Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan was the first non-devadasi girl to learn this art form and perform it on stage. 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 in 1973 she re-entered the field and has gained awards and recognitions including the coveted Padmabhushan from the Government of India. She died at the ripe age of 87.
Kalanidhi Narayan’s her first stage-debut (Arangetram) at the age of 12 at the Senate House in Chennai, for the Madras Music Academy. As a dancer it was three months before that of Arundale on December 30, 1935, but Kalanidhi Mami never publicized the fact.
Till about a decade ago, if you asked any Bharatanatyam dancer in Chennai who was their Guru in Abhinayam or mimetic dance, Kalanidhi Narayanan’s name would inevitably pop up eight out of ten times. She became synonymous with the modern technique of ‘teaching Abhinayam’. Since the 1970’s Kalanidhi Narayanan, fondly addressed as Kalanidhi Maami by her students and everyone in the dance world, grew steadily to be the most sought after teacher of a rather difficult art form of Abhinayam. . Dancers, especially from abroad, just wanted her name attached to theirs, which would have embellished their CVs. Even if they learnt from her only at two week-long workshops.
Kalanidhi was born on to Sumitra and S V Ganapathy, a Brahmin couple. It was her mother’s interest in the art form that lead her to learn dance. Her mother had seen the renaissance era of the 30’s and 40’s. They were keen that their daughter had to learn dance and found support from E Krishna Iyer. When Kalanidhi was seven years old, they took her to Mylapore Gowri Ammal, the last of the Devadasis of the famous Kapaleeshwara temple in Madras. She began training in Abhinayam there and continued her lessons in pure dance or Nritta from Kannappa Mudaliar of Kanchipuram. Guru Chinnayya Naidu another famous scholar of Telugu, Sanskrit and Abhinayam also taught her for a short while. Those years it was impossible for anyone training in dance to not know music. In fact it was a necessary qualification. Kalanidhi took training in Carnatic music from Guru Manakkal Sivarajan. But her actual training was from Guru Kamakshi Ammal, the daughter of the legendary Veena Dhanammal. It was here that Kalanidhi gathered a large repertoire of Padams and Javalis.
As a little girl Kalanidhi earned fame by giving regular performances between 1938 to 1943. She gave to two notable recitals, one with Dhanamanikkam and another with Nattuvanar K. Ganesan, son of the Kandappa Pillai. This was the time E Krishna Iyer was doing a campaign along with the prestigious Madras Music Academy to remove the antipathy associated with dance. In fact, she was the only Brahmin girl in that bunch of artistes. She performed in the Academy in 1939.
She got married and took a break from dance. For the next twenty-five years she was not to be seen until the 1970’s. However, she kept her interest in the dance form and arts continued. She studied the Shastras and the various books on dance from her teacher S Sarada. She also studied with Tamil scholars like A S Gnanasambandan, Telugu scholars like Arudra and V A K Ranga Rao to improve her understanding of Sahityam. After the untimely demise of her husband, Kalanidhi had completely withdrawn from all activity related to dance. It was arts patron and promoter Y G Doraiswamy who brought her back to public life. He felt that the dance scene of that era was too cluttered with dancers who were busy exhibiting their virtuosity in pure dance. He saw that there was a vaccum in the slower Abhinayam aspects. He was also aware of the fact the Kalanidhi had learnt it from some of the earlier masters and requested her to teach. She accepted his request and began teaching at the Madras Kendra of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Kalanidhi was well into her forties and had passed the prime of her performing age. Her physique was not what is used to be. But her knowledge of the art form was strong in her mind. She decided to pass it on to anyone interested and henceforth teaching became her mainstay. She introduced a strong awareness of the lyrics.
Her dance was in her eyes. Students flocked to her! She began touring the world giving Abhinayam workshops. Some of the popular names in the dance world who trained in Abhinayam from her are Priyadarsini Govind, Bragha Bassel, Jayanthi Subramaniam, Jamuna Krishna, Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Pratibha Prahlad, Shobhana Balachandra, Vidya Subramanyam, Shanta Rati Misra and many others. She leaves a large battalion of students as a legacy.
She was an integral part of her student’s family and participated in every important event in her students’ life. Kalanidhi mami ignited the minds of her students so that they could explore and reach their full potential. She was never confused by the dichotomy of maintaining the traditional while telling her students to be progressive as artists . She also ensured that her students didn’t stop pursuing their art after marriage.
DAANA KALANIDHI’ would be an apt prefix to her. She is a guru par excellence, who maintained a wonderful relationship with her disciples. She did not stop with whatever she had learnt. She once said “I never considered the students as inferior, I always felt that they knew something and with that in mind, I used to interact with them. Especially, during the early years of my teaching, I used to sit and discuss with a group of students. We used to read texts like Sringara Manjari (of Saint Akbar Shah), edited by V. Raghavan, take each and every Padam or Javali, categorise them and then work on them. It was like a learning process for me also; apart from this routine exercise, I used to attend almost all the recitals in the city to refresh myself. Besides attending the theory sessions conducted at Padma Subrahmaniam’s institution, enriched my knowledge and deeper involvement in my abhinaya specialisation’.
