Kamala at seventy five
Famed in India as “Kumari Kamala” during her prime as a dancer, the acclaimed Bharatanatyam exponent has dedicated about seven decades of her life to its propagation. Endowed with a rare and uncommon prowess at the art, her name has become synonymous with the dance form. She began performing classical dances in positions of her arms and hands,many Indian films in several Blooming in an alien land while her eyes darted in each languages, including Hindi,since the late 1930s at the age of five, till about the mid1960s.
One of her best known films includes, Naam Iruvar in Tamil, based on the patriotic songs of Tamil poet Subramania Bharati. Kamala has given thousands of stage performances in India, and was the country’s unofficial cultural envoy to many different countries. At the Indian government’s behest, she performed before many visiting foreign dignitaries to India, including President Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth. Kamala Narayan received the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1968 and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1970. The elderly artist who turned 75 on 14th June this year, has been living in the New York metropolitan area since 1980 and runs a dance school, Sri Bharata Kamalalaya.
On the occasion of the 28th anniversary of Kamala’s dance school in New York, UMA DANDAPANI gives us a glimpse into Kamala’s life in the United States. Kamala Narayan seemed to morph from deities chiselled in graceful stances inside a temple sanctum. Images in black and white from decades ago, of the young and lithe dancer captured in statuesque poses, became vivid and real, as she choreographed for a recent show by the students of her school, at the Yonkers Public Library auditorium in Westchester County, New York. Her school, Sri Bharata Kamalalaya, is based in Long Island,New York, where she has lived since 1980, but the septuagenarian with an unflagging passion for the art,commutes weekly to Westchester County and New Jersey,to conduct dance lessons for her young students.
On a wintry morning, she was watching a rehearsal by her students, to prerecorded music playing on a stereo deck. The tenderness and ardour of the raga, Brindavana Saranga, in a lilting paean to Krishna composed by Subramania Bharati, lent a tropical balminess to the spacious hall of the India Center of Westchester County,Inc., located in Elmsford, New York. The elderly artist looked petite and trim, wearing a coiffure and dressed in a taupe and maroon salwar kameez. Her chiselled features, accentuated by her soft and pleasantly pitched voice, seemed to conceal a latent energy that sparked into life as she demonstrated dance movements to her young students, her feet maintaining an unerring rhythm as she moved, synchronised by the of those directions. With her students in Westchester County, ranging in age between five to the twenties,and divided into groups varying from beginners to advanced, the dance guru was generous with praise, using gentle humour to keep them focused on the coordinated moves as they danced. She showed a meticulous approach to the instruction.
“I don’t compromise with my students. Regardless of whether they are strong or weak, I teach them the same lesson so that they can improve themselves,”she said,while explaining that the deep plie posture, or the araimandi,is de rigueur for the dancer. “Your eyes should follow the arm movements,” she said, explaining one more aspect of the dance to her young students, as they were engrossed in the challenge of coordinating the movements of their feet with those of their arms and hands.
Kamala radiated the beauty of Bharatanatyam to an Indian public through her classical dances in scores of Indian films made in several languages. Many of these were choreographed by her dance guru, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. She also gave hundreds of stage performances between the 1940s through the 1970s,exuded a sensuousness and verve that attracted waves of enthusiasts. Bharatanatyam was a redeemed classical art, and Kamala its most luminous exemplar.
One of the many dances that became synonymous with the image of Kamala, both onscreen and in stage performances, was the snake dance choreographed by her guru, the most popular version being, “Naadar mudi mel irukkum naagapaambe”. Reminiscing over the formative years of her career, she admitted to being “a follower” of Balasaraswati whose performances she had watched as a young child, while accompanied by her mother. “When she danced”, she recalled with reference to the late artist, “there was a glow on her face. And her expressions were beautiful!”
Kamala’s veneration of her guru Ramiah Pillai is fervent. Kamala recalled that her “guruji’s sollukattu-s were excellent. He brought out the life (of the dance) in sollukattu-s, in jati korvai-s, and in nattuvangam.”
Among the many accolades that Kamala received through her career, were the Kalasikhamani in 196768 (that was renamed the Kalaimamani) from the government of Tamil Nadu, the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1968, the Padma Bhushan in 1970,the Platinum Jubilee Award from Chennai’s Music Academy in January 2002, the Sangeethasaagara Lifetime Achievement Award in June 2004 from the Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA), and more recently, the Natya Padmam in December 2007, from Chennai’s Brahma Gana Sabha.
