Lakshmi Viswanathan (January 1944 - January 2023)
- Jeetendra Hirschfeld
February 4, 2023
There are people in your life that come in, and you make sense to each other, and that is what I had with Lakshmi Viswanathan.
I had known Lakshmi for decades. I think I first met her in the early 1990s. For many years she was a dancer I watched and admired. We met at the sabhas and just had friendly interactions. It was only around 2013 or so that we started talking more, and she would invite me to her every performance, knowing that I would be there even without an invitation. And I would now and then visit her home to discuss dance and art. Our mutual interest in Tanjavur Natyam brought us closer together.
In February 2018, she called me one morning and asked if I knew the Tanjore Sivanandam todi sorkattu. She performed it for her arangetram in 1951 but could not remember the choreography. When I confirmed I knew the dance, she said: "Great, see you tomorrow morning for our first class!" And before I could say anything, she just disconnected the call! - Class? How can I teach Lakshmi Viswanathan?! -The next day, when I reached her apartment, I was beyond nervous. Of course, Lakshmi picked up on that, and when she came with the plate of fruit, the Dakshina, she said: "Don't worry, don't think of all these things. Who is senior or not, during the class, you are the guru, and I am the student." After she said that, I was at ease. Of course, I did not teach her; I was just an observer (and commentator) while she practised. Later she called me her "sparring partner".
After the sorkattu, she wanted to work on two new Tanjore Quartet varnams for the December season. We worked on "Sarasijakshudu" in Kalyani and "Nee Saati Dora" in Bhairavi. I knew both varnams very well. Even at 75 years, she was curious to study new compositions. For me, much of 2018 was magical. I watched Lakshmi work on her abhinaya for the varnams, and I consider it an honour to have experienced her "manodharma" in expression from close by. Her approach to abhinaya was what set her apart. It was so unique and intelligent. Lakshmi performed both varnams in 2018 and 2019.
The Tagore Fellowship was Lakshmi's last big project. I remember her calling me with the good news, and she insisted I would be her research partner. We made big plans for the two-year Fellowship, but unfortunately, her health and, later, the pandemic delayed the project. Through it all, we finished the Fellowship. Unfortunately, her final book is left unfinished.
Lakshmi was also interested in my dance research of Tanjorian dancers and royals. We worked on developing the research into talks and lectures. Her last few lectures included my research about the dancer Tanjore Gnyana. Lakshmi often said her talks were extempore. But in actuality, she would research and prepare a subject thoroughly. Finally, on stage, there was no piece of paper in sight-the secret was to make the audience believe it was spontaneous while she was very much in control, speaking coherently and eloquently.
Although I was in touch with Lakshmi till her final days, my last long conversation was on December 29. In the morning, after her lecture at the Krishna Gana Sabha's Natya Kala Conference, she asked me to drive back with her to her apartment. For no other reason than to keep her company. Looking back now, I am glad the traffic diversions made the journey last for 40 minutes. For most of the drive, we laughed while she talked one story after another. Lakshmi always made me laugh. She was hilarious, witty and mischievous. When we reached, we said goodbye, and I returned to the conference with an Uber.
Lakshmi was an amazingly creative human being, classy, cheerful, curious, and young at heart. As an artist, I understood her well. When she referred to Tanjavur Natyam, I knew what she meant. Thank you, Lakshmi, for allowing me to play a small part in your history. We shared a lot of laughs and even cried, but we mostly laughed. I know she would not want me to be sad. Well, she would appreciate a little sadness, but not too much and not for too long.
Like many others, I have spent time with Lakshmi at her favourite Chennai hangout, the Madras Club. The photo is of August 12, 2018, when she took me out for my birthday at the club.
Jeetendra Hirschfeld (Director, Sathir Dance Art) is a Bharatanatyam artiste, writer and researcher, with special interests that include Tanjore Natyam Art, Courtesans and Royals.
Thank you for writing about your time with Lakshmi akka. She is just as you described. We miss her a lot.
- Shobana Chandrakumar (Feb 6, 2023)
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