Senior Bharatanatyam exponent Guru Thankamani Kutty received a special one-time “Sangeet Natak Akademy Amrit” award this year. The honor was bestowed as part of India’s celebrations of 75 years of independence under Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav. This special one-time award is conferred mainly to senior artists older than 75 years, who have not received any national honor in the performing arts.
Thankamani Kutty (82) is from Kolkata, India. She has a distinguished career contributing to Bharatnatyam and Mohiniyattam for many decades in West Bengal and across the world.
Though she received recognition for her creative work at the state level, Thankamani Kutty missed out on national awards despite her phenomenal body of work. She has created Tagore dance dramas, taught Bharatanatyam to thousands of students, and toured internationally with her magical performances. In Kolkata, she also built a large Classical dance institution that included an auditorium, seminar hall, libraries, and large studios.
In an exclusive interview for India Currents, Thankamani Kutti spoke to ger onetime students Piyali Biswas De and Palashpriya Bhattacharyya about her artistry in Indian classical dance.
P&P: Your presence in the Indian Classical dance world has enriched a generation of new dancers, especially in Kolkata and worldwide. Tell us about your students and guru-sishya relationship.
TK: One of the most satisfying things for me is that I have taught the students to dance to the strong foundation of Rhythm or Talas. My long career as a dance guru has given me innumerable good students in India and abroad and set up their academies worldwide. Many are brilliant performers today and gloriously carry the legacy of student-teacher relationships. However, it is sad that earlier, the students and the parents were more dedicated and respectful; presently, students are more focused on performance and not very curious about knowing the subject thoroughly.
P&P: You migrated to Kolkata from Kerala and did a lot for Kolkata dancers and beyond. Tell us about that experience.
TK: On arriving in Kolkata at the Howrah Station in 1958 after my marriage to Guru Govindan Kutty, his students greeted me with flower bouquets and garlands. At that moment, I felt like a star. After that, guru Govindan ji Kutty had a few students who later became my students.
Soon, I started participating in many shows, and people got to know me in Kolkata and out of state. My school started growing in Dover Lane, Kolkata. Kalamandalam got its first tour abroad in 1982 to Japan and Thailand, and we performed with a small troupe. From there, we traveled abroad yearly to the U.K., Beirut, USA, France, Germany, Australia, Singapore, Kuwait, and Turkey, for several consecutive years.
In 1986 in collaboration with Mrittika Arts Centre, I started six Bharatanatyam Centres in the U.K. My school in Kolkata was also expanding then. We had our first branch in Jodhpur Park, followed by many branches throughout Kolkata. Today, the school has more than 14 teachers who assist me.
In 1993 we got a piece of land from the Government. of West Bengal, where we constructed our building with an auditorium, hostel facilities, archive, seminar hall, library, and large classrooms, all under one roof in the year 2016.
My school, Kalamandalam Calcutta progressed in leaps and bounds from 1-2 students to more than 1000. At least 10,000 students have received their completion certificates from the Institute globally. Kolkata has accepted me with open arms and passion, and I also love the city of joy. The cultural vibe is positive indeed!
P&P. You have been living in Bengali culture for so long! What have you liked the most?
TK: My love for Bengal, its language, and its culture grew in me through my students. They have been my teachers. I am fascinated by Durga Puja due to its grandeur and the craftsmanship of the idol makers and the pandal decorators. The lights and illuminations are something to mention too. The City of Joy, with passionate art lovers and intellect, attracts creative souls to expand the horizon of culture to the next level remarkably.
P&P: Your production around Rabindranath Tagore is always captivating. It is remarkable to see the use of Tagore’s work in Bharatanatyam. What prompted you to work on Tagore and Bharatanatyam? Also, what is your favorite Nrityanatya in Tagore’s literature?
TK: My first introduction to Tagore’s dance dramas was through “Chandalika.” Later (through) “Chitrangada” choreography, I also had a unique experience. From then on, it was a fantastic journey to choreograph other Tagore dance dramas like “Mayar Khela,” “Shapmochon,” and several other productions like “Rituranga,” “Paschime Rabi,” “Ebong Raktakarabi,” “Abhisar,” “Dakhina Pabane,” “Shuncho Bhanusingho” etc. My personal favorite is “Chitrangada,” in which I choreographed the three main characters “Kurupa in Bharatanatyam,” “Surupa – in Mohiniyattam,” and “Arjuna in Kathakali” dance styles- an amalgamation of three major classical dance styles together on the same story.
P&P: What is the most memorable of your global tours?
TK: Japan will always be on my priority list because it was my first tour abroad and being introduced to the world culture. The U.K. tour is also notable because, after this tour, I was approached by Mrs. Basanti Chatterjee of Mrittika Arts Centre, U.K., to start centers of Bharatanatyam in the U.K., in collaboration with Kalamandalam Calcutta. The U.S. tours for NABC ( North American Bengali conference), be it east coast or west coast, (were) always special for our growth and networking.
P&P: Every artist has a masterpiece that revolutionizes lives and society. Which is yours?
TK: I was once asked by Swami Chinmayananda to compose “Dasavataram” in Bharatanatyam. I presented it in front of Swamiji and got his blessings. After that, I lost count of my presentations on “Dasavataram.” For me, it is the best choreography I have done to date.
P&P: Your abhinaya and expressions are legendary. Can you share some tips with the upcoming generation interested in pursuing a career in Classical dance?
TK: To pursue a career in Bharatanatyam, other than the regular practice, one has to have a good knowledge of our epics, puranas, mythology, music, talas, nature, and an understanding of our past, present, and future. Also, feel the words and tunes from within to express naturally.