The dancer who defeated death by believing in art

The dancer who defeated death by believing in art

By M. SAAD | | 9 January, 2016
Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant, who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2007.
Renowned Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi dancer, Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant is a cancer survivor, whose commitment to her art was redoubled after her illness. She speaks to M. Saad.

Q. As an artist, are you concerned with the events and issues of our century?
A. I think we are humans and citizens first before being artists. So issues and events affect me just as anyone else. Dance, over the years, has come to remain at the level of interpretation of verse and poetry and is perceived to inhabit a different world. In today’s global world I am a composite of many cultural influences. My memories and life’s experiences need to be reflected in my language — which is dance. My personal, political and social concerns need to find voice in my dance — for that’s the way I speak, the only language I know. I as an artist cannot live on the external fringes of society, irrelevant except as mundane entertainment. Sometimes I feel we artists live on another orbit. My dance cannot just be pretty, beautiful and artistic. I need to voice my concerns. I need to integrate my artistic voice into the fabric of society.

Q. What has dance taught you about life?
A. I think any art for that matter helps one in connecting with the subtleties of life. My training and continued engagement with dance has taught me the potent power of focus, of dedication and commitment to a calling, a source of immense strength. I call it “core strength”. In fact, dance could be the best and most apt metaphor for life.  Just like dance is ephemeral and transient so is life with its ever changing contours and colours.

Q. You are a cancer survivor. What impact did cancer have on your personality and your outlook towards life?
A. Initially it did upset me when quite suddenly I was diagnosed with the cancer of the breast. But then, it was really for a brief spell. I decided not to allow something as transient as an illness to takeover me and my mind. The very same evening I came home and told myself and my family three things:
a) I will ride this out, and I won’t allow the cancer to ride me.
b) I will not say “Why me?”
c) This is only one page of my life and I will not allow this to impact the rest of my life.
Further, I unburdened myself from the secrecy associated with it. I myself told the world about it. This way whoever came to see me came with cheerful faces and not with tears. I told myself that it has got to be handled like any other disease. It is not so insurmountable that I succumb to it and give way to pessimism. This thought entered my mind and I got ready for the surgery like I go about staging a new choreographed piece. It is this very positive outlook that helped me come out of a major surgery and within three weeks. I conducted and presented the five-day Sangeet Natak Akademi National Dance Festival on the one hand, while rehearsing with my students on the other.

Q. You conquered cancer through dance. What was the role of your art during this difficult phase of your life?
A. Dance always has been my core strength. By bringing laser-sharp focus to dance I shifted my mind from the clamour, clutter and melodrama that cancer comes with. The only way I could escape focusing on the cancer, was to focus on something that animated me and moved me and touched me. And that I found in my dance. Dance is really who I am. Dance is really my life’s breath in that sense of the word. I then — consciously, with a whole lot of visual and mental cues — pulled myself out of the thought processes that send you into that emotional whirlpool that cancer can push you into. I retrained my mind to think, that the cancer was not a big deal. I would go and get my chemo, take the three days’ rest that my body needed, and then I was back in the studio dancing, teaching or doing choreography. Your mind is really your final frontier. Sure, it wasn’t easy but then I had told myself that fear and tears are options I did not have.

I got ready for the cancer surgery like I go about staging a new choreographed piece. It is this very positive outlook that helped me c ome out of a major surgery within three weeks.

Q. What was the biggest motivational factor for you during this time?
A. Dance! I would drag myself everyday into my dance studio, and practice as much as I could. Every time, the cancer clutter invaded my mind, I would regroup and rework my mental frequency into dance. Just stepping into my dance studio, cut the mental static as  my footwork drowned the negative emotions, and my prana was recharged with the poetry of movement and expressions.

Q. A performance that you think changed the course of your career?
A. Not one but many. Every performance pushes you further to do better, to scale your own limitations.

Q. Any words of advice for young dancers?
A. Stay the course! It is a long haul, and giving up is an option that you should not own, and yes ensure you have an education and if possible a good job/income, to buttress your passion. Very often, young dancers give up midway due to their inability to strike a work life balance. I truly believe that the binaries of chase your dreams v/s be responsible are but constructs of our own mind. Life - work-passion need not be an option. And yes we need to make the choice to stay on the course. That is the first step. Once that is made, then the roving mind gets trained to focus, and dedicate oneself to the dream. What follows is commitment and hard work, and soon the accolades will also follow. In our lives, we are always given multiple choices to every situation – from the mundane and the inane to the sacred and the sacrosanct. The wonder of being human is being abreast with a million choices every moment of the day and these choices we make our mind the final frontier.  We have the power of choice, we have to choose the life we want to live.

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