Wednesday, 15 July 2015


Dance Yatra
Song and dance
I have always loved every piece of music I have danced to. This is also because from my early student years I chose the Varnams and other items my Gurus taught me. When I  started with Guru Ellappa  I learnt what I wanted to learn and as luck would have it, he also enjoyed teaching them to me because he was rather pleased that I could sing, and also appreciate his inimitable singing . Those were the years of my maturing as a performing artiste. The sheer joy of dancing a great repertoire enthused me enough to just do it without any set motive of a profitable career. 

The Useni Swarajathi with a complex footwork pattern in the charanam comprising of the seven Talas was my first work with Ellappa. With Charu  's sweet singing, my performance of this great composition became impressive enough for Sabhas like Krishna Gana Sabha and Yagnaraman to invite me to perform almost immediately thereafter . I always took the Varnam seriously, but learnt not to dance the piece in too slow a tempo . That is Ellappa 's style. He conducted the recital always at a brisk pace. Mohamana in Bhairavi raga, Dhanike in Todi raga, Saminirammanave in Kamas, all became the sparkling core of my repertoire in a very short time. The singing by  Charu of these pieces was the envy of every dancer who was interested in the classical repertoire . 
People who knew the intricacies of music and dance and their magical harmony in Bharatanatyam often remarked : We did not know whether to see the dance or to hear Charu's singing. I think what they meant was that they appreciated both. I took it all as a compliment, and in my stride.
Then came a masterpiece which Ellappa taught me : the Ada Tala, Bhairavi Varnam Viriboni. The way the dance was composed, including the tisra  nadai of the charanam , was so delightful that I enjoyed dancing it and received a lot of appreciation. The important thing I wish to recall is the fact that I danced effortlessly and made even the most complex parts look easy. I also revived the old Navaragamalika Varnam which Sankari had taught me in the style of guru Kittappa. At a performance in the Music Academy with Charu  's bright idea, I repeated the Chittaswaram in Tisra Nadai. When this was noticed and complimented by Vidwan D K Jayaraman, I felt very pleased that a connoisseur appreciated this nuanced Nrtta.
In my early performances great Vidwans were always in the audience. I think that they were interested in seeing this combination of music and dance , Charu and myself, and felt it was a special treat! And they were always generous in their praise. I recall MLV, DK Jayaraman, K V Narayanaswamy, Balamuralikrishna, Maharajapuram Santhanam, and other vidwans attending my performances at different times. 

MLV was of course "family", being Charu' s guru. She delighted all with her speech to felicitate me on the occasion of my receiving the Nritya Chudamani title in Krishna Gana Sabha. About that event later! DKJ was also close to my family and a guru of Charu's. KVN knew the dance of Balasraswathi! At the peak of his career Santhanam, also close to my family because of his father Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer 's friendship with my grandparents in Thanjavur, came to see my dance feature Tyagaraja Ramayanam. I had hardly exchanged a few words with him before this event. And received a surprise call from him the next day when he reviewed the entire show for about half an hour ! The one thing he said which stays in my mind : those songs will never again be the same for me !Such was his genuine appreciation! 
I think the appreciation of high aesthetes always mattered the most to me. At one of my demonstrations in the Music Academy, I did Sanchari for the phrase "Ajanu Bahu" from the Madhyamavathi Kriti of Tyagaraja  " Nadu  Pai belikeru". The idea for this elaboration came from my brother Balu. He was an aesthete par excellence and I relied on his suggestions and valued his approval. At the end of this demonstration K Chandrasekaran a Vice President of the Academy was asked by TS Parthasarathy the secretary , to make his expert's comments. Chandrasekaran spoke in his usual knowledgeable vein. What I remember are a few  words......" it was worthy of a Bala! " Coming from him, a true fan of Balasraswathi , one can assume it was a high accolade! Many people thought perhaps I had learnt from her. They did not realize that my influence was from Ellappa, who had in fact conducted her performances for many years. And  my dance moves were a carefully crafted original technique evolved by me to harmonise  with the music I chose.

Guru Ellappa's repertoire was special. He had worked with Kandappa Pillai the Guru of Balasarasawati, and had mastered that Tanjore style . Looking back I think my trips crossing a railway gate to West Mambalam to his modest house to learn were worth every bit of trouble. He taught me Alarippus in all the Nadais accompanied by suitable Thiruppugazh songs in the same rhythm. 
Jathiswarams too were plenty, including his own compositions. Then the Sabdams, and Padams in Telugu and Tamil. He liked to teach his own Thillanas. And then the Kanada raga Gowri Nayaka. Viruthams and Slokas too were in my repertoire. My maturing as an artist was under the inspiring Ellappa. It was not an arduous task. It was an easy and enjoyable exercise because I sailed with the wind as it were, and like fresh sea breeze, every dance I learnt put new energy in me both physically and psychologically .  A profundity entered my dance. I  just danced .

