Interview: Krishnaveni Lakshmanan
"The Other Side of the Star"
Krishnaveni Lakshmanan is unique in that she is both a star performer in Kalakshetra's dance-dramas and a soloBharatanatyam dancer. But popular acclaim has largely eluded her in the latter career. Assistant Editor GOWRIRAMNARAYAN talked with her about it as well as on other aspects of her career, and filed the following report.
Gowri : You have mastered nritta as well as abhinaya and blended them well in your style. Critics appreciate your dancing. Then why is it you have not achieved much popular acclaim?
Krishnaveni : Well, when people praise me as a fine dancer, I pose the same question not only to them but to myself as well. Why have I not achieved popularity and fame as a leading exponent of the art is a question that somebody else must answer.
You are the leading dancer of the Kalakshetra style. Yet you are not often included in me festivals and programmes organised in Madras....
I too am unable to unravel this mystery myself. But my friends tell me : Don't think they don't know you or are unaware of you. Perhaps people identify me with Kalakshetra as an institution and believe wrongly that I will not perform outside for other organisations. Though rumour has it that Kalakshetra does not encourage solo dancers, I must say it does not prevent me from accepting outside engagements. To a certain extent, being a part and parcel of an institution affects my career as a solo dancer. I am not totally free to accept commitments as I have certain responsibilities to discharge, some rules to go by. Therefore, I have to think a hundred times before accepting a programme outside. And for people like me attached to the concert section of Kalakshetra, as a leading performer, it is difficult to ensure that my solo programmes outside do not clash with Kalakshetra engagements.
But the Kalakshetra festival comes but once a year !
Sometimes, we do give programmes outside Madras during the year. Once I got an opportunity to perform before a distinguished audience in Andhra Pradesh which I had to give up because Kalakshetra was scheduled to put up the Ramayana series in Lucknow.
Can one artiste be so indispensable to an institution? Is there no one to substitute for you if the need arises?
Sometimes it is not possible to get a substitute for me in the leading role.
Why? A well-organised theatrical troupe should have understudies capable of taking over when the necessity arises.
We do prepare understudies for each role. Kalakshetra is not, however, a theatrical company. It is an educational institution and here people constantly come and go. Students don't stay to become permanent members of the performing troupe or of the teaching staff. We work ourselves to the bone in training students to perform the many roles in our dance dramas, but almost as soon as they are trained, acquire poise and polish, they leave for different destinations in life. I will give you an example to show the problems we have to face. When Meenakshi Vijayam was composed, Shanta Devi was given the lead role. After the performance she left us before she could teach the part to anyone else. The next time we put up Meenakshi Vijayam, can you imagine the problems we had to face? There was nothing written down. We had to recollect as best as we could, learn bits here and there from those who had danced with her in the different scenes and collect material. After this herculean labour, Valli was taught the role and she made a success of it.
Well, how do you preserve the compositions, involving great complexities as they often do? Don't you use video tapes?
No, we don't use video tapes yet. Therefore, the only way to prevent a distortion or even total disappearance of dance compositions (especially in dance-dramas) is for a senior performer or staff member to be present during creation. And this person should write down the dance in notation immediately. Then she or he can teach another. Starting from Sita Swayamvaram, the first production I participated in, till today, I have been present as a 'record keeper' as well as dancer when new dance-dramas — all but one — were composed. The exception was Meera of Mewar because, while it was composed, I was in charge of the annual arts festival. I have written down the dance notation of some roles in some of our dance-dramas.
What arc the advantages a dancer gains by participating in dance-dramas?
The dancer gets an opportunity to get involved in music because, in a dance-drama, the raga of the song is chosen to accent the mood.
You mean that in a solo piece like a varnam, whatever be the raga, one has to depict a great variety of different bhavas in the sancharis but the raga of each bit in a dance-drama is chosen to reveal the mood?
Yes. In a dance-drama, the music is composed to suit both characters and situation. So abhinaya becomes easier and can be done with involvement.
But in varnam, with whatever raga base, a good singer will be able to synchronize with the various sane ha as, isn't that so?Then there too involvement becomes easy.
Oh, it is bliss to dance when the singer understands the dancer's gestural and expressive mime so well as to aid her and contribute actively to accenting the mood. Such a concert is an audio-visual treat for the rasika. But not all achieve the mastery and understanding needed to sing effectively for Bharatanatyam dance. We also see a decline in the ability to perform abhinaya. Most of the students of Bharatanatya today come from the upper strata of society. Many of them are highly Westernized in outlook and in the values they cherish. Can they understand the delicate nuances of our traditional songs and sanchari bhavas? Can they comprehend the mentality of the nayikas, say a mugdha belonging to a restricted orthodox society, to which they are strangers?
Do you feel there is a cerebral understanding of our culture without an emotional identification with its ethos and that this is responsible for a decline in abhinaya ability?
