Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan is recognized the world over as the foremost proponent of Bharatanatyam, a southern Indian classical dance which combines artistic expression with rhythmic footwork. Known simply as "Kamala" in India, her name has become synonymous with the art. She is a preeminent artist of the Vazhuvoor tradition of the dance, named for her guru, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai.
Born on June 16, 1934, in Mayuram, India, Narayanan began dancing at age five, taking lessons in Kathak, the classical dance of northern India. Young Kamala's uncommon ability brought her to the attention of Bombay's movie producers and she was offered one of her first roles as a young dancer in the Hindi film, Ram Rajya (Reign of Ram), released in 1939.
When her family moved to southern India during the Second World War, she began to study Bharatanatyam. In 1941 she had her arangetram or dance debut under the training of her first guru, Kattumannar Kovil Muthukumara Pillai, and was soon after introduced to Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, who became her new mentor. Under his training, she became an exquisite artist and established the "Vazhuvoor" tradition of Bharatanatyam as a leading style of the art. Narayanan's guru was quoted in the Indian press as having expressed his admiration for her unrivalled abilities as a dancer and her complete devotion to the art. Narayanan was popularly known as Kumari Kamala and later as Kamala Laxman.
During the course of her long career, Narayanan has performed thousands of times on stage and in scores of film roles. She endeared herself to the public through dance sequences choreographed by her guru to patriotic songs from the Tamil language film Naam Iruvar (The Two of Us), released in 1947, the year of India's independence from British colonial rule. In 1948 she was invited to perform as a featured artist at the prestigious Music Academy in the city of Chennai in southern India, one of the youngest artists to be accorded such a privilege, and continued to give annual performances at this venue until the 1970s.
Between the 1940s and the 1970s, Narayanan represented India at cultural festivals and events all over the world and performed before many world dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of her coronation in 1953 and former U.S. President Eisenhower during his state visit to India in 1959.
In the late 1970s, Narayanan moved to the United States and established the Sri Bharatha Kamalalaya School of Dance. She has been teaching in the New York and New Jersey area for the past 30 years and, though in her seventies, continues to dance and teach.
Narayanan has won numerous awards, including the prestigious title of Padma Bhushan given by the President of India in 1970, the Platinum Jubilee Award from Chennai's Music Academy in 2002, a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 from the Carnatic Music Association of North America, and the Natya Padmam in 2007 from Chennai's Brahma Gana Sabha.
Photo courtesy of Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan
NEA: When did you first start dancing?
Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan: I started dancing when I was five years old. Those days they used to have in India silent movies, and the phonograph record was introduced at that time. So my mother used to play recorded music and I used to move around for that. She found out that I have a sense of rhythm and she thought that I should learn dance. It didn't happen immediately, so when I was a three-month-old baby, I was taken by mother to Bombay, Mumbai. My father was employed in the Sasoon Mills. Those were British ruling times. See, British were ruling India and I learned Kathak, that is a north Indian dance. Kathak means "telling stories." So I learned that and I was a five-year-old performing on the stage with Madame Azouri, she was of Ram Gopal's friends, she used to perform with Ram Gopal. And I danced in her performance. I gave a couple of dances like ‘snake charmer' and ‘marwari gumak' dance and also the kite dance, like flying kites. I did that when I was young and people were very enthusiastic about that dance and they applauded me and just like that I met Mr. Chandulal Shah, he is a film producer and he gave me a media contract for performing in all his movies.
NEA: How old were you then?
Narayanan: Like five and a half, six years old.
NEA: Do you remember the first time you performed in front of an audience on a stage?
Narayanan: Yeah, I do, I do. Oh, it was nice. I didn't have any stage fright or anything. I simply go on the stage and perform. So I took that acting assignment to dance in every movie they made and my pay was 100 rupees a month. It was like one lakh now.
NEA: What was it like being in the beginning of the Indian film industry? What was that like for you?
Narayanan: Oh, it was fun; it was a lot of fun. And I used to meet all the old stars like Saigal, who was a very famous artist and singer. And I used to meet them and they always used to call me, "Baby Kamala, come to me, talk to me." So it was a lot of fun. They would come and watch my set when I used to dance and I used to go and sit in their set when they were acting and it was a lot of fun.
NEA: So your family moved south during the Second World War, where a different style of dancing was practiced.
Narayanan: Yes, I was seven and I learned my margam, that means one course of items, seven items in Bharatanatyam like Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Thillana and the Padam. I danced the whole thing I learned in six months because I didn't go to school at all. [It] was very different from Kathak, from the north. But I adapted.
NEA: Can we talk a little bit about the history of Bharatanatyam?
