Padma Subrahmanyam: The Patriot who Danced her way into our Hearts

A scholarly and aesthetic appreciation of the artistry of the danseuse extraordinaire, Padmabhushan, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam who fused uncompromising patriotism in her performances.
Padma Subrahmanyam: The Patriot who Danced her way into our Hearts

A NAME INDELIBY ETCHED IN THE HEARTS OF seekers of artistic experience and honest connoisseurs, is that of the living legend and danseuse extraordinairePadma Bhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. While her monumental contribution has been the revival reconstruction and reliving of the āṅgika elements of Nāṭyaśāstra, her performances have been wholesome expressions of her creative genius, worthy of being an independent śāstra on its own merit!

It is thus unsurprising that an extraordinary scholar and artist, Śatāvadhānī Dr R.Ganesh  and the bright perceptive scholar, Sri Arjun Bharadwaj have together penned the wonderful work, Nayana-Savana, a creative appreciation of Dr. Padma’s artistry. Nayana-Savana is published by Prekshaa Pratishtana.

The work comprises several sections featuring the following:  

  • Full-length productions such as Kṛṣṇāya Tubhyaṃ Namaḥ, Jaya Jaya Śaṅkara, Bhagavad-gītā, etc.

  • Short-length productions of individual compositions covering a variety of genres such as divinities, social themes, non-Indian music etc.

  • Appendices which include some more performances, research possibilities, and interesting anecdotes, as well as an exclusive section discussing her TV series on the Nāṭyaśāstra.

The authors have been thoroughly observant and objective in their description of Dr. Padma’s performances. One can find in the writing, the fundamentals of dance, poetry, and philosophy being simultaneously expounded at the levels of both the form and content of the performances.

While all connoisseurs of Paddu Akka’s (as she is fondly known) performances carry back with them an overwhelming joy, rarely is one able to articulate the experience with such scholarly flair and expertise. In each page of this book, the authors have captured the joy of her dancing as also ensuring that all aspects of the technicalities of the art form are recorded for posterity.

Encapsulating Paddu Akka’s dance means concretizing the intensity and profundity of her Sāttvika-abhinaya with the depth it merits. It is here that the best of poetry and philosophy has found its culmination. At various points in Nayana-Savana, the authors write:

“It is as if the eyes themselves are performing nṛtta with the rest of her body as the audience!”

“Padma’s expressions represent all the emotions that a jīvātmā might feel upon getting a glimpse of Paramātmā.”

“Padma’s visual elaboration is filled with atiśayoktis, utprekṣās, and rūpakas as well as engrossing svabhāvoktis!”

“The holistic sattva of Dr Padma Subrahmanyam brings in a sense of fulfilment, completion, and satisfaction to vācika, āṅgika, and āhārya and is alaṅkāra in the true sense of the word (alaṃ karoti)! Everything else feels sufficient and wholesome thanks to her sattva. It feels as though every aspect of her āṅgika and sāttvika have attained perfection and cannot (and need not) be improvised further!”

A plethora of such jewels of phrasing are found with the turn of every page… one must intently watch her and ardently read this work to even begin to truly appreciate the realms of artistry, the realm of Rasa!

Having placed Rasa as the supreme value of art experience, our desire to see any other purpose in her dance is already quenched… However, for the benefit of every common man of this grand Sanātana-saṃskṛti, Paddu Akka and her artistic endeavours have become symbols of Bharatavarsha’s cultural and national unity. This vision of Dr. Padma is reflected in a multitude of ways through her performances and through the nature of her reconstruction of the form as well.

In the discussion in the essay titled Tele-serial: Bhāratīya-Nāṭyaśāstra, the authors have reiterated how Paddu Akka has envisioned the reconstruction of the karaṇas themselves as a medium that would unify the art forms, culture, and vision of artistes across the globe. She has established the universality of the Mārga technique and its universality as a tool for bringing together the cultural consciousness of dancers, scholars, and spectators alike.

With the discussion in each section of this series, the authors gradually take us through the journey of her vision wherein technical cannons such as Dharmī, Languages, Costumes & Embellishments, Vṛtti, Pravṛtti, Mārga, Deśī, Rasa, and Sāttvika-abhinaya, and mainly the Āṅgika elements of the Nāṭyaśāstra are all seen encompassing the heart of Indian culture across ‘Greater India.’

The power of the song Vande Mātaram, used as a refrain throughout, has also been well captured in the book. Some key statements that drive home Dr. Padma’s nationalistic vision have been powerfully expressed.  

While mentioning her thoughts on the importance of Saṃskṛta, the authors write,

“She uses powerful words to emphasise the unity and greatness of our country and the harm that invaders and selfish individuals have caused.”

Here is an invaluable observation on the artiste’s vision:

“Padma has also said that her goal in life has been to put karaṇas into practice and thereby revive the bhāratīya heritage and the common Indian psyche (to the backdrop of Vande Mātaram, once again!). It is interesting to note that not merely the content, but even the grammar of dance can help us realise national unity!”

On the spurious Aryan-Dravidian theory, the authors note her valuable statement,

“The word ārya means refined and does not indicate a separate race. The two-race theory of āryans and draviḍians is itself a mala fide fallacy of the western imperialists: and it has no authentic base in our traditional learning.”

