In February one of my teachers, Guru Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan, passed away at an age of 87. Kalanidhi was a great artist and teacher. She learned classical Indian dance, Bharata Natyam, as a child and had a career as a dancer during her teens, and then 30 years later began teaching Abhinaya, the mimic part of the dance.
Her passing made me reflect over how much she and my other teachers have meant to me, both as an artist and personally.
The first time I saw Kalanidhi Mami was in Paris in the 80s. I was learning Bharata Natyam from Sri Kama Dev at the Centre Mandapa, and Kalanidhi came to give us all a workshop in Abhinaya. This experience was something that changed me forever. I had never seen anybody express so much with just the raising of an eyebrow, the glance of an eye, a subtle hand gesture…
Not long after this I was actually able to obtain a grant to go and study dance in Chennai. I had no idea what I was getting myself into…
I arrived at the airport, completely lost. Fortunately, I had arranged to rent a room from a wonderful lady called Asma Noor Muhamed. She was a Muslim, but had grown up a Hindu and therefore knew how to instruct a clueless foreigner on manners to observe in a Hindu home.
A few days after my arrival, I set out to visit Kalanidhi. I had her address on a small piece of paper, but it did not take me long to get lost. I do not remember how I eventually managed to find her house, but needless to say I was hot and flustered when I arrived at her doorstep. To make things worse, I had decided it would be a good idea if I wore a sari for this visit, and though Asma had helped me to wrap myself into it, by this point it was not a pretty sight.
Kalanidhi kindly invited me in. I still remember her look at my disheveled appearance and how she asked. “Did you buy this sari here?” I had. Of course having no idea of Chennai fashion after only two days, I was dressed in something awfully out of fashion.
We sat down in her sofa, and I proceeded to ask her if I could study with her. “Well, she said, how many Varnams have you learned?” The Varnam is the main part of a Bharata Natyam recital, a piece of about 45 to 60 minutes with intricate footwork and elaborate mimic parts. “None”, I answered truthfully. I had only studied the dance part time for 3 years. “Well I only teach advanced students”, she said. She must have seen how my face fell, because she took pity on this girl, having traveled all this way, from Sweden no less, without having a clue. She told me to show up a few days later and she would let me learn from one of her students.
On the day appointed I arrived a bit ahead of time, wise from my meanderings getting lost on the way the last time. In my hand I held an orange. Asma had instructed me to bring an orange since this was Saraswati Puja. Naturally I had no idea what this meant, but had the orange firmly in my grip. As I arrived there was no one in sight except a Brahmin sitting chanting by a small fire in the courtyard. I did not dear approach.
Eventually other students trickled in and the puja began. I tried to follow the lead of the other girls and sit down, stand up, bow down at the same time and the same way as they did. And yes, eventually the orange came in handy. One by one, we went up to Kalanidhi, bowed down to receive her blessing and gave her a small offering of fruit or other such things. Of course I did it all wrong. But the thing with Kalanidhi Mami was that, though she came from a traditional background and always was very strict as to these traditions, she was also very accepting of us outsiders when we came to her for knowledge. She forgave me my clumsiness and I started on the long path of learning.
To learn all the other parts of the dance, I found a wonderful teacher in my Guru Savithri Jagannatha Rao, who came to be not only my teacher, but really an extra mother to me.
I also began learning Abhinaya from Kalanidhi’s student Uma Sundarajan who is now a well known dancer and teacher in Canada. She introduced me to Padams, poems set to music and dance. The Padams let you explore the whole range of a woman’s emotions, from happy giddiness and infatuation, to deep sorrow, dejection and rage. I also learned padams from Kalanidhi's student Nityakalyani Vaidjanathan.
I came back to Chennai year after year to continue my studies. Each year I went to see Kalanidhi Mami asking her if she would take me on as a student. And each year she said no, until one day five years later, when she suddenly said “OK sit down I will begin to teach you”.
To sit with her in her little teaching room and partake of her wisdom and grace was an experience I will forever cherish. She was very strict teacher and would let you have it if you did not do well enough.
My formal education is somewhat lacking, (more or less a high school dropout) but I consider my graduation to be when after dancing a Padam at a performance for Kalanidhi’s 70th birthday, she gave me a big kiss on the cheek and said “Well done”.
To my teachers and gurus I do owe all that I know of performing on stage. Even if I have done other types of arts like theater, storytelling and music, I always refer to what I learned from Kalanidhi, Savithri, Uma, Nityakalyani and others. It was such a privilege to learn from these ladies an art form with roots that stretches back to time immemorial.