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In Conversation With Dr.Swarnamalya Ganesh

Ranjani Saigal

Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh is Bharatanatyam dancer, an Indian actress and TV anchor. She is a graduate from MOP Vaishnav College where she was the student President. She went on to do her Diploma in Acting for Camera from San Jose State University, California, USA. She also has a Masters in Bharathanatyam and Ph. D in Dance History from Madras University. She received initial training with Smt. K. J . Sarasa for 10 years, and had her further learning with Bhagavatulu Sri. B. Seetharama Sharma of Kalakshetra. 

She gained a lot of popularity through her TV show Illamai Pudumai. Her acting career began with stage plays . Later, she made her film debut through Maniratnam's Alaipayuthey, where she played the role of Shalini's elder sister Poorni. Later on she moved on playing supporting roles in films like Mozhi and Engal Anna.

She talks about her film and dance careers. 

1. You are a well trained Bharatanatyam dancer. What motivated you to become part of the film industry ?
I started learning dance at the age of three. That’s not an age you know what your learning or the value of it. But over the years I had been so deeply impressed / influenced by my guru Sarasa amma’s life and teachings, that I had sub consciously decided that dance was going to be my life’s mission. As a performing teenager I was spotted by many well known film makers. But I was quite the prude. I did have an hoity-toity attitude in telling these film makers that “I was meant to be a dancer” and that “dancers don’t act in films!” But never say never right. For after many persuasions I agreed to do a TV show just to kill time during my school holidays. But who knew that that show would become a super hit and get me more coveted invitations and attention that I couldn’t hide away from. I can call it fate, destiny or anything else, but films and TV was meant to happen in my life. The more I stayed away the more it came after me. The fame and name it offered me was phenomenal and overnight I had transformed from an ordinary girl to someone who was adored by the entire state, everywhere I went.

2. What was it like to be part of a super-hit film Alaipayuthey ? 

The popularity of “Illamai Pudimai” was so huge that every film maker was watching this “unique” “weird” show where the anchor (me) was whacky, laughing at jokes, cracking inane jokes herself and having a blast with college students her own age in the most candid way. It was fresh and new to tamil television some fifteen years ago to have that kind of informality. So, when Maniratnam called me after seeing that show, every one said I must accept the offer. I had refused many other makers and plum main lead roles. So why was I going to accept this film where I play the sister? For two reasons. One, he was Maniratnam. Two, I debated with him about the importance of my public exams and how I HAD to write them and therefore he HAS to send me in time for it, and he agreed. He smiled and looked at me and said “you weird girl, I shall send you for your exams in time!”  Many years later why, even now he teases me about it and sks me when I will stop studying! (referring to my education until a post-doc). I didn’t know what it meant to be in a Maniratnam movie, acting your first seen in the presence of Director Shekar Kapur and filmed by P.C. Sreeram, then. I was playful, funny, laughed and did what I was told. All my attention was on my ensuing exams for sociology papers! We filmed the movie over a year and I bunked college many days for this filming. I was popular at college and therefore had very few friends. I was of course part of college’s cultural team, be it for music, dance, theatre or oratory competitions. I loved Sociology, especially anthropology. I was many a times the class topper. And that irked my professors for I topped their class without attending their lectures! It was of course win- win for me. Alaipayudhey, made me a star. But I attribute most of my success to my already ragingly popular TV show, which I hosted for a record seven continuous years.

3.  Who is your favorite director? 
I have many favourites. Maniratnam, K.Balachander, Balu Mahindra, more recently Bala, Karthik Subaraj, Quentin Tarantino, and many others.

4. Since then you seem to have gone back to dance and begun research on dance history. What motivated you to do that ? 
The fact is that the public always gets to see the life of artistes only from a two dimensional perspective. It is fair in a way, because that is all they get to see and therefore judge you by that. But most often than not there is more than one thing we can pursue simultaneously. For me dance, acting and education were/are like that. I was an active dance performer even while doing TV and films. When I am part of a popular film, people think I am working more on films, when my dance productions hit the news then people think I am working more on my dancing. 

