An artiste proficient in classical dance and music to the extent of performing in both genres, and consistently winning appreciation for all this from audiences and critics alike—that is Smitha Madhav for you. Well, there is more too. She is also a dance choreographer, has acted in a couple of feature films and holds academic degrees too in dance and music. Smitha has master's degrees in both these classical arts. She has a bachelor's degree in law too though as she says with a laugh: "I am no longer a practising lawyer given that dance and music have become so all-consuming."
Smitha is an empanelled artiste of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), a distinction much sought after by artistes in India. Smitha received training in Bharatanatyam from the well-known dance guru Nritya Choodamani Rajeshwari Sainath. Now, she has become a dance teacher in her own right. "I am currently an arts-educator with my own institute called Varna Arts Academy in Hyderabad. We also have branches in Chennai, Bengaluru, and Vijayawada."
After a brief initial training in Carnatic music from the age of four under Rajam Shankar, she has since been under the tutelage of the Hyderabad Sisters, Lalitha and Haripriya.
Smitha recently presented along with her group (see box for all artistes' names) a dance-drama titled ‘Azhagar Kuravanji’, which is a composition of Kavi Kunjara Bharathi, a well-known Tamil poet. This composition is dated to the 1840s. It was a performance for Kalasagaram's 51st annual cultural festival on November 29, in Hyderabad. Smitha, who played the lead role of Mohanavalli, was also credited with the nattuvangam, choreography and vocals.
‘Azhagar Kuravanji’ tells a story about the presiding deity of Azhagar Kovil (a temple near Madurai), namely Sundararaja Perumal, and his beloved Mohanavalli, believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi. The Kuravanji dance presentation weaves many elements into its tapestry—classical and folk music and dance as well as Tamil poetry and folk theatre. Smitha says: "I also added an English narration."
All Kuravanjis have a similar storyline. The heroine falls in love with the hero when the latter is taken out in a procession. When she cannot meet him, she rebukes the moon and chides the ocean and cool breeze. Even as she experiences the pangs of separation in this way, the Kuravanji arrives. The Kuravanji is a gipsy woman somewhat akin to the Yerukalasani or Sodhi woman who foretells the future. She is a creative version of the Acharya since she employs humour and predicts the imminent union of the nayika and nayaka. The divine wedding follows.
Smitha reveals, "I chose this Kuravanji because of my fondness for Vaishnavite themes and stories. Also, the dramatic elements in this composition appealed to me. Even to this day, when the annual procession of this deity Sundararaja is taken out in Madurai (during April), almost the entire city turns up to watch. The audience includes Hindu and Muslim communities."
Talking of her other interests, she says that dance and music leave her with very little time for other things. "However, in everything I do I try to adhere to the idea of India and Indianness. I am also passionate about food and cooking and love to learn new recipes in the little time I find away from music and dance." What are her plans and dreams? "I would love to choreograph and present on stage Ponniyin Selvan, a novel by Kalki. I also have another and bigger dream—of portraying our itihasas or traditional Indian literature in a Broadway musical format," she says.