They say some people are born to dance. Seetha Ratnakar wonders if she was. She remembers watching dance as far back as her memory goes as her elder sister, Rathna Papa, had her arangetram (debut stage performance) when Seetha was two. When Seetha joined Doordarshan, her love affair with dance was given a new lease of life but with a totally different perspective. Here, she travels down memory lane
Those were the nascent years of black-and-white television and I was given the responsibility of recording dance programmes for Doordarshan. Watching dance from the other side of the camera lens opened up hitherto unexplored possibilities to showcase this wonderful art.
I remember my mother taking me along with my sister, Rathna, to the renowned Bharatha Natyam guru, K.J. Sarasa Teacher, to initiate me on Vijayadasami, but for some reason my dance never progressed beyond the initial adavus (steps). In 1961, the legendary guru, Vempati Chinna Satyam, came to Madras to teach Kuchipudi classes right down our street and my mother enrolled me there to probably keep me out of mischief. Surprisingly, Master saw a spark in me and took me under his mantle.
I was a quick learner and honed my dancing skills under his able guidance. A few years later, Sarasa Teacher saw my dance and was impressed and started me straight away on items. I began performing along with Rathna in 1965, who was by then an established dancer and much in demand. Initially, I had to perform solo items to facilitate her costume changes but I gradually progressed to dancing invocations and finales along with her. As we became a popular duo, Teacher choreographed items specially for us to perform together.
Rathna and I had our Kuchipudi Rangapravesam in October 1967, and the chief guests were the erstwhile Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Thiru Annadurai, and Nadigar Thilagam Shivaji Ganesan. My dance journey was very gratifying for a decade and I gave more than 200 performances along with Rathna all over India and also in Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the US.
In 1975, I had to give up my dance for the love of my life when I got married because it was still considered taboo to perform in those days. The same year I joined Doordarshan and as fate would have it, my love affair with dance was given a new lease of life but with a totally different perspective.
Those were the nascent years of black-and-white television and I was given the responsibility of recording dance programmes for Doordarshan. Watching dance from the other side of the camera lens opened up hitherto un-explored possibilities to showcase this wonderful art. When I saw a performance on stage I had to train my eyes to focus on the face, hands or feet of the dancer according to the artist’s emphasis. The television cameras gave me the options to highlight these aspects through close-ups and transform the dance into a different visual experience.
My knowledge of dance came in handy as I had to anticipate these movements and get the cameras ready before the action to capture the nuances. There was no editing facility those days so the entire crew worked hard to capture close-ups, leaps and pirouettes and not chop the artist during movement. It was challenging for both the dancer and the production crew. The dancer performed before the camera but I had to perform with my crew on the other side working on several aspects like set, lighting, audio, camera angles and shots to create a visually appealing television programme.
Doordarshan provided a platform for artists of all ages and calibre and I was fortunate to have recorded the best dancers in all the different classical dance styles during my 37-year-plus tenure there. In 1980, we started telecasting the National Programme of Dance at 9 pm every Friday from all the four metros. The video tapes were sent on a chain to the other metros until the advent of satellite transmission. Dance dramas were very popular on TV because we provided appropriate sets, lighting and special effects to add layers to the visual imagery. But we had to break up scenes according to the sets to save recording time and dancers found it extremely confusing when it was not chronological. We had to work with mutual trust and in harmony with a large crew of technicians.
Technology developed in leaps and bounds and artists and technicians adapted to changes as we moved from black-and-white unedited programmes to skillfully edited colour, from terrestrial transmission to satellite, from analog to digital. We grew and changed with times but ever remained true to the art.
Then came time for superannuation and I had to retire from active service but the dancing bells never stopped ringing in my life. I used my vast experience at DD to reinvent myself and have been collaborating with my sister to develop concepts, design costumes, do stage and lighting design for dance productions. I have also written some articles especially about classical Indian dance in the diaspora. I may have been a late bloomer but, as they say, if you are once a dancer, you will always remain a dancer .
(The writer was former assistant station director, Doordarshan, whose area of specilisation for more than four decades was art and culture.)
October – December 2017