The Mind Of A Master

The Mind Of A Master

V. KARPAGALAKSHMI and later S. JANAKI probed the mind of Udupi Laxminarayana on different aspects of Bharatanatyam, like teaching, nattuvangam, dance interpretation, choreography, tradition and innovation. The conversations were in Tamil. The following are freely translated excerpts from his responses.

Profile of a dance master

It is much easier to be a musician. A dance master needs to learn many things to master the art: the Natya Sastra; dance; music; aesthetics; calculations needed to handle intricate jati-s; the purana-s which are the sources for imaginative sanchari-s; languages which one should know to be able to interpret abhinaya mumbers; the aharya aspect; and so on. In spite of knowing so much, a natyacharya does not command the same respect as a master musician. Where dance is concerned, honours are conferred usually only on the performing artists,- the guru who has trained the artists is usually not honoured similarly. And yet, when I am invited to give lecdems, I am introduced only as a teacher, ignoring the fact I was earlier a performing artist too. I am not talking only about me, but about all guru-s who face a similar situation. But I am happy that my disciples have been honoured.

 Teaching dance

I consider eight is the correct age to start learning dance; usually a child reaching this age can understand what the teacher says. I was compelled to take four or five year olds in the Narada Gana Sabha classes in order to satisfy the parents, but I told them I would not be pushed into hurrying the arangetram or the formal debut. Only on that condition I admitted young children. Generally, if I find that a student is not able to learn dance properly, I suggest in a nice way that it would be prudent for the student to discontinue.

The teacher should be kind and compassionate to the children while teaching. He should be able to create an interest in them for the art. Many young dancers who get married and go abroad start teaching there. They make recordings during their visits here and use them for teaching. It cannot be said that they all know enough to teach.

I learned a lot about teaching from guru Ellappa. Another source of inspiration was Balasaraswati. I have seen her in many performances conducted by Ellappa and I used to marvel at the fact she used to dance the same padam in a different manner on different days. This and my guru's approach to teaching gave me the idea to use varied prayoga-s for the same item.

A common complaint is that virtually all the dancers trained by a guru present many of the same songs, the same adavu-s and sanchari-s and that this makes the programmes uninteresting and affects audience turnout. How does one change the trend:

One part of my approach is to offer a differentiated menu to my students.

When I teach the same piece to different students, I make sure it is different for each person. The sanchari-s would be entirely different from person to person. I don't preplan the variations. I compose the variations right on the spot; ideas occur to me then and there because of the blessings of my guru to whom I pray before I start the lessons. I make changes not only in the sanchari-s but also in the jati-s and the movements for the swara-s. I gauge the capacity of each student while teaching adavu-s and this helps me in choosing the type of jati-s for the teermanam-s, etc. I take the build of the student also into consideration. When teaching a boy, I choose the kind of movements that would be proper for a male and that would save him from appearing effeminate.

I teach my students individually on a one-to-one basis. Only in my class at the Narada Gana Sabha did I teach a group. For the seniors it would be sufficient to explain what is to be done verbally, since they already know all the adavu-s. But, for beginners, I demonstrate what has to be done and how. I have set up groups of adavu-s, like tattadavu, nattadavu and so on, with different variations which can be employed in them. When a student learns them all, it would be enough to tell him or her to take a few adavu-s and string them together for a particular item. Many guru-s teach some 10 or 15 adavu-s only, and this becomes a limiting factor when choreography is undertaken. I have taught about 64 adavu-s to all my disciples. I teach them only these for about two years, but once the students have mastered these, teaching them specific compositions becomes easy. Of course, I tailor further teaching to suit the capacity of each student. In this, I am merely following the methods employed by my guru.

Because I have knowledge of music as well, I am able to make both the 'drisyam' [visual] and 'sravyam' [audio] aspects of Bharatanatyam interesting. There is a bhava for a tala as there is a bhava for a raga. Thus, I use misram for Siva tandavam and tisram to depict lalityam or grace, while kliandam is best suited for depicting yuddham or battle. There should be melody in uttering jati-s too. I discuss all these aspects with my students.


One who taught dance and conducted dance performances used to be called a nattuvan. Today that person, if a male, is more politely referred to as nattuvanar. [Sruti refers toa female fulfilling this role as a nattuvanari].

My approach to teaching has given me special insights into nattuvangam. My expertise in the field has been recognised. For example, I was invited by the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram to teach the art of conducting dance performances. I teach all the intricacies without reservation. I believe that one can dance Bharatanatyam without mridanga accompaniment but not without nattuvangam.

I call the jati-s as one would do the rhythmic syllables in konnakol. This was my guru's approach. He observed the way the great Konnakol Pakkiria Pillai vocalised the syllables and this experience influenced his own style of articulation. He uttered the jati-s with proper intonation and with the appropriate stress on vallinam and mellinam. After seeing me emulate his approach, my guru used to say that, I was his true successor in the art of conducting a performance.

