Know Thy Dancer – Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan

This is a new series I am starting for this blog. I have been thinking about this series for some time now. Indian classical dance has seen pioneers, stars, trailblazers and many other stalwarts. But, as time passes they are remembered less. With our fast paced lives, climbing up there is little time to look down upon the rungs of the ladder of History. There have been many names who have been forgotten or rarely remembered.

No, this is not going to be a biography of each dancer. Instead, this series is going to be a starting point for you and others who want to know more about them. Sometimes, turning the pages of books, an unknown dancer questions me  “Do you know who I am?” for which I say “Yes!” and sometimes I have no answer, yet. I am sure, others must have encountered the questioning gaze from time to time.

There is one more reason why knowing these dancers, I think, is important. Every dancer has contributed a positive influence to the history, where they have been a source of inspiration to others to learn this art. Isn’t being inspiring an achievement in itself?

Without further ado, I am starting this series with one such trailblazer who had made the classes and the masses to turn their heads and admire. Kamala Lakshmi Narayan, known as Baby Kamala, Kamala Lakshman, Kumari Kamala, Kamala Narayan, Kamala Narayanan. I should also add that recently, BNandWWW had the good fortune of meeting her after her dance class and interacting with her. Even today she drives around 90 miles every week to teach in the Greater New York-New Jersey area! This post quotes some of the interaction we had with her. Minai of the Cinema Nritya Gharana blog, has posted the other part of the same interview focusing on her dance in cinema. Read more here.

From one of Smt. Kamala's dance performance program sheet.

From one of Smt. Kamala’s dance performance program sheet, Festival of India New York, 1985.

Born in Mayuram, learning Kathak, and on her way to be a vocalist, it was divine intervention that she started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of 7 with Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai. One can listen to her mellifluous voice in this Gramaphone recording of “Thaye Yashoda” and “Natanam Adinar”, released in the 1950’s [1]. Before these recordings, she had recorded her voice when she was five years old for HMV [2].


Kamala Narayanan

How did dance come into your life?

I don’t know. I liked music. Because music is the life for dance. It’s like without music there is no dance. First is music. And then reflecting the music comes the dance.

Do you have fond memories of the training with Kattumannarkoil  Muthukumara Pillai?

Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai was already old. When he taught me dance he was like [in the] 50s. And I was 7 years old. So he said I can’t accompany you everywhere, but I have got a friend in Chennai and he is much younger than me so he would be able to come and conduct your performances. So he suggested [Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai].

It is natural that there are stylistic differences. Can you elaborate the differences in style taught by these two Gurus?

Yes, there are many style differences. But Kattumanarkoil, traditionally Tamil people used to standing [a lot]. They will do a jathi, go back and stand.

What was your preparations for the season performances?

I used to do three sets. One for Music Academy, one for Tamizh Isai Sangam, and one for Fine Arts Society….Lots of work. This is why people used to come. They would come and watch me in Music Academy, then they would come and watch me, in Tamizh isai sangam, and then they come to Fine Arts Society…The same items were not repeated.

Currently, when dancers are churning the same compositions at various venues, it seems humanly impossible to me when you say, as a matter-of-fact, of doing three different margams in three different venues in one season.

They are seeing something new everywhere.

Do you bring in innovations in the performances?

Lots can be done! It is like a ocean, dance is like a ocean. I am still learning. There is no end to learning at all.

Turning 80 this month (16th June), she is still young at heart. Her child-like attitude of “learning never stops” is something that needs to be imbibed. This reminds me of the earlier incident that was recounted by the scholar Shri V.A.K. Ranga Rao in the Sruti feature on her. [3]

Once Yamini [Krishnamurthy] portraying Manmatha assailing her with arrowws, registered annoyance (that he had the temerity to draw his bow on her), anger (as he let go), pain (at the impact), and viraha (its aftermath), all in the space of fwe seconds, etching the moods clearly and unmistakably. When I related this to Kamala, she burst forth “How marvellous! I ‘ve been doing Manmatha’s arrows for so long but I never thought of doing it that way.” I think it was after this that she went to her mentor (I presume the late Dr. T. N. Ramachandran)and evolved the depiction of the different aspects and effects of these five arrows.

Having lived at the prime-time of when BN was getting re-defined and witnessed the pre and post-independence changes in the dance, it was a necessary question to ask if she had seen the dances by devadasis.

You danced at the time when devadasis also gave performances. Have you watched their performances?

I have. Balasaraswati. S. Varalakshmi. I have seen them all.

She noted that after a jathi or a korvai, they (meaning the dancers from devadasi background)

They would go back and stand. Do the movements, and go and stand…Tradition was like that.

In other words, take a break. This where she emphasizes one of the changes popularized by her and Vazhuvoorar.

In Vazhuvoor’s style, we never stand with a straight back. Always we give a pose and stand. It’s boring. If you go back like this [straight] and dance. [There was] no expression, nothing on the face…That is why my Guruji was telling [us] that it is boring, so he started giving the sculpture poses from the temples. It is interesting for the people to see.

Do you recall what the critics wrote about you after any performance. 

Some critics have their favorite dancers. So they will write more about them. And if I did something on Ganapati, they will say “why Kamala should do this song?” I will say “what’s wrong? It’s a beautiful dance on Ganapati. Ganapati we always pray [to].”

They were not very impressed with you dancing [on that]?

No they were not. They say that it was not traditional. How can you say about the tradition in the dance? We are not dancing like what Devas did in those days. Bharatanatyam has come through a lot of change.

At the end of the conversation, she re-iterated something that has been mentioned in other interviews. That is her ambition of directing a film!

I would like to make a movie of a dancer’s life with a proper story, music, everything. It needs a lot of funding available so you don’t know. If fund comes, you know, then we can do.

I do have to agree with one thing that Shri N. Pattabhiraman wrote about her. That is, it has become de rigueur to mention T. Balasaraswati, Rukmini Devi Arundale, and E. Krishna Iyer as the ones who bought/saved BN to the forefront. But, Kamala’s contribution to BN has been slowly forgotten and less spoken about. Of course, her students and those who interacted with her do remember her fondly and with pride. Do others?

It is true that in the BN hall of fame, Kamala’s  position cannot be replaced.

Further reading:

Extensive coverage on her life, dance, her views:

Sruti, Issue 45/46. June 1988
Sruti, Issue 48, September 1988


  2. Kamala: Music Too in Her Blood, Sruti Vol 48, Pg 25.
  3. Two Qualities, Sruti Vol 48, Pg 16.

3 responses to “Know Thy Dancer – Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan

  1. Pingback: Know Thy Dancer – Indrani Rahman | Bharathanatyam and the worldwide web·

  2. Pingback: On 16 June in Asian history | The New ASIA OBSERVER·

  3. Pingback: On 16 June in Indian and South Asian history | The New ASIA OBSERVER·

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