For Guru Rama Vaidyanathan, Dance Is The Pursuit Of Calm Before Storm

In conversation with SheThePeople, Rama Vaidyanathan looks back on how the women in her life were instrumental in shaping her path, why balance is key for an artist, and how supreme consciousness is primary for her as a person in the spotlight. 

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Rama Vaidyanathan

Rama Vaidyanathan

I sensed a rooted, orderly vibe as I entered the premises of Ganesa Natyalaya in Delhi to speak with Indian Bharatnatyam artist Rama Vaidyanathan. The first person I'd then met at the entrance was Vaidyanathan’s late mother-in-law, Padma Bhushan Saroja Vaidyanathan, a guru, choreographer and one of India’s most celebrated Bharatanatyam dancers. If legacy had a graphic, it would be the collective work done by the Vaidyanathan family in the field of arts. Vaidyanathan, who grew up dancing under the tutelage of her guru Yamini Krishnamurthy in Delhi, got married at 19 and, with that, she became part of this very legacy that she continues to carry forward at the Natyalaya and around the world. 


Rama Vaidyanathan’s impeccable career has earned her many accolades, with the 2017 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Bharatanatyam being an integral badge of honour for her. Her many recognitions include Kalaimamani by the Government of Tamil Nadu Government, Kumar Gandharv Puraskar by the Government of Madhya Pradesh, Kalashree by the Government of Kerala, and the 1999 'Bharath Ratna’ title bestowed upon her by The Sri Lankan Department of Cultural Affairs.

In conversation with SheThePeople, Rama Vaidyanathan looks back on her tryst with classical dance, how the women in her life were instrumental in shaping her path, why balance - both in dance and life - is key for an artist, and how supreme consciousness is primary for her as a person in the spotlight

Women Who Paved The Way For Rama Vaidyanathan’s Journey In Bharatnatyam

Vaidyanathan’s cultivating interest in dance as a young girl had everything to do with the women in her life. “My mother is the one who inspired me first. She wanted to be a dancer, but she couldn’t, and understanding how the rich heritage of classical dance could impact me positively, she enrolled me into dance,” she recalls.

In an organic flow of circumstances, Vaidyanathan’s quest to pursue classical dance became stronger as she joined legendary artist Yamini Krishnamurthy; the second woman in her life who showed her the vast world of Bharatnatyam, an arena where Vaidyanathan was about to show her potential and dominance in for decades to come. 

Vaidyanathan went on to work with Guru Krishnamurthy for 14 years. “That’s where it all began, in Chanakyapuri. She was the prima donna at the time. She would just stand there and dance and you would be mesmerised.”


“I started when I was six. My whole childhood, the only thing I remember was just sitting there in dance class. Whether Guru Krishnamurthy was doing her practice or whether she was showing movements to us, I remember being in awe of her dance. I always thought to myself back then, If I get to dance in future, I’d want to perform like her.”

The next chapter of Vaidyanathan’s life was significant to both her personal and professional life. The it-was-meant-to-be happened to her too when, at 19, she married the love of her life, who also happened to be Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan’s son. That’s when she knew, dance was not just her destiny but also a legacy she would be an integral part of. 

“She’s the one who built this Natalya, the school and everything. It's her baby,” referring to her mother-in-law, she continues, “I knew had to teach the art too. I had to take care of an institution. I had to perform. It all came together and I knew it was meant to be.”

Dance above everything

Dance, she assures, is pretty much a common focal point that the family is tied to passionately. “It was very organic. Dance is the biggest priority in our family. It's dance first. You know, if the maid hasn't come, there's no food in the kitchen. Oh, it's okay; the morning dance routine must go on, as is. There’s never been a doubt about that for us.”

Vaidyanathan touches upon the still-existing societal outline of how dance professions are often considered hobbies by some, considering that they, by all means, must come secondary to family life. For her family, however, that was not the case, and it was the women in the family who didn’t bow down to such a presumed way of living life. “If a child has a fever, we would cater, give medicine and do caregiving, but that didn’t mean we would drop our dance routines or stage shows to stay home. Why would we?” quips Vaidanthan. 