Aesthetics should govern as well the use of the thattukazhi (the baton) and the cymbals (jalra). The thattukazhi, as well as the cymbals should be used or struck with attention to tonal variations and stresses in the proper places. I teach all this to my students.

There are different types of teermanam-s based on the five different jaati-s like chatusram, tisram, misram, khandam and sankeernam. One should learn the application of these jaati-s and the different tala-s; one must know where in the tala cycle to introduce the jaati-s.

There are different anga-s, like laghu, dhrutam and anudhrutam, for the seven tala-s. The five jaati-s are applied only to the laghu. If the five jaati-s are to be introduced in a single tala, calculations would be necessary to decide where the jaati-s should be introduced. There are specific formulas for this. For instance, in the Husseini swarajati

Mayyal kondu which is set to Roopaka tala, I interject Dhmva tala in tisra nadai, while the vocalist

continues to sing in Roopakam. The same rule would apply to the teermanam too. Many just end the teermanam, say in a tillana, with whatever is left of the tala cycle; this was not Ellappa's method. If it is done in misra jaati, it should be continued tillthe end of the teermanam. The nattuvanar should take all these into account. I follow these rules meticulously.

In Atimoham kondeney, the Adi tala varnam in Sankarabharanam raga, I have introduced all the five jaati-s in the trikala jati, starting with chatusram, then going on to tisram, misram, khandam and sankeernam. No one else has done this in a trikala jati in a varnam. One of the several meanings of the word varnam is 'jaati'; that is why I have introduced these varied jaati-s in the trikala jati. It is very difficult to tell the jati-s in one nadai and spell a different nadai with the other hand. But the mridanga accompanist and the dancer follow only the tala and not the jati in this case; the purpose of presenting two nadai-s in tandem is merely to display the skill of the nattuvanar.


Many think that upholding tradition means saying No to any change. I don't agree.

For me tradition means merely that I must follow the style taught to me by my gum, without changing the basics. Let me explain using an analogy. The train was invented to run on tracks; it continues to do so even today. But many changes have been introduced with respect to other aspects: electrification has rendered the steam engine virtually obsolete; new types of compartments have been constructed, with airconditioning in some cases; vestibule carriages have been introduced in some trains. Similarly, I believe we can introduce innovations which fall within the basic framework. I must add that I believe too that innovation is necessary not only to enable artists to express their individual conceptions but also to insure the art against the perils of stagnation.

In my own case, I have introduced a number of jati patterns of my own creation, but oldtimers will still be able to discern Ellappa's bani in them. I cannot say, however, that every disciple follows or retains his or her guru's bani. While I have followed in my guru's footsteps, many of Ellappa's other disciples have developed a totally different bani, with only superficial resemblances to the original, that too only here and there. Ramgopal, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Yamini Krishanmurti, Chandralekha and Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury are all Ellappa's disciples but they have built on the foundation laid by the gum and have each put an individual stamp of their own on their dance. I believe I am the only one following my guru's footsteps faithfully; and it is a fact that I alone conduct a programme of tribute to my gum, called Gum Charana Smaranam, annually.


To begin with innovation requires a curious mind, an interest in finding out why a certain thing is being done the way it is, or why something has disappeared. For example, I had read about pushpanjali in some text and asked my gum about it. He told me that, in earlier times, the devadasi dancers used to perform something like that but it had disappeared from their repertoire. He suggested that I research the subject and see what I could come up with. In the event, I collected some sloka-s and suggested they could collectively be called pushpanjali and presented at the beginning of a Bharatanatyam performance. There was a lot of criticism at first that I was deviating from tradition, but later on a number of dancers began offering pushpanjali in the place of alarippu. But I must explain that, in offering pushpanjali, each deity must be positioned at a specific place and the invocation should seek the blessings of each before prayer is offered to Ganapati.

I feel that we should not blindly accept everything we call tradition; that in fact we should constantly reflect upon tradition and established practices. But change or innovation must be preceded by deep reflection and adequate research and analysis where indicated. When I feel that a change or an innovation might be in order, I start by raising questions and try to think the possible answers.

For example: Why should the swara-s start with sa and why should the sollu start with tat di thorn nam, that is, why start with 'tat'. A plausible answer is: in Om tat sat, 'Om' is sruti, 'tat' is laya and 'sat' is swara.

Similarly, it is my view that the saptaswara-s, the saptatala-s and the 72 melakarta raga-s have, with regard to the number aspect, originated from the Gayatri mantra.

Scholars of the past, in writing treatises and prescribing rules, must have been inspired by similar speculations and deductions. Changes we effect as a result of our thought-processes today would likely become reference points for future generations.

