How art became a way of life

April 25, 2008 12:00 am | Updated October 10, 2016 05:09 am IST

Reminiscence Adyar Lakshman and brother Rama Rao recall the lofty ideals they imbibed from Kalakshetra. LALITHAA KRISHNAN

There was the instinctive awareness of being in the presence of greatness. And so, we absorbed – their values, simple living, ceaseless dedication… Kalakshetra, 1946. Observing a talented young student spending more time on cricket and hardly any in his music and dance classes, Rukmini Devi Arundale issued an ultimatum: “Choose between the two.” Within 24 hours, the boy solemnly pledged his allegiance to music and dance. That boy was Adyar K. Lakshman, who went on to become one of the most feted nattuvanars in the field of Bharatanatyam.

“Only years later, did I realise the import of the decision. How much Kalakshetra has given to my older brother Rama Rao and me! Halcyon days spent imbibing the loftiest values in art from stalwarts – Tiger Varadachari, Mysore Vasudevachar, Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastry, K.N.Dhandayudapani Pillai and Rukmini Devi. Being children, we had no idea that they were legends. Yet, there was the instinctive awareness of being in the presence of greatness. And so, we absorbed – their values, simple living, ceaseless dedication – Truly, osmosis of art and life at its most idealistic. Art became a way of life.”

Innate talent

Father, Krishnaraja Rao, an educationist, had moved the family from Chittoor (Andhra) to Vandavasi. Spotting the boys’ innate talent, P.D.Doraiswamy Iyer, the then-manager of Kalakshetra, secured their admission into its hallowed portals. “Along with D. Pasupathi, we were among the earliest students, in 1944. I was 12 and Lakshman was 10,” recounts Rama Rao.

Years of intensive training and sadhana followed, ensuring all-round expertise. “Nattuvangam is an art. An accomplished nattuvanar must have thorough grounding in all aspects of rhythm and melody. After initial lessons from Kamala Rani, I learnt vocal music from T.K.Ramaswami Iyengar, Tiger Varadachari and Budalur Krishnamurthi Sastri, mridangam from Thanjavur Rajagopala Iyer, V. Vittal Iyer and Karaikkudi Muthu Iyer, Bharatanatyam from Rukmini Devi and Kathakali from Ambu Panicker and Chandu Panicker. Clarity and grip in sollu kattu are essential. The very manner in which the jatis are articulated should move the artiste to dance. The extreme highs and lows of voice modulation, so in vogue today, were never a part of the Kalakshetra style,” states Lakshman.

“Athai emphasised a holistic education. She even encouraged us to learn weaving and painting, but there was little time,” says Rama Rao, who initially learnt the violin. Under Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastri, he trained in gottuvadyam and singing. “ Making progress in gottuvadyam, I became a graded AIR artiste. When a sudden illness weakened my nerves, I could no longer play the instrument and so, became a full-fledged vocalist.”

Mysore Vasudevachar’s entry as vice-principal in 1953 proved a watershed in Kalakshetra’s history. His vision nurtured many a talent to fruition. “Eminently approachable, this legendary composer and Mysore samasthana vidwan was a gentle genius. His encouragement and generous appreciation were an impetus,” the brothers reminisce.

“Hearing others sing his compositions made his day – M.S.Subbulakshmi’s rendition of ‘Brochevarevarura’ (Khamas) and Balamuralikrishna’s rendition of ‘Devadi Deva’ (Sunadavinodini). Eminent vidwans visited often and their discussions about music contributed to our learning process,” reveals Rama Rao. “Unfailingly courteous, he would greet all visitors, young or old, with folded hands. Asked why, he would explain that the namaskaram was for their atma.”

The brothers are graded artistes of the AIR in vocal music. The experience gained over a lifetime studded with precious insights has yielded rich dividends. A rounded mellowness pervades their music in the many kutcheris they have been invited to perform. Which brings us to the subject of ‘Kutrala Kuravanji.’

In January last, the duo’s presentation of veena Krishnamachari’s music composed for this dance drama at Rukmini Devi’s request, in 1944, enthralled the houseful audience at the Music Academy’s Dance Festival. “This great vidwan was Tiger’s brother. Yet his approach to composing was very different from Tiger’s. Athai would narrate the sequence. Krishnamachari would quietly frame the complete phrase in his mind. No experimental humming. Suddenly, he would say, ‘Write it down.’ Standing by, Periya Sarada would notate the line. The first ‘take’ was always the final version. No changes.

“It was a contrast to see Tiger in action. In 1947, at Athai’s request, he set the verses of Kalidasa’s epic ‘Kumara Sambhavan’ to music for a dance drama to mark Annie Besant’s birth centenary. For the opening verses describing the grandeur of the Himalayas, he chose a Ghana ragamalika to convey the required tana nadai, without tala – such evocative creativity.” The brothers illustrate by singing the verses. “Here, the interlinking is so intricate that if you miss one link, you lose the thread. Which is why it takes time and effort to learn the stanzas (Athanai vishayam irukku). Tiger would compose and fire off the phrase at top speed. The next instant, there would be improvisations galore. Kudos to the three experts who managed to notate all this seamlessly – Kamala Rani, Periya Sarada and Kalpagam Swaminathan !”

On-stage experiences while dancing with Rukmini Devi were particularly interesting. “Without a change in outward expression, Athai would specify placement corrections – ‘Move farther, stand closer,’ often humorously, and none would hear except the dancer, who fought to keep a straight face.”

In 1954, the brothers were among the first recipients of the Government of India scholarships.

Foreign tours and performances went hand in hand. Lakshman was part of Kalakshetra’s four-member team in the Government of India’s cultural delegation to Russia and Eastern Europe in 1956. “Travelling with luminaries like Sitara Devi and Vilayat Khan, accompanying Bengali folk singer Nirmalendu Chowdhry on the ganjira, helping out a panicked dance troupe by standing in for their absent make-up artiste (thanks to Athai’s insistence on all-round training) – unforgettable experiences in an album of golden memories.”

Prestigious awards

From a storehouse of prestigious awards, Lakshman’s most recent include the ‘Sangita Kala Acharya’ conferred by the Music Academy in 2003. Rama Rao’s tenure with Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy brought many opportunities for travel to Russia and the Eastern bloc and collaboration with artistes from abroad.

Memorable awards include ‘Sangeetha Gnana’ conferred by the Dhananjayans’ academy, ‘Natya Padaka Ratnam’ and ‘Gandharva Vidyadhara.’

Lakshman’s legion of disciples from his famous dance academy Bharata Choodamani, have blazed a trail across the globe. They include well-known performers such as Bragha Bessel, Roja Kannan, Jayanthi Subramaniam and Padmini Chari.

The daughters of the family have all learnt Bharatanatyam. Rama Rao’s two daughters, Annapoorna and Aparna, work in the financial sector.

Lakshman’s daughter, Induvadana Malli, lives in the U.S. and runs a dance academy. Son Baba Prasad is a videographer and sound engineer, while another son Krishna Prasad, is a software engineer, both adept at playing the mridangam.

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