IN CONVERSATION with Hemabharathy Palani
A Dancer’s Diary - Memoir of One of Attakkalari’s Senior Dancers & Rehearsal Director, Hemabharathy Palani
Hemabharathy Palani remains as one of the longest-standing Attakkalari Dance Company dancers, now a rehearsal director and a faculty with Attakkalari Centre of Movement Arts. She has been an integral part of this institution and her account of the years spent here, is just as valuable. We were able to get Hema to recount her early days here and regale us with her story of arriving into the role of an acclaimed artiste that she is.
Born as a girl, and named Hemabharathy, the minute my mother saw me she decided that I am to be a Bharatnatyam dancer because I am a girl. And my brother was told he can be learning any kind of martial arts or any other dance form other than Bharatnatyam, but I was made to go for Bharatnatyam class. It was my mother’s dream to be a Bharatnatyam dancer, but because of a different situation she was not able to be one. So she decided when she births a girl child she will make sure that the child is a Bharatnatyam dancer.
So I was always told that I have to go for Bharatanatyam lessons, I was not allowed to learn any other forms of dance, those days dance from films was not called Bollywood dance, it was called Cinematic dance. I was also very fascinated by sports, but I wasn’t allowed to participate in any sports, in particular none that require wearing shorts or T-shirt, or any other kind of attire that a man would don. So as I was always told this, I also started believing it. And then my complete journey started as a classical dancer, first learning Bharatanatyam, and then getting into Kuchipudi by Smt. Vayjayanthhi Kashi, and then I learnt Kathak too.
My journey started at the age of 5, learning dance and then continued until the age of 16 where I was already part of many dance competitions and won many trophies and then some cash prizes.
At the age of 10, I started earning, so to say. I received my first cheque from Doordarshan, and since I did not have a bank account at that time, I had to open a joint account with my dad.
That is how people started recognising that through dance one can be successful, make money and can gain fame. Then I started understanding that the aspect of dance will be completely different.
My experience led me to believe that if one is born a girl, you could be compelled to be a dancer, as opposed to if you are a boy - then you need not pick that up as a profession. Something in those lines.
But still I had a struggle. I did not know what to do with my knowledge of dance and how to take it further. I was never interested in dance as a child because it was forced upon me to learn. If not for my dad’s support, I would have left it. He always knew there was always something else other than classical dance. He is my first guru and my first teacher to talk to me, to tell me that “you have learnt one form of dance, and that’s fine, but there are many other dance forms as well. Why don’t you explore?” I was still unsure about it. But still I was doing many things like Yoga and I was actively involved in sports. I used to play Kho-kho, which is a national game and I used to be an athlete as well. Athletics was my favourite and even now if I come across a running track, I get goosebumps. I was a 100 meters sprinter and a marathon runner. Still love running marathons, because I feel like life is like a marathon which starts slow and ends slow but in-between everything happens fast. But when one sprints, it is not the same. Before you start you end, and everything is about the fast pace.
My parents had conflicting understanding about culture and also the understanding about how to parent a child, say treating a girl-child or a boy-child completely differently. But maybe because of my dad’s support, I was told and then shown that women are not lesser than anyone. And with dignity and hard work one can achieve anything - something that one has to earn. It’s not a given.
So I always followed the footsteps and beliefs of my father. He educated me, took me to all possible exhibitions or the activities he could in and around Bangalore. He always made sure to take me to these events, be it the flower show or a cake show which I had seen as a child wanting to visit but never could. He would also take me to art exhibitions. Seeing all these things, in those days I don’t think I could comprehend their value as much as I do now in retrospect. These moments contribute to who I am as an artist, as well as find reflection in my art.
After joining Attakkalari the perspective about dance completely changed for me. I joined Attakkalari in 2000. I was a student, came for a small 3-months course called DDP, Dance Development Program, and during that time Jay was not working full-time in India. He was mostly based out of London and had his own company in London. So, he used to literally arrive like a big whirl of wind and then leave just in that intensity. Is that Jay? And we were always curious about who Jay was. He used to be in and out of the country but wouldn’t be in Bangalore for an extended period of time. During our convocation day, I don’t know what led Jay to hand me the responsibility equivalent to a valedictorian address/vote of thanks. I didn't even know what it was supposed to be. After the course finished I had briefly left, and there was a gap of about 3-4 months. I think in the year 2000, the Dance Development Program was introduced and during those gap months Attakkalari had announced that there would be an audition for a piece, and if selected, one would travel to Germany.
It was my dad who read the newspaper ad and persuaded me to go and try for the audition.
At that time I was resistant to the idea because previously dance was something that was imposed upon me. But my dad really took it upon himself to bribe me with a blue frock I had been eyeing in exchange for attending the audition. I also insisted that he buy me a pair of jeans. I was prohibited by my mother from wearing anything that was not salwar or a saree. I wasn’t even allowed a t-shirt or a trackpant, or tights. Wearing these would be sacrilegious. I still remember that the day of the audition I was seated watching television dressed in a salwar and my brother’s full-arm length t-shirt when my father said “You have to go”. I sat behind my brother’s bike and went for the audition.
Audition turned out to be a lot of fun. Those days auditions would span an entire day unlike today’s hour long online or studio auditions for Diploma. Sometimes I still wonder how times have changed and passed by so fast before I could even comprehend, like a gust of wind! Jay and a few other people, like Rani, were there. They were all the original cast of the “TransAvatar” production of Jay. I was at that time seated on the counter selling tickets and managed the highest number of sales during that time as a student and acted as a crew supporting the production. As they called my name I could feel the excitement bubble inside me, that “Oh Attakkalari has called my name because I sell tickets and have been around”. I remember tallying around 105 tickets sold by me. I was quite proud.