Friday, 13 February 2015

New Indian Express article

THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS Chennai, February 11 2015

A solo artiste, city-based dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan is one of the foremost exponents of bharathanatyam, specialising in abhinaya. With the increase in group and thematic productions, the art of expressing may have taken a backseat. However, Lakshmi believes in its importance and appeal.

Comparing it to Hollywood actor Marlon Brando’s style of method acting, she says that it is rather the art of subtlety. “It is about the subtlety in showing emotions in a suggestive way. It is a kind of method acting, just like underplayed acting by Marlon Brando. But I have been in touch with it and the songs that demand it. I learnt them, and teach musicians too. Today, people tell me it is a dying art. But once something starts dying, you can’t revive it,” she says.

With intensive training when she was in class one, Lakshmi, who hails from an artistic family, came under the guidance of Kausalya, her first dance teacher. Later, she was under the tutelage of Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai in the Thanjavur bani. Lakshmi learnt Kuchipudi from legendary Vempati Chinna Satyam. “I thought one should always know other related styles. Kuchipudi is a parallel dance form and has a different repertoire, tempo and movements,” she says.

After a degree in English literature, her artistic side got another vent for exploration. With research fellowships and extensive work on the temple dance tradition of South India in the 70s, she soon translated the paper into a book. The book titled Bharatanatyam The Tamil Heritage covered volumes of topics from the sillapaddhikaram to other parallel connections like temples, kings, etc. Painstakingly researched, she had met some of the last of the devadasis who were then alive in Thanjavur, Kumbakonam and Chennai. Later, another book on the devadasis titled Women of Pride, interspersed the tradition which existed over the ages, with ancient texts and courtesan composer links, from the dancer’s point of view. She says, “Many told me they understood the concept better when they read the book and there was a positive view about it. Each age had a different viewpoint about devadasis. It is the process of social viewpoint, moral viewpoint, law, justice and everything that came together to say that the tradition should stop. There is always a social stigma attached to the last days of the tradition. Even the biggest empires were rubbish bins, in the last days,” she says.

Lakshmi adds that now that the dance form survives, it may not be right to say it was appropriated from the devadasis. “It is not appropriation; we didn’t take it from them, stopped them from performing and then danced at the same place. Urbanisation and shifting was a natural process. If it is known worldwide, it is because of the generation that came after 1947. It had such a style and appeal, it crossed barriers. Many took it to Gujarat and Kolkata. People like Indrani Rehman became Miss India and she performed bharathanatyam and made it global. Several South Indian actresses took it to Bollywood. We owe it to the pioneers. I think people like me have contributed to it enormously for the last 50 years to keep it intact. We learnt from the gurus and had no interactions with the devadasis. We are not doing ritual dance. Today, we have festivals in temples. It is art for art’s sake,” she says.

Seeing Tradition in a different Light

With famous productions like Banyan Tree, choreographed in the late 90s, Lakshmi‘s repertoire as a dancer has been vast and unique. Banyan Tree, which traces the history of bharathanatyam, toured the US. Lakshmi says that she is hoping to revive it. Later, Chaturanga, which was choreographed on the occasion of the 50th year of Independence, looked at four aspects of freedom, using Bharathiyar’s songs. Vidya Sundari and her production on epic women displayed her penchant for a difference within the limits of tradition. The latter focused on Devaki, who longs to be with her child Krishna, and King Dasharatha’s wife Kaushalya, who is anguished after being separated from her son Rama. Her other production on women poets of India was staged at the Delhi International Festival. She chose Karaiakal Ammaiyar, Muthu Pazhani, a devadasi from Thanjavur (she had composed a song on Krishna, who is distraught after being separated from Radha), Akka Mahadevi, Avvaiyar and Meera (MS Subbulakshmi’s Hari Tum Haro). An off shoot of her wide research, Lakshmi has presented lectures on different topics, the latest one being about the 1,000-year-old Thanjavur temple.

Monday, 9 February 2015


I virtually stumbled upon this great dance style in 1967/8. Driving around Panagal Park after a usual visit to the Nalli showroom I saw a board 'Kuchipudi Art Academy'. I parked outside and just went in to see what this school was all about. I had seen just one Kuchipudi performance in Bombay conducted by Guru Acharyalu, for the dancer Sudha Doraiswamy and it made an impression. But I never imagined I would one day learn this style of dance. Thank God one is adventurous in one's twenties. A brief meeting with a tall elegant Telugu speaking gentleman clad in traditional Dhothi and Jibba, interrupting his class(!), led to my joining the school the next day. That is how informally Vempatti Chinnna Satyam became my Kuchipudi guru. One year later I performed the whole repertoire.... And played Satyabhama in his dance drama Krishna Parijatham! Thereafter I performed full length Kuchipudi recitals, and also did select Kuchipudi dances during the second half of my Bharatanatyam recitals with the exciting costume change.....!

