Gowri Ammal’s place in the annals

As the last hereditary dancer attached to Kapaleeswarar temple, Gowri Ammal’s home in Mylapore should be restored and preserved

August 26, 2021 06:02 pm | Updated 06:19 pm IST

Gowri Ammal

Gowri Ammal

Gowri Ammal, one of the most well-known Bharatanatyam dancers of the 20th century, came from a family of hereditary temple dancers. She was the last to be attached to the Kapaleeswarar temple in Chennai’s Mylapore area. An abhinaya expert, Gowri Ammal holds a special place in the modern history of Bharatanatyam, since it was she who taught later stalwarts such as Balasaraswathi and Rukmini Devi Arundale.

Gowri Ammal used to live in a tiled-roof house given to her by the Kapaleeswarar temple, until she was disenfranchised by the new law banning temple dance, a bill introduced by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Gowri Ammal lost her patronage and house, and went on to survive by teaching dance. It is believed that when Gowri Ammal died, Rukmini Devi had to come forward to pay for her last rites.

Gowri Ammal’s house still stands, locked up and in disrepair, with a black granite plaque identifying it as belonging to the Kapaleeswarar temple.

As a researcher and senior Bharatanatyam artiste, I am sure I speak for the dance fraternity across the world when I appeal to the authorities to restore Gowri Ammal’s house and turn it into a monument, with photographs and other memorabilia of early 20th-century dancers. This mini-museum will be of great interest to any visitor who loves history and dance. Young dancers across the globe would be proud to commemorate a great artiste besides learning about this facet of the heritage of Bharatanatyam and Mylapore.

But what makes Gowri Ammal so unique? She belonged to a long lineage of hereditary temple dancers. Her mother Doraikannu Ammal who preceded her at the Mylapore temple was a legendary dancer known for her skills and personality. It is chronicled that she was an artiste of such high calibre that she was asked to perform only on special occasions in the temple. One such was the ninth day of the Brahmotsavam, when Kapali is taken out in a procession as Bikshatanar. Doraikannu would enact the myth of Shiva as a mendicant in the Darukavana forest, with telling movements and gestures, during the course of the procession. People would come from all over to see her dance.

Lakshmi Viswanathan outside the house in Mylapore where Lakshmi Ammal used to live

Lakshmi Viswanathan outside the house in Mylapore where Lakshmi Ammal used to live


Just like Doraikkannu, Gowri Ammal also emerged as an icon of Mylapore. She taught my sister, Baby Saroja, the Tamil version of ‘Krishna nee begane baro’. My mother rendered it in its original tune for the film Tyaga Bhoomi , based on Kalki’s story, directed by my uncle K. Subrahmanyam. Gowri Ammal’s clear and unfussy abhinaya can be seen in this 1939 film, archived for future dancers.

In 1932, Gowri Ammal danced at the Music Academy, when E. Krishna Iyer took some effort to recognise Bharatanatyam as an art worthy of support and not to be dismissed as part of the social reform movement. Whenever Gowri Ammal performed, she was supported by authentic singers of padams and javalis. These singers included the daughters of the renowned Veena Dhanammal, whose granddaughter Balasaraswathi learnt from Gowri her inimitable abhinaya pieces.

Gowri Ammal’s last public performance was at the silver jubilee function of the Indian National Congress in 1935. Later, the Music Academy in Madras as well as the national Sangeet Natak Akademi honoured Gowri with awards. Coming late in her dancing life, these did not make much of a dent in her fading career in the emerging scenario of the law against dance. As a mark of respect to a great artiste who dedicated her entire life to dance and trained many stalwarts, and to preserve also the heritage of Mylapore, committed artistes and art patrons in this city should appeal for a small monument to Gowri Ammal, a gesture she truly deserves.

The writer is a veteran Bharatanatyam dancer and scholar.

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