesty, candor and humour. The light-hearted narrative style might make the dance form more accessible to younger readers.

book pages

Book Pages | Photo credit: Courtesy of: Offstage

The Bengaluru-based writer is a dancer and researcher.

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