'Post retirement, I work all the time'

As the clock strikes 11, Dr Kanak Rele, founder-director of Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, strides into her office. Her sharp gaze falls on the paper work that demands urgent attention. “I am supposed to have retired! But I am still working all the time,” she says, settling into her chair.

I remember my first encounter with Dr Rele, who is recognised for her pioneering work in re-establishing the lyrical dance form Mohini Attam and introducing new dimensions to the field of academics and research in classical dancing. I was a first-year student at Nalanda, and the class was practicing in the dance hall for the annual function.

Dr Kanak Rele during a performance

The dancers were low on energy and our teacher’s orders were not very effective. Dr Rele, who was passing by, saw the scene and walked in. All it took was one glare from her to get us to sit in perfect aramandi (half-sitting posture) and make perfect mudras (hand gestures).

But for a perfectionist, this was not enough. “Perform like you would on stage — like a complete dancer with abhinaya (expressions),” she said, and we followed suit. Many such encounters followed during my seven years at the institute. Dr Rele would often visit a classroom and ensure students were at their best — all the time. There is no difference, no sign of age as I meet her after so many years. Excerpts from the interview:

Dr Kanak Rele at the Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya in Juhu. Pic/Kiran Bhalerao

Winning the Padma Bhushan
It came as a total surprise. On Republic Day, my husband Yatin was watching the parade on television, and I was sitting with textbooks on the Granthas. I was working on the release of the second-edition of my book Mohini Attam: The Lyrical Dance. Our landline rang and when I answered it, the person on the other end said he was the Union Home Secretary and that he was pleased to inform me that I had been awarded the Padma Bhushan. I am glad that my efforts have been recognised. But life has not changed a bit. At 75, I still work, I am at the institute from 11 am to 6 pm.

The birth of a dancer
I was six when I first took up Kathakali. I lived in Shantiniketan with my mother. I lost my father when I was 10 months old, and my paternal family was not too keen on me learning dance. But, my mother realised that it was almost impossible to stop me from dancing. So she put one condition — that I should excel as a student. I studied hard to make sure I was among the top three in class.

We moved back to Mumbai soon after, and I was privileged to train under Panchali Karunakara Pannika. I also learned Bharatanatyam. Kathakali had no following here and there weren’t many dancers in Mumbai. I took up Mohini Attam in 1966. I had my own theory of body kinetics, and wanted to retain the purity of the form, so I chose to practise only one Indian classical dance. Then there was no looking back. By 25, I was one of the top Mohini Attam dancers in the country.

Founding Nalanda
While I strongly believed in the guru-shishya parampara, I was not satisfied with the knowledge that was being dished out. I had an urge to delve deeper. Nowhere did they teach the shastras or give importance to academics. As a student of Government Law College, I had invited TK Tope, then Vice Chancellor, to one of my performances.

Back stage, I spoke to him about introducing a diploma course in dance. And this is what he said: ‘Why a part time diploma? Let Nalanda be a degree college for dance.’ I stared at him with a blank face. I could not believe my ears!

Today, my career spans over 50 years. For the past 25 years, Nalanda runs a dance therapy programmed for differently-abled children. Over the years, it has introduced courses such as dance and fitness. The institute has 118 degree course for students. We are planning to introduce a Centre of Movement Science and Wellness, which will offer a PG degree course.

In the 2005 deluge, water flooded our institute because of which the seawater is eating into our foundation. We are hoping our new centre will be an independent multi-storied building on the premises. This centre will also focus on offering therapy to senior citizens as well.

The future of Indian classical dance
We need more scholarships and make the procedure more streamlined. The Mumbai University (MU) is a shining example. They are sticklers for attendance and quality, and other universities in the country should take inspiration from MU.

The fitness regime
I wake up at 5.45 am every day, without fail. My day begins with yoga and pilates which helps me keep stiffness at bay. I never sleep in the afternoon. I don’t deny my body any food that it craves, even Bhel Puri. But, I cook my own food even today. The cook only chops the vegetables. Come May, I will make achhar (pickles) at home (smiles).

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