Narayanan: Yes. History of Bharatanatyam goes way back; it's 5,000 years old. You see it says that the Celestials, Indra and other people were fighting a lot with Rakshasas, Asuras. It was about good fighting the evil to get the goodness to the people. So the fighting was there and then they got fed up with the fighting all the time and they were sick and they went to Brahma the creator and said, "Create something for us which will be visually something that we can see, appreciate and feel happy about." Then Brahma created this dance form. Each has a dance in it, then the lyrics in it, then the nine emotions in it and the music and rhythm in it. That is Bharatanatyam. Bha for Bhava, expression, Ra for Raga, melody, and Ta for Tala, rhythm. So that is how we created this dance form and Bharata Muni is the first one who learned it from Brahma straight. So from Brahma it came to Bharata Muni and Bharata Muni had about 1,000 followers learning this dance. And that is how it spread. It was performed in all the Celestial weddings, coronations and all the important festivals. It was a dance which was group and solo together and they performed the Celestial rhythm epics like "churning the milk ocean for the nectar" and "the fight between the Rakshasas and the Celestials," which were made into dance dramas like ballet. So people used to enjoy that and forget their worries. It was entertainment.
NEA: And women had a very important part in this because what is unique to India in some ways is the long tradition of women who are dedicated to temples.
Narayanan: Temples, yeah, that is true. That goes from the tradition of Indra's dances like Pulu Kishi, Mahankaal and Tilottama. The dance form came down to the world through Krishna in the Dvapara Yuga, the third Yuga. Now we are in Kali Yuga, the fourth yuga. The Kali Yuga is the Saturn where the Saturn is ruling and people do a lot of all bad things; Kali is the God of war.
NEA: So women were a part of the ritual, the caretakers of this dance, and the tradition was passed from generation to generation.
Narayanan: Generation to generation. See, devadasis is worshipers of the God who perform in the temple and they were unfortunately given the chances by the wealthy people to have money and a married life and everything. So Brahman is a caste after Brahma from Brahma to Brahman. He's a pure caste which high level, they can worship the God right in the sanctorum and the temple. And those people didn't learn this dance at all, thinking it won't be good for them because the Brahman girls were always married, going away and living with husband, children, sort of a very dignified life. But I was the Brahman girl who started learning this Bharatanatyam. It was very unusual those days and many Brahman girls starting dancing after seeing me perform on the stage. And my teacher, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, had a lot of students of Brahman community coming to him to learn.
NEA: And it moved from the temple to the stage?
Narayanan: To the stage and the public. So even now we have the tradition in Madras in Chennai rather, when they have the wedding they have a classical music performance and classical Bharatanatyam performance.
NEA: Isn't the audience expected to have the intention of appreciating and learning and allowing its consciousness to be raised by participating?
Narayanan: That's right, because when the audience comes, it comes to see a divine dance. It's not like sexual or anything; it's a divine dance which shows the stories of the gods, what they did to elevate the human beings. Human beings, of course you know, we make mistakes in our life, we try to understand our mistakes, we try to correct them and move on for a better life. That is what the audience comes to learn from the gods, what they did, what Brahma did, how did he keep his word of promise for his mother and his father. All these things are reacted on the stage, performed on the stage with suitable music in all languages because India is full of languages, different, different languages, and different, different ways of living. So we had Sanskrit, the oldest language and then we have Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam. So like that we used to have the songs, like one song in Malayalam, one song in Telugu, one song in Tamil for different people, and one song in Hindi where the audience will appreciate that language.
NEA: Bharatanatyam has been called poetry in motion because it has rhythm. And everything, the eye, the neck, the hand, has movement.
Narayanan: Yes. There is movement of the neck to show the expressions. When a person is very happy their head is up and they smile with victory on their face. When the person is sad they put their head down and act as if tears are coming in their eyes to show that they are unhappy. And when they are angry their eyes show, like the eyes become big with the eyebrows going up and showing the anger. And these are beautiful expressions which give the feelings of the human being, the nine emotions.
NEA: Now the dance uses three modes, and one is called Nritta.
Narayanan: Nritta is pure dancing which has the jatis in it. And we have the three speeds, like slow speed, medium speed and the fast speed. It goes so beautifully, the movements and everything. The drums are played together with my symbols giving the emotion and the jatis giving the rhythmic part of it. It becomes a visual beauty to the dancer and it elevates the audience spirits. So this is for the happy feeling, jatis.
NEA: And then?
Narayanan: And then the Nritya is telling the abhinaya part of it, the expression on the face, which is sattvika, sattvika comes on the face, just showing the nine emotion like shringara, happy, love, veera, that is valor, karuna, sympathy, adbhuta is wonder, hasya is humor, bhayanaka is fear, bhibasta, to hate, and krodha the anger and shanta is the ninth emotion which is peace. "Om, shanti om," we always say that to let the world be peaceful, to bring the peace to everybody.
NEA: And there is Natya.
Narayanan: Yes, Nritta, Nritya, and Natya is the dramatic form of the whole dance. When they're doing a dance drama with various characters coming, that is called Natya. Pure dance, Nritta, Nritya, storytelling and the Natya, dramatic form, drama with appropriate dresses and everything. When they portray Krishna, he comes in a Krishna costume like a peacock feather in his head, a gold crown, the dress, and the jewels. So wearing that, it becomes Natya, drama.
NEA: Now when you moved south and began to learn all this, did you take to it immediately, did you feel like, "Ah this is right?"
Narayanan: Yes, definitely. And when I portray various characters on the stage I become like one of them, I feel that I am Krishna, I feel I am Radha, his consort. So like that you get the feeling of it; that is how you can reach the audience. If you think that I am Kamala who is dancing, no way am I going to reach the audience's feelings; you have to become the character. Like the best film actor, if you see him, he becomes one of whatever he is doing, that is how he can touch the audience's heart.
