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Updated: October 19, 2009 16:36 IST

Dedicated to dance

Ambili Ramnath
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Teacher par excellence: N.S. Jayalakshmi. Photo: S. Gopakumar
Teacher par excellence: N.S. Jayalakshmi. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Professor N.S. Jayalakshmi, a former instructor at Kalakshetra, is a mother figure for the institution and for her students spread across the globe.

Talking to N.S. Jayalakshmi is like viewing a beautiful tapestry woven by magical memories of dance, music and student-teacher relationships that defy definition. Perhaps it could be no other way for a person who has learned and taught at Kalakshetra over a period spanning many decades and still continues to be a mother figure for the institution as well as hundreds of students spread all over the globe.

Jaya Teacher, as she is affectionately called, was in Thiruvananthapuram recently to attend the annual celebration of Regatta Cultural Society where she also conducted a workshop on dance.

A conversation with her offered rare glimpses into the making of Kalakshetra, its founder, Rukmini Devi Arundale, and on Professor Jayalakshmi's experiences as student and teacher at the hallowed institution.

Kalakshetra

Born into an academically and culturally inclined family in Thiruvaiyur, she stepped into the world of dance as her brother, N.S. Gopalan, who was acquainted with Rukmini Devi Arundale and other theosophists, brought the young Jayalakshmi to study at the Besant Theosophical School in Chennai. Rukmini Devi who spotted the talent in the young girl got her enrolled into Kalakshetra - then in its fledgling state. Inadvertently she thenceforth became part and parcel of the process when dance history was being made.

"I must have been around 11 or 12," reminiscences Professor Jayalakshmi. "Rukmini Devi had started Kalakshetra with just six students - her niece, Radha Bernier nee Sreeram, the present head of the Theosophical Society, among those six."

Within the very first year of her joining Kalakshetra, she was asked to take part in the first production of the institution. It caught her unawares. "I was walking about humming a song, when Atthai (Rukmini Devi) called out to me. When the offer was put to me, all I could do was to nod dumbly." The production was 'Kuttralam Kuravanji' based on the traditional dance drama on the story of Lord Muruga and Valli, the heroine who falls in love with him. Rukmini Devi played the heroine and Prof. Jayalakshmi, the kurathi. Her inimitable performance in that role is applauded to this day. Sharada Hoffman and Malathi Srinivasan were among those who played the roles of 'sakhis.'

Rukmini Devi was convinced that music played a key role in our system of natya and she laid emphasis on music as well in the Kalakshetra scheme of things. "The visionary in her saw that the institution, the students and the future of dance would be enriched by the knowledge and experience of the old and the respected names in the field of dance and music," says the veteran in tribute to the legend. Thus Kalakshetra benefited from the geniuses of Tiger Varadachariar and his brother Veena Krishnamachariar, Madurai Subramani Aiyar, the violin vidwan, Mysore Vasudevachariar, Veena Sambasiva Aiyar, Budalur Krishnamurti Shastrigal, the master of the Gotuvadyam, M. D. Ramanathan, Ambu Panikar and Chandu Panikar, the renowned Kathakali Asans, and Mylapore Gowriamma, the ace dance guru belonging to the Devadasi tradition.

The atmosphere was one of tireless dedication and mutual affection. "Mysore Vasudevachariar was 'pachai thaatha' to us because he used to drape a green shawl and for the same reason, Veena Sambasiva Aiyar was 'sevappu thaatha' because he wore a red one. They, in turn, called me 'Teacheramma.'"

Prof. Jayalakshmi began to teach even while she was a student {ndash} in fact teacher training was part of the curriculum. "Sometimes a student would not get an adavu or a mudra quite right and we would say that she was not 'getting it.' On hearing that comment, Rukmini Devi would ask: "What have you done to help her get it?" Such was Atthai's eye for perfection."

As a teacher, Prof. Jayalakshmi has been on the one hand a mentor and a confidante, while on the other a strict disciplinarian during rigorous practice sessions and an uncompromising academician who taught theory, equipping students with the skill to quote ad verbatim from reference texts.

Many of the leading artistes of today are her students {ndash} V.P. Dhananjayan and Shanta, who never fail to evoke her name before their performances, Leela Samson, Indira Bora, V. Gayatri, Krishnaveni and Balagopal to name a few of the hundreds to whom she is a teacher deeply loved and respected.

Although she has retired from Kalakshetra, her expertise is much sought after to this day. She is chairman and member at the board of studies of several universities in India and abroad, visiting professor for many institutes, panel member for Doordarshan, youth festivals and scholarships at national level, member of Lalitkala Academy and so on. Her publications, talks on TV, the BBC and at workshops and seminars all over the world have been well received. Befittingly too, she has been adorned with titles such as Acharya Choodamani, Bharatha Kala Acharya, Lalita Kala Ratna and Kalaimamani from the Tamil Nadu Government.

But the honour she values most is that she was "blessed to be trained and associated with Rukmini Devi and Kalakshetra and to have danced with her." The award that she cherishes most is the unstinted love that her many students have for their dear Jaya Teacher.

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