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Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan Talks To Lokvani

Ranjani Saigal

While the art of Bharatanatyam dates back to over 2000 years, the tradition in its current form was reestablished only around the time of the freedom movement. Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan was the first non-devadasi girl to learn this art form and perform it on stage. She learnt this art form from Kannappa Pillai, Chinnayya Naidu and Mylapore Gauri Ammal in 1935. Drawing from the training she received from her Gurus and her own immense talent, Smt. Narayanan has given a new dimension to the art of Abhinaya (mime or expression).

Her career path was unusual. While she trained intensively from the age of seven to sixteen, she completely gave up her connections with the world of Bharatanatyam for thirty years. At the age of forty-six she re-entered the field and has gained awards and recognitions including the coveted Padmabhushan from the Government of India. Now seventy-five, she continues to work tirelessly to bring this art to interested students around the world. She gave a riveting presentation on Abhinaya in Stoneham, MA. Her multiple interpretation of “Krishna Nee Begane” using Vatsalya, Rathi and Bhakthi was a treat to the viewer. In an interview with Lokvani, she speaks of her unusual career path and gives us some insights into the art of Abhinaya.

Lokvani:It is exciting to meet a pioneer like you who in 1935 against all social norms learnt this art. You must have been quite a rebel with a passion for the art. Could you describe your experience with dance as a young girl?

Kalanidhi: I am sorry to say that I learnt dance only to be obedient to my mother. I was no rebel nor did I have a particular interest. My mother Sumitra was very motivated to teach me dance. I do not know how she developed this interest. My father fully supported the endeavor. My mother also introduced dance to other households in our neighborhood. Unfortunately my recollection of that time period is not very clear. I do remember giving a lot of programs in support of various charitable causes. I gave up dance when my teachers died. Later my mother also died. I was married into a traditional family. I never craved for dance. I must say I was not a very motivated student.

Lokvani: I am really surprised. How did you re-enter the field and rise to such heights?

Kalanidhi: All thanks to Shri. Y.G.Doraiswamy. When I was forty-six years old, he called me out of the blue. He is a great connoisseur of the arts. He had seen me perform in my younger days. He felt that Abhinaya was not getting the recognition it deserved. He was a friend of Alarmel Valli. He felt that while she was very good at Nritta, she needed training in Abhinaya. Teachers at that time used to say that training for Abhinaya is not possible and that it is a natural talent. He asked if would be her Guru. The offer came as a surprise and shock to me. I told him that I had not danced in years. Yet he felt confident that I would help. My sons who were grown up encouraged me to persue this. That is how I re-entered the field. The re-entry was not easy. Somehow my books from my younger days had survived. Once I started teaching it must have been a suceess for more students began to want to learn from me.

Lokvani: Was the climb to success an easy one for you?

Kalanidhi: Not at all. I had to do a lot of hard work.. Once I decided to teach, I wanted to sincerely do my best. I wanted to learn more so that I could teach confidently. I used to go to every recital in town, be it an Arangetram or a professional performance.I enrolled in a course on Bharatanatyam offered by Dr. Padma Subramanium. I proceeded to collect material from different sources. I decided to move to the center of Chennai so that students would not find the commute to my home difficult.

Lokvani: Why did you decide to enhance your training? How is the training today different from your own training?

Kalanidhi: In my time, the teachers really did not teach theory. I am not sure if it was because they did not want to share their knowledge or if it was because of a lack of knowledge. I did not even know the names of hastas. While I am sure the influence of my teachers is in me, I really cannot define how I have this Abhinaya ability. It was not taught to me.

Lokvani: Could you tell us a little about your technique?

Kalanidhi: For any piece, first get a thorough understanding of the words. Understand the Nayika and guage the mood of the piece. Do not look at your hands but rather keep your focus on the character that you are interacting with and express yourself through actions and reactions. This is slightly different from the "Yatho Hastas Thatho Drishti" approach which is more traditional. Use a judicious mixture of Natayadharmi (stylized expression) and Lokadharmi (common expression) to make sure that your audience is feeling like they are part of the scene that is presented by the song.

Lokvani: What is the difference between Kirtanam, Padam and Javali?

Kalanidhi: Keertanam is always based on Bhakti. It is single-minded devotion to the Lord. Padams and Javalis deal with the love between a man and a woman. Padams are usually in heavy Ragams like Bhairavi and the themes are also deep. Javalis are lighter versions of Padams.

Lokvani: At seventy-five you seemed to have achieved everything. What does the future hold for you?

Kalanidhi: I do not know about the future. I want to continue to teach this art to others so that it does not die. Balasaraswathi was a great Abhinaya exponent but her art died with her. I want to do everything to keep this alive and this is why even at this age I am traveling around the world teaching. My awards do not mean much to me. But the success of my students in potraying good Abhinaya means a lot to me.

Lokvani: If students in New England want to learn your art should they come and see you in Chennai?

Kalanidhi: Not necessary. I have many students here in the US and Canada who are very capable of teaching. Uma Vasudevan in Montreal, Ramya Harishankar in California, Hema Rajagopalan in Chicago are all capable of teaching Abhinaya. In India also many of my students like Priya Govind and others are experts who can teach. These students have learnt from me for many years and have imbibed my technique.

Lokvani: Thanks so much for your time.

Kalanidhi: You are welcome.

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Sulochana Govardhan(Sis-in-law, of Balasaraswathi) , Amudha P, Kalanidhi and Amrita

Kalanidhi with local dance teachers and students at the home of Meena Subramanyam

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