Raghunath Marie Antonin Manet, a Pondicherry born Indian classical musician and dancer, is an adept and master of the classical dance form “bharatha natyam,” equally adept and proficient as a musician on the Veena. Dividing his time between Puducherry (the tamil nomenclature Pondicherry has reverted back to) in India and Paris in France, the artiste has been one of the de facto cultural ambassadors of India, taking the exquisitely blended fusion of the classical bharatanatyam dance form and mellifluous melodies of carnatic music to audiences world-wide, and gaining much approbation for his creations. In January this year, we met Raghunath at Bengaluru, along the sidelines of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2017, where he was honoured with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, bestowed upon him by the President of India Shri Pranab Mukerjee. We have chosen to profile him for you.

Born in 1968 to Manet Leon and Marie Geanne, in the former french colony of Pondicherry, Raghunath Manet has gained recognition across the world today as probably the only masterful musician playing the classical carnatic instrument of the veena, who is also brilliant as a bharathanatyam dancer. Raghunath’s connect with the classical arts begins with his grandfather Gnanamani Pillai, his first Guru, accepting him as a disciple and initiating him into the world of classical vocal singing, the flute and the violin, at the tender age of six. Enchanted by the music and dance that suffused his childhood years, young Raghunath goes on to disciple under the tutelage of the late Pondicherry M S Nathan, as he joins his elder sisters Jayanti and Vasanthy – both danseuses of some renown in their own right. As his family moves to France, he continues learning and fine-honing his dance under the able wings of his sisters, before choosing to tavel back to the Adayar Kalakshetra in later years to train under gurus Chidambaran Kaumati Sankara Iyer, Rajeshwari Padmanaban and Ranganayaki Rajagopalan.

Further on, in his quest for an icon – where he sought an iconic male dancer who he could adopt as a role model, he wends his way to London, to intern with Guru Ram Gopal, the legendary and iconic male dancer of the 1950s, who’s ‘Eagle Dance’ Manet is the only dancer to perform for world audiences today.

The technique he has evolved over time, and the pristine purity of his styles, have taken together made him by far one of the finest exponents of Bharata natyam on the world stage today. Also being an excellent musician, he intuitively knows how to create that brilliant fusion between dance and music, which if we may say, seems to be the very secret ingredient of his great ensembles, ballets and performances. Spinning out myriad adavus through his dance movements, the beauty and grace of his compositions hark back to the classical elegance of temple iconography, and bring alive the sculptural beauty of temple architecture.

Raghunath openly ascribes his inspiration to the ancient temple carvings, and credit them for having carried him to the zeniths of creativity in his chosen fields of expression – that of dance and music. Devoting his energies to a deep study of traditional dance repetoire, his work has been exemplified with his successful unvieling of numerous forgotten dance gestures, giving a fresh lease of life to them. His dance movements, drawn from his keen observation of Shiva’s postures as represented in ancient temple scriptures and iconography, make up the larger part of his public shows. These movements are oft marked by extreme swiftness, grace, a sense of virility and a mysterious lightness of being, all evoking a superior aesthetic pleasure in his audiences.

In all likelihood, Raghunath is probably the only known Indian artiste personally performing both Bharathanatyam and playing music on the veena. Not at all surprising that many great vidwans of carnatic classical music, of the likes of Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Guruvayur Durai, T K Murthy, Palghat Raghu, Tiruvarur Bakthvatchalam, Hari Shankar, Subbash Chandra, Munish, Madurai T Srinivasan, E M Subbramaniam, et al., have all given him accompaniment to him in producing his CD’s. In Eurpore, Raghunath has collaborated with western masters like Antoine Bourseiller, Didier Lockwood, Richard Jalliano, the legendary Jazz master Archie Sheff and Michel Portal. He is also credited with being the very first Indian Choreographer to work on “Les pecheurs de perles” produced by Antoine Bourseiller of the Opera in France. Raghunath has the distinction of also being the First Indian dancer to have performed at the Opera De Paris and the Turin Opera.

Raghunath is a recipient of many scholarships, fellowships and titles, both from India and France … (“Natiya Siromani”,”Natya Nayakan”,”Natya Bharani”) for his outstanding services to Indian Art. From France, in recognition for his contributions to art and culture, dance and music, came a Gold Medal and a first class diploma, in the form of the Chevalier Award, which makes him one of France’s Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Some of Raghunath Manet’s milestone performances of the past decade include ‘New Morning Paris’ – an Indian dance and music show with Archie Shepp, ‘Tri Murti ou 7 Dances of Shiva’ – produced with Michel Portal, ‘Lille 3000‘ – with Carolyn Carlson, ‘Bollywood Ballet’ – at the festival d’Avignon, Music CD ‘Karnatik’ – with Dr. Balamurali Krishna, ‘Babaji Dreams’ with Shivamani – the drummer par excellence, ‘Pondi-chérie’ – with Indra Rajan, to name a few. Raghunath has also been active in the french film scene. While it might be a mite beyond the scope of this article to carry a full filmography, it might indeed be apt to mention a few here.