She continues, “If you were a doctor and you had surgery that day, would you not go? Of course, you would. If you had a class in a university, would you not go? If you were a lawyer and if you had a case to fight, would you not go? So, if you're a dancer, you have to go. Dance is as much a significant profession as any other, and we give it the respect it deserves by never keeping it on the sidelines.”

From creative process to hardcore training 

With full-house shows to her credit nationally and on international waters, Vaidyanathan's dance regime has relied on a balance between creative ideation and hardcore training. “So, there's something called a creative process and there's something called hardcore training. These are two different sides of the coin both of which are crucial to thrive in a field like this. For me, the creative process of working on a new piece requires researching, reading, listening to music, writing down notes, working with musicians, making the taal patterns and so on. And then comes the hardcore training. You come on to the dance floor, you're doing your warm-ups and then execute everything there is in practical form. So, it has to be a balance of both."

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There’s grammar to Bharatanatyam

Vaidyanathan, who has organised and choreographed several stage shows from ideation to execution, emphasises the use of ‘grammar’ in performance. By grammar, she explains, “I mean technicality. You need to adhere to this grammar, to the core principles of the dance form.”


Dance isn’t merely a physical exercise for me; It's an emotional journey which gets manifested physically. You can't just be dancing to beats. There has to be an emotional investment in it, especially if you’re in it for the long run.

What role does digital play in the Indian classical scene? 

Vaidyanathan’s approach to dance in the modern-day era relies heavily on one notion - change being the only constant. To my question of whether the dynamics are evolving within the classical and regional dance industry given the digital boom, she offers an interesting explainer. “Change in the traditional dance journey, as in the classical art form, is not new to the 21st century only. Change has been happening even from the time dance started. For instance, even when the courtesans used to dance in the temples and the courts, some had adapted the Western tune. Or sitting in the district of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu, they danced to a Thumri in Hindi. So, that's a change in that time. Today, when I dance to French poetry, that's also a change."

Change has been happening for ages now, it’s inevitable and necessary. Art, in any form, cannot be limited to being a museum piece; it’s meant to take its own path and adapt to circumstances. Every tradition has to pulsate, thrive and move. It cannot be static.

Not the end game - the reality check

Recalling the pandemic, she underscores, "Especially during COVID-19, it really boomed, and then we started seeing so much content on social media. Now, the good thing is that newer audiences have been engaged. People who'd never seen Bharatanatyam before in a theatre have been seeing it on their palms. They've been able to see it and also get attracted to it and then give it those views. We managed to catch the attention of a very different, wide range of audiences. It was very good for youngsters because it's difficult for youngsters to get opportunities. Every youngster's backyard, garage and drawing room became a dance theatre. And every youngster was able to put out content - good, bad, whatever, but the opportunity to put your work out there came in abundance."

Is there a flip side to this explosion of content sharing, I ask? “That’s where I was getting to,” Vaidyanathan adds to my conjecture.

We need to have a reality check. This two-minute, five-minute video that you're putting up, can you do a one-and-a-half-hour, two-hour concert continuously? Now, these five minutes that you've put out, you've done it 25 times with some 30 takes and, maybe, three cameras; however, with just one camera, which is the eyes of the audience for 90 minutes, can you do it continuously? So, young dancers should understand that this is not the end game. This is just the beginning. This is just one of the manifestations of popularising your art form.

Pushing boundaries like no other 

Vaidyanathan may have started her journey as a young girl, but her ability to push boundaries for herself sustained her hunger to thrive. “Bharatanatyam is a South Indian dance. But I grew up in Delhi. The Centre for Bharatanatyam is in Chennai. However, my in-laws' family is from Chennai and we have a home there which we often visit. But what has contributed to widening my horizon is the Delhi factor. I was exposed to many more languages, many more art forms, and classical dance forms, which honed my skills. I have always been curious towards other cultures, poetry, and about taking dance out of the classroom."

What I learn in the classroom is not always what I want to perform. What I learn is the grammar. So, I push my boundaries by taking my learning to the next level. How do I use it to explore and move, and stretch my canvas and widen the vista.

