An article by Gowri Ramanarayan in The Hindu
Grandfather Vinjamuri Venkatalakshmi Narasimharao was a playwright, theatre actor and school teacher in Kakinada. Poetess grandmother Venkataratnamma launched the first women’s magazine in India. Poet Devulapalli Krishna Sastri and artist Bujja i were her uncles. Their deep, resonant voices made mother Anasuya and aunt Sita (first Indian woman with an M.A. in folk music) the singers for film maker K. Subrahmanyam’s mega ballet, ‘Nartana Murali’.
Subrahmanyam also conducted Anasuya’s marriage with the handsome radio announcer-actor-singer A.S.Giri.
Evenings saw Giri and Anasuya on the terrace, entertaining their five children with songs. The children hummed all day long. Mother banged on the door if their singing went off-key, even in the bathroom. Firstborn Rathna, schooled in Madras (Holy Angels, Stella Maris), trained in music and Telugu, became a child star in Gemini and AVM productions. After 45 movies she rebelled against the untimely hours, but continued acting in Tamil, Hindi and English plays such as Kathadi Ramamurti’s ‘Washingtonil Tirumanam’ and Madras Players’ ‘Hayavadana’.
Says Rathna, “I still have the letter my mother wrote to me the day I was born saying that I was a dancer. Her tiny infant held Nataraja’s pose!”
Anasuya decided that she would fulfil her thwarted desires through her ‘Ratnapapa.’ She took her to every dance performance from Martha Graham and Uday Shankar to Margot Fonteyn and Balasaraswati. The girl adored Padma Subrahmanyam. “My earliest memory is of Kamala’s eye movements. I worshipped and longed to emulate her. One day, when somebody said you remind me of Kamala, I burst into tears.”
Evening and weekend dance classes with guru K.J.Sarasa were pure joy. The teacher was strict, but never raised her voice. Rathna remained a favourite, but Sarasa had pungent ways of driving her points home: “Alapadmam should bloom like a flower, not like grabbing a coconut,” she would say.
“Sarasa teacher was my guru not only for Bharatanatyam, but my whole life. She motivated us to think, improvise and create. She’d ask someone to sing and make us compose the dance. This forward-looking training and insistence on self-criticism shaped me never to settle for anything but the best,” Ratna recalls.
Secret lessons Mother Anasuya took secret lessons (unknown to mother-in-law) in Kuchipudi from Vedantam Lakshminaraya Sastri. Sitting on the thespian’s lap, four-year-old Rathna would lisp the Vasanta swarapallavi with him. Systematic Kuchipudi training came later, from Sastri’s son Jagannatha Sharma. A dreamy-eyed girl with a long-haired father came to Rathna’s show and asked, “What is this dance?” She was Yamini Krishnamurti!
Secure in guru Sarasa’s nattuvangam, Rathna performed all over the country after arangetram at age 8. Kuchipudi rangapravesam at 19 gave her additional strength. “My entire family lived for my dance. Without their co-operation I couldn’t have done anything,” she acknowledges. When her father caught her showing off, he said it was silly, and told the guru not to give her important roles until she learnt humility. “I’m truly grateful to him now.”
When electronic engineer Anil Kumar from Houston (a co-child artiste in ‘Samsaram’) resurfaced in Madras, Rathna took him to the Madras Players’ cast party. “It took him 3 years to propose to me!” Marriage halted her career at its peak. The Houstonians welcomed her and begged her to teach their children. “I felt like a pilgrim father! It was hard at first. In the U.S people pay by the hour. And expect a single class per week. I can’t teach by the clock! Sometimes my class spans a whole weekend!”
“No, I don’t feel bitter when I see others dancing while I ended up as a teacher.” Rathna developed her own teaching techniques and pedagogy. She drew pictures of adavus which eventually led to publishing books on Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. She discovered a unique method when she became the mirror image for her students — her left side was their right — so that the children could follow without any confusion.
Vijayadasami 1975 saw Rathna launching ‘Anjali’ in Houston, with a five-years course (six for Kuchipudi), and no ‘quick results’ guarantee. The institute has become a centre for Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Carnatic and Hindustani music, with a permanent staff of eight and visiting teachers from India. “I wanted to give something back to Texas, my home. A scary, risky step it was to clean out the bank to buy this space.” With the growth of the Indian community the school’s five students have increased to 200. Few take up dance as a career, though some teach. Rathna herself teaches seven days a week, at Rice University, and in three Anjali centres in Houston.
“My standards remain as high as they were in Madras long ago. I’ve some prodigies here and weep that they were not born in India. They don’t give up, but keep coming after arangetram to learn more.” Students past and present appreciate the holistic education they received in music, language, myth, history, heritage and culture as corollaries of their dance training.
A non-Asian American student became a Presidential scholar for visual and performing arts, joined the Ohio ballet school, but continues Bharatanatyam. An endocrinologist disciple now wants her daughter to join Anjali.
Occasionally Rathna Kumar looks back at the 26-year-old bride who came to Houston in a flood of tears over her lost world. She wiped her eyes and created her own space across new horizons. “I’m happy I’ve made a sincere contribution to my community here. I did it out of love.”