By Manvi Pant
Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Savitha Sastry’s experiments with traditional dancing techniques and her innovations in the field have been widely recognised by critics and peers alike. Known for pushing boundaries, Savitha is a pioneer in taking the dance out of its mythological and religious moulds, and using it to narrate novel stories.
“This makes it more accessible to everyone – even those that have no initiation with the dance form,” says the Bengaluru-based neuroscientist and artist.
Born in Hyderabad to a Tamil family, Savitha picked up dancing at the age of five and a foray into Bharatanatyam came as a natural choice given her Tamil upbringing.
“I was so enamoured by dance that I remember paying our domestic help a princely sum of 25 paise to play Dharmendra to my Hema Malini, and I would dance in our make-believe world with her!” the 50-year-old laughs.
As a dance student, she took her first lessons at the Raja Rajeswari Kala Mandal Dance Academy in Mumbai. When she was 12, her family relocated to Chennai, where she continued her dance education.
A neuroscientist by education, she lived considerable years in the US where as a weekend occupation she used to teach dancing to students of the Indian diaspora. It was only in the latter half of 2000s that she embraced dancing full-time and emerged as a professional in the field.
“I did a lot of traditional repertoires (margams). The years added more gradients to my work as an artist. I started performing dance theatre productions, which were based on my husband and writer AK Srikanth’s stories, and were notable for being novel storylines not based out of mythology or religion. Since 2018, I am making dance films for digital media based on Srikanth’s concepts, and we still do not go anywhere near religion or mythology,” she says.
Their first short film The Descent won the Best Short Film Award at the Calcutta International Film Festival 2019.
Savitha and Srikanth incorporated their production house, The Savitha Sastry Production Company, two years ago with an aim to evangelise Bharatanatyam all over the world, and also train the next generation of dancers who can carry forward their legacy.
Savitha shares, “We do not use our company as a commercial model. Our short films are available for free across all digital platforms, and training sessions for dancers are made available through an entry-restricted site called ‘Inner Circle’, which is also free.” Her YouTube channel has garnered over five million views.
Recently, the company produced a trilogy Three Colors: Green which is based on the life of Srikanth’s mother, Meenakshi, an aspiring dancer who was unable to pursue her passion. It was challenging for the couple to shoot the first piece during lockdown.
“We had to do the shooting with as few crew members as possible, and had to take on a majority of the grunt work of lugging equipment, cleaning the locations, and all other associated production work ourselves. Taking extreme care and precautions to ensure health and safety of all team members became imperative. It definitely brought the team much closer!” says Savitha, who was excited to see the end result.
“Portraying my husband’s mother was challenging, but I am happy I was able to bring life to the character. Judging by the number of women who have written in to us claiming it is their life’s story, it makes us think the issue is hardly something that can be conveniently pushed under the carpet,” she says.
In between all the hustle, decades of hard work and persistence, Savitha agrees that, “Art can be really consuming. It is intense, almost overwhelming and a lot more than that.”
But all these years, she has tried to balance out these very strong emotions that art brings about, and tried to live a life outside of arts as well. A big fan of the work of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, she is also inspired by actors and directors of the Hindi film industry such as Shabana Azmi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Manoj Bajpai, Pankaj Kapoor, Tabu and Kamal Hassan.
“Their craft isn’t that different from what I do – we both tell stories. And, all of these inspire me greatly for the way they bring diverse characters to life, and the way they have reinvented themselves time and again over the years,” she says.
The devout classical dancer wants young girls to follow their passion but not take short cuts, and not expect instant fame and recognition. “It takes a decade and more of learning and extreme amounts of hard work to make a mark. So, unless you are seriously driven and passionate about it, and have the time available for it, please think twice.”
First published in eShe’s December 2020 issue