Dance is an extension of music

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Abhinaya expert: Nirmala Ramachandran.
Abhinaya expert: Nirmala Ramachandran.


For Nirmala Ramachandran the two have been inseparable entities.

As the woman sings “Thathai mozhiyal...” in high Kalyani, her body sways to the lilt of tisra gati, even though she is seated on a mat. The child nearby is entranced and begins to move to the rhythm. The woman says, “Sivakamu, yourdaughter will be a good dancer, just watch.” Sivakamu smiles eagerly but is overcome by doubt. Even learning music from Gowri Ammal, devadasi of the Kapaleeswarar temple, is not an easy step for her and her sister, with their diehard Mylapore background. The lady was one of the great dancers of her time, and inspired the legendary Balasaraswati. But the two disciples did not dare to learn padams and javalis from her, as they were banned by the puritans for their erotic content. They learnt varnams and kritis instead.

The first step

But the seed was sown in little Nirmala. Gowri Ammal began to teach her to dance as if in play, in between music classes for the older women. Gowri Ammal’s step daughter Pichai, who taught in the National Girls’ High School where Nirmala was enrolled, fanned the flame.

“My mother too noticed that I had a flair for dancing. Moving to Egmore, I found myself in the Indian Institute of Fine Arts under guru Chokkalingam Pillai.” Pillai was a task master but never needlessly harsh. He did not demonstrate but showed what had to be done, seated on the floor. Whenever he got up to spit betel juice he would correct errors in the movement or mudra.

“His son Subbaroya Pillai would sing for us - what a lovely way he had of bringing out the feelings and nuances, nelivu-sulivu and merugu! Minakshisundaram Pillai’s son Muthiah would also sing, but not with such grace. I was interested only in the dance, but I think the music sank in deep without my knowing it.”

At age 11, Nirmala had her arangetram at the Museum Theatre. One day musician Jayammal asked Nirmala’s parents to send the girl to dance in her daughter Balasaraswati’s kuravanji natakam. With the social stigma attached to devadasis this was not an easy decision. But the father was convinced it was an honour for his child to dance with so great an artiste as Balamma.

The result? The patron of Chokkalingam Pillai’s school refused to allow Pillai to conduct Nirmala’s dance performance at the R.R.Sabha. Why did the Brahmin child participate in a dance programme with the devadasis, he asked.

An incensed Balamma came to the rescue. She sent her own nattuvanar Ganesan to conduct Nirmala’s recital.

After the break up with Chokkalingam Pillai, Nirmala continued her dance classes with Tiruvalaputtur Swaminatha Pillai of the Pandanallur school. “He had a striking personality, a beaky nose like an ancient Roman.” His classes were thunderous with the thattukazhi beats, for which Nirmala endured much teasing from friends. Grandmother did not help matters when she asked, “How long can you twirl and leap? Settle down to singing.”

Family’s choice

Nirmala’s dreams of taking up a fashionable subject like politics or law in college were dashed when her family chose music as most useful and enduring in value. “I jogged along in Queen Mary’s College where Komattil Janaki taught vocal music, and Bhanumati Amma taught theory. I had good taste and a good ear, but what a disappointment not to do what I wanted.”

She attended Jayammal’s padam classes at the Music Academy, an experience whose worth she was to realise only much later in life. “Once Balasaraswati directly taught me ‘Indendu vachitivira…’

She was still in college when vidwan Papa Venkatramiah advised her father to engage K.V.Narayanaswami to tutor her in music at home, and to pay him Rs. 75 instead of the usual Rs. 50. The father agreed. “Though at first I was interested only in getting inputs to help me with my college exams, slowly I began to understand what music really meant. I also found that music and dance got integrated for me without my quite realising how it happened.”

KVN began varnam and moved to kritis, painstakingly, but with involvement. He gave her many useful tips _ don’t go from lower notes to the higher, come down from the higher to the lower."

Marriage to Ramachandran who worked in Air India meant a shift in life and lifestyle. His postings took the couple to many cities, including a five-year stint in Moscow. “I could not start a dance school or have long-term students. But some of my students are doing well, and running their own schools, especially my Russian disciple whose school is called Nirmala,” she explains. For the past six years Nirmala has been singing and performing abhinaya. “I don’t know if anyone does that except Vyjayantimala.”

Nirmala continues to increase her repertoire of padam and javali from Bombay Ramachandran, who imbibed them from Muktamma. “Knowing music adds layers, subtleties, emotions and modulations to abhinaya. If you don’t enjoy the music, your dance appears mechanical. If you don’t know music, you can’t give a convincing dance performance.” And not unlike her own grandmother, she tells her grandchildren, “Swimming is wonderful, but don’t forget to sing!”

(A fortnightly spotlight on music gurus, musicologists and representatives of different schools who have enriched Carnatic music.)



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