Bharatanatyam
Kalanidhi Narayanan became synonymous with the modern technique of 'teaching Abhinayam'.
Kalanidhi Narayanan

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. In that sense, she was among the first of the modern Gurus of the dance form. Last week the world of Bharatanatyam lost Kalanidhi Narayanan.The mainstream media, too busy with politics and other things didn’t bother to acknowledge her demise.

A young Kalanidhi

Kalanidhi was born on December 7, 1928, 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. He was the brother-in-law of the famous Elappa Pillai. Kalanidhi began her training in dance. 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. By the time she debuted, Kalanidhi had also set a record for Brahmin girls taking to dance. Some of the leading Nattuvanars of that era like Dhanamanikkam and Ganesan, the son of Kandappa Pillai.

Kalanidhi Narayanan being honured with the Padma Bhushan

As a little girl Kalanidhi earned fame by giving regular performances between 1938 to 1943. 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.

Kalanidhi being honoured with the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award from President Venkataraman and Chairman Girish Karnad

Students flocked to her! The dance scene was in dire need of someone who could codify and easily teach Abhinayam and Kalanidhi , with all her training and knowledge fit perfectly into that space. Some students trained with her for long and some for a shorter while. 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 was the most sought after Abhinayam Guru. So much so, many young dancers who would have attended a simple workshop would flash her name on their biodatas. The technology age was embraced by the world of dance and luckily we have a lot of her videos available on YouTube.

A long list of prestigious awards came her way. The Padma Bhushan Award from President of India Gnani Zail Singh in 1985, 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 Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1991, the Kalidas Samman from Govt of Madhya Pradesh in 1998. After a long successful career as an Abhinayam Guru, Kalanidhi Narayanan passed away in Chennai on February 21, 2016. She was 87. She leaves a large battalion of students as a legacy. They continue to spread the fragrance of her art through their own practice and teaching.

Images courtesy : Krishnamurthy, Kartik Pashupati, Ramachandra Rao

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)