Saroja Devi, considered a living legend of Bharatanatyam dance, feels modern Indian dances lack devotion and are mere “exercises of the body, but not of the mind”.
The 77-year-old danseuse, who has been honoured with the Legends of India lifetime achievement award, is a purist at heart and does not like innovations being made in classical forms.
"I am culture lover at heart, devotee who believes in doing everything right. God resides inside all pure classical art and dance forms," she said.
The Bharatanatyam guru was honoured with the award along with noted Hindustani classical singer Girija Devi here Thursday evening. The award has been instituted by Delhi-based non-profit organisation Legends of India, which honours achievers in Indian classical arts every year.
A biopic on Saroja Devi's years as a dancer since the age of seven to 70, compiled by her son Ashish Khokar, was also released on the occasion. The book is a pictorial account of the dancer's life.
The two legends were given Rs.25,000 in cash, a citation and a plaque.
“Modern dances are superficial. They are not good because there is no devotion in them. The modern dances are like maya, an illusion that are good exercises of the body, but not of the mind,” Saroja Devi told IANS.
Saroja as a child was a stranger to dance till Vidwan Kattumanar Koil of Chidambaram came to her residence in Chennai to teach her and her sister Kumari Selvamani Bharatanatyam in the late 1930s.
For the past seven decades, Saroja Devi has created several milestones with her art. At 16, She was one of the top 10 Bharatnatyam dancers in Madras (present day Chennai) with peers like Vyjayanthimala.
She also acted in three promiment Tamil mythological films - “Nala-Tambi”, “Paithyakaran” and “Krishna Bhakti”. The danseuse turned down a seven-contract offer by the Gemini Studios, as she married eminent dancer Mohan Khokar, student of Uday Shankar.
Saroja's decades as a star Bharatnatyam dancer were distinguished. From being a performer to a teacher at the M.S. University in Baroda, where her husband set up the department of dance, she later moved to Delhi. Saroja's students include Yamini Krishnamurthy and Indrani Rahman.
“Bharatanatyam is the root of all dance forms. It is an invocation of (Lord) Shiva ... a divine dance. I feel spiritual every time I dance and that is the feeling that has kept me going all these years,” the dancer said.
She denies claims that classical Indian dances are losing their popularity.
“India is definitely not moving away from tradition. Classical Indian dances and music are popular all over the world. My students come from as far as London, Paris and the US. But they need more encouragement in the country,” she said.
Saroja's plea for more vigorous promotion of the Indian classical arts is echoed by Kuchipudi dance exponent Raja Reddy.
“The newspapers are full of Bollywood and popular culture these days. No one speaks of classical arts though they have been flourishing since ages. But our classical Indian arts are so popular abroad,” Reddy said.
“Gurus like Saroja Devi have been working tirelessly to propagate classical Indian dance, but it needs official backing. We want the government to introduce Indian classical dance and music in school as part of the curriculum,” said the dancer, who is setting up a new classical dance school, along with wives Radha and Kaushalya in Saket in south Delhi.
The Legends of India, as part of its initiative to promote classical Indian arts, sets up cultural hubs in India and abroad, conducts research and documents classical art forms. It plans to reach out to one million people across 10 states with a retinue of 37 stage performers, 50 artists (proponents of visual arts) and 70 musicians with 50 classical culture shows throughout the year.