The Storm Before The Calm

Having performed in abundance, with so many representations behind her, is there a project closest to her career? “As a dancer, after so many years of dance, I've done so many performances about Ram, Shiva, Parvati, Devi, Krishna, and Mother Earth among others. I use it as a medium to speak about a lot of things that affect mankind. However, what holds the utmost importance in my journey is what dance means to me. So, I wanted to create a production on dance. What is dance? What does it mean to me? How has it helped me transform? How has it helped me in my journey of life as such? So, I created a production with my students at the Tata Theatre at NCPA."

Vaidyanathan's elucidation of 'Storm before the Calm' will feel relatable to every artist out there; it's abstract and real in an almost haunting way. 

I called one of my productions a Storm Before The Calm, which was an ode to dance. On many levels, there is always a storm in dance before the calm sets in if you're trying to learn or trying to perfect a piece. You are struggling, your legs are in pain. You're doing it 50 times and you want to leave it but also want to take it up again. It's a turbulent storm inside you. And once you perfect it, it just feels like bliss and calm. The whole journey of a dancer is a storm. What you see on stage is only the calm. There is so much dance that you see and there is so much dance that has happened that you don't see, and that intrigues me.

Do you need Lakshmi to get Saraswati or do you need Saraswati to get Lakshmi? 

In my limited understanding of this great art form, I managed to get intrigued by one particular notion Vaidyanathan displayed through a production. I show her the picture of her performance the caption for which reads - we need to maintain a balance between prosperity and knowledge - a sort of juxtaposition which chaperones most professions and life lessons. 

“Yes. That's my daughter, who plays Lakshmi, and that's me playing Saraswati. That's a piece that we perform denoting paramount significance. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge. You see, there's always a tussle between, whether are you going to spend your time gaining knowledge or going to spend your time gaining prosperity. So, that whole interplay in the mind is what we display. You need to make a balance and give one aspect importance at the correct time and the other aspect the same importance at another correct time.

For example, Saraswati is more important especially when you're struggling. You need to learn, you need to imbibe, you won't make money that time, but you can't say 'Oh, you know what, I'm not getting any money out of this, so I'm not doing it. I'm not attending that workshop because I can't spend money on that.' Be patient with the process, because you need knowledge at that time. The money flows later."

Vaidyanathan has reached a point in life where she can negotiate and put her foot down if her talent is not matched with the Lakshmi she is being offered, but again, she asserts, "That doesn't mean I've ignored Saraswati, the knowledge is what drives everything."

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Apart from intent, what are some must-haves an aspiring Bharatanatyam dancer should possess? 

  1. Aspiration: The first important thing is aspiring to make it happen. 

  2. Right attitude: You need to have the correct attitude towards the art form. 

  3. Humility: There has to be a sense of humility. The fact that you are smaller than the art. The art is much, much bigger than the artist. This artist will die. But the art remains. So, when the artist is alive, the art is being reflected through this body. 

  4. Supreme Consciousness: If you look at it on a metaphorical level, the supreme consciousness is so much bigger than the human self. You know you're always looking up and there's always more to learn. You always have to be awestruck by the dance

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The fear of not getting somewhere

In my interactions with young artists, I often grasp that many live with the fear of not getting somewhere. In a world that gives some opportunities but also takes some away in a whiff, competition can be intimidating. It only felt appropriate to understand these pressures from Vaidyanathan who is now a guru to many.

“First, I would stress that everybody is getting somewhere different. Success is very subjective to everyone. These must be young dancers, so this fear is real. Say a person spends four years in an engineering college. They know at the end of the four years, they're going to land a job. Same with medicine or any other profession. However, with visual arts or performing arts, when a person is going through a training process, there’s no surety that there’s a career at the end of that line or whether they’ll be able to put food on the table with that art.”

Vaidyanathan laid down an integral aspect required for those pursuing arts. To be self-critical and have a self-analysis from time to time. “The most important thing for youngsters is to first self-analyse. Be self-critical and understand. Do you have the talent too? You must take constructive criticism well before you invest your time and money into something. Hard work alone isn’t enough, and not wanting to take criticism from experts, on the pretext of calling them judgemental, can cloud your own judgement about yourself.”

Is it okay to have self-doubt, then? “Of course,” asserts Vaidyanathan. “You cannot be complacent in this field. You grow by allowing yourself to understand your limitations and further work on them, and then you can set your journey. That’s where it all begins.” 

Bharatanatyam Rama Vaidyanathan Bharatnatyam dancers