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How natyam danced its way into Academy


Dance has come a long way at the Music Academy, where it made a tentative entry 75 years ago.

PIONEERS: E. Krishna Iyer

All interpretations of the history of Bharatanatyam agree on one thing — the role of the Music Academy in the renaissance of Bharatanatyam, beginning in 1931. The founder secretary E. Krishna Iyer piloted this project with conviction. Not alone, undoubtedly, for, the Academy had genuine thinkers, aesthetes and experts who endorsed classical dance's place on an equal pedestal with music, at a time when the future of the art was rather dim.

Public awareness on the "state of the art" had been kindled by media debates, which published arguments on who should dance, where and when. It was a turbulent period when social reformers demanded the banning of dance in all its traditional venues, including temples.

The performance by the Kalyani daughters, Rajalakshmi and Jeevaratnam, in the new habitat, the proscenium of the Music Academy, did not go unnoticed.

Gowri Ammal

It was the first step to re-invent a largely unknown tradition. A door was opened to showcase the dance of the Thanjavur Court. And who should take a peek into it, but the fiercely independent Rukmini Devi who saw another pair of dancers from the village of Pandanallur, Sabaranjitham and Nagaratnam, and promptly decided (at the age of 30 ) to learn to dance!

Distinctive honour

Mylapore Gowri Ammal, who was already 40, graced the Academy stage in 1932, followed by her teenaged pupil Balasaraswathi, who perhaps had the distinct honour of being a dancer associated with the Academy for the longest period, until she was finally crowned `Sangita Kalanidhi' in 1973.

The repertoire, largely dictated by the wise gurus, followed the traditional format of alarippu, jathiswaram, sabdam, varnam, padams and tillana. The musicality of dance surprised many viewers.

When Jayammal, daughter of Veena Dhanammal, sang a Kshetragna (love-lament) for Balasaraswathi's dance, the pundits who were immersed in the melodies of the Carnatic Trinity of composers, sat up to listen and nod their heads in approval.


Dance was getting appropriate recognition as a classical art! As the comely Kumbakonam Bhanumathi once told me, she and her cousin Varalakshmi had a meteoric rise as dancers, the one complementing the other in skill and virtuosity. All these dancers revered E. Krishna Iyer, trusted him and took the bold step to re-present their art in new venues, for a new audience.

Bhanumathi was invited to participate in festivals as far flung as Bombay and Calcutta, and made a name for herself.

That the Academy was quite liberal and open-minded in its approach to staging dance performances in the early years is evident in the fact that when non-hereditary dancers started learning under big gurus, their talent was suitably encouraged, even though they were novices in the field.

Vyjayantimala Bali

The first among these is the internationally renowned Hindustani vocalist, Lakshmi Shankar, then known as "Miss Lakshmi Sastri," first Brahmin disciple of Thanjavur Kandappa Pillai of Georgetown, Madras! Miss Kalanidhi (now Kalanidhi Narayanan) was to follow.

The doors of the Academy were also opened to a famous couple from Kerala, Guru Gopinath and his wife Thangamani, who created a special impact with their innovative "oriental" dances based on Kathakali and other Kerala traditions. Like a magnet, this couple attracted viewers.

Their pupils, like the Travancore sisters, Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, who sparkled on the silver screen, found their way to the Academy's stage, filling up the hall as no one else ever could.


In the early years, dancers were chosen to perform mostly on the basis of their apprenticeship with one or other famous guru.

Names to reckon with were Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai, Pandanallur Chockalingam Pillai and others. Many young students danced just once or twice at the Academy, for it was not customary for girls to take up dance as a career, and once they got married, they gave it up altogether.

While Balasaraswathi meticulously mentored by the Sanskrit scholar V.Raghavan, enthralled her audience year after year at the Academy, the young Kamala sprang up to occupy centrestage with her sprightly dances learnt from Ramaiah Pillai, to represent the new hopes for dance. Pandanallur Jayalakshmi came and went like a rare kurinji flower, for she retired after her marriage to the Raja of Ramnad.

Cinema connection

Sonal Mansing

Another star followed Kamala and that was the teenaged Vyjayanthimala. To these two goes the credit of popularising authentic Bharatanatyam through cinema.

While many aspects of Natya Sastra were made known to the public in the conference sessions of the Academy during the 1950s and 60s, and other styles of Indian dance by legends like Shambu Maharaj (Kathak) were introduced, the Academy followed an unwritten convention of keeping dance to a minimum representation.

By the 1960s, Bharatanatyam had become a well-established classical form, while unknown disciplines like Kuchipudi and Odissi were just beginning to be showcased. Whether it was a Yamini beckoning Krishna in the inimitable Kuchipudi style or a Sonal Mansingh doing an Odissi Tribhanga, the audience at the Academy were treated to small doses of the emerging pan-Indian classical dance.

Kumari Kamala.

Perhaps the 1970s and the early 80s saw the largest variety of dancers who made a mark with their individuality in Bharatanatyam. One after the other, my generation of dancers found our "arrival" on the Academy's stage welcomed. The public acknowledged the commitment of the new generation of dancers.

Soon, the long time secretary, musicologist T.S.Parthasarathy, helped many dancers add to their repertoire, invited a fresh name each year, and showcased dancer-scholars in the conference sessions. Under the dynamic T.T.Vasu, E.Krishna Iyer's centenary was celebrated with a dance festival featuring all the big names in Bharatanatyam, with suitable fanfare, in 1997. Kamala was honoured with the special Platinum Jubilee award.

Impressive dancers

The beginning of the 21st century augurs well for dance.

Generation next has produced a sizable number of impressive dancers who have committed themselves to a full time career in solo dance. The clamour for platforms continues, for the "supply" of Bharatanatyam dancers far outnumbers the "demand."

Kumbakonam Bhanumati (left) and Varalakshmi

With new themes and original concepts, often, but not always without diluting the strength of classicism, dancers have nurtured their careers rather successfully. Many dancers have handled their role as teachers with aplomb.

Without doubt, a legacy discovered less than a 100 years ago deserves to be carefully handled. E. Krishna Iyer may not have dreamt in 1931 that Bharatanatyam will go such a long way in the modern world and become almost synonymous with Indian dance. That alone perhaps, is enough cause for celebration.

The Academy acknowledges the occasion with a special one-week festival.

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