Deeply entrenched in the old Tanjore tradition of Bharathanatyam, Chitra Visweswaran’s association with dance began at a very early age. Her first Guru, at the age of three, was actually her mother, Smt. Rukmini Padmanabhan, who was an excellent dancer trained in contemporary Indian dance and Bharatanatyam but never took it up as a profession. Chitra owes her artistic and creative vision to her mother and intellectual quest to her father, Sri. N. Padmanabhan, an engineer with the Indian Railways. After initiation into dance by her mother, Chitra undertook training in Western Classical Ballet in London where her father was Railway Adviser at the Indian High Commission. This was followed by training in Manipuri and Kathak in Calcutta. At the age of ten, she went under the tutelage of one of the best devadasis of Tiruvidaimardur, Smt.T.A Rajalakshmi, who was settled in Calcutta and under whom she trained for nearly 10 years. Her Arangetram (first maiden performance) took place within ten months, an astonishingly short period to achieve this level of proficiency.
Chitra’s first piece of dance choreography was at the age of eleven. At thirteen, she had choreographed the life of Saint Thyagaraja in the format of a Varnam, the most demanding of pieces in the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Several such pieces of choreography followed even as she studied contemporary dance in parallel to her Bharatanatyam training. During this period, she choreographed individual pieces and short thematic presentations. Though she wanted to leave Calcutta for Madras (or Chennai as it is called now) in order to pursue dance seriously on finishing school, her parents insisted on her completing an honors degree (B.A. in English). Thanks to the frequent closures of Calcutta University, she fruitfully spent her time studying dance theory and dance history entirely on her own and also became involved in interdisciplinary search and research.
In 1970, she received the National Scholarship for advanced study in Bharatanatyam from the Ministry of Human Resources Development, Government of India, at a time when only two scholarships were awarded throughout the country, as against twenty-five, today.
She spent her scholarship period of four years under the doyen of Bharatanatyam, Vazhuvoor Ramaiyya Pillai. Her experience as his sishya widened her aesthetic vision even as her earlier Gurus’ training gave her excellent grammar and technique. Within three months of joining Vazhuvoor Ramaiyya Pillai, her guru introduced Chitra to the Madras audience by promoting her over all his other students as the heroine of a dance drama, Thirumalai Kumaresa Kuravanji, which her guru had choreographed. Eminent people such as Prof. Sambhamoorthy, Kapila Vatsyayan and Sunil Kothari even then noted her work.
On completion of her scholarship, Chitra started working on her own, combining the lessons she had learnt from her Gurus and her knowledge of the cognate forms of arts, harnessing to it a scholastic approach and holistic vision in order to develop a wholly individualistic philosophy of movement and language of communication.
Chitra started teaching dance at Calcutta at the age of sixteen, but it was in 1975 that she established “Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts” (CAPA) in Chennai, now an acknowledged premier institution in India. Since its inception, she has extended its repertoire with several pieces culled through research, which has earned her a very strong and supportive following. Even as her institution grew, she slowly tried her hand in group performance choreography in which her earlier experience of the Bengal School helped her substantially.
In 1980, Chitra choreographed her first major dance drama Devi Ashta Rasa Malika which took Chennai by storm. The concept of group formations, which was hitherto comparatively unknown in Bharatanatyam, took firm root in this genre through this production.
Several solo thematic and group productions in the Bharatanatyam format followed. A few examples in solo are:
Krishnanjali – a solo thematic presentation, wherein the concept of flashback was first introduced.
Purandara Krishnamritham - in which rare Kritis of the Kannada saint-poet, Purandaradasa were researched and strung together thematically.
Saptha Sapthi - a solo production exploring seven aspects of the number seven
Sthree Sakthi- a saga of Indian women from Sita to Jhansi Ki Rani.
Viswam Vishnumayam, Naveena Niroopanna, Sadaa Venkatesa Smarami are other notable. productions
Her group productions, which followed Devi Ashta Rasa Malika, were several. One of these discovered the parallels in poetry and approach to bhakti of the South Indian Saint poetess Andal, with that of the Mewari princess Meera.
The Ramayana with just one Sanskrit kriti to harness it musically, which was incidentally also translated into Tamil, is another popular production.
Devaki Pulambal took on a different view point - that of Devaki, Krishna’s natural mother, instead of the much presented Yashodha.
Somewhere along the way Chitra dropped the concept of dancers dressing up in the aharya or costume in accordance with the character she / he played; for, to suggest a character through mime, gesture and stance was more demanding and challenging than in playing the character in the expected costume.
Her vision further widened when the National Academy of Sciences commissioned her to present a production on the river Ganga in 1989-90, not highlighting the religious connotation of the river, but presenting it as representative of the ethos of India. She took six months off to research this project and to this day feels that this experience contributed considerably to her evolution as a thinking dancer.