I think a cultural background is of primary importance to any fine art. And in dance, to bring out the finest shades of expression through angika and sattvika abhinaya, one must have an intimate and experiential knowledge of Indian cultural heritage. That is why Indians rooted in their culture find it easier to depict facial expressions; foreigners find it comparatively more difficult. From the day of our birth we get soaked in the stories of our puranas, listen to stories of Rama and Krishna as lullabies. You see our art is intertwined with our religion and a child brought up in such an atmosphere will find it easy to learn Bharatanatyam, and won't have to struggle as a child brought up in a Westernized manner does. So background and cultural orientation do affect learning and performance in the art.
Are you saying that environment shapes personality and this in turn affects learning and performance?
Of course. That's why Athai [Rukmini Devi] always says that the general character of an artiste is reflected in her art. So our aims and objects in Kalakshetra include attempts to cultivate and improve general character and Cultural understanding.
Tell me, with all these advantages of multifaceted training, why is it that Kalakshetra does not have solo performances by its artistes? For instance, you have performed in almost all the dance-dramas in lead roles. Have you been given a chance to offer a solo recital at Kalakshetra?
Not in the auditorium and not during our prestigious art festival and this is a matter of great regret to me. And as far as I know, except Rukmini Devi and Sarada Hoffman, not a single dancer has had a chance to give a solo recital at Kalakshetra and this is something that I feel should be rectified.
What is the reason for this?
Athai says people will tire of seeing the same faces in dance-dramas and in solo performances, but I strongly disagree. All said and done, people see performers in dance-drama as characters, not as dancers. But in a solo recital, the audience gets to view me and evaluate me as a dancer.
You are saying that, in a solo performance, the dancer projects her own personality....
But you do leave an imprint of your own on the roles you play in the dance-dramas as well, even small roles, don't you?
No I shouldn't. I should identify myself with the character in a dance drama. If I project my personality, the character will get lost and Krishnaveni will come on stage and that intrusion must-be avoided at all costs. In a dance-drama, the character should be portrayed and the dancer forget herself.
Do you at least pay attention at Kalakshetra to training your performers to become dancers in their own right? Do you have an adequate repertoire of solo numbers for them to display their talents?
I feel we must train and project many more solo dancers than we have done and add to our repertoire. Kalakshetra must organize solo performances. Prior to 1955 or 1954, every month Kalakshetra artistes would perform at the Museum Theatre, a different artiste each time.
Creativity in Solo Dancing
If I understand you correctly, you mean you don't get an opportunity to create for yourself if you are always participating in dance-dramas. Therefore you feel the necessity for solo performances where you can project your own conceptions freely.
In a dance-drama I can be creative within the limitation of what is relevant to the character and the situation. If I do it well, people forget me and think of me as the character I portray. But, yes, for a free play of original creativity, I feel I must dance solo and compose my own dances.
Do you get an opportunity for such creative work?
I have made a beginning. For my solo performances, I have my own dance compositions and I thoroughly enjoy doing them. Creative activity keeps my mind brisk, energetic and gives me tireless enthusiasm to take up the study of many things.
When there is a treasury of unexplored dance material, is it necessary to create something new? You can revive and reintrepret.
But that is research and recovery, not creating something new. My main interest lies in creative work. There my musical knowledge is an asset. I have learnt many languages — Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Hindi and English — I have done it out of interest, not necessity. I am not a vidwan but a working knowledge helps immeasurably in an understanding of the sahitya which is most essential.
Staying on at Kalakshetra
What has made you stick to Kalakshetra despite the restrictions you chafe at?
My reverence for Athai keeps me there. Others have achieved fame after leaving the institution and establishing themselves in their own right. But I want to achieve the same while remaining a part and parcel of Kalakshetra.
What do you mean when you say "reverence" to Rukmini Devi?
I was brought up in Kalakshetra more or less like Rukmini Devi’s own child. Not only my art but my entire personality has been shaped by her. She is my guru who has opened my eyes to the world, to life, to art, to everything. I have many hopes and the desires to accomplish many things. Sometimes I feel Athai could have encouraged me much more than she has done. But as she says, in an institution you cannot favour one person over others. But whatever my problems, I never have the heart to raise them with her because of the awe and reverence I feel for her.
Yet, it seems to me hardly anyone else at Kalakshetra achieved prominence like you have. Is there really a paucity of competing talent?
It is not a case of dearth of talent really. The fact is no one else has stayed within the folds of Kalakshetra as patiently as I have done. Potential talent has come in, been excellently trained, but then migrated. Mind you, I don't criticize anyone for leaving. In our country, in spite of all the present talk of women's lib, a girl is absolutely subject to her husband's will and pleasure. Am extremely fortunate in my marriage after which I have received greater encouragement to continue my career. If others had been equally lucky, they might have surpassed me, who knows?
But you have heard it remarked, haven't you, that the fact you are automatically assigned the leading role in almost every dance-drama is one of the reasons for others leaving Kalakshetra?
I won't agree! Why, they could have excelled me in ability and come to the forefront. Why should anyone say: She is doing all the roles instead of I will show my ability to be chosen for the role and get them to pick me. When people think of certain roles like Sita, they think of me. Why can't others create the same image in the minds of the audience?
Unless given the initial chance, no one can prove herself.