NEA: You made a very significant film particularly for your countrymen in 1947, the year of independence, called Two of Us.
Narayanan: Yes, exactly. It was the first time they made a movie like that, socially. For the first time I performed the Ghandiji song in that movie. Not even in North India did they have any song on Ghandiji before. In this movie I did the dance for Ghandiji, saying that he is the one who is working for the peace of the world. He has sacrificed so many things in his life to do justice, to take away the Indians from the clutches of the British people. So that was the song I was doing and also a very popular song on independence. If they get their independence, the Indians, how will they be? They will be very happy, they will be happy to have freedom, to enjoy the freedom of it, to be free. It's something unique which has happened in my life and when I was young.
NEA: And it brought you followers all around the country. And you've also represented India at cultural festivals all around the world.
Narayanan: Yes. Paris then all over Germany we did performances, and in London we performed. And I did one for Queen Elizabeth, both times I performed for her, once in London and once when she visited Chennai with the Duke of Edinburgh.
NEA: Now you've also choreographed over 120 dance pieces. Is it that you take the tradition of Bharatanatyam and use that as the basis for a new dance?
Narayanan: Exactly. Many, many, many things I have done. I did the Ramayana, complete Ramayana showing the birth of Brahma to the end of Brahma's reincarnation. It is like a pattern you can weave, like a painting, or you can have the stitches which you make like designs on things. So it is your ideas, which is very important [that] you be on the rhythm and the same frame without going away from the frame. This you can do, this you cannot do, [and] within that you weave a carpet or you weave a tapestry. It is like that.
NEA: And you began to teach in India.
Narayanan: I taught in India. I taught in India till 1970 and I started coming to Colgate, which is the time I fell in love with America. I liked the American people, I liked the music, their art and everything and I decided to come here. In 1980 I came to propagate to other Indian Americans here in this country to teach and also the Americans.
NEA: It seems that the way you teach is as important to the tradition as what you teach, so that you're honoring not only the tradition of the dance but also the tradition of the instruction and the role of the guru.
Narayanan: Yes, that is true. I'm going one step further in that because my teacher was a male teacher. He won't dance much, but he will tell us how to do the footwork, how to do the basic movement and the expression. But whereas in my case, since I'm a dancer, I dance and show to the students how to dance, how to keep the leg positions. Leg positions are very important in the dance form because if your legs are not in the proper places it doesn't look pretty like a painting. See, if you see a painting, you see the leg position, hand positions and the expression of the face. So like that, I show the children how to do that.
NEA: You were known for many things, but among them were your flexibility, your emotionality and your ability to hold poses. It seems like they would all be difficult things to teach.
Narayanan: Yes, it is difficult to teach, especially I find expressions very hard to teach because most of the children, when I tell them that you are supposed to smile here, they don't understand. And suppose I tell them not to smile, even that, they sometimes don't understand well. So I have to tell them the situation, how things happen, "What will you do when somebody is attacking you? What will happen if somebody is making fun of you? What will be your emotion?" I have to tell them the situation and then sometimes I find it very hard to make their muscles move on the face. They are very stiff like a wall, no emotions at all. So that is hard for me to teach abhinaya to the students, but the rhythm they pick up very well. If they have a sense of rhythm, they understand the rhythm and they do it.
NEA: Now, do you continue to visit India?
Narayanan: I do sometimes; when my students finish their course here they go to India to perform the graduation performance because their parents, elders and grandparents cannot travel so far here. So they perform there and I go with them and give the graduation performance there and come back, that's how I do it.
NEA: And do you ever teach a master class while you're there?
Narayanan: Master class, no, I don't have the time for that because my visits are very short. I go there for a week or at the most two weeks and I come back, and within that time I don't have time to go and give master classes. So if possible, I perform there. I used to perform till 1985, even I think in 1989 I performed. These days I don't perform much because I have gained weight number one. Second, I feel the dance is for young people who can be very pretty and who can dance very well, with stronger footwork and good expressions on their face.
NEA: Is the tradition of Bharatanatyam still very strong in India?
Narayanan: It is, but Bollywood is taking over now. Bollywood dancing and the film dancing, and many people take over for that. But traditional Bharatanatyam is still alive in India. I won't say it is dead. I don't think it will die at all because as long as people believe in God people do rituals, Puja and other things at home, this art will not die, it's like classical music of India. Classical music never dies.
NEA: And can you see that tradition, which you brought to the United States, growing here?
Narayanan: It is growing a lot and unfortunately many of the teachers here, they are not that well trained. They get married in India, they have children, and in another one month or so they are in this country and they start teaching whatever they have learned. So the dance which they teach is not so fully developed. And so the people who learn dance from them it is okay, it's going on.
NEA: You have won so many awards and so many honors and now another one. Did Barry Bergey call and tell you about the National Heritage award?
Narayanan: Yeah. I was so happy; I was so happy and grateful to the greatest nation in the world. This is the best award. It's the greatest, greatest award of my life.