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Skill untouched by Time

Kadur Venkatalakshmamma, 96, is fragile but the spark is alive. NANDINI RAMANI talks to this exponent of the Mysore School of Bharatanatyam.

IT IS a tiny house decorated typically with flowers at the doorstep, a custom among the Kannadigas to propitiate and welcome the divine guardians of prosperity. The place is Kadur, an interior village of Karnataka, about 300 km from Bangalore. As one enters this humble abode, a sense of warmth and humility could be felt. In a small living room, you meet the frail-looking lady waiting to greet you with a soft smile on her glowing face. It was indeed a unique experience to speak to Kadur Venkatalakshmamma, veteran of the Mysore School of Bharatanatyam.

As one listened to this grand old lady (96) of Bharatanatyam, one could watch emotions quickly changing on her wrinkled face. She has been adorned with several awards including Padma Bhushan, Karnataka Kala Tilaka, Sangeeta Kala Ratna, etc, to name a few, apart from innumerable honours showered on her by the royal patrons of Mysore.

In fact the area, as one enters Kadur and drives towards Tamkali Tandya, is named Venkatalakshmamma Nagar (V. L. Nagara).

Venkatalakshmamma served at the Palace for 30 years from 1939 to 1969. During that period she participated in almost all the festivals along with illustrious dancers and musicians of those times who were invited to the court by the royal patrons. It was Veena Bakshi Subbanna who recognised her merit and commended her as a worthy student of her renowned teacher, Jatti Thayamma (known as Natya Saraswati of Karnataka). Thus Venkatalakshmamma had the honour of becoming the Asthana Narthaki along with four other dancers at the court of Raja Nalvadi Krishna Raja Wodeyar, the then ruler of Mysore. She had the privilege of dancing for both the coronation and wedding ceremonies of Sri Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, himself a great connoisseur, composer and patron of Samskrita, Sahitya and Sangita.

Venkatalakshmamma found a niche for the Mysore school of Bharatanatyam with her exquisite handling of abhinaya. The nuances were enriched by her in-depth understanding of the musical and literary aspects of the compositions that she presented. In the Mysore style, the recital commenced with Purva Ranga Vidhi, a customary invocatory number addressed to Lord Ganesa, with jathis in between which occupied the place of the Alarippu. This was followed by Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Varnam, Padam, etc., Venkatalakshmamma's artistry had developed in a methodical process of learning of not only the prayoga aspects of the art but also the essential sources like the study of Sanskrit, Sahitya and most important, vocal music from stalwarts of those times like Asthana Vidwan Devendrappa. She also underwent formal education up to Class VIII.

Coming out of the palace environs in 1969, Venkatalakshmamma presented memorable performances, offered teaching programmes and served in prestigious positions like head of the dance department in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Mysore.

Even at this ripe age, Venkatalakshmamma has an unfailing memory. She creates a pleasant atmosphere as she patiently listens and answers to all the queries. Asked whether she had met with Bala, she said, ``Once we both were supposed to discuss and perform on the same platform. But somehow it did not come through. I felt quite sad about it, as I very much wanted to meet her. Although we could not interact personally on any occasion, the respect was mutual.''

``Can you show some specific composition that you always liked and enjoyed performing?'' ``Of course''. There was no hesitation on her part. ``Please bear with me, I can't stand and perform,'' she apologised. Then followed moments of beautiful poetry in visualised musical form. As she sang a Javali in Kapi with a soft melodious voice, she enacted and instantly brought alive the love-lorn Nayika. Age has neither stolen her energy and enthusiasm, nor made her skilful strokes stale. Her eyes, glittering with emotions portrayed the young shy maiden elaborating on her plight. There was total tranquillity and time stood still.

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