Apart from teaching at her institution Abhinayasudha, founded in 1980 in Madras, Kalanidhi Narayanan conducted special courses at the M.S. University, Baroda, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Bombay. She also choreographed and presented several dance programmes focusing on abhinaya: ‘Ashta Nayika’, ‘Contrasts and Parallels’, ‘Women of Ramayana’, ‘Nayika Bhava in Alwar Hymns’ to name a few.
In December 7, 2003, various dance teachers and her disciples, celebrated her 75th birthday at Luz Community Hall in Chennai, it was marked by a two day seminar on abhinaya, where in prominent gurus of Bharatanatyam participated. On the occasion, a set of 4 CDs on Padamswas also released.
Kalanidhi Narayan remained understated all her life. She became an institution in recent years. But luckily we have a lot of her videos available on YouTube. Many documentaries on her art have been made. At another time, Kalanidhi was requested by the great Uday Shankar for participating in his film “Kalpana,” an offer she gracefully declined for personal reasons. Mami fondly recalled a short film made by her father at the house of the renowned TTK., a great friend of the family, when she was hardly nine years.
Kalanidhi Narayanan received several awards and honours including the Padma Bhushan (1985), the Emeritus Fellowship of the Department of Culture, Government of India, for 1990-92, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1990) and Akademi’s Tagore Fellow (2011), the Nrithya Choodamani from the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai in 1990, the Kalaimamani award from the Govt of Tamil Nadu in 1990, the Kalidas Samman from Govt of Madhya Pradesh in 1998.
Kalanidhi mami said….
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.
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.
Abhinaya is said to unfold in three progressive stages, padartha, the verbal interpretation, vakhyartha, depiction of the whole line and dvani, which is the evocative multi-layered interpretation that is the essence of abhinaya. 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. The language of dance, therefore, relies on the same classifications and conventions used in poetry to delineate the character of the heroine to be portrayed. For the dance the process of bringing the character to life begins with a close and careful analysis of the language used in poem. Speech rhythm often provides an important clue. Raga is also the essential factor in defining.
To start right from the basics, a careful study of the song in its entirety must be made and the main thread of though must be understood. This is theSthaibhava around which all the other emotions revolve. Keeping sthayibhava in mind, one must probe into the character. While portraying the emotions of the characters the whole personality involved should be dealt with taste.
Sringara should be given a major role, because most of rasas come into play in Sringara rasa. The other rasa do not provide scope for the use of more then two or three. Sringara rasa song can be interpreted in many rasa. Sringara is called “Rasaraja” (king of rasas). Sringara allows imaginative depiction.
Dance is considered a way of devotion.. The whole basis of Abhinaya is Bhava Pradhana. Sringara is the best vehicle to approach the God. The closeness and intimacy of the love relationship is an allegory for the closeness and intimacy of the devotee and God. However, for rati to evoke a mood of devotion, the portrayal must be spiritually elevated. Firstly, there must be devotion to the art itself. This means the total involvement and a lack of self-projection on the part of the dancer. The individual personality must be submerged in the artistic objective. The mind of dancer should be fixed on the characters described in the piece. Aesthetic presentation should be the focus, bring out Sringara in its subtle form.Rasa cannot be produced in a second or a minute.
Rasa in dance have to be generated, built up through a process, stage by stage. Sanchari is one of the stages of creating emotional atmosphere of the song.
Sanchara is literally, wandering or roaming about. Bharatanatya is implicit art and seeks to suggest rather then depict incidents from beginning to end. The dancer should try to bring out various moods in the text, by enacting in various ways the given situation by sanchara or moving around these point. Bringing out whole stories where the lyrics and abhinaya do nor coincide is not our tradition, only relevant references should be made. Our old teachers asked us to do variations and indicate the episode following the lyrics, but never to introduce whole stories.
Sanchari means trying to bring out your imaginative powers to explain the situation. Sanchari means “roaming about”, but it should not be taken too literally. One should understand the situation and expand if within the scope and words of the lyric. One can wander round the point, but never away from it. Sanchari does not mean a series of story telling sessions but alluding briefly to an incident. It should be expressed by various ideas and moods confining itself to the boundary of the song.
Three points should be kept in mind while doing Sanchari. After the lines are sung one in full, only the portion which is to be taken up for Sanchari should be repeated with musical variation (neraval). To these, different elaborations that have the stanzas as the starting point should be performed. While sketching out these short story-ideas, the emphasis should be on the subtlety and clear-cut communication without making it seem like a full-scale dance-drama.
She wished 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.’
Noopura Bhramari offers heartfelt condolences and Prays -Let her divine Atma get Sadgati.