Mary Magdalena, Maithreem Bhajatha and other productions that followed, brought in different and varied thrusts.
Chitra’s exploration and experimentation of the dance-theatre medium began with her production Panchali based on Subramania Bharathi’s Panchali Sabadam. The inspiration from theatre, specially the folk Therukoothu, with reference to body movement in establishing characters such as the Kauravas, the input of lighting techniques to create an ambience and highlight a situation from theatre, the use of Vacika or voice from the same discipline and the influence of painting (especially in presenting the Pandavas) vis-à-vis colour, symmetry, asymmetry and body line found a significant place. Establishing the mood of the whole production in the opening number itself was another significant contribution to the classical idiom.
Her other productions 'Raghuvamsa Thilakam', 'Ayothi Mannan',’Dwarakanatham Bhaje', Dasavatharam', 'Nritya Srinkhala', etc. have been highly appreciated. All the pieces she presents, be they solo, thematic-solo or dance drama / theatre have been conceived, researched and choreographed by her. Shortly thereafter, a demand from the Middle East to present a non-religious, non-mythological production put Chitra onto the path of creating Sneha, a unique dance theatre presentation. Sneha, which literally stands for friendship, love and the joy of togetherness and sharing, is in fact a perfect recipe for what life to an Indian should be. Inspired by characters from our epical literature and historical path-setters, it applies those great values of the past to present day society and projects it into the future. Created in such a manner to be adapted to any given situation, it has carried the messages of helpage homes, orphanages, eye banks and Can Stop (Cancer can be stopped) and anti warfare, keeping in mind artistic and aesthetic yardsticks of measurement and judgment.
Chitra has performed in all major dance festivals in India and has made several tours abroad, dancing in the U.K, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, Portugal, USA, Canada, USSR, Australia, Austria, Fiji Islands, Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait, Muscat, Bahrain, Dubai, Qatar, Holland, Srilanka amongst other countries. Her dance and lecture - demonstrations have been documented for reference by various institutions and universities.
Chitra has been regularly featured in the National Program of Dance, local programs of Doordarshan and other Indian channels. Her dance has also been telecast by Television in Sydney (Mike Walsh show), Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, BBC Television, U.K, Portugal TV, French TV, Swiss TV, U.S. TV, Malaysian TV. On the occasion of India's 50th year of Independence, BBC invited her to present a specially choreographed program at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham that was telecast internationally on 15th August 1997.
Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts
Her institution CAPA has grown extensively and has satellite institutions all over the world headed by present and past students. In order to maintain exclusive quality, admission is highly selective and restricted. The holistic approach of CAPA has led to several national and international scholarships and fellowships being awarded to its students.
Here dance, music, nattuvangam, theory, stagecraft, lighting, teaching methodology, philosophy of movement and a deep study of the cognate art forms is stressed upon. Besides drawing great joy of sharing her knowledge with all those who desire it, Chitra now has an added motive in her life – to collect funds for RASA, an institution using creative dance and music therapy for special children with learning disabilities.
Chitra’s husband, Sri R.Visweswaran, nephew of the legendary Carnatic musician, G.N Balasubramaniam is a vocalist, instrumentalist and composer and has a long experience of working in the genre of film music. He plays the Kashmir Santoor, veena and is a self-taught Flamenco guitarist. His knowledge and experience come together in composing and directing great music for Chitra’s solo work and group productions, for which he also lends his voice. Together they are considered a contributive force to be reckoned with in the field of Classical Indian Dance. Chitra and Visweswaran celebrated the 25th anniversary of CAPA in 2000.
Awards and Distinctions :
In 1980, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha awarded the “Nritya Choodamani” to Chitra. As an awardee, she convened the Sabha's Natya Kala conference in 1996 & 97, the only dance seminar of its kind in India. She is a Trustee of India Foundation for the Arts, a Ford foundation activated project and is also a member of the committee constituted by the Government of India for selection of candidates for award of scholarships and fellowships in Bharatanatyam. Chitra was the only dancer invited by the University of Madras to occupy the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Fine Arts. She is also a member of the General Council and Executive Board of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi (the apex body of Performing Arts in India).
In recognition of her contribution to Bharathanatyam, the Government of Tamilnadu conferred the title, “Kalaimamani” upon her in 1982. She received the “Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award” in 1987 and the “Padma Shri” from the President of India in 1992. In addition, in India’s 50th year of Independence she was awarded the titles of “Mahila Shiromani” (honoring distinguished women of Indian origin) and “Sthree Ratna” (gem amongst women - awarded to fifty eminent Indian women). Her other awards include Nritya Vilas - Sur Singar Samsad, Bombay, 1988; Manav Sewa Puraskar - Institute of economic studies, 1992 (Lok Shree Award, New Delhi); Natanamani - Kanchi Paramacharya in 1999.