In 1980, in reaction to apathy perceived by Kamala, on the part of the government of Tamil Nadu, she moved to the United States and settled in New York, where she believed there were more attractive opportunities for the propagation of Bharatanatyam. Since beginning her school in 1980 and staging annual dance ballets based on themes from Hindu mythology, with students trained by her, Kamala was able to assemble a dance orchestra from local talent among Indian Americans, many of whom were trained in India during their youth. “Since I know music, I have been able to train people to sing for the dances,” said Kamala.
Kamala believes that children should be initiated into Bharatanatyam around the age of five. When asked if their skills at the coordinated movements of the dance improved with age, she insisted that an earlier start helped shape children into better dancers. Beginners and intermediate level dancers get group lessons until they are taught “one margam, or six to seven items,”after which they are given private lessons, said the dance guru, referring to the repertoire required of students being trained for the arangetram, which is usually after a period of four or more years.
When asked whether a career in Bharatanatyam is financially remunerative in this environment, Kamala exclaimed, “Financially, my God!” as if the query were preposterous. “It is depressing!” she said flatly. “When my students see me struggling, they don’t want to take it up as a career. I wish I had learned some computer skills and made better money than sticking to Bharatanatyam! All my life, I have spent dancing. I never had the chance to go to college and develop other skills. Like Sivaji Ganesan, or M.S. Subbulakshmi — they did not have any other skills besides acting, or music. Very hard for me here,” she explained despondently. Kamala taught an undergraduate course in Bharatanatyam at the Center for Indian Studies at SUNY in Stony brook, New York,between 1999 to 2003, and said that she used to get grants a few years earlier, but that those opportunities have now gone to younger people. “They know how to write well for the grants and talk to people and their job is done. They try to promote mediocrity with a lot of public relations,” she said dejectedly.
Excerpts from an interview
Uma: People admire you not only as an artist, but also as a strong, independent woman who attained success with a good work ethic and a zeal for perfection. How did you acquire such energy and determination?
Kamala: Acquiring the energy comes because of devotion to God. Since I was a young girl, I have been a great follower of Sree Krishna. So that gives me the energy and determination for perfection.
Who is your inspiration?
My guruji Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, and my mother who made me learn this dance when I was a child. My mother discovered that I had the ability to dance and she asked my guruji to teach me Bharatanatyam when I moved to the south. With guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai saying, “This is a great art and it deserves a pat on the shoulder.” And give us some financial help, she added.The elderly artist no longer does full fledged solo performances, “because of age. You can’t run away from it. It slowly comes in. It’s like a sunset,” she said with a chuckle.
At the India Center in Elmsford, New York, Kamala ends her classes with a short prayer and places her hands in benediction, on every student’s head, with the traditional Sanskrit blessing from the elderly for a long life. “You must always have the guru’s blessing,” she explains to them softly with a smile. After four hours conducting lessons, she gathers her things, leaving the venue with quiet dignity, and drives off to her classes in Long Island; an artistic gem of India forgotten in the shuffle of life in suburban America.
Along with E. Krishna Iyer, Balasaraswati and Rukmini Arundale, you are credited with elevating Bharatanatyam to a classical art in India. In particular, you are considered the artist who popularised Bharatanatyam in India. How do you regard your contribution to this art?
As ‘Kumari Kamala’ who performed Bharatanatyam in films, I introduced it in a different way. My guruji’s school is very balanced in the dance form—with both abhinaya and nritta. I have been a great follower of Balasaraswati, because when I was young, I watched her doing abhinaya. Her expressions really inspired me! With E. Krishna Iyer, (he liked my dancing very much and used to say, “Your thattu-mettu when you half-sit and dance, is the best I have seen.”) I have performed for some of his lecture demonstrations.
Do you emulate your guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai as a teacher?
Even now, whenever we have performances, they are like a ‘Vazhuvoorar Anjali’—a namaskaram to my guru.He was great, the supreme teacher and I am very grateful to God that I had a teacher like him.
Any members in your family who were talented in the arts?
My mother was a very good singer. She got married when she was 14 years old and unfortunately had to give up music. Ramamurthy was my father and Rajalakshmi, or Rajammal, is my mother’s name. My mother is very talented and guided me when I was young, with my expressions and dance movements, such as the araimandi. My sister Rhadha is equally talented. Kumari Kamala in Naam Iruvar. Both my sisters, Rhadha and Vasanthi were trained by me and they took part in my dance-dramas.
Were you related to the great Carnatic musician GNB?
Yes. G.N. Balasubramaniam was related to my (paternal) grandfather. That was possibly the reason for myinterest in music. I learnt music from Ramnad Krishnan,practised music well and even gave a couple of concerts.I had a good voice, but not as good as that of MS or Sudha Ragunathan, who is popular now. I could not come up as a great singer as I did in dance. Still, I have a passion for music. I used to attend all the concerts by senior artists like M.L. Vasanthakumari and D.K. Pattammal,G.N. Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and K.V. Narayanaswamy. They are all my favourites and I have enjoyed their music.
