He was born into a poor Malayali Poduval family hailing from Payyanur and was one among eight siblings. She was from a well-to-do Malayali family who had settled in Malaysia. They came from opposite worlds, but Bharatanatyam brought them together and forged an unbreakable bond.
Today, VP Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan are recognised as one of the most legendary ‘natya’ couples in India, with a long, illustrious career spanning more than five decades.
Their journey, however, was far from easy.
VP Dhananjayan’s father was a schoolteacher, who staged amateur plays, and he grew up watching his father travel from village to village. A chance encounter with Guru Chandu Panicker, who was assigned the task of finding a male dancer by Rukmini Devi Arundale, the co-founder of Kalakshetra, led to Dhananjayan being initiated into the school in 1953 at the age of 14, on a scholarship.
This was where he met Shanta, the woman who would play an important role in his life. Shanta Dhananjayan had been raised in Malaysia, where she grew up dancing and singing. A child prodigy, her parents, recognized her potential, and at the age of eight, enrolled her in Kalakshetra in 1952, where she studied Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, and Carnatic music.
“I met Shanta for the first time in the Theosophical Gardens. She was the first girl I ever met at Kalakshetra, and she was tasked with taking care of me, as I did not know Tamil. I liked her for her habits and her hardworking nature,” recalls Dhananjayan.
They were frequently paired together for Kalakshetra’s productions, under the tutelage of Guru Chandu Panicker and Rukmini Devi. Whether it was Rama and Sita, or Aniruddha and Chitralekha, the couple proved to be impeccable on stage.
“Our first performance together was Rukmini Devi’s Seeta Swayamvaram Naatya Natakam, which we performed in 1956 in a school auditorium in Coimbatore,” says Dhananjayan.
Shanta adds, “During rehearsals we could sit a little apart, but on stage we had to share a small stool together, and that was a little embarrassing for me. Later, we got used to it.”
They graduated from Kalakshetra in 1962, he with a degree in Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, and she with a degree in Bharatanatyam; both with distinctions.
When he was 18, he made his feelings known, but she moved to Malaysia in 1962 and began teaching natya, leaving him in suspense. He initially thought that his lower economic status was the problem, but when marriage proposals started coming her way, she began turning them down. Her parents, realising that her love for Dhananjayan was true, gave the couple their blessing, and the couple got married in 1966 at the Guruvayoor temple in Kerala.
They left Kalakshetra in the late 1960s, wanting to carve a career for themselves, in a dance scene that was dominated by the wealthy. For dancers who had not yet been established, this proved to be one of their biggest challenges. Dhananjayan, who happened to have a degree in Economics, got a clerical job so that he could support both his wife and his family back home in Kerala. In the evenings he would return home to teach dance, in a humble room with a thatched roof.
This was the beginning of their institution, Bharata Kalanjali, now internationally recognized as a premier institution for Bharatanatyam.
“During that time, my main concern was to keep Shanta happy, so that she would not suffer due to the lack of money. Knowing my background she walked with me, leaving a comfortable life with her parents. Building up our institution without any support from influential or rich people was a huge challenge, and it was with hard work and perseverance that we have achieved what we have today,” he says.
What the Dhananjayans brought to Bharatanatyam were innovative ideas, and unique productions, combining male and female dance principles in specially conceived duets, known for their perfection, and attention to detail.
They referred to their art only as “natya,” stating that dance could be anything, but natya had a specific meaning to India’s culture.
They created new pieces, apart from the standard; Dhananjayan’s Natyaanjali replaced the traditional Alarippu, and the couple’s Nrutyopahahaaram, danced to music composed by a contemporary musician, became an item which they were known for. These were just some of the many original ideas that are part of their vast repertoire.
Gradually, they started gaining a following, and more students began to join them, wanting to be trained under their expert guidance.
They managed to make a name for themselves, and together, became a force to be reckoned with.
Their partnership is one of rare understanding, and they dance with vitality and charisma born of years of training and passion for the arts, one of the main reasons they received international acclaim and have performed on hundreds of stages across the world!
Today, in over 50 years of dancing together, the couple has performed all over India, from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Khajuraho Festival, and have received several awards and accolades, including the Padma Bhushan and the Sangeet Natak Academy Award. The couple, however, cherishes the comments they receive after a performance, more than the awards.
Dhananjayan says, “The innocent comments of children make a performance very memorable. Once, a 7-year-old boy in Atlanta, USA exclaimed in public that I was the best male Bharatanatyam dancer he had ever seen!”
Dance, or natya, as the couple prefer, is a profession and art that they cannot imagine life without.
“We have been breathing natya ever since we were children. Our life has been around natya only, and it will continue to forever,” they say.
After years in the arts, is there anything else they wish for?
Shanta answers, explaining, “We have achieved a great deal in propagating, preserving and popularising Bharatanatyam, but I still wish to build a grand theatre suitable for our performing arts, and continue to work towards the same. Though Chennai is a cultural city and has been recognised by the UNESCO, it lacks proper venues suitable for Bharatanatyam.”
The world of natya is continuously evolving, and the Dhananjayans continue to embrace the change, stating, “Changes are imperative, and evolution is a part of nature. We go with the flow, thinking that the past is the foundation for the present to build a future. People who can appreciate old wine in a new bottle also exist.”