I remember watching TransAvatar Production. It was a multimedia production where for the first time I saw Gauze in front of the stage, a HUGE projection, and my father was also there with me. Having seen its creation and rehearsals I had always imagined and visualised myself as part of the production, being in Attakkalari, as a dancer. That day when I saw that piece being staged and performed right in front of me it made me dream. It was a love-at-first-sight with contemporary dance.
I came for the audition. It was scheduled to be for an entire day. In the morning we all assembled around 9am. There were about 60 people. After registration, the first half of the audition commenced. During the entire workshop Jay spoke in English and I struggled to understand a word. I remember only understanding the words “lunch break” that Jay uttered, to break for lunch. The entire time I was only moving and following Jay’s movement, without a clue of whatever he was talking about. My proficiency of the English language at that time, or the lack thereof, was also a reason that I was so hesitant about attending the audition, because I knew everybody would be speaking in English. Before the audition I already was aware of Attakkalari and was largely unhappy that I would have to be around people who were speaking a language that was completely alien to me. To me it felt like there was absolutely no point in being in a space where I did not understand the language spoken there, or my accent and my attempts to speak it being made fun of. There was quite visibly a class disparity and many with superiority complexes over their proficiency of the English language in the early years, all of which I overcame eventually. Looking back, however, I am grateful for those experiences, for they informed me and added to my own personal development.
During the 2nd half I was informed that I was selected and that all those who were selected were to come back. My brother was doing his best to explain the entire thing and translate it to Kannada for me. I had absolutely no clue what Jay was trying to say, or the other participants. My brother really helped me bridge the language barrier that day. I was selected and after selection Jay called a few times. In those days there were no mobile phones. There were only landline connections. Once, I purposely hung up the phone after hearing Jay’s voice, because the very thought of conversing in English was not desirable to me, and I did not want to be in that place.
Attakkalari is definitely a place of learning for me, the dance education I was able to have, the kind of support I received here, it was something unexpected and unprecedented in my life. I slowly moved towards becoming a choreographer, a solo-artist. I’ve created solo pieces like “Chaaya”, “Uruvam” and “Yashti” and a trio “Twine”. Recently I did “-scape’ as a collaborative duet with Japanese choreographer and dancer Ryu Suzuki. I also did some dance film works such as Toss for Dance Umbrella (London) and Fuel Theatre (UK) and again “Ek Choti Si Asha” with British filmmakers Rachel Davies and Daniel Saul for Big Dance and Channel 4 TV. During pandemic I created the dance film “ Salt & Sugar” commissioned by Fuel Theatre which was directed by Jain J Abraham. At the end of the day, I realise the importance of expressing oneself, and that it really doesn’t matter whether it is through English or Kannada. It is about the attitude with which one approaches creation and performance. This traverses across forms of art, languages, even people.
I do feel a lot of gratitude towards Attakkalari for practically being my system of support. Be it the dance education, excelling in my area of expertise, picking up and speaking a language that I used to previously detest, with so much ease, it has been a journey I wouldn’t have been able to make had I not had an opportunity to be part of an institution that has brought a lot of love, and passion and opportunities my way.
I used to wonder what my dance is truly about, what is it that I am trying to convey, what is my choreographic true line journey that I want to express or want to communicate with people. So it’s based on three aspects. What one sees when they see my work or me is based on these three aspects. When you see me you see an Indian, a female, and an artist. Throughout my choreographic journey these are the three themes I have been repeatedly exploring, whether it is Indian Philosophy, or a content rooted in the very idea of an Indian identity or living as an Indian artist performing abroad, being a female artist, how it works in India or abroad, what are the struggles and advantages one encounters by the very virtue of embodying this gender, what the audience seeks from you or looks for when they see your work. I am not specifically pointing towards femininity but various aspects of being a woman. I do not generally try to make politically charged statements or speak about feminism. It is about an on-going autobiography - that is what my work is. The many experiences that I have or continue to encounter in my life, I put them all on stage, as an Indian, female, and an artist. The message that I would like to leave for upcoming young artists is that whatever you do at the end you need to have a clear intent of what you are doing. If there is something you want to do as an artist, you should attempt it only if you have a feeling, a call for it rising from within. Without that feeling, I think it’s just empty. I might be wrong, but this is what I feel. I always believe that one needs to trust oneself. It really doesn’t matter what piece you are doing and how you are executing it, but that trust in the self is very necessary. One needs to also be very dedicated in what one is doing so that at the end you know that you aren’t lying to yourself.
It has been almost 23-24 years with Attakkalari. I was always asked if I am bored or feel stuck with this long association with this institution. I’ve been asked why I still want to be in Attakkalari. To this I ask them “What do you want from dance?” Many have said that they need money to live and sustain themselves, which is of course a ground truth. But it is also my decision what is the amount of money I need to live and sustain myself, and so far I have enough and I am satisfied with it. Some people have answered saying they desire fame from this form of expression, that they want their name to be in the spotlight, which is a reasonable thing to desire, I suppose. I mean in my instance, I see my work already garnering fame and renown for itself as well as my skill as a dancer being witnessed when I am part of another artist’s work. One’s hard work, dedication and the path one chooses will obviously determine where one will possibly end up being. To sum it up, I would like to say that whether it’s in another person’s company or another person’s piece, you are occupying that space, and in that space it is your legacy that you are leaving for the generations of dancers following close behind.