But you are right, dancing is one thing, and studying “about” dancing another. My passion for education comes from a very deep place. Aside of the fact that my grand father was a great educationist and that my mother and immediate family everyone is well educated, to me education was a way to learn to breath again. During the most trying times of my life, I found in education the cure for the disillusioned mind. I found in it the healing qualities of empowerment and self -courage. For an artiste, art itself can be very emotionally burdensome sometimes. It is high strung and invokes our inner feelings. But analyzing art, academically studying it allows a more balanced approach. It is also artistry, but at a calculated level. History is one way of gaining perspective into the future. As a student of history, I believe I have learnt to better comprehend the vagaries of human existence and art production through time. 

5. Could you tell us about your research and what you found about the time that arguably was one of the finest in dance and music history? 

Bharatanatyam (BN), the age old explanation of how it is an ancient dance form, steeped in Indian culture etc really kindled my curiosity. How ancient? How steeped? By whom? Even as a teenager I was privileged to be mentored by the great musicologist Sri T. S. Parthasarathy the then secretary of The Madras Music Academy. So, I had developed a keen curiosity for enquiry. With initial training with Sarasa amma and later with the Thiruvazaputhur Kalyani Grand Daughters, I had ample access to hereditary community dancers, their way of life, art etc. The more I saw present BN from that prism the more I felt there were missings links historically, academically and politically. I wanted my own research to create an aperture in that direction. I am a lover of the Margam. What is so compelling and truly liberating in this structured format? What is the magical past of this geniosity? These were some of my questions. The Nayak era, which is historically the medieval periods between 15th-17th centuries caught my attention as the very time when what we today recognise as BN and Carnatic music were augmented into their present form. My research was in finding the precusors to what brought about this decisive genius augmentation and how. It also involved reconstruction of repertoires that we have lost in time which show us with more clarity the historicity of BN, its interdisciplinarity and multiculturalism. But the most important angle to all this is that all of these were embodied through the mind, voice and person of the “dancer woman”- the “Devadasi”. If interested to know more about the processes that led/ lead to my research and findings one could visit www.fromtheattic.in/blog where I have been writing regularly about my processes and journeys. 

6. You have interviewed a lot of Devadasis for your research. What are three things we should know about their life ? 
Interviewed, lived with, absorbed, laughed, cried with. They have lives that are the stories of our art. Their personal stories are our history. These women live in the binaries of devotion/deprivation, dedication/devastation, beauty/bane, Sadir/BN, God/Man and much more. Their art is their life, literally. When we de-romantacize BN it reeks with life, politics, demands, gender issues, feudalism, survival and oppression. But with all this I carry the beauty of their art as I am not merely a researcher looking only for their stories. I learn, I sing, dance, archive them and have learnt what it is to be a woman in this world through them. They show strength of character and dignity as artistes and as women. They speak the language of music so eloquently. Three things everyone must know about their lives

1. BN is in essence Sadir (danced by the Devadasis) although today what BN has evolved into is quite far from Sadir in many ways.
2. Devadasis were not prostitutes and did not lead a licentious life
3. Knowing their stories and acknowledging their primal contributions to BN, is a lesson in art history, more vital and true than seeing it’s hoary past from extant texts alone.

7. Do you consider doing films again? 
I do have sparingly little time between my academic commitments, dance programs, teaching and practice. Of course being an actor is an integral part of me. When a good film/script is offered to me I am always open to doing it. No part of art is more pure or lesser to me.

8. You are currently a fulbright scholar in UCLA. Could you tell us about your work at UCLA?
I have received the Nehru- Fulbright Professional and Academic Excellence Fellowship to teach and also pursue further research. UCLA invited me because they found my research in dance history as a vital aperture in linking the histories of world cultures and that of BN. I have created a platform “FROM THE ATTIC” which is a performance/ exhibition/research/ collaboration/ dialogue platform. The attic is a place, we reserve for things we believe we don’t want to throw away completely but have no immediate use for. Therefore what we find in our attics will be treasures of the past, things of historic value, things that link us to our roots, also things that show us how we are all connected. The first of the series was FTA- part 1 which featured an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, monuments of medieval South India, which we see from the perspective of BN. I curated this exhibition, which also carried many precious and rare photos of devadasis collected during my research. FTA featured a lecture called “stories from the attic” and of course a performance of some of the reconstructed repertoires of 17th century BN. Do watch www.fromtheattic.in/videos / for the trailer of this work. At UCLA I have created a special course material that educates the world arts students in this inter diciplinarity of BN, vocabulary, ethnographic study of the devadasi (Nautch girl). Part two of FTA is also under production, which means, I am doing some research and collaboration here in the US as well, that lends to this ongoing process.

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