There is more to Guru Jamuna Krishnan than meets the eye, just as there is more to her compositions than have been presented on stage. Behind the presentations is a solid body of research not every dancer could lay claim to. The Delhi-based Bharatanatyam exponent who acquired a reputation for using works from literature in Hindi and Tamil in her recitals says she reads extensively before selecting works to choreograph.
As the veteran dancer, who received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award – 2013 that was conferred at a ceremony recently in New Delhi, looks back at her eventful career, she notes that inevitably, “everything falls into place.”
Born into a musical family that was inclined towards dance and theatre, she received early inputs at home, particularly from her mother Lakshmi Narayanan — a vocalist and veena artist — and her grandfather Harihar Iyer who was involved with theatre, literature and music.
“Classical arts had an important place in our house,” she recalls. As a child she trained in Carnatic music, though her interest in dance was considered only to be encouraged till she grew up. “The idea in those days was that you only danced when you were young,” she laughs. “But now the involvement with dance is very different.”
Education and the company of erudite people moulded her approach to life, she explains. Even as she was urged to continue her music seriously, her academic education took place at New Delhi’s St. Thomas School and later at Indraprastha College. At school, she says, there were great educationists who fanned her interest in studies. She later attended the Delhi School of Economics, where eminent economists like K.N. Raj, Amartya Sen Jagdish Bhagwati were then teaching. “It was a very fine department and very inspiring in terms of academics,” she recalls. It was perhaps but natural that on completion, she took up a teaching job at Indraprastha College.
But the arts were always a major part of her life. In college during breaks she would chat about literature with the other teachers. At home there were traditional arts. Having taken two sabbaticals to concentrate on dance projects based on the poetry of Vidyapati and then Surdas, she finally decided to take the option of early retirement to take up fulltime Bharatanatyam.
Her transition from padams and javalis of Bharatanatyam to the padas of the Hindi poets was not as natural as one might assume of a Tamil girl growing up in Delhi. A senior disciple of late Guru K.J. Govindarajan, under whose guidance she remained for some 30-odd years, she intensified her training in abhinaya under the renowned Kalanidhi Narayanan. A friend pointed out how the spirit of shringara in the padams and javalis traditionally performed in Bharatanatyam was to be found in Bhakti literature of North India as well. Meanwhile, she had the chance to see her guru Kalanidhi get together with late Rohini Bhate for a project on abhinaya supported by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. This fired her interest further.
“I decided to go into it more deeply myself,” she says. “In about 1983-84 I did Vidyapati for the first time. After that there was no looking back. In ’85-’86 I did epiphanies in Sur’s poetry.” Another set of compositions that came out of her study of Surdas was “Murali Samvad”.
“And in about 1990 I did (Surdas’) Bhramar Geeti. Subsequently I did Meera’s padavali. Then I did Ramcharitmanas.” She adds, “The best part is, over the years, I go over it again and again. Often, like at Rama Navami I do the entire reading of Ramcharitmanas again.” With reading a way of life, it was in 95-96 that she took up all 4000 of the Divya Prabandham verses. “In the beginning the ancient Tamil was very difficult,” she remarks. Under Kalanidhi she had already been introduced to the works, when the guru took up the nayika bhava aspect of the songs. But, she admits, “Frankly, I wasn’t ready for it. We all change and grow. Finally by ’98 I was ready to take it up.”
She has high praise for her vocal accompanists Hema Aziz — who sang the Vidyapati and Surdas verses set to tune by the dancer — and Vasanthi Krishna Rao who sang the Divya Prabandham.
Along with performing and teaching Guru Jamuna is known for being an active member of Delhi’s audience, where dancers are — arguably — notorious for not attending each others’ performances.
“I am one person who sees all the programmes,” she states. So how does she assess the Bharatanatyam scene over the decades? “If you look at art per se, I don’t think there is anything to be disappointed. People are approaching it very intensely. There is a kind of urge among young people to learn more, know more, to excel. Even during the Chennai season, I see there are some beautiful performances.”
However, she feels there are aspects the other stakeholders — the corporate sector, the teachers, organisers, the orchestra members — ought to pay attention to. “Look at the kind of money we need to spend on orchestra payments, on the costumes.” When artists want to make a mark in a competitive field, they can’t afford to cut too many corners, she points out. “But you can’t commercialise a field too much,” she warns, “And everyone can’t have a support system. And there I would want the teachers to be aware that we can’t only support those who can make it through (financially). There should be a kind of review every year. I am sure there are many who give up out of sheer frustration.”
As for review, she continues, we tend to look only at the performance aspect, but a related marker is, who is viewing dance? With organisations like Spic Macay working over decades to propagate the classical arts, it would be good to find out how many students who were exposed through these means have become involved in the field. A tradition of stocktaking is missing in the field she feels. “One good that there are dance departments in schools,” she muses, summing up, “On the whole I am an optimist.”
Friends and motivators
“I owe a lot to my colleagues and my library,” says Jamuna Krishnan, “and then when you come home there are people talking of the same thing (arts). Everything falls in place.”
In the presentation of the Divya Prabandham, she says, accomplished Carnatic vocalist Vasanthi Krishna Rao contributed “in a big way”. Though most of the music was composed by the dancer, the vocalist added value to the project, she acknowledges. Earlier, when she was composing for Vidyapati and Surdas verses, versatile vocalist Hema Aziz rendered the songs. “The music composition was all mine, but she sang them and even now when I hear the recording I get goose bumps.”
Students and successors
“There are a lot of people who perform them (her compositions). I always involve some of my good students in my projects. Geeta (Chandran) performs some of the pieces. Then Vasanti Shridhar, Jai Govind in Vancouver, Swati Bhise in New York, and Ragini (Chandrasekhar).”