Many even today do not know what Kuchipudi dance is. Well, that is another story. This past season, writers visiting from abroad asked me where they could see a good Kuchipudi performance. Considering one of the great Kuchipudi Gurus of the twentieth century, Vempatti Chinna Satyam lived and ran his school successfully for more than five decades in this city, it seemed odd that this style was not featured prominently in the Sabhas. However, I myself
did get to relish some really impressive Kuchipudi talent in mid January.

The most touching and arresting impression was made by none other than the current Guru of the Vempatti school.....Vempatti Ravi Shankar, son of Chinna Satyam.  He has been in the field as a dancer and teacher now for decades. And, to my utter delight, he has truly arrived now as a Guru. He is a master of his craft and to my special satisfaction, his singing is impeccable. I always think musical expertise is so essential to conduct a dance performance. He fits the bill. And as for his choreography....he follows his father's style in all the minute details  and comes up with classic pieces.
The pleasant surprise for me is the superb dancing of his wife Priyanka. There is a body language which defines Kuchipudi. I experienced it in my learning from guru Chinna Satyam. It is a fluidity of both movement and stance which is very different from Bharatanatyam. This young dancer knows it well, and brought that special authentic touch to the recital. A range of dances were performed with grace, perfect co-ordination, precise footwork and pleasing expressions. The Tarangam is as elaborate as a Varnam in this style and it has the added attraction of dancing on the edge of the brass plate. Priyanka held her poise through this, and brought a beguiling charm to the two Padas, one of Annamayya and the other of Kshetrayya.
Two others who are in training with Ravi Shankar shone in their performances. One is Deepika Potarazu who is an American-born teenager from Washington DC , full of vibrant energy, and a remarkable sense of dance . She is a Kuchipudi exponent in the making. The other is Yamini Saripalli, who is also from Washington , a mature dancer who did complete justice to the Vempatti school in her performance.  Credit goes both to the Guru who has maintained a high standard of technique and a carefully chosen repertoire, and to the hard work of these dancers. They are united in keeping the reputation of Kuchipudi dance in tact.
Vempatti Ravishankar should be celebrated not only for his expertise as a Guru, but also his equipoise in coping with the trials of health to give the joy of dance so generously to all his students.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Aesthetic principles do not age

Once upon a time, Padams and Javalis as well as Viruttams and Slokams were the most anticipated pieces during the second half of concerts. Following my Guru Kanjivaram Ellappa's style of singing, I was able to learn many classic pieces composed by masters and for forty years have included them as a highlight and not as fillers in the second half of my dance recitals. The exact tempo for a Padam in thisra triputa tala, composed by Kshetragna, is most vital for BHAVA in Abhinaya. My guru emphasised this aspect  to great effect. The next was proper pronunciation of the language of the padam. He always used to warn us that a small mispronunciation would change the whole meaning of the song. And then came the studied and subtle " Sangathis " which were permitted. Singing these nuances were tricky, and demanding. The BHAVA inherent in the small phrases have guided not only my movement but also my facial expressions. With a vast repertoire I have  been committed to sharing these old treasures with diverse audiences, here and abroad. With careful planning and with new additions to the repertoire an entire concert of Abhinaya has been my forte in recent times.

Similarly a Javali had to be handled with the correct tempo, often faster than a Padam, but very subtle in the rendering of Sangathis, with the correct pronunciation, in order to bring out the meaning both in song and dance.

As for Slokas and Viruttams, my Guru had a repertoire which was challenging to me as a dancer. A Thayumanavar viruttam with philosophical meaning needed a choice of ragas to enhance the core ideas. One was not free to make up a Ragamalika of random ragas. He chose, in the style of temple bards, ragas like Harikambodhi, Atana, Natabhairavi, Sahana and so on. When we performed Sanskrit verses from texts like the Krishnaleela Tarangini, the core ideas were enhanced by the way it was sung which in turn influenced the Abhinaya that brought the music to visual dimensions.

