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In conversation with Lakshmi Mani
- Deepika Acharya

November 18, 2015

Lakshmi Mani is considered one of the finest of Kuchipudi dancers, having received acclaim for her grace and abhinaya. A tete-a-tete with Lakshmi Mani, who was in Bengaluru recently as the chief guest for the Kuchipudi Parampara Natya Utsav.

How do you find the Kuchipudi scene here in Bengaluru?
Bengaluru has been very encouraging and welcoming to all forms of dance. Kuchipudi is particularly popular here and this is something I've been observing ever since my first performance in this 'Garden City' almost two decades ago in the famed Chowdiah Hall. Even today, I see a lot of enthusiastic, committed learners here. However, to rise above mediocrity, it is the responsibility of the local gurus (many of who are my good friends) to channelize the energies of these young aspirants in the right way.

Personally, I've been fortunate to have been invited to this city often in the past one and a half years - to present a lec-dem on choreographing to rare compositions, to conduct a workshop on a unique Tarangam, to be the Chief-Guest at this Kuchipudi Parampara Natya Utsav and to present a guest lecture-cum-demonstration on abhinaya at a university. I'm truly looking forward to continued association with Bengaluru.

Lakshmi Mani

With Guru Vempati and writer Arudra

How was the experience of learning under Dr. Vempati Chinna Sathyam? How different do you think is the scene today?
I am truly blessed to have received tutelage from him. A perfectionist, disciplinarian, workaholic and a father-figure