On a breezy Thursday evening, I hesitantly step into a sprawling and aesthetically built bungalow situated in one of the upmarket by-lanes leading to Elliot’s Beach. There is a sense of trepidation, for it is the house of legendary dancer couple VP Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan. Interviewing such an illustrious couple can be quite intimidating. Dhananjayan, crisply dressed in his trademark dhoti-kurta, opens the door with a gracious smile, and welcomes me into their drawing room. A cheerful Shanta joins us too. As we begin the conversation, there is a contented look about them — an air of a couple that is happy about how their life has turned out. Their nonchalance and joie di vivre put me at ease, for the Bharatanatyam exponents are quite different from their powerful and towering on-stage avatars. Sans the makeup and heavy jewellery, they seem exactly like the delightful old couple in the new series of ads. Yes, the old couple, Asha and Bala, who are on a second honeymoon to Goa, in the new ad campaign that is going viral, is played by none other than Padma Bhushan awardees, the Dhananjayans.
The opportunity came out of the blue through their son CP Satyajith, an automobile photographer, who said they would need to fly to Goa to shoot for a commercial directed by noted ad filmmaker Prakash Varma. “They wanted an ideal elderly couple. We have always been in pursuit of doing something new, so we thought we’d give it a shot. The same day, the costume director and designer, flew down from Mumbai and conducted a screen test in this very room. And before we knew it, we were in Goa the next day shooting for the ad,” recalls Dhananjayan. However, when they reached Goa, they were taken by surprise for it wasn’t quite their idea of an ad. “We just thought we might have to deliver a few lines in front of the camera,” explains Shanta. The six-part advertisement, coined with the hashtag ‘MakeMostofNow’ has the couple letting their hair down and trying their hand at things they’ve never done. From parasailing and riding a bike to getting a tattoo and shaking a leg with local tourists on a beach, we see the two as we have never seen them before.
The excitement on their faces is childlike, and very evident as they reminisce the experience. “I don’t wear half pants, but I had to wear one for the commercial. It was also my first time riding a bike,” says Dhananjayan. He then reveals his tattoo on his arm adding that he’s not very fond of it. “But I think it’s cool. I want to get one someday. Also, although I must admit that it wasn’t me up in the air parasailing, I’d love to learn it. I’m always up for adventure,” adds Shanta. “Also, for someone like me who doesn’t even own a smart phone, holding the selfie stick was quite an experience,” she adds with a laugh.
This is their first appearance together for a commercial. “Acting in the front of the camera wasn’t a problem. We act while dancing. But the language of acting was different. Our expressions, feelings, as well as the timing were more important. It was also an eye-opener for us because we don’t think twice before rubbishing and criticising films and ads. We experienced first-hand how difficult it was to shoot an ad and convey an idea in such limited time. It’s just like shooting a film. But more than anything else, it’s the professionalism of the team that was most commendable. They had a backup plan for everything — there was importance given to minute details like even how my saree was pinned, the helmet was worn and the like. It was kind of an education for us in a different field,” adds Shanta.
A still of the Dhananjayans from a recent ad campaign
Having been on the stage for over 65 years now and seen the transition of classical dance, they say it is this professionalism that lacks in their artform. “When we perform outside the country, be it Europe, America or Australia, the experience is so seamless. As artistes, we are required to focus only on our performance, while everything else from lighting, sound, orchestra and more, are taken care of. The theatres are so well equipped and there is a team of skilled professionals for every department. Here, it is such an arduous task to put a show together. The artiste is expected to do everything from organising chairs, music, press clothes, and by the time the show nears, you are drained,” rues Dhananjayan. “While there are state-of-theart theatres for films, there is not a single decent theatre for performing arts. Even the Music Academy is so poorly equipped,” adds Shanta. How else would it be? Classical art is listed at 64th position in the list of priorities of the government of India. “All the money allocated for our industry goes into the pockets of the politicians. But, when it comes to showcasing the culture in a foreign land or to impress foreigners, it’s all about the glorification of classical dance for the government. However, despite all these predicaments, classical art and artists have survived thanks to the patronage of the middle-class and upper middle-class rasikas, and it will continue to,” muses Dhananjayan.
The most admirable quality of the Dhananjayans, is the chemistry they exude, that only seems to have become better even after over 50 years of marriage and 65 years of performing together. Eight-yearold Shanta was the first girl 13-year-old Dhananjayan met when he joined Kalakshetra in 1953. “I met her on October 5 when my guru Chandu Panicker brought me to Kalakshetra. He asked her to take care of me because she was the only one who could speak Malayalam. I couldn’t speak any other language. From that day to this moment, she has been taking care of me,” says an emotional Dhananjayan holding on to his better half. Having spent almost 15 years in the glorious cultural setting created by Rukmini Devi, the duo says Kalakshetra is where they learnt not only dance but stagecraft, aesthetics, discipline and about life itself. They credit the longevity of both their marriage and career to “discipline, devotion and dedication”.
However, like any other couple, they also playfully agree to disagree, when we ask them about the one thing they wish to change about the other. “He hates the fact that I stay up late and watch movies,” to which he quickly adds, “She watches all these useless films, they’re such a waste of time.” Shanta says it is this blunt honesty she likes the least about her husband. “He can be too honest. I believe you should be diplomatic at times,” says Shanta before Dhananjayan cuts in and adds with a laugh, “That’s why she’s Miss Goody Two-Shoes all the time.” For the nonce though, they say, “At the end of the day, it is all about letting go of differences and putting our relationship above everything else. We wish the younger generation would learn that.”