A considerable degree of scholarship is needed to gain a repertoire of the classic Padams, Javalis and Viruttams.The exploration of the true depth in their meaning takes years of dancing them or singing them. There are no short cuts to evolved and poignant Abhinaya.  The underlying aesthetic principles do not go out of fashion.  A taste for that kind of music first needs to be cultivated. The real work is in internalizing the meaning and then sharing both melody and mood through inspired song and dance. Such artistry would leave a lasting impression on a sensitive listener and viewer. After all, great artists have shown the way, and it is up to the present day Vidwans and mature dancers to study the deeper aspects more seriously. Aesthetic principles never go out of fashion.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Re-visiting a queen!

The most enigmatic character in Tamil history is the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi of the tenth century. I knew little about her until, at the suggestion of the great musician Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer whom we used to address and refer to as Semmangudi Mama, we visited the famous temple of Konerirajapuram. 

It is a small village, a beautiful Agraharam inhabited by the Brahmin community known as "Vathima". Mama belonged to this sect and was quite proud of his lineage. He told me to visit one of the largest Nataraja bronzes in this temple dedicated to Shiva as Uma Maheswara. To my utter delight and amazement the temple offered more than the big Nataraja to feast our eyes on. A gated corridor has the finest bronzes of Shiva as Kalyanasundara, Tripuranthaka, Bikshatana and so on. One can just stand there mesmerized by the sheer beauty of these images.

This temple is one of many built by the queen Sembiyan Mahadevi (925-1006). She was the wife of the Chola king Gandaraditya, was widowed in her teens and spent a life of piety, building temples, commissioning bronzes, donating enormously to various temples and putting the stamp of her "style" on all the artistic and architectural features. What a woman! She lived to the age of eighty-one and was the mother of Uttama Chola.

Inscriptions confirm the temples she built and renovated. They are many, with Konerirajapuram being the foremost, as also Aduturai, Kuttalam, Mayavaram, Tirukkodikaval, Vriddachalam, Tiruvarur Achaleswarar, and others. The temples are remarkable in architectural style for their simplicity. It is the bronzes which are said to have come from the Sthapathis and their Pattarais or ateliers which she patronised that bear the mark of  extraordinary skill in execution. Beyond the skill of the Sthapathi, one can see and feel beauty of a divine nature in these sacred images.

To commemorate her life, a later Chola king named a village Sembiyan Mahadevi after her, built a temple there and also created an image of her to be honoured and worshipped in the temple. An image exists today in this temple. But, it is not the original. The original Sembiyan Mahadevi statue is now in the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Many experts believe that what was labelled in the gallery as Devi or Parvathi from Sembiyan Mahadevi is actually the portrait statue of the queen.

I took time from my busy visit to Washington in mid September 2014 for the UTSAV dance event, and went to see the queen in the Freer Gallery. Spent a while just looking at the image and imagining her life more than a thousand years ago. Here are images captured in my iPhone. Do visit this queen. My friend Michael Wood thinks she may in fact have been responsible for popularising the Nataraja bronze image which became a cult thereafter. What an idea!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Nidish and Indu, trained in Kalakshetra have arrived!

Dancing duos are pretty much welcome. One, the stage is filled with the presence of two. Variety provides an interesting visual. And when it is a husband and wife team, the harmony is very attractive indeed.

Nidish and Indu, trained in Kalakshetra have arrived! They are perfect as a pair of dancers and bring delight to the stage in their well coordinated dance performance.

Dancing for an hour in a festival they themselves organised, this couple were a delight to watch. Perfect technique, good understanding, delicate movements, firm footwork and visible involvement made their show a fine performance of well regulated Kalakshetra style. That does not imply that they had no original moves. They did, and that is what made the performance enjoyable.

The invocation Alarippu set the pace. Papanasam Sivan's Varnam in Sriranjini was uncluttered in presentation. The Nrtta was precise and elegant. The alternate moves by the two dancers worked well. Addressing Muruga, they were both emissaries of the Nayika. In a controlled manner, they took turns to entreat the Lord to come to his beloved. What I like is that they did not stray from the main thrust of the lyrics and indulge in narratives.

A Padam of Sarangapani by Nidish was rather light in treatment. But it seemed to fit the idea of a playful Krishna....after all Krishna did play with the Gopis. Parulanamata by Indu was subdued. The two came together for the Thillana which was quite brilliant in movement, footwork and attractive pauses. Nidish and Indu are certainly worth watching. They have a sense of the beauty of movement and show their skills in a natural spontaneous manner.

Both were in subtle white and gold costumes. Well, with our stages and lighting, this is not the best option. A touch of colour could have been added even after the Varnam to provide a change. I know that Indu's mother makes up her costumes. Well, she would agree with me!

They had a good orchestra with Balakrishnan singing with depth and also handling the Nattuvangam. He is an asset to a dance performance indeed. Vijayaraghavan did a skillful accompaniment on the mridangam with Rijesh Gopalakirishnan providing good support on the violin.