Kamala at seventy five
Blooming in an alien land
(Excerpted from the Sruti archives)
Famed in India as “Kumari Kamala” during her prime as a dancer, the acclaimed Bharatanatyam exponent has dedicated about seven decades of her life to its propagation. Endowed with a rare and uncommon prowess at the art, her name has become synonymous with the dance form. She began performing classical dances in many Indian films in several languages, including Hindi, since the late 1930s at the age of five, till about the mid-1960s. One of her best known films includes, Naam Iruvar in Tamil, based on the patriotic songs of Tamil poet Subramania Bharati. Kamala has given thousands of stage performances in India, and was the country’s unofficial cultural envoy to many different countries. At the Indian government’s behest, she performed before many visiting foreign dignitaries to India, including President Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth. Kamala Narayan received the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1968 and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1970. The elderly artist who turned 75 on 14th June this year, has been living in the New York metropolitan area since 1980 and runs a dance school, Sri Bharata Kamalalaya.
On the occasion of the 28th anniversary of Kamala’s dance school in New York, UMA DANDAPANI gives us a glimpse into Kamala’s life in the United States.
Kamala Narayan seemed to morph from deities chiselled in graceful stances inside a temple sanctum. Images in black and white from decades ago, of the young and lithe dancer captured in statuesque poses, became vivid and real, as she choreographed for a recent show by the students of her school, at the Yonkers Public Library auditorium in Westchester County, New York. Her school, Sri Bharata Kamalalaya, is based in Long Island, New York, where she has lived since 1980, but the septuagenarian with an unflagging passion for the art, commutes weekly to Westchester County and New Jersey, to conduct dance lessons for her young students.
On a wintry morning, she was watching a rehearsal by her students, to prerecorded music playing on a stereo deck. The tenderness and ardour of the raga, Brindavana Saranga, in a lilting paean to Krishna composed by Subramania Bharati, lent a tropical balminess to the spacious hall of the India Center of Westchester County, Inc., located in Elmsford, New York. The elderly artist looked petite and trim, wearing a coiffure and dressed in a taupe and maroon salwar kameez. Her chiselled features, accentuated by her soft and pleasantly pitched voice, seemed to conceal a latent energy that sparked into life as she demonstrated dance movements to her young students, her feet maintaining an unerring rhythm as she moved, synchronised by the positions of her arms and hands, while her eyes darted in each of those directions. With her students in Westchester County, ranging in age between five to the twenties, and divided into groups varying from beginners to advanced, the dance guru was generous with praise, using gentle humour to keep them focused on the coordinated moves as they danced. She showed a meticulous approach to the instruction.
“I don’t compromise with my students. Regardless of whether they are strong or weak, I teach them the same lesson so that they can improve themselves,” she said, while explaining that the deep plie posture, or the araimandi, is de rigueur for the dancer. “Your eyes should follow the arm movements,” she said, explaining one more aspect of the dance to her young students, as they were engrossed in the challenge of coordinating the movements of their feet with those of their arms and hands.
Kamala radiated the beauty of Bharatanatyam to an Indian public through her classical dances in scores of Indian films made in several languages. Many of these were choreographed by her dance guru, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. She also gave hundreds of stage performances between the 1940s through the 1970s, exuded a sensuousness and verve that attracted waves of enthusiasts. Bharatanatyam was a redeemed classical art, and Kamala its most luminous exemplar.
One of the many dances that became synonymous with the image of Kamala, both onscreen and in stage performances, was the snake dance choreographed by her guru, the most popular version being, “Naadar mudi mel irukkum naagapaambe”.
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