By Jamuna Rangachari
For Marie and Elangovan dance is a passage to divinity and a purpose for living
The aroma of fresh brewed coffee wafts through the air. The simple home is austere and uncluttered. The lady of the house is dressed simply, with her hair demurely plaited. She is in animated discussion with her husband on a Tamil composition and the nuances of the ‘bhava’ (emotion) the poet sought to bring out in it. Your standard South Indian couple, maybe in Chennai or Mylapur?
This home is in New Delhi. And the lady who is brewing the coffee and talking about bhava is a white French-Canadian from Quebec called Marie. What is the power that has made this Westerner such a docile adherent of Tamil culture? What gave her the strength to straddle the vast distance between her roots and her present life? Love is an all-encompassing answer to the question. Love for a dance form; love for a man; love for a way of life.
As a young adult in University, she attended a dance programme by the late guru, Shri Govindarajan, who had come to Canada on a cultural exchange programme. The die was cast and there was no looking back. She had to learn this divine dance. Without hesitation, Marie severed her roots and came to India.
A Passage to India
“I landed in May – in the peak summer of Delhi though many people warned me against it,” she says and laughs. “After all, if I was to pursue it, I had to be prepared to face all the seasons and so I plunged headlong into it,” says Marie.
With determination and discipline, she did indeed master the art, and that too in much lesser time than expected. This happened almost automatically. As Marie says, “I never thought of speeding up this process, but definitely wished to please my guru with dedicated practice.”
Blossoming of a Romance
This period also led to the blossoming of a romance between Marie and Elangovan, Shri Govindarajan’s son, who had played quite an active role in her life as an interpreter. They married with the blessings of both sets of parents and are now the proud parents of ten-year-old Govindan.
The different cultures were never an issue for them. “I was totally at peace when I saw a photograph of Jesus in the family pooja room, a present that one of the students had given my father-in-law,” says Marie and also shares that before her arangetram, her father-in-law suggested she should change her name to Shanti, but her mother-in-law stepped in and spoke vehemently against it, saying Marie was a beautiful name and she should not alter it.
Married to the arts
It was art that was instrumental in bringing the couple together. And it is art to which they have dedicated their lives. Marie teaches and performs Bharatanatyam while Elangovan teaches music and dance and is a classical vocalist, the two forming a synergetic, harmonious team.
“My father did, of course, teach all his children but we did not really know whether we wished to make this our career. Difficult times came when my father became ill and I was still in college. A very principled man, he did not wish to take monetary help from his students, though they were willing to help. They decided to organize programmes for us instead. Almost forcibly, I began to perform, even though I was not completely ready for it at the time. I realized, of course, that I owed it to my father who was also my guru to perform in such a way that he would be proud of me and worked extremely hard. So, in a way, this period of difficulty was a turning point and a blessing for me,” says Elangovan, while Marie shares that she had always been interested in fine arts and hence this was a natural choice for her.
For both of them the satisfaction was, and still is, the process of mastering the art.
In any artistic field, the discipline always comes from within. We drive ourselves to practice, improve and innovate everyday,” they say.
They go to great lengths to understand the nuances of the composition and portray the rasas (emotions) with the right perspective. Says Elangovan, “Often, the hasya rasa is portrayed in a sarcastic manner, like laughing at Shoorpanakha when her nose is cut. I have tried to change this and introduced hasya in its right perspective of merriment, as in the songs of Subramania Bharati.”
Elangovan also considers the portrayal of the bhakti rasa to be the benchmark of a good artist, saying, “One who can portray the bhakti rasa in its true sense is one who has the right attitude to dance and life in general.”
Merging with the Dance
Viewing dance as a doctor of the body, mind and spirit, the couple is clear that in its pure form, dance becomes one with the dancer.
“Physical fitness is, of course, a part of dance. Further, all emotions settle down with dance, and the spirit is in communion with the divine,” they say, and share that apart from their own experience, they have seen a lot of their students become much better human beings with dance.
Dancing for God – a concept I was wonderstruck with when I heard it first, is now a part of who I am,” says Marie. She affirms that the unique tradition of India is its holistic approach to art, where one’s entire life becomes part of the art form, which, in turn, is dedicated to the divine. Elangovan agrees and avers that it is this tradition and legacy that they are committed to preserving and passing on to the coming generations.
Teaching to the couple is a joy and this is reflected in the eagerness and enthusiasm the young ones have in mastering the art.
The bottom-line is that they want them to be happy and enjoy dancing. They are also keenly aware that it is essential for them to remain worthy of being inspirational role models for the students. As Mary puts it, “The greatest part of being teachers is perfection of every little step and the understanding and reinforcing of the core principles.”
dance as a medium that also exposes children to sterling literature, the couple works on understanding the nuances of each literary piece and have also introduced works such as those of Subramanya Bharati into dance.
Open to innovation and fusion and yet never compromising on essential principles of the dance form, Elangovan also performs with others while retaining his original style.
When I see Marie picking up fruits and salads of his choice for Govindan and spend time with him after a programme before speaking to anyone else, it is clearly evident that she takes her role as a mother very seriously.
Elangovan, on his part, teaches his son just like his father taught him. “We know it may not be his life path like it is for us, but the exposure has certainly refined his taste in the arts,” they say, with justified pride.
Philosophy of Life
Artistic integrity is an ideal they practice assiduously. On occasions where it was suggested to them to curry favors with the influential in order to get awards, they have refused to do so, believing absolutely in preserving the purity of means with which their goals are pursued.
“It is extremely important for an artist to have inner peace and if I were to get recognition using dubious means, that peace would be destroyed,” says Elangovan.
Marie affirms and adds that commercial success has never been a goal for them and their only wish is to continue preserving the legacy of their guru.
Thinking about the visit and the couple, long after my visit, I found myself inspired and uplifted by the warmth of their love, their devotion to the arts and their dedication to teaching.
Dance for them has been a path that has honed and shaped them into splendid human beings with a rich contribution to make to human society. What more could anyone want?
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