I do not approve of the practice of giving new names to old items and calling it innovation. This is the case with an item called Nrityopaharam, which is merely a new name for the varnam given by a well-known dancer and guru; old wine in a new bottle is not innovation. According to the sastra-s, names should be meaningful, suitable (anvarthanama). Changes made should be meaningful. For example, at one time, performances used to start with a sabdam praising the king, like 'Krishnaraja salamurey'. Guru Ellappa thought 'salamurey' was out of place in modern times and replaced it with 'namostutey'.

By the way, the sabdam seems to have begun in the Maratha period. The nattuvanar, with the two percussionists players on either side of him, would move forward and backward along with the dancer. And to create the proper mood, the percussions would start with the sollu: Tatdhana dhandhana, tatdhimi dhimi dhimi, tajham jhana gina, tatdhimi dhimi kita, taam, tei tatha taam in Triputa tala. Because of this sound, it was called sabdam. This is the explanation given by Prof. P. Sambamoorthy


Abhinaya requires a proper understanding of both the text and sub-text of the song, a proper understanding of the inner meaning of the features or events to which references or allusions are made. Thus:

• There is a difference between Ramabana and Manmathabana, but most people move the hands/arms

in the same way for both and this is wrong. When Rama's arrow strikes, one would be wounded and bleed, but regrettably this is what many dancers show for Manmatha's arrow also. Manmatha's arrows are made of five flowers, those of aravinda or lotus, asoka, chootha or mango, navamallika or jasmine, and neelotpala or lily which blooms at night. Each signifies a particular stage in the progress of love between a couple. Moreover, Manmatha's bow is a bent sugarcane and its depiction does not call for the suggestion that it is made of hard wood as in the case of Rama's bow. Also, while it is correct to show Rama's arrows are kept in a quiver, it would not be right to do so with Manmatha's arrows made of flowers; if they were stuffed in a quiver, obviously they would be crushed.

• The phrase 'tapatraya harudai' occurs in the Todi varnamRoopamu joochi. Most dancers interpret it as suggesting mere suffering. But "traya" actually indicates three difficulties, namely those flowing from aadhyatmikam (sins committed in a previous birth), aadideivikam (calamitous or malefic effects of the five elements and the planets which are beyond our control), and aadibhoutikam (wrong deeds committed knowingly in the present life). This explanation conveyed through appropriate sanchari-s will be quite novel.

• Ravana was a very handsome man and hence was also known as 'Sundaravadana'. His knowledge, bhakti and beauty were without equal. He is also said to have had 10 heads. Would that not make him ugly? But the contradiction is more apparent than real. The true meaning of 'Dasakantharavana' is that he had influence in every direction, not that he had 10 heads, which represents a monstrous imagining.

• Shanmukha means not six faces or heads, but one who had the knowledge of all six sastra-s (Aaru arivu) even at a young age.

I can cite authoritative texts to back up these interpretations.

There are some other things too that choreographers and dancers should note.

I am anguished when dancers do abhinaya in a way that changes the meaning of the songs entirely. An example that comes to my mind is a performance of Devi neeye tunai, the Keeravani song which is basicall full of devotion, with a coquettish expression on the face. Another is to indicate Siva as formless while presenting Roopamu joochi, because the song contains description of Siva's beauty, as Sundareswarar and in the phrase 'marakoti sundarakara'. There is a sloka that says that if a dancer sings while performing, the effect would be totally different. Thus, when the lips move, it would affect the eyes too; when the lips smile, we would feel that the eyes are smiling also. If the feelings are not reflected through the eyes, hand gestures would be of no use.

Even during abhinaya, the feet should indicate the rhythm and the mood. The dancer should move around the stage and make the eyes of the viewers also to move around so that they do not feel bored.


Compositions which contained jati-s along with sahitya were called Kamaprabandha. According to a story I have heard, there was an expert on this song-form in the South and a Muslim king from the North invited him over to his court and learnt the Karnaprabandha-s from him. Having understood its structure, he composed a few and called them tarana, a song-form which is part of the Hindustani music repertoire even today. Attracted by the tarana, composers in the South created similar pieces and called them tillana. This is how I have heard the origin of tillana explained.

But I view the tillana from a different perspective. My explanation for the name 'tillana' is as follows: 'Ti' indicates Sakti or fire (thee); 'la' stands for Lakshmi; and 'na' for Navukkarasi or Saraswati. Possibly, tillana refers too to Siva dancing (na) in Tillai (til). Another explanation: 'Tein pol tithikkum lasyam' (lasya that is sweet like honey) = tillana.

I presented some of these thoughts in a seminar and many attending it accepted them as plausible.

Guru bhakti

I believe that whatever recognition I have achieved is due to the blessings of my guru. This was confirmed when, after I started conducting an annual programme to pay tribute to my guru Ellappa, I received several invitations to give lecture demonstrations, including two from the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, as well as to be an examiner for the Pondicherry University, the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda and the Eyal Isai Nataka Manram in Chennai.

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