Classical dancer Dr Yamini Krishnamurti who was made a ‘Padma Vibhushan’ this Republic Day, says about receiving this high civilian award: “I was never greedy for honours; what I always wanted was to communicate my joy in dancing.”
That’s believable even in this cynical age, for ‘Yaminiji’ at 75 has done it all, gone everywhere and met everybody. She was the youngest ever Padma Shri back in 1968 at a mere 28 and her life seems a metaphor for the romance of ‘being Indian’. It was fired with a passion, energy and creativity that her country has evidently not forgotten, for when Yaminiji danced in her prime it was as though Divinity itself had descended on earth.
Delhi gasped in shock and awe when she took the stage in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. So did Lahore, Russia, the US, UK, France and innumerable other places while a visit to Bangkok with an official delegation led by President VV Giri turned uniquely poignant when Yaminiji danced a Command Performance for King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. The King of Siam was known to keep a tight rein on his feelings in public, as befitted his dignity. But at the reception that followed the performance, Queen Sirikit congratulated Yaminiji for being the only artiste to have ever made King Bhumibol actually forget himself, and smile in open pleasure.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, on a state visit to Delhi when he was Prime Minister of Canada, sprang up after Yaminiji danced in his honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan, crying, “Why did you stop?” One year, Yaminiji found herself in Shiraz, the romantic Persian city of poets, wine and roses, dancing for the Shah and Shahbano of Iran, which happened not through her personal connections but in the purest way because the Shahbano’s brother-in-law had seen Yaminiji dance in Paris. Pandit Ravi Shankar was then at his artistic pinnacle and Yaminiji watched him play in the stunning ruins of ancient Persepolis.
But it was in the humble nooks and byways of home, dancing in remote Indian villages on a rickety wooden stage that this legendary dancer felt most fulfilled; for like many others of her generation, she was an eager, hard-working participant in the thrilling atmosphere of high hopes and good purpose that energized newly-independent India in those first three decades. “There was a genuine excitement among the people and I was another young person who felt she must give herself entirely to doing what she loved with everything she had, burn herself up like camphor,” she says of those years..
Watch a video on Yamini Krishnamurti here
Yaminiji’s father, a poet, scholar and teacher, was convinced of his daughter’s commitment and dedicated his life, lands and money to her passion for dance, which had made her reject formal schooling and want to join the Kalakshetra dance academy in Madras instead. The family moved from Madras to Delhi by institutional invitation in the 1950s and it was Mr Krishnamurti who enabled his daughter to sensationally expand the old Telugu-Tamil-Geetgovind dance repertoire of centuries with Vedic hymns, Sanskrit poetry and fabulous ‘secret’ slokas. Many Indians heard these ancient chants, the poetry of Bilhana of Kashmir and Mahakavi Kalidasa’s words from the fourth century for the first time through Yaminiji’s dance recitals.
Most crucially, Yaminiji’s father also helped her bridge the north-south cultural chasm of those years. He introduced Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi, all three of which she excelled in, in eloquent Hindi as the ancient temple arts of ‘Cholamandala, Trilinga, Kalinga’ (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa). He spoke movingly of these classical dances of the eastern seaboard of ‘Dakshin Bharat’ that were nurtured in temples, offered in worship as nrityaseva; as art that Lord Brahma himself was believed to have culled from the four Vedas and gifted to the entire race of humanity so that all could benefit pleasantly from the experience. He spoke of bhakti (devotion) and shringara (love), of the power of dance and music to ease life’s struggles, of the sincerity of feeling in the songs composed by devotees. He would end with a plea to the audience to think of the coming performance as a ceremony of thanksgiving and of themselves as participants, and step back into the shadows as the musicians struck up the opening invocation to Ganesha.
This made it possible for both rural audiences in places like Betia and Chitrakoot and elite audiences in old Hindustani bastions like Bhopal, Gwalior, Jhansi, Agra, Varanasi, Lucknow and Rampur, and new engineering and mining townships, who were seeing these dances for the first time, to enter the idiom. Since the culture was the same and only the languages differed, the Hindi introductions comfortably launched northern audiences on some very familiar seas about the devi-devtas. Yaminiji remembers the Sixties and Seventies as “a long haul of chilly night journeys, freezing trains and December mehfils all over the north.”
Two film stars who never missed a performance by Yaminiji in those decades if they could help it were Waheeda Rehman, herself an Andhra girl from Rajamundhry, who spoke fluent Telugu, and ‘Jayalalitha Jayaram’, a serious admirer of classical dance who was then many years away from her Chief Ministership of Tamil Nadu. Superstar Raj Kapoor, who had led a cultural delegation to Russia with Yaminiji in it and spoke feelingly of Indian dance, having engaged Zohra Sehgal of Uday Shankar’s troupe to choreograph the great dream sequence in Awara, created a great commotion one year in Sapru House, New Delhi, when he walked into Yaminiji’s performance carrying a gigantic bouquet while painter MF Husain queued as did other artists of the capital to buy tickets to see her dance at AIFACS Hall.
It had all begun at Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, the only place where Shiva is celebrated as Koothan, the Dancer, and Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, when five-year-old Yamini trailed behind her aunt, staring wide-eyed at the temple sculptures and resolved to be a dancer herself.
“Nothing but the dance has seemed quite real to me for seventy years and I’m thrilled that young people today are as excited about it as I have been since childhood,” she smiles and in the lift of her chin you glimpse the sublime spirit of Satyabhama, the ultimate nayika or heroine of Indian dance.
Renuka Narayanan is the co-author of A Passion for Dance: My Autobiography, with Yamini Krishnamurti
From HT Brunch, February 7, 2016
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