Among some of the remarkable productions he has partaken in ‘Perduto amor’ of Franco Battiatto (2003), ‘Chidambaram’ – with l’Opéra-Bastille, ‘Evening Ragas’, ‘Omkara’ – with Didier Lockwood, ‘Dance of Shiva’ – the first documentary film by Raghunath & Didier Bellocq that was presented in the Cannes 2013 Festival, and ‘Diamant Noir’ directed by the Arthur Harari – recepient of the best french film award, are noteworthy.

In the year 1998, Raghunath had taken the initiative of founding a dance and music school in Puducheri, under the name and style of ‘TALA SRUTI.’ And it was under this banner that he chose to carry his graceful silhouette to screens and stages across the world, appearing in festivals.

Raghunath’s keen interest in South India’s classical dance forms led him to delve so deeply into the lives and times of temple dancers as well as the auras and mystique surrounding them, that he opted to take it up as his doctoral research, and ended up doctoring in in Cultural Anthropology. He has written a few books as well. For instance, a book about the Villinour temple dancers (prefaced by Alain Danielou) – “Les Bayaderes”; on bharathanatyam – “Bharata Natyam” – (prefaced by Caroloyn Carlson); one on carnatic music – “Musique Carnatique,” prefaced by Dr. Balamurali Krishna; and “The Seven Dances of Shiva” (or “Shiva et ses 7 danses” in French), prefaced by Gean Claude Carrierre, his fourth. This book, published by his dance academy in Puducheri, is an introduction to Shiva – the godhead who inspired the French sculptor Rodin. In this book, Raghunath depicts the relationship between Shiva and dance, describing the five basic functions of Shiva’s seven dances. “Dance is central to Shaivism. I wanted to understand why Shiva is the king of music and rhythm,” he says of his book.

In the landmark documentary film ‘The Dance of Shiva’ that Manet made in collaboration with Didier Bellocq, which went to the Cannes Festival in 2013, Manet had explored the essence behind the Cosmic Dance of Shiva. Talking abbout the subject matter of the film, Manet says: “There are three questions I wanted to answer. Who is Shiva and why is he dancing? What is his philosophy?” The film had garnered much appreciation from european media, though the focus was more on ‘100 years of Indian cinema’. Monet reminisces: “In the midst of big stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai there was small me was with my small film. I think it was a necessary film, not just for the audience but for me as a dancer as well …”

On his having opted for intense traditional training in both dance and music, he says: “One cannot just talk about dance without talking about music. They are inseparable. If you are a dancer without the knowledge of rhythm and melodies, you can never be a compleat dancer. I think it is of utmost importance to be a multifaceted artiste. I tell my students the same.”

“I am training children in orphanages in Puducherry. I want to give the art back to the poor people because I believe that everybody should be trained in arts and music,” he said. He is keen to take a troupe and perform in different places, taking the identity of Puducherry to the world. “I am identified as an artiste from Puducherry. Earlier, when I performed in the USA or at Japan, people would ask where Puducherry is. Now they know. I want to contribute to the identity of Pondicherry,” he says. Manet adds that Puducherry with its French culture and ancient Tamil historical legacy is at the root of his dance and music. “The French have contributed significantly to preserving traditional Indian arts in Puducherry. They did spend a lot of money,” says Raghunath, who has studied both Tamil and French.

Manet avers that he draws his dancing soul from the erstwhile temple dancers of southern India. Talking about his Guru, he says: “My master was MS Nathan, who was attached to the Villianur temple, an abode of Shiva, in Puducherry, and by corollary, the Devadasi tradition. So I would not be wrong if I say I learnt Bharatanatyam from the devdasi dancers of the Villianur temple.” When we demur on the point that didn’t India, upon independence, abolish the tradition of temple dancing, he educates us that the tradition continued in southern India until as late as 1984-1985.

Talking about “Omkara,” a seventy-hour staggered face-off that melded Western jazz with Indian classical, he said that more than any “fusion”, it was rather more of a “confrontation.” Adding further, he likened it to learning about how different cultures understand each other’s music and dance through their own art forms. “I like to be creative in the spirit of our second century Tamil epic, the ‘Silappathikaram,’ from Sangam literature that teaches a performer to be creative each and every moment. I do not like to interpret traditions but improvise,” Manet said.

Asked to talk more about his learning years, Raghunath says: “At 17, I went to the Kalakshetra for eight years, and later matured under the guidance of legendary Indian dancer Ram Gopal for five years. I danced for Ram Gopal till his last days in the hospital in London, and I hold the rights to most of his archives and documents,” Raghunath says. He would like to utilise this material from Ram Gopal’s archives for making a documentary movie on the legacy of Indian dance and music. Apropos, here it is worth mentioning that Raghunath had also danced for Chandralekha’s ‘Contemporary Dances of India’ for three years. Balancing the veena – known as the world’s oldest instrument – and Bharata natyam is not all that difficult for Raghunath. “I can do it because our traditions are so strong. I began as a dancer in childhood, but my parents sent me to learn music,” he said.

At present Raghunath is busy preparing to go to Cannes, for the festival, where the lions are likely to roar for him as his short, ‘the Dance of Shiva, might just be bestowed an award. And yes, he will also be presenting his latest film ‘Karma,’ which tells the story of a seeker’s path to salvation through the arts and crafts.

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