A treasure trove of abhimnaya
By Sujatha Vijayaraghavan
Was it clairvoyance when they named her Kalanidhi, 'Treasure of Art'?
If Bala, Kamala and Rukmini Devi brought about the renaissance of Bharatanatyam in the 1940s, Kalanidhi Narayanan was the sole driving force behind the revival of abhinaya in the 1970s.
It was an incredible comeback after a hiatus of more than thirty years after she gave up dance altogether. She picked up effortlessly where she left off. Soon students of several gurus gravitated towards her to be let into the secret of the art of abhinaya. "Mami", as she was called by all who knew her, revolutionised the approach to abhinaya. Students and senior artists of various classical styles in India and abroad trained with her to learn and enrich their art.
She did not stop with what she had learnt. With zeal and passion she went in search of padams, javalis, compositions that served as a fertile ground for her imagination and creativity and swelled the coffers of her repertoire.
Natyarangam, the dance wing of the Narada Gana Sabha, had a close association with her over the years when she was always available to help further the cause of dance. Her unfailing presence in the front row was an encouragement to every dancer, whom she gave candid feedback if asked. She gave lecture demonstrations, officiated as a judge in the competitions and attended all its activities over the years. Natyarangam was proud to bestow upon her its annual award for a guru.
She came as a faculty member more than once to the early dance camps organised at Thennangur. A memorable moment was a decade ago, when she danced spontaneously, unmindful of the unpaved prakaram strewn with stones and thorns, to Krishna nee begane baro sung by Geetha Raja, another faculty member.
It was at the camp that we could witness at close quarters how she had evolved a methodology to impart the intangible to inexperienced young dancers. They were not expected to just copy what she did. She broke each aspect into different components, teaching it, rather dinning it into the nervous participants. A whole hour was spent in the use of the eye movement. To take the gaze in a steady arc from left to right without losing the emotion half way, was a highly taxing exercise that yielded incredible results.
Mami introduced a strong and sharp awareness of the lyrics, the music that went with it, and the context which was the backdrop of every composition. Abhinaya is said to unfold in three progressive stages: padartha – the verbal interpretation, vakyartha – the depiction of the whole line and the dhvani – the evocative multilayered interpretation that is the essence, the rasa of abhinaya. With Kalanidhi mami the third level was reached even at the first level stage. For instance, the first invocatory sloka Mooshika vahana taught by her, implied at the very outset the amused wonder at the incongruousness of the tiny mouse and the large figure of Ganesa riding on it, without descending to caricature and with the undercurrent of reverence intact.
Kalanidhi was a hard taskmaster, as she polished and perfected the bodily manifestation of the shades of emotions she had infused the mind with. Nothing overdone, nothing dramatised, it was 'drisya kavya', visual poetry. Her lasting contribution as a guru to the art was to make a whole generation of dancers alive to the magic of creativity in the most challenging aspect of dance.
(An abridged version of the article appeared in The Hindu dated 26-2-2016 )