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E. Krishna Iyer: Bharatanatyam’s guardian angel

E. Krishna Iyer  

E. Krishna Iyer was born on August 9, 1879, in a village near Tirunelveli district. He was born to Kailasa Iyer and Ananthalakshmi but the E comes from Eswara, his foster father’s name, because he was given for adoption as 8th of 14 children and 4th of 5 that survived. The place where this family lived was Kallidaikurichi, once called ‘Brahmin Chettinadu’ by a wise-cracking Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer because it was known as much for its trading wealth as for its traditional culture.

He went to school in Ambasamudram and did his B.A. from MCC (Madras Christian College) in 1918. It was in Trivandrum that he studied Law in 1921. Those days to even think of leaving one’s village and going so far meant either the family had means or the boy was truly a genius, which EKI was.

Krishna Iyer married Parvathi Amma when he was 14 and soon his family grew to include K. Kailasha Eswaran, K. Seetha Raman and Meena Vishwanath. His grandchildren are Ram Kumar, Kannan, Shekhar, Uma Sundari and Krishna.

He entered Bar-at-Law in 1922, within a year of finishing his Law in Trivandrum and Madras. Soon he was a full-time rabble-rousing lawyer, who espoused many causes. Since our interest is more in his dance, we will focus on that.

As a child, he was exposed to dance and music at weddings that were celebrated with pomp and show, sometimes going on for days and where famous dancers and musicians like Vedanta Bhagwatar, Pudukottai Dakshinamoorthy, Ghatam Sundaram Iyer and sadir exponents such as Muthuratnambal also performed. Thus, EKI had an exposure to dance and music. He was also later inspired to take to stage by Rangavadivelu of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha, who was among the first men to don female roles. EKI thus undertook the part of Malavika in Kalidasa's ‘Malavikagnimitra.’

E. Krishna Iyer: Bharatanatyam’s guardian angel

In the audience was Natesa Iyer, a veteran master of Bharatanatyam and prime force behind the Bhagavata Mela of Thanjavur, in which men alone take part, in addition to donning female roles. Impressed by EKI's dancing, he suggested him to take up dancing seriously. Under his tutelage and persuasion, EKI trained and for over five years performed regular shows. He had to don female attire, for people in Madras at that time a male doing Bharatanatyam was unimaginable.

In 1927, EKI was responsible for organising the first All-India Music Conference at Madras and the following year was established the Music Academy, with him as one of the founding members. He remained an active secretary till 1939. He was bold to present in 1931 two celebrated devadasis Jeevaratnam and Rajalakshmi. There was massive uproar but EKI with supporters stayed put. The consensus was that Bharatanatyam was sacred and it must survive. This is how he found a platform for Bala too, later at the Music Academy.

Krishna Iyer’s activism saw him getting involved in agitation against the Simon Commission in 1930. In 1932 he joined Gandhiji’s Salt Satyagraha and other assorted protests during that period. Perhaps his biggest contribution to Bharatanatyam was when he pitted himself against fellow lawyer Muthulakshmi Reddy and fought for the cause of the devadasis.

As early as 1933, EKI wrote a book Personalities in Present Day Music. It carried a chapter on dancers too. He began to consistently contribute articles and reviews to English and Tamil papers. He became an important fixture in the dance and music scene and counted many worthies among his friends. He was the Editor of New Age founded in 1934 by HD Rajah and Associate Editor of Free Press. He was the Magazine Editor of Indian Republic and also columnist for Kalki, Dinamani and the Indian Express. EKI remained close and connected to Mohan Khokar till his end years and gifted him many precious letters, photos and memorabilia.

E. Krishna Iyer: Bharatanatyam’s guardian angel

Iyer was also the Founder Secretary of what we today call Madras Sangeet Natak Academy (Tamil Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram). His voice and activism were so important that twice he was elected councillor for Mylapore division unopposed — in 1938 and 1948. He also sang and danced and acted in films, as Arjuna and Brihanala in Sairandri in 1939.

In his active years, he was instrumental in bringing to fore the talent of many Bharatanatyam greats such as Varalakshmi-Bhanumati, Mylapore Gowri Ammal, Balasaraswati, MK Saroja, Kamala, Kausalya, Padmini… No concert would be complete without EKI’s inputs. He was a revered figure, although a friendly and approachable one.

Regular reviewing of dance and music performances by the Indian press can be said to be have begun in the 1940s, before that were only stray notices by staff reporters. Thus Delhi had its Charles Fabri, in Bombay there was D.G. Vyas, Calcutta had O.C. Ganguly and Bangalore, G. Venkatachalam. Only in Madras, competent coverage by qualified and established writers on dance and music was evident from before. Prominent among those names were K.V. Ramachandran, G.K.Sheshagiri and E. Krishna Iyer.

His observations are important for budding critics: “If artistes require less of personal obsessions, critics require more of tolerance. Differences in points of view need not lead to decrying of one another.” In yet another observation, he said, “factions and favouritism, sentimentality and prejudices are not going to improve matters... No artiste is a picture of perfection and that each notable one has something to contribute. Due attention to the essentials of good art combined with restraint will go a long way to help the critic play a meaningful role...” In yet another one, he said, “Most artistes like captive audiences; critics ought not to become captive!” (meaning, not become PR tools or agents). Wonder what EKI would have had to say about the state of affairs in the dance world today!

He lives on in our mind and memory, books and biographies.

The writer, a crictic and historian, is the author of several books and edits the yearbook attenDance


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