Rathna Visualizes a Dance Pose with Every Move She Makes

Dr. Rathna Kumar                                                                   Photos: Krishna Giri

Dr. Rathna Kumar Photos: Krishna Giri

By Manu Shah

HOUSTON: Just three years-old, Rathna Kumar was outraged that she couldn’t participate in a dance competition for five year-olds and above.  So she threw a tantrum, forcing the judges to give in, and then performed for a huge audience which included the then Governor of Tamil Nadu, Sri Prakasha. Not content with merely competing, she walked up to the Governor and demanded her prize! The nonplussed Governor looked around helplessly until someone had the brilliant idea of removing the collection money from a red plastic box and handing over the empty box to the tiny tot. Rathna was thrilled!

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Decades later, Kumar has won so many awards for her performances that she can’t keep count. A Houston dance icon, she is the Artistic Director of the Anjali School of Performing Arts, and the first NRI to receive the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from the Government of India. Dr. Rathna Kumar (she received a PhD in dance many years ago) brims with warmth, merriment and a self-deprecating humor which she attributes to “growing up with P.G.Wodehouse and reading the cartoons every morning”.

After just one look at her newborn’s nataraj like posturing, Rathna’s mother declared that her daughter would be a dancer! This was not so surprising considering that Rathna comes from a multitalented family.  Her parents are great singers while other members are poets, writers, musicians and dancers. This intuitive knack for singing and dancing showed up early in life – in fact as early as three when she choreographed her first dance on Lata Mangeshkar’s Jhum Jhum Jhum Baje Payal Mori. 

Rathna, the child prodigy, started learning Bharatnatyam at the age of four and gave her first public performance at the age of nine.  When Andhra Pradesh attained statehood on November 1, 1956, she was invited from Chennai to perform before Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. Apart from her dance performances, she’s also acted as a child artiste in about 25 regional movies.

Marriage to a family friend’s son, Anil, brought her to the United States where she enrolled in the PhD. Program at Rice University, but destiny had other plans for her.  In 1975, she was invited to perform a classical dance for the visiting Indian Ambassador.  No sooner had the dance ended than she was surrounded by several mothers who asked her to teach their children.  Unsure about what to do, Rathna called both her teachers – K.J. Sarasa and Padma Bhushan Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam for their advice.  Quoting from the Upanishads, Dr. Satyam told her that one cannot take “vidya or dhan (knowledge or wealth) to the grave and must distribute it before one leaves this earth.”

Reassured, Rathna crystallized her plans into the Anjali School of Dance located on Beechnut near Kirkwood, which has now become the Anjali School of Performing Arts, located in Sugar Land. She has shared her knowledge and passion for dance with children and showcased their talent in many dance productions. In 1994, over a cup of tea with her friend, Thara Narasimham, the two decided to start a non-profit organization, Samskriti, which would dedicate itself to organizing high quality events and conferences related to music, dance, theatre and other arts.  Over the years, Samskriti has delighted Houstonians with performances by several noted artists such as santoor exponent Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain and the dancer and actress of yore, Vyjanthimala Bali.

Rathna’s performances in Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi have been acclaimed by critics and audiences worldwide. However, for her, the one dance performance that stands out for its sheer “spiritual experience” is the one she performed at the Chidambaram Temple in Tamil Nadu. It is the only Shiva temple in India that has a statue of the Nataraja – every other temple has a shiva lingam – and Rathna danced for “the best audience in the world” – Shiva. All she remembers after the dance ended were tears streaming uncontrollably down her face and her spirit soaring. Reflecting somberly, and a little wistfully, she says that in a year or two she will dance once more before Nataraja in the Chidambaram temple and thereafter stop all public performances. She will however continue to teach.

Apart from Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi, Rathna has also studied Kathak, Oddisi, Mohiniattam and during a one-year sojourn in France, even ballet to understand how each dance style uses body movements.  As for Indian movies, Rathna believes that a background in classical dance can bring a different perspective to a Bollywood dance and considers the dances in Dil toh Pagal Hai and Dhoom 3 simply amazing.  However the one dancer she considers “a treat to watch” is still the inimitable Vyjanthimala Bali.

Rathna is gearing up for her next big dance theatre presentation – Dashavatar or the ten avatars of Vishnu – on April 6 at the Wortham Center, choreographed by her and performed by 32 other dancers. Even though everything is on schedule, she isn’t immune to pressure and occasionally breaks out into what she laughingly calls the “bhadrakali dance” when pushed to her limits of annoyance!

Rathna credits her success to her two teachers, her extremely supportive husband Anil, parents and her extended family all of whom have sacrifices to ensure that she reached her full potential as a dancer. She considers herself fortunate to be able to teach several super talented students but cannot help bemoaning the fact that “in this county, career comes first.”  She has written two books on dance, and when asked if she planned to write a memoir about her dance experiences, said with her droll sense of humor, “Other than family, who else will buy it?”