Vannadil Pudiyaveettil Dhananjayan and his wife Shanta, popularly known as the Dhananjayans are among the most accomplished dancers and teachers of Bharatanaatyam, as well as one of the legendary dancing couples of India.
A Politics and Economics graduate (as a result of studying for a BA separately), Dhananjayan joined Kalakshetra on 5th October 1953. He has a Post Graduate Diploma in Dance (Bharatanaatyam and Kathakali) with distinction from Kalakshetra, Madras and was a leading male dancer under Rukmini Devi (Founder, Kalakshetra) from 1955 to 1967.
Dhananjayan was born on 30th April 1939 in Payyanur, Kerala, historically a very important village in Kerala. One of eight children of a not well-to-do schoolmaster, he however had a flair for poetry and Sanskrit dramas. No one in Dhananjayan's family had ever danced professionally, but his father had staged amateur dramatic performances, based largely on mythological themes, with a makeshift troupe he had gathered primarily from among his relatives. Dhananjayan has acted in his father’s plays, and grew up seeing his father and other kin travel from village to village during school vacations, performing as they went. As a youth, Dhananjayan, watched but did not train with the two Kathakali troupes located in Payyanur- Kodoth Kathakali Sangam, a 150 year old organization sponsored by a big landlord, and Thazhakaatumana, a troupe owned by a big Kerala Namboodiri family.
While teaching in Kalakshetra in the 1950’s, Chandu Panicker was assigned by Rukmini Devi, the responsibility of finding young male dancers willing to come to Kalakshetra to learn Kathakali and Bharatanaatyam. In 1953, when Dhananjayan’s father happened to meet Chandu Panicker in a train compartment, he expressed the difficulty of feeding such a large family on his meager schoolteacher’s salary and offered one of his sons to Chandu Panicker. Dhananjayan had taken a particular interest in Sanskrit literature during his primary school days and had been writing poetry from the age of 8. Seeing a unique sparkle in Dhananjayan and a propensity for creative ideas, his father decided purely on instinct to choose him out of 4 sons to send to Kalakshetra.
Even though Chandu Panicker had already selected Balagopal from the same village, he called for Dhananjayan a couple of days later. A week later, Dhananjayan was on his way to Kalakshetra where he spent the next 15 years of his life. Dhananjayan’s father had requested that if his 14-year-old son did not meet with Rukmini Devi’s qualifications, to send him back. Fortunately, not only was he accepted, he was also given a scholarship to study at Kalakshetra where the rigors of his education and way of life prepared him to meet the challenges of life as a dancer later on. Initially, his dance training and education in Kalakshetra was the only contact with the outside world. Much of his inspirations, dedication and attitude to life were fashioned here.
“In many ways, I am the person I am because of that institution”
In the late 60s, aristocrats, who could spend to have their own children perform, dominated the dance scene in Madras. The caliber of the Dhananjayans was such that they stole the thunder with their novel ideas that they brought to their presentations via unique repertoire that they developed. The vitality of dance, the costumes, the attraction of merging of the male and female dance principles in specially conceived duets, were all part of the charisma of their performances. It was no wonder that they started to receive invitations from both within the country and from abroad. They have traveled all over the world to all major cultural centers to present their art .o the Dhananjayans, the realization of their art is both a philosophy and a religion. From a modest start to establishing their own dance academy, it has been a story of deep commitment, fervor and dedication. Bharata Kalanjali has emerged as a full-fledged academy of dance and music with a repertory fashioned out of its own students and graduates.
Partners on and off stage, the Dhananjayans perform with a rare togetherness, born of years as a dancing couple.Shanta is his perfect partner in life as well as in art. Lack of conflicts in dance is a result of the mutual understanding, which has grown over the years. Dhananjayan is past 60 now, but he and Shanta still continue to enthrall audiences all over the world.
Despite dancing together for 50 years, the Dhananjayans complement each other beautifully in their personal life and manage to keep routine and boredom at bay by working on varied themes, involving themselves in different projects, collaborations and workshops apart from being totally involved in guiding their students’ recitals.
Dividing their time between Bharata Kalanjali in Chennai and Bhaaskara in Kerala, keeps them busy year round. The varied activities, which take up so much time and energy, keep their spirits vitalized and their outlook fresh.
Dhananjayan has served as the honorary founder secretary of ABHAI (Association of Bharatanaatyam Artistes of India) and completed 2 terms as its president. He has authored a book on Bharatanatyam apart from contributing numerous articles on dance and social issues. His book 'A Dancer On Dance' strives to create an awareness of dance and its related problems to contemporary society. He is a guide and counselor to numerous dance organizations.The 15th Natya Kala Conference titled “PURUSH: The male in dance” was convened by Dhananjayan in December 1995. He has always voiced his concern about the plight of the male dancer in India. Whenever he is on a public platform, he is known to speak out on what ails Indian dance and culture today and has a reputation for being forthright in his views “I am a politics graduate, so I take up many issues with political overtones.As far back as the mid 1960's, that many years ago, I advocated bringing about Tamizh as the medium of education in schools but the govt. turned it down.”
“In 1969, I wrote to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that the first thing she should do is issue ID cards for Indian citizens. It was not implemented but I got a letter from the PM's office that the letter was received and passed on to the concerned dept. I also wrote to demonetize the 100Rs note. I would like to think that in some small way I contributed, because later, Indira Gandhi took action in nationalizing the banks and so on.”
“I write frequently to the papers on public issues. I have even written on the Cauvery issue. Some get published, some don't. Nothing will get changed overnight. But my contention is to keep on writing, because, sometime somewhere, awareness will be created in the minds of at least a few people.”
“By choice and by chance, I have become the spokesperson for the dance community on a variety of issues. Maybe that's why I am labeled as a controversial person, though no one can specify what is exactly controversial about me.”
The Dhananjayans do a lot of shows free of charge for charitable causes. However, they are particular that organisers collect at least a particular / respectable sum to make the effort worthwhile.
They have 2 sons. The elder son Sanjay lives in the USA while the younger son Satyajit who’s a good dancer is carving out a niche for himself as a photographer. The people and the press often describe the Dhananjayans as institutions by themselves. The success of this unique couple has not deterred their humility, simplicity and humane-ness, which probably make them greater dancers.