She was sensational, both on stage and cinema. Kamala looks back.
Baby Kamala and then ‘Kumari’ Kamala (now Kamala Lakshminarayan) was always on top. A child prodigy of the 1940s, she reigned supreme for over three decades, making a mark in cinema as well.
The writer caught up with her in Chennai for an informal chat. With her chiselled features, this senior artist retains her youthful energy and is active and trim. Taking a break from her busy schedule in Long Island, the U.S., Kumari Kamala, who was here to participate in the Natyakala Conference of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, thanks to Shantha and Dhananjayan and the officials of the ICCR, says that she is able to see a lot of changes on the Bharathanatyam front here.
“There are so many discussions… why we should have Jatiswaram; why it should not be omitted; why there should be a second Jati in the varnam, why we should do varnam at all… and so on,” observes Kamala. According to her, this is not progress. “It brings down the quality, beauty and the very classicism of the art. Everybody is dancing in a different way. And there are plenty of dancers these days, enough to confuse the audience.”
Naturally, she is happy that she belongs to that golden generation. “I had great audiences at that time. We used to do new items, which made the audience very happy. It was a thrilling experience.”
An advocate of classicism, she accepts changes within the framework of Padhati. “For instance, recently I had the opportunity to watch in Cleveland, several versions of the Ramayana in the form of dance-dramas. Most of them were excellent and able to present the story using modern techniques, but without crossing the line of classicism. And one of them was particularly very good, which I admired - the one presented by Jayanthi Subramanyam.” Kamala herself has choreographed and presented several dance dramas. “But in those days, we didn’t have much in terms of lighting effects and modern techniques.”
Vazhuvur’s teaching Method
On teaching, Kamala says Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai’s methods were unparalleled. “He was a great teacher; never got upset. And on my side, when I learnt a step from him, I made sure to practise it and show him the very next day, all the movements exactly as I learnt or even in a better way.” She had classes daily, without a break. So she just took six months to complete one segment.
She had her arangetram in Bharatanatyam in Mayavaram (Mayiladuturai), when she was seven. What made Vazhuvurar different from other gurus? “His style was unique, including the way he rendered jatis in his majestic voice... a good voice is very important for jatis. Samraj too was very good in jatis like his father.”
Kathak’s loss was Bharathanatyam’s gain
Kamala’s mother discovered her child’s talent and introduced her to Kathak when she was hardly three. “We were in Bombay then. I was also initiated into Hindustani music. Because of World War II, we came back to Mayuram, where I was born. Almost all South Indians left Bombay,” recalls Kamala.
Kamala learnt her first Bharatanatyam steps from Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai. He told her to go to Vazhuvurar for advanced lessons. “I had switched to Bharathanatyam from Kathak. In Bharathanatyam you are supposed to be in a half sitting position and practise dance movements. Dhi-dhi-ththais are different. So are hand movements. In Kathak you have to stand and dance. It has a lot of spinning movements – Chakkar, as they call it.” She did like the change, as dance, after all was her passion, genre did not matter.
She learnt vocal music as well. “When I was ten, I started learning vocal music from Ramnad Krishnan and Balasubramaniam, disciple of GNB. In fact GNB is distantly related to me through my father’s side.”
Kamala’s movie career spanned over three decades, during which period she starred in 100 films in Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and a Sri Lankan co-production. Kamala says, “I prefer stage performances, because I dance to a live audience. Dancing for the movies was different. In movies, if I make a mistake, I can redo it. On the stage I just cannot afford to make a mistake. It has to be done perfectly in one shot, as they say.”
On her taking the plunge into films, she recalls, “In Mumbai, producers came and watched my performances. They thought I had good scope in their movies. It was a rare thing those days to have children doing small roles. I was just five and already in the movies in Ranjith Studio from 1939.
“I acted in several Hindi movies, as Baby Kamala. As Kumari Kamala, I danced in many movies including in ‘Konjum Salangai.’ That movie was in colour. Even today there are people who remember and admire it.” And can anyone forget her stunning performance in ‘Naam Iruvar’?
Who was her favourite artiste? “I used to like Ram Gopal – the way he put across his themes. He was a great stage personality. Even production wise, his was a great show, like creating illusions on the stage. He was my inspiration. As a child, I used to admire his dance. I liked Uday Shankar also. But his was always a mixture. It was not a particular style. I had the opportunity to watch the great Bala Saraswati. Bala was excellent, no doubt. She was an accomplished singer as well and had very good abhinaya. Even today I admire Bala.”
Has she admired any other artist? “Yes, quite a few, such as Shobana, Padmini’s niece. She dances well.”
What, according to her, is her great achievement? “After the split with my Guruji - we had a break you know – I started with my orchestra. That was when I composed the dance and choreography for the Swati Tirunal composition ‘Bhavayami Raghuramam.’ Of course I had my Guruji’s blessings. Contacts were subsequently revived. In fact whenever I came to India, I made it a point to meet Samraj. It is unfortunate that we lost him.”
Kamala has also done choreography for the Nattakurinji varnam, ‘Chalamela’ ‘Karunai Seithidal Aagaatha’ of Papanasam Sivan, ‘Sakunthalam,’ ‘Nauka Charithram,’ ‘Andal,’ ‘Prahlada Bhakta Vijayam,’ ‘Sri Ramcharith Manas,’ ‘Jaya Jaya Sudarsana’ (on Sri Chakarathazhwar) and ‘Sri Krishnamasraye.’
After a long and bright career in India, Kamala shifted base to the U.S. in 1980, as she felt she “was not getting the government’s support.” She is certainly unhappy about the lack of due recognition India. She is a Padma Bhushan. “I felt other artists were getting more support. So I decided to go to the U.S. where at that time there was no other teacher except Padmini.” Living in Long Island, she certainly missed the vibrant artistic atmosphere of Chennai and felt lonely. Her only son is in San Francisco. It is a year since she met him.
How busy is she in the US? “Life is hectic. “My Institution, Sri Bharatha Kamalalaya, is in Long Island. I teach daily. During weekends, I drive down to New Jersey and Westchester - which is about three hundred miles away – and teach students there. I am settled in the US happily. I think that is the best place to live in. I have no plans of coming back to India.”