Oh, lots of chances have been given. Tell me, who has been neglected?
Not neglected. But none has been given as many chances as you have been to polish and perfect character delineation:
But they go away, these talented people. Once someone asked Athai: Why don't you choose me to do a principal role instead of Krishnaveni? She was given that role and she did it well too. But where was she for the next performance? She got married and left Kalakshetra. Thus I had to take up that role again.
Teaching and Learning Dance
You are a teacher at Kalakshetra, as well as a performer. What are your priorities?
Teaching is in my blood. I am from a family of teachers and I have inherited the aptitude. My commitment to teaching is one hundred percent. When I teach I forget everything else. I get the student to work by giving maximum encouragement. I don't believe in military discipline. Students must not be made to feel that they are strangers but members of the guru's family. I have an intimate relationship with my students who adore me for they know that I would help them in their hour of need.
As for my method of teaching, I insist the student should be equally well trained in abhinaya and nritta. I develop the plus points in the student which might help to offset weaknesses. And since every student cannot become a first-rate performer, if I see in anyone the potential ability to be a teacher, I encourage and help to develop that aspect.
What do you think are the essential qualities a student of dance must have?
First comes dedication, the willingness to practice night and day. There must be deep involvement in the art. With twenty-five percent of natural ability and a deep dedication, anyone can become a good dancer. But even with seventy-five percent talent, if someone is superficial in approach, she cannot make the grade. Apart from musical knowledge, she must have some basic cultural equipment. I am not talking about academic accomplishments but the knowledge necessary to be able to appreciate poetry, sensitivity to comprehend and relish the beauties of language. Take a simple lyric in Kamba Ramayanam. To perform it well, one must enjoy the meaning, appreciate the music, compose the dance to suit both and perform with a real understanding of all three. Otherwise, the dance will be a blind, parrot-like reproduction of what has been taught.
Are you planning to establish your own academy once you stop performing?
I haven't thought about it seriously. But I long to be able to say: These are my students whom I have trained from beginning to end. At Kalakshetra, all are Rukmini Devi's students! Apart from that, they move from one teacher to another, and no one can claim anyone as her own student. I have the necessary qualifications to start my own school. As you say, I can sing, perform nattuvangam and I have also done make-up and costume designing, stage lighting, etc. But do I have the courage and confidence to strike out on my own, the guts to take what comes, failures as well as successes? This is a question that I cannot answer now.
Involvement and Detachment
How far do you go in identifying yourself totally with the character you are portraying in a dance-drama?
In a few places I involve myself totally as in the scene where Sita wants to commit suicide in order to escape from Ravana. When I weep and speak to Ravana with horror, I seem to become one with Sita. Do you know why? It is because acting is in my blood. I come from a family of talented actors and I have myself acted in many plays. This histrionic ability is a boon to a dancer, for abhinaya is acting presented in a poetic way.
But I don't think one can get involved completely. On the stage, a performer has to be aware of so many things — the setting, music, lighting, other characters. if any, and so on. But one can convey a sense of total involvement. The audience should feel that I am living the role. But to achieve this, I should also be detached. The artist must balance involvement and detachment and should have the ability to create an illusion of reality.
I believe you got many offers to teach abroad but you did not accept them....
Art has become so important to me that without it, I don't think I can survive. In the early months of my married life I would have answered differently. But now I am so absorbed in my art that it is like life's breath to me. Of course I won't sacrifice my family for art. Sometimes these twin commitments cause contusions. I feel guilty sometimes about not devoting enough time to my husband and children but at other times I feel the family obstructs a single-minded pursuit of art. But generally I make the required adjustments and balance my interests harmoniously.
Purposes of Foreign Tours
You have been abroad many times. In what way are these foreign tours helpful or necessary in your development as an artiste? Don't you think you must perform more in India, in Madras?
So many Indian dancers who are not of my calibre at all are going abroad. In the West, there is widespread interest in things Indian. Why can we not present a good style, a pure classical style of dancing before them? This thought makes me accept foreign tours. But there is another purpose as well to these foreign tours. I am sorry to say that Indians do not recognize talent until it is recognized and applauded by foreigners. Then you become respected, popular. It is a matter of disgrace that the label "foreign-returned" increases a performer's market value too! One Indian organisation offered me a pittance for a solo performance. I said that I would be glad to perform free for a charitable purpose but otherwise my rate was such and such. The reply was that they paid such sums only to "foreign-travelled" artistes. But I have also been on many tours and successful ones at that! I missed my chance with the sabha then, but I have no regrets. I will not brook such insulting treatment.
You came to Kalakshetra before you could discriminate between good and bad. Are you satisfied you came to the right place or do you feel mat you could have achieved more elsewhere?
I feel profoundly grateful to God for having directed me to Kalakshetra. T o me this is the best place on earth. Our spiritual attitude towards art reflects the quintessence of Indian culture. Our heritage stresses the idea that art must elevate the people who come as votaries. It must uplift the artiste too. As long as I am alive, I will work towards this goal. I would like this approach to pervade the entire world.