Dancer-singer Raghunath Manet authors first French translation of Thiruvasagam hymns

Manet says he sees his work, Le Tiruvasagam de Manikkavasagar, as a labour of love

For someone who has performed at some of the world’s most revered venues and maintains a crammed trophy cabinet, dancer-musician Raghunath Manet has an insatiable appetite for pushing new frontiers of artistic accomplishment.

Manet, who alternates between Paris and his French Quarter home in Puducherry these days, has pursued eclectic creative impulses that straddle the worlds of Bharatanatyam, veena, choreography, jazz fusion and film-making. Now, the artiste has authored what would be the first-ever French translation of Thiruvasagam, the volume of hymns composed by 9th century Saivite saint-poet Manikkavasagar.

Though the inspiration for the roughly 150-page “Le Tiruvasagam de Manikkavasagar” came while performing several years ago at the Ambalathadayar Madam Nagalinga Swami Siddhar Jeeva Samadhi temple in the city, which is believed to enshrine the original Thiruvasagam palm-leaf scriptures, Manet is inclined to see his work as a labour of love, as another natural outcome of his “perpetual service” to Lord Siva.

“Being a male dancer, I have been always attracted to male repertoire in the sense that I used to perform a lot on the theme of Siva. When you touch the theme of Siva, you touch the Saiva Siddhanta, the philosophy of Siva at a subconscious level”, said Manet, whose documentary film with Didier Bellocq, “Dance of Siva”, was presented at Cannes in 2013.

Capturing the cosmic, the philosophical and the poetic essence in the French translation was an arduous task, he says. His reference material spanned a range of works on Manikkavasagar, including the first English translation by Rev. G.U. Pope and Tamil-to-Tamil interpretations.

“I hope my translation of the hymns that have embedded an entire philosophy, reaches a large section of the French-speaking population, which is second only to the English-speaking demographic,” he said.

For someone who embraced Bharatanatyam and the veena to inhabit a traditionally women-dominant space, Manet says he has always felt that dance and music were entwined worlds, one incomplete without the other.

Manet was just six when his grandfather Gnanamani Pillai and first guru took him in as a disciple for lessons in violin, flute and vocal music. “However, it was not easy to sign up for dance as a child…in fact, the first resistance to the idea and reprimands came from my own family,” he recalls.

A few years later, he would train under accomplished dancer M.S. Nathan of Villianur and practise along with his siblings Jayanti and Vasanthy to hone the skills and continue the same after moving to France. He learnt the veena from Rajeshwari Padmanabhan and would return to train in Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale.

‘Constant updating’

Manet has developed a distinct template of the choreographed concert-performance that he had taken to all corners of the world. Art, he says, needs constant updating to stay contemporarily relevant.

In the role of a cultural ambassador, he has won several accolades and awards. The Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award (PBSA) 2017 presented by the President of India, the "Officier des Arts et des Lettres" (2016) for promoting Indian arts and culture in France and the "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" from the French Ministry of Culture have the pride of place on his showcase.

Manet’s artistic collaborations have involved stalwarts in the East and West, from M. Balamuralikrishna, T.V. Gopalakrishnan and Umayalpuram Sivaraman to American jazz legend Archie Shepp, dancer Carolyn Carlson and French performers such as Didier Lockwood and Richard Galliano.

“I am the sum of influences of so many masters and I was fortunate to have performed with and imbibed from,” says Manet, who once travelled all the way to London to meet master Ram Gopal and work with him for a few years.

The artiste’s forays also include his association with films, including Diamant Noir by Arthur Harari and Le journal d’un séducteur by Daniel Dubroux with Jean-Pierre Léaud.

He has also done extensive research on the Devadasis, temple dancers, and the iconography of temples using archival material in France—he has authored a doctoral thesis and book, “Les bayadères, danseuses sacrées du temple de Villenour’’ on the devadasi traditions of Puducherry.

“My mission is to restore to Puducherry its deserved pedestal in the temple dance-music heritage”.

His school, Tala Sruti, has about 150 students, including children in orphanages in the city, spread across the world.

In between the freewheeling chat, he turns performative. His eyes light up and face shines in expressive abhinaya as he breaks into a Balamurali Krishna tillana when he recalls the times with the guru. At another point, Manet interrupts himself to dance in front of the large Nataraja statue, which, more than being another living room show-piece, is quite the fulcrum of his life and art.

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