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A memorable encounter with Yamini Krishnamurti

May 9, 2016

During the two day World Dance Day Festival organized by Geeta and Rajiv Chandran under the aegis of heir institution Natya Vriksha, one of the major highlights was Geeta Chandran in a dialogue with the celebrated dancer Yamini Krishnamurti. It was one of the finest no- holds barred, frank, brutally honest and historic conversations. Yamini is a private person, so to draw her out and make her speak was indeed a tough job. But Yamini was in a very happy frame of mind and peppered her answers with humour also.

Photo: Sarabjit Dhillon

A real diva, she has been an icon and after Balasaraswati and her contemporaries, other dancers like legendary Mrinalini Sarabhai, Shanta Rao, Kamala, from the next generation Yamini stands tall. No other dancer has captivated audiences all over India and abroad for her recitals of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, as she did. She has also influenced several young dancers in post-independence era. In fact, majority of dancers have said publicly that they were inspired to study Bharatanatyam after having seen Yamini. I saw Yamini for the first time during the All India Dance Seminar convened by Sangeet Natak Akademi in April 1958 at Vigyan Bhavan. She had performed jatiswaram for Elappa Pillai in the morning session. And she stood out for her brilliant nritta and vivacious performance. She had already made a name and was creating waves. Like many present there, I as a young, up and coming scholar and a green horn, was mesmerized.

Then I saw her in Mumbai performing Kuchipudi at Birla Matushri Sabhagar. Her father Prof. Krishnamurti introduced the programme in his impeccable Oxonian English. He was a great scholar and poet and a handsome man reminding one of philosophist J. Krishnamurti in looks. Yamini's younger sister Jyotishmati wielded the cymbals and conducted nattuvangam. And what a melodious voice she had. And she always looked gorgeous. The three of them, the trinity of Prof. Krishnamurti, Yamini and Jyotishmati won over the Bombay (Mumbai) audiences. When I listened to Krishna sabdam in chaste Sanskrit/Telugu rendered by Jyotishmati, I could remember it with its exquisite poetic images and similes: Yadhuvamsa sudhambudhi chandra Swami ra ra, and what seductive expressions Yamini wore - it became the most favourite and popoular number of her repertoire.

The sweet singing in Mohana flowed: Narijana manasa chora, Ratnakara sama gambhira , Mahameru samana dhira, kavijana poshaka mandara, para raja shatru samhara, and so on, the comparisons came in succession creating royal, elegant images of Krishna. I had by then become a great fan of Yamini and never missed her performances in Bombay, which in early sixties she frequently visited and performed to full houses. My photographer friend Subodh Chandra took excellent black and white photographs, some of which adorn my book Bharatanatyam (Marg publications) and for one of the editions we had her on the cover.
What a personality and what captivating dance!

Tracing her career (I missed the Kalakshetra years), training under great nattuvanars Elappa Pillai, Kitappa Pillai, working with Dandayuthapani Pillai and several others with whom she worked, Yamini gave insight into those years where she was fortunate to be guided by her father. It was dance 24x7 and what glorious dancing it was. Among the listeners in the audience, the young generation was spellbound listening to Yamini's stories. Her emphasis on the final test for a dancer - her audience - was driven home. She created her audience all over India and told us that even in Madhya Pradesh where she was dancing there were terrible dacoits watching her dance!

She recalled when visiting Kolkata, a Bengali organizer asked her father to present her at The Empire Theatre in the morning shows and if audience came for two successive days, Yamini would have won over audiences in Kolkata. The third day, the house was full. Such following of audience Yamini values the most. Her performances in Bihar in Motihari village where thousand strong audience used to watch her in perfect silence, she recalled with great satisfaction.

Photo: Pranit

When asked what films she saw, she said frankly a few, maybe five or six. It was dance and dance. Such single-minded devotion is an object lesson for the present generation. In light hearted Rapid Fire question when Rajiv Chandran asked her who was the villain she hated the most, she said, "YOU!" And the entire house burst out laughing! She recalled days when they travelled a lot by train. She preferred train to air travels - caught up on reading during train travels, novels, short stories, poems, literature. No time for shopping. Barely they would settle for three months in Delhi or any other city like Chennai and then lock the house and travel.

She spoke of so many human qualities, very touching. No politics, not particular about food, but practice regularly. Nattuvanars knew her gifts and talent. Lakshminarayana Sastri, the legendary Kuchipudi maestro, came one day to her home and told her to learn Kuchipudi as she was from Andhra, and later on Pasumarti Venugopalakrishna Sarma came to train and perform with her. Ditto in case of Odissi, Pankaj Charan Das was brought to Chennai and he taught her Pancha Kanya repertoire. She also learnt from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, the ashtapadi Kuru yadunandana from the Gita Govinda. At one point she used to perform three dance forms in one evening. Her sister Jyotishmati had studied nattuvangam and sang for her for all the three styles. Her father gave the introductions the three of them indeed were terrific. The seniors in the audience who had seen her in her youth had the pleasure of nostalgia down memory lane.

She spoke about her television serial on temples. When asked if she watches television she said she keeps it on, else what is here to see was her approach. She liked Balasaraswati and also Shanta Rao as dancers. And told Rajiv Chandran she liked Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman as films actors. When asked if she did exercises for dancing, meaning warm-up exercises, specially devised, she laughed and said, "What exercises?" She practiced just dance.

There were references to her performing Krishna sabdam and inviting Krishna "Swami ra ra" - come Krishna. So powerful was her abhinaya that foreigners in the audience used to get up and walk up to the stage!! She looked content. If the honours and awards came her way, she richly deserved them. The latest Padma Vibhushan, she accepted with grace.Yes, she misses her father, who took great care of everything. After his demise, she did find it difficult to deal with musicians and travels, tours, and scheduling performances.

She watches the dance scene and is impressed with the drive and push of the young generation, who are able to multi-task. After an affectionate and warm dialogue extending to two hours, she came back on stage and told Rajiv Chandran that she did not mean at all that he is villain, she was just joking. She won over the audience with her simplicity and by just being natural.

Geeta Chandran is to get the interview transcribed and published. That would be a great memorabilia and for younger generation, a wonderful guide.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic. He is honored with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC.

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