Would you attribute a part of your success to your orchestra?
Yes, having a good orchestra is very important. When my guruji was doing the nattuvangam, we had two good singers. One was Kallidaikurichi Radhakrishnan, and the other was Gopalakrishnan. Later on, Swamimalai Rajarathnam and K.J. Sarasa sang for my dance. Then they all branched out and started their own schools. My guruji’s son, Vazhuvoor Samraj, started his own school. They all did pretty well. Unfortunately, both Swamimalai Rajarathnam and Vazhuvoor Samraj passed away quite young. Then came S. Rajeswari who was with me when my guruji left me and I had to do my own compositions. She is an excellent singer and a highly accomplished musician. Any raga that I suggested to her for a song or some verses, she would sing immediately. Eventually she became “the backbone” of my orchestra.
She has not got enough recognition either. She could have got more performances and people could have given her more opportunities and bigger awards.
Do you believe that Bharatanatyam should be taught and practised as a traditional art?
Definitely. Through guru mukha — face to face from the teacher. That is the best way to learn. Not by watching and learning from videos. It does not provide proper education.
Since your prime as a Bharatanatyam artist, how has the art evolved? Any changes between then and now?
When I was learning dance, we did not have video cameras, or tape recorders. We would just follow the teacher, memorise the jati-s and practise. Today’s children have the opportunity to see themselves in the video, check and correct their mistakes. But what happens? They watch the video a couple of times and dance. The effect is not so good because the whole system is about remembering the movements and internalising them. For that, we need to practise without the video and the sound system. We have to do it ourselves. Many artists are not as good today.
Your views on sensuousness versus sensuality in a classical art like Bharatanatyam?
Sringara is always there. With devotional feeling, it is beautiful. Not cheap mime, which can make the audience feel it in a different way. There are good and bad qualities in human beings. Good qualities are the ones that are sustained and need to be highlighted. If it is pure love,like the love of a mother for her child, like a lover for her beloved, or a lover giving to God, it will be full of spirituality in the dance. I prefer to keep it that way.
Your most memorable dance in films?
The dance in Naam Iruvar, where I performed a song on Gandhiji and I danced to patriotic songs of Subramania Bharati. I am very patriotic. Even though I left India, I still teach Indian patriotic songs to my students. Training students for an arangetram seems to have become a lucrative project for many dance teachers.
Do you think this is the right approach to developing the art?
It is not. It has to be done in the proper way. The students have to work hard and show their talent. I don’t give an award (a plaque) if they do not perform a full scale arangetram.But I have seen some teachers doing a “salangai pooja” or a “gejja pooja” where the dancer performs only a couple of items and they call it an arangetram!
What do you regard as your greatest achievement?
Nothing I can call an achievement! It is still a struggle.I regret that even the film people from my earlier movies ignore me. I was the first one to do Bharatanatyam in Indian films since 1939-40, as ‘Baby Kamala’, and they don’t recognise that. Films in India have done a hundred years.But they don’t remember, or recognise me. And they have made millions. People who made millions from my dances paid me 2000-3000 rupees for a dance.Even today,my dances in Naam Iruvar (produced by AVM Studios) are so popular that people want to see it again and again. But the makers don’t recognise me.
Would you say that your legacy is in popularizing Bharatanatyam in India, through your films and stage performances?
Definitely. That is what Dayananda Saraswathi Swamiji said in Krishna Gana Sabha. He said, “People never heard of Bharatanatyam before, till they saw ‘Baby Kamala’, ‘Kumari Kamala’, dancing it.” That’s how he started his speech.
Despite all the struggle, what does dance mean to you?
Dance is my life. I have had many disappointments in life, but dance is what makes me live. I enjoy teaching children and I love choreography. The students of this legendary dancer performed a series of dance programmes in celebration of the 28th anniversary of her dance school Sri Bharata Kamalalaya,which she established in Long Island, New York in 1980. Kamala had planned the events as a homage to the memory of her Bharatanatyam preceptors—natyacharya-s Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai and Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai.
The events were held at different venues in New York between 10th and 24th May—at The Yonkers Public Library in Westchester County, the Half Hollow Hills Community Library in Long Island, the Long Island Children’s Museum, and the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The students of Sri Bharata Kamalalaya performed some items from the traditional margam in groups, and also staged two dance-dramas—Andal and Nandalala.
The crowning aspect of the programmes was the choreography by the venerable Kamala Narayan, who visualised the captivating combination of rhythm and expression defining the dance style that she imbibed from her guru-s, and amply displayed the translation of her unparalleled experience as an artist and expertise as a teacher.