Legendary danseur Nataraja Ramakrishna had dedicated his entire life to preserve and propagate Kuchipudi and left his legacy through Andhra Natyam.
The grand old sire of the kingdom of dance has called it a day. With him, the era of ‘art for art's sake' comes to an end, just as the age of purified thought and deed came to an end with the demise of Bheeshma, as Lord Krishna says in the Mahabharata.
Nataraja Ramakrishna is no more. He has left behind a legacy called Andhra Natyam, a form of classical dance that existed within the precincts of temples ages ago and was culled out of the last legion of devadasis, retrieved, resuscitated and revived by this great doyen of dance. And at what cost? At the altar of his personal life he had lit the lamp of ‘ natya' and kept it burning till age extinguished it. His life has come to a full circle. In his own words, he had lived life on his own terms. For him, dance was not an obsession; it was contemplation; it was a personal choice that cost him his family as he led an estranged, solitary life. The candle burnt itself out giving light to several others- his pupils, his teachers and all those destitute who sought his shelter for solace. And he continued to live by dance, for dance alone. “There was never enough in the form of finances, so to say. Since, I chose to remain unmarried or rather married natyam, it was not a big issue in my case. My meagre wants ensured that I was left enough money on hand to feed and take care of all those I loved,” he had confided some time ago.
A Spartan lifestyle, his only ambition was to place classical dance on the pedestal he had envisaged and propagate it to the younger generation who would carry the mantle after him. As years rolled by, the ethical generation into which Nataraja was born had given way to a commercial era where any performing art rose to the level of a commodity driven by market forces. Many of his age and ilk chose to flow with the current but not him. Research thrives only on rewards and recognition. To him, they were few and far too late. But his intensive research of ancient dance was based on practical experience transformed into a book of letters.
A romantic at heart, it was his dream to resurrect the glory of yesteryear art and culture by building a monument of the legendary singer-dancer duo of the erstwhile Qutb Shahi reign, Taramati-Premavathi. He had weaved a historical fiction in the form of a book on these two artistes. Finally, a few years ago, his dream was realised in what we now call the Taramati Baradari. He said then, that he felt as if he won an invaluable trophy.
His extended family were his pupils, the foremost being Kalakrishna, a dancer of repute in our state. Says Krishna (that's how Nataraja Ramakrishna referred to his ‘adopted' son), “I spent 38 years with him, as his disciple. I had come to Hyderabad from my hometown Karimnagar as a school teacher. I came under his tutelage with my penchant to learn dance. And there was no looking back. He taught me with utmost dedication and on seeing my first performance in a female impersonification as Satyabhama, he decided that I should concentrate on dance and leave everything else. I promptly left my future in his hands. And from then on he charted the course of my life. He was a task master as a guru; while I had my food he would be my mother and in taking care of my needs and guidance, he donned the role of my father. He was so many persons rolled into one. He never liked me or any of his pupils to travelby bus or rickshaw. It was demeaning to an artiste, he would say and ask us to travel by autorickshaw for which he would pay. I lived with him till I got married after which, he lived with me,” a tinge of sadness creeps in.
Nataraja Ramakrishna had antagonised his parents and relatives and faced their wrath by not just choosing a vocation that was not “respectable for a man” in his times, but by visiting the houses of dancing devadasis (temple dancers), he learnt the nuances of abhinaya (expression) and adavu patterns (footwork) from them in a sort of gurukul system. He had expressed his deep regard for the scholarship of these devadasis during many an interview. “They were adept in Panchamaha kavyas. They were dance, song and poetry literate plus highly evolved souls whose purity surpassed the norms of socio-moral order,” he would declare. He practised what he preached. He took care of some of these devadasis like Saride Manikyamma in their old age, by giving them shelter under his roof. The man was pure, the purpose of his life purer and what he betrothed to his innumerable pupils was the purest form of art. Men like him are rare today. His soul lives in his art and is carried forward by his disciples.