There was a time when parents would name their new born girl Yamini with the hope that she would take to dance and become as big as the actual diva!

Yamini The Quintessential Primadonna of Indian Classical Dance Yamini as goddess Saraswathi in Kuchipudi
Features Art Friday, January 29, 2016 - 14:39

The government of India announced India’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan Award to veteran dancer Yamini Krishnamurthi. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a junior dance student in Bengaluru. He was commenting seeing a few bad YouTube videos floating around the internet. The fact is most of today’s generation of classical dancers don’t really know who she was and what she was, thanks to poor documentation of her life and works. They don’t seem to understand her value or contribution to dance. But for a whole generation of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancers, she was the original diva of dance. A whole generation of them grew up inspired by her and aspired to be like her.

Yamini was born in a family of Telugu Kshatriya scholars and art lovers on the full moon night of December 20, 1940 in the little village of Madanapalli in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Her mother’s name was Lakshmi and her father’s name was Krishnamurti. Her family migrated to Tamil Nadu. Her fraternal grandfather Mungara Govindamurti was a famous Sanskrit scholar and worked as a teacher in Bengaluru. He was a staunch supporter of Swami Dayananda Saraswathi’s 'Arya Samaj' and a social reformer, a rarity for a south Indian of his time. Inspired by a character in a 11th century Sanskrit text written in Kashmir, he named her Yamini Poornathilakam. Her father Krishnamurthi was a great scholar, a poet and a literary commentator. At the age of fifteen, he wrote poems that featured in an anthology along with those of greats like Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu.  He translated the Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita from Sanskrit to English and Telugu. It was in this household that Yamini grew up learning Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Sanskrit, the Vedas and Shastras. She would be taken to the temple of Lord Nataraja as a little girl of five and the dance sculptures she saw there created a strong impression on her mind.

Yamini as a student of Kalakshetra in the 1950's

She grew up in her grandfather’s ancestral home in Madanapalli. There she was admitted to the Rishi Valley School founded by the famous philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. After moving to Madras, she continued her schooling in Besant school. Alongside her school, she would also learn the western classical violin, gifted to her father by the Maharaja of Porbandar and the Sitar from a local teacher. Her interest in dance and memories from Chidambaram kept haunting her till she finally confessed to her father that she wanted to be a dancer. Her father was most encouraging and she was admitted to yet another famous institution: Kalakshetra founded by Rukminidevi Arundale. For an upper caste Telugu Kshatriya girl to take to dance at the height of the anti-nautch movement, and enroll formally into a dance school was unheard of. Under the guidance of Rukminidevi, Yamini blossomed into an excellent Bharatanatyam dancer.

Those years Kalakshetra dance group was touring with the performance of 'Kutrala Kuravanji'. Rukminidevi played the heroine Vasantavalli and Yamini was cast as her friend, the 'Sakhi'. They staged it in Chidambaram and this was her actual dance debut, the much-famed Arangetram! It might have been a blessing of the gods of dance that Yamini returned to her place of growing up and debuted in front of lord Nataraja in the holiest of places for dancers. Her performance impressed Rukminidevi. She knew this girl was promising and decided to show her something more. She personally took her on a trip to Thanjavur and toured her around the great Brihadeeshwara temple. She also took young Yamini to the homes of some of the senior aged traditional dancers, later called 'Devadasis', and interacted with them. In one of their homes, Yamini witnessed some excellent Abhinayam. Yamini’s study at Kalakshetra was ending. In her own words, she was to say many years later, "It was 1954. With a classmate from Kalakshetra, I visited the Rasika Ranjani Sabha. It was chockablock with excited audiences. I saw the great Bala Saraswathi performing. That changed my life forever!"

Yamini decided to somehow become a student of Bala. Her father and uncle managed to get Bala’s Nattuvanar, Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai to give her tuitions. Under his mentoring, Yamini learnt more dance. Whenever Ellappa was away, touring with Bala, Yamini would learn from Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai, another great Nattuvanar. She was in heavens when Ellappa presented her before Bala for her approval. Bala’s praise meant everything to her. Yamini wanted to improve her Abhinayam and took lessons from Mylapore Gowri Ammal, the last of the traditional dancers dedicated to the Kapalishwara Temple in Mylapore, Madras. For a year, Yamini took care of Gowri’s needs in every which way and Gowri, pleased with Yamini’s Seva taught her some of the rare old Padams and Javalis. Yamini began performing Bharatanatyam and grew to great fame soon. But this was not all. Destiny had other plans for Yamini.

One day the Kuchipudi Guru Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry landed up at her house. He cajoled her father asking how an Andhra girl from a Telugu speaking family hadn’t thought of taking up an Andhra dance form like Kuchipudi. This set the ball rolling and Yamini was soon training in Kuchipudi from all the venerable Gurus of Kuchipudi. She was the first superstar woman performer of this dance form. Until she came around, Kuchipudi was considered a folk dance-drama tradition. Even the Sangeet Natak Akademi had written it off saying so. It was Yamini who worked hard with several Gurus and scholars of dance to bring about a classical status for the dance form.  Yamini gained a cult status as a solo performer. Her portrayal of Satyabhama in ‘Bhama Kalapam’ was unparalleled. Till date no other dancer has been able to present the famous Krishna Sabdam like she has.

Around this time, Odissi as a classical dance form wasn’t even heard of, let alone being performed in public. It was still 'under construction'. Several leading Gurus were working towards codifying the dance form. Yamini was a quick learner and she trained with two of the most senior Gurus of Odissi- Guru Pankaj Charan Das and Guru Deba Prasad Das. She began performing Odissi concerts soon. With her knowledge of Sanskrit, it was easy for her to master the entire Gita Govindam! What more! She could perform it and depict Abhinaya in three different styles of classical dance. Along with her sisters Jyotishmati and Nandini who provided her musical support and her father Krishnamurti who was her manager, show compere and in-house expert consultant, they made a commendable team.

Yamini’s performances

Yamini was a trendsetter and a role model for several generations of dancers. She was a versatile genius and could easily present three different classical dance forms with equal flair and virtuosity. She enthralled audiences for three decades through the 1950's, 60's and 70's. There is no one from these decades who has seen her perform and hasn’t raved about whatever they saw. While several of her contemporaries in Bharatanatyam ventured into films, Yamini decided to stay put in the classical field.

There was a time when parents would name their new born girl Yamini in the hope that she would take to dance and become as big as the actual diva! In that sense, she was the first quintessential primadonna of classical dance in India.

Yamini strikes a pose in Bharatanatyam

Numerous awards came her way. She was only twenty-eight years old and was the youngest recipient of the Padma Shri award in 1968. The Padma Bhushan in 2001, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and this year the Padma Vibhushan Award. In addition to these, she has numerous awards from across the world. Several documentaries were made on her life and times. The ones currently available on the internet don’t do any justice to her life or the dancer that she was.

Yamini Krishnamurti was a pioneer in her time. Today she is a much-forgotten figure. She runs a school of dance in Delhi and has trained numerous students. The one name that stands out among her students in Bharatanatyam is Rama Vaidyanathan. Yamini is a real pioneer in Indian classical dance in the 20th century. We pray for her good health and hope she continues to inspire, bless and guide scores of dance lovers and art enthusiasts.

Images by – Madan Mohan Rao, Shiva Ganesan 

(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


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