As she readies for her 45th Season’s performances, dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan is happy to go down memory lane
Eclectic… that’s the word that best describes Lakshmi Viswanathan. Her home is a reflection of that attitude. A large bronze Nataraja statue occupies centre stage and is surrounded by a painting of her mother Alamelu Viswanathan, a picture of M.S. Subbulakshmi, large Tanjore canvases, a framed Thangka, replicas of Greek urns and a bookshelf where a biography of Coco Chanel shares space with Amish Tripathi’s The Immortals of the Meluha. Completing the picture are family photographs.
For Lakshmi, life has been “a fun-filled” ride where she has had the opportunity to travel across continents and meet “interesting people along the way.” But what has been her mainstay, “her very breath” is her dance -- Bharatanatyam. And she gets ready to present something new for her 45 December Season, she recalls that her first-ever performance in 1968 during Margazhi was not Bharatanatyam but “Krishna Parijatham”, a Kuchipudi dance drama!
Such interesting nuggets make a freewheeling chat with the dancer-teacher-writer interesting, as she happily revisits some memorable moments in her six decade-long career. She has a tale to narrate as she leafs through old photo albums. “This one was taken at G.K. Vale Studio, the done thing those days,” or “This was taken during my first foreign trip. It was Brussels. I was walking down a street, when suddenly I saw a poster with my name on it. I was thrilled!” or “I was in New York and after a performance, somebody tapped me and I turned around and was stunned to see the legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov standing there waiting to shake hands!
But what gives her contentment and solace is dance. Lakshmi’s career took shape under the watchful eyes of her first dance teacher Kausalya, and was further moulded by Kanchipuram Ellappa Pillai in the Thanjavur bani. Adding sheen was her training with Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam for Kuchipudi and T. Mukhta for padams. “All these added different dimensions to my dance,” she says of her art, which has often been described as “visual music.” The fact that her family had an artistic bent of mind (father K. K. Viswanathan was a pioneer “exhibitor,” mother was an accomplished veena player, sisters Baby Saroja, a famous child actor and Charumathi, a Carnatic vocalist) only made it easier for this Queen’s Mary’s alumnus to pursue her passion.
“The creative and aesthetic aspects of dance have always engrossed me so much that the problems one faces as a professional dancer pale in comparison,” says Lakshmi, who is a great admirer of M.S. Subbulakshmi and Rukmini Devi Arundale. “Art is not uni-dimensional; it integrates various facets of cultures to create a generic whole; and it is this whole which I find fascinating to explore.” Her innovative streak came to the fore when she helmed the Natyakala Conference in 1983 and ‘84, and launched the Mamalla Dance Festival in 1991 as its Artistic Director.
Lakshmi has invested quite a bit of her creativity in her choreographies such as Banyan Tree (Vata Vriksha) (“It traces the history of Bharatanatyam; I want to revive”), “Chaturanga” and “Vidya Sundari. “I enjoy reading up old books on dance and culture; all that research gets a creative edge I choreograph.”
Unlike most dancers, however, Lakshmi is not into teaching full time. “I didn’t take the dance school route,” she smiles. “But I do train students off and on. And today, there are many freelance dancers with whom I work for group performances. And that is an enriching experience for both me and them.”
Besides dance, her penchant for writing books on dance and culture (four books have her name as author) and making documentaries (Poetry of Dance) have helped Lakshmi keep abreast with the kinetic world of the arts. And being having friends such as the internationally renowned choreographer Mark Morris (who describes Lakshmi as 'creative proponent of abhinaya’) gives her a global perspective.
“Travelling gives me a high. There are so many interesting people I’ve met and learnt from, that it helped me evolve as an artist,” says the dancer, who once even got to meet Queen Elizabeth during a garden part at the Buckingham Palace!
Even as she prepares to teach two young Dutch girls the Margam, she signs off by saying, “When I look back, I am really happy that I pursued classical dance. It’s made me the person I am today.”
Lakshmi Vishwanathan will be conferred the title ‘Vani Kala Sudhakara' by Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha on December 9, 6 p.m., at Vani Mahal.
She will present the thematic ‘ Bhava Bharatam: A Vintage bouquet of Dances’ as a tribute to her guru Ellappa Pillai, on December 28, 7.30 p.m., for Brahma Gana Sabha, at Sivagami Pethachi auditorium. The repertoire will comprise rare pieces which have she has not visited for a while.
A golden moment in Lakshmi’s life was when she was conferred the Nrithya Choodamani title by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in 1975. “I was in London at that time. One cold, wintry morning, I got an aerogram from my mother telling me I had got the award. That cold morning suddenly turned warm and beautiful. When the day of receiving my award came, I was stunned. There was Balasaraswathi presenting the award, M. L. Vasanthakumari felicitating and Vyjayanthimala presiding. What more can one ask for!”