Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Besant Nagar Sisters

(Sukanya with her sister Geetha)
Thursday, April 14, 2005

Geetha Sridhar is jovial and chatty as she searches through the video cassettes in the corner of the sitting room in her comfortable terraced house in Fulham, south west London. She's trying to find a tape of her sister Sukanya's Doordarshan interview, broadcast earlier this year. Sukanya has been ill, but has recovered enough to face an informal interview. Do I want anything? Tea? Coffee?

The video is found and played, while Geetha pops down to the kitchen and doors creak and click, as female figures glide and murmur peripherally. On the small screen an ordinary looking woman interviews an extremely glamorous one about the latter's film career. The interview is conducted in Tamil but, as with Hindi, there are helpful bursts of English to guide the novice. There are also fascinating film clips, indicating a prolific and varied output.

Something, probably an urgent whisper from her bossy big sis, prompts Sukanya Ramesh to enter the room. Vanakkams and smiles are exchanged and, gentlemen, the camera does not lie. Sukanya is also graceful, elegant and soft-spoken - a credit to Indian womanhood.

Geetha joins us with tea and snacks and sends Sukanya to fetch what turns out to be a very impressive CV.

Sukanya has appeared in 70 films, in the four regional languages of Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Kannada. Four of them have won National awards, including the Kamal Hasan starrer Indian (1996), which was dubbed into Hindi and retitled Hindustani. Sukanya was given Best Actress awards from the Tamil Nadu State Government for the films Chinna Gounder, Sentamizh Paatu, and Solaiamma. The State Government also recognised her service to the arts by conferring upon her the title of Kalaimamani.

It's this remarkable track record that I had just seen documented by Doordarshan. Sukanya explains that the hour-long TV special, with its many costume changes, was filmed on one day 'from eleven until seven.' Such was the DD team's enthusiasm that they returned early next morning to capture a rare dawn sequence, with the sun rising over the Bay of Bengal, on the beach near the artist's family home in Besant Nagar, Chennai. 'We are very lucky to live by the beach,' Sukanya adds, explaining the visuals. 'I often practise my dancing there.'

While Geetha dives back into the video collection, we talk about Sukanya's TV work. She has appeared in many serials, again in all four of the main south Indian languages. It's clear that she relishes negative roles rather than what she calls 'the goody heroine,' these characters having an element of Shakti. But 'My Mom used to get scared,' Sukanya says. 'She would ask "What are you going to do this week?" '

The mythological genre continues to flourish, and Sukanya plays a daughter of Ravana in the Tamil serial Indrajit. A Telegu drama, Bhakta Rama Das, in which she plays Mahalakshmi, is 'yet to come on screen.'

Geetha fishes out the tape of Thakadimitha she has been looking for. This is a new concept - a Bharathanatyam game show. Sukanya presents the programme, broadcast internationally on Jaya TV. 'All the famous dancers of Chennai have come as judges,' she says. 'I have shot for three months in advance, since the reach is very good.'

Watching the video, Sukanya proves to be an excellent presenter, addressing the camera calmly and clearly, with none of the fake enthusiasm typically employed by game show hosts the world over.

Thakadimitha is in four sections. Sukanya herself introduces and demonstrates a specific aspect of Bharatanatyam technique, in a short performance. Then her four young competitors show their mettle in the remaining three sections, performing BN moves to classical, western pop and Tamil film music. The guest judge makes her difficult choice and prizes are awarded. Fast moving and, in the nature of these things, superficial, there's still a refreshing honesty about the programme, and its educational content is laudable.

Noting my interest in Sukanya's film career, Geetha points out that the sisters' grandmother, Jayalakshmi, was a film actress of the 1930s. 'We come from a very artistic family,' she says. 'It has jumped one generation, although one of our uncles is a famous veena player.' Geetha shows me an autographed CD by Dr S Balachander.

'We both started learning Bharathanatyam when we were four years old,' Geetha continues. 'Our dad worked for a fertiliser company and we moved around quite a lot, so we learned from different teachers. When we were eight or nine, we settled in Madras. I went to Kalakshetra and, later on, my sister got a scholarship there. We've always done everything together!'

Sukanya concurs: 'We used to be very active in sports, too. In fact, if there was anything happening in our community, we would be there. People used to call us the Besant Nagar Sisters!' Geetha chimes in, and they both laugh uproariously.
'My parents were very encouraging,' Geetha continues. 'We were lucky, considering we come from a very orthodox, Brahmin family. They only had a slight reservation, when Sukanya went into films. But she has been so successful, and we are all proud of her.

'After four years training at Kalakshetra, we joined Chandralekha's company. She had just started coming back to Bharathanatyam, and was looking for good, trained dancers. She insisted that both of us joined her group. We knew this was an amazing woman. She taught us how to think as dancers and gave us roles that were suitable to us.'

As members of Chandralekha's company, the pair toured the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic of Germany. Geetha concludes: 'Madam [Sukanya] slowly branched off into films, then I got married and moved to the UK, where my husband was already working.'

During the summer, Geetha and Sukanya performed together to film music in Chennai, in a programme to celebrate Doordarshan's twenty-ninth anniversary. For Geetha, the India visit was an opportunity to teach her eight year old daughter something about her culture: 'I visited about 30 temples, partly for research and partly to show my daughter "This is what a temple looks like." '

'I also spoke to a lot of my old gurus. It was interesting to hear their point of view. They are very worried about losing the tradition and concerned to keep Bharathanatyam "pure", but I find it very difficult to explain to my students sometimes.' Geetha says that some of the stories or mythology told to students may seem far-fetched or irrelevant to their lives and experience. 'Hence, I feel that there is a need for change.'

Sukanya agrees: 'There's a lot of this Contemporary dance that I hear about, but don't see in Madras. Now I too think it's time for another change. A person grows only if he experiments new things.'