Such insightful statements from Dr. Padma are abundant in this book. In another instance, she is found proudly owning her heritage saying that she loves and respects her mother tongue; and the fact that she truly feels that no wall separates Tamil from Saṃskṛta. She sees this akin to the concept of Deśī (forms having developed with regional flavours) and Mārga (fundamental universal vision of all forms) and continues to explore the diversity as well as the unifying aspects of the Indian ethos through other productions.

And finally, the authors quote her own words where she says that we must first read the Nāṭyaśāstra and revitalize our unity, and that the technique can wait.

“This supremely talented and creative artist-scholar, who has worked all her life to the reconstruction of the techniques of the Nāṭyaśāstra, is happy to even leave her life’s contribution behind for the sake of national unity.”

As Nayana-Savana shows, Dr. Padma has chosen to subtly convey the vision of our nationality by directly addressing the technical aspects of Nāṭyaśāstra. A similar approach is seen in her adaptation of this form to non-Indian music – the Jaṭāyu-mokṣa & Gajendra-mokṣa – where the universality of the Mārga technique is applicable to any genre of music is gloriously portrayed.

In many other performances, this idea has come in harmony with the theme or character or situation being depicted. In presentations including Saṅgamam, DVG’s Bhārata-bhū-vandanam, Kocchu-sītā, and the episodes of Paripāḍal, the emotion of patriotism and pride for the nation seeps into the spectator in the most suggestive manners while actually just enjoying her dance thoroughly. It is no wonder that aestheticians have said that when Rasatva is addressed, every other purpose is also met effortlessly.

The Paripāḍal production, while primarily focusing on the Tamil land, highlights the beauty of diversity that every nook and corner of our country boasts of, in abundance. Every Indian state with its language, literature, religious fervor, art forms, food, lifestyle and more, becomes a repository of the national vision encapsulated in regional flavours…much like the Vedāntic vision of Brahma-tattva expressing itself though the individual Jīva!

The Saṅgamam production represents this journey from the other side, where many layers of confluence are addressed to culminate in the unified nationalistic vision. Her resolve in bringing together languages (such as Saṃskṛta and Bengali), poets (such as Habba Khatoon & Dharmapuri Subbarāyar), stories of devotion which suggest mata-sāmarasya (like the Muslim princess’s innocent love for Raṅganātha-svāmī), and almost every element of artistic expression symbolises the Mārga which can so gracefully hold in its embrace every element of Deśī, transcending boundaries of time and space.

In these sections of Nayana-Savana too, we find some noteworthy statements by the authors.

While introducing the production Saṅgamam where a confluence of diverse languages, music, poetry, dance forms are found, the authors write:

“The cultural crosscurrents across the length and breadth of Akhanḍa-bhārata (Greater India) that have contributed to the civilizational unity is beautifully brought out through the production.”

“Padma helps us realise the manner in which master poets of India across different periods of time, have always had similar conceptions of an ideal world.”

Through the story of Raṅganātha-svāmī’s nācciyār, a powerful suggestion is identified, “It is indeed painful to see a mūrti, that is highly revered by the bhāratīya being treated as a toy by an invader. It brings to our mind the way the invaders actually ‘toyed’ with everything including human lives and emotions in the country.”

While speaking of the coming together of compositions of poets from Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh on Bāla-Rāma, they note,

“This kind of humanizing of the Supreme Ideal is possible only in the Sanātana-dharma and has been achieved by poets across timelines in all languages of the land.”

In another instance the authors write, “In her abhinaya, Padma does not fail to capture a dynamic Bhārata-mātā holding the flag and blessing the citizens.”

While in the entire section discussing Vande Mātaram, the authors have filled the writing with heartwarming descriptions of the lyrics, the stances, the languages, and ultimately her vision for national integrity. Readers must go through it themselves to feel the patriotism pulsating in these pages! Dr Ganesh, in his introduction to a section of the Saṅgamam production, calls it a ‘pratibhā-saṅgama’ (a confluence of artistic creativity).

All these statements, so aptly identified and worded by the two authors who themselves are embodiments of Sanātana-dharma, capture Dr Padma’s patriotic heart and her immensely creative expressions of nationalism, they are but a sample of the true warrior in her…She, in the real sense, embodies the brāhma-kṣāttra-samāhāra.

Paddu Akka has herself become the embodiment of Bhārata-mātā! And like a mother nourishes her children, her approach to art continues to nurture countless artistes, inspiring us to recognise the bhāratīya in our own bosom. Her art cleanses the misconceptions that have invaded our mind for centuries, connecting back to the bharata-bhūmi and sprouting forth as proud artistes and citizens of this glorious nation!

She is the warrior who is striving for Bhārata not with the fierce weapons of war at hand, but with the melodious, gentle jingles of anklets on her feet.

May the dance of this patriot pulsate in our every thought, word and deed as a humble offering to Sanātana Bhārata!


Click this link to purchase Nayana-Savana, authored by Shatavadhan Dr. R. Ganesh and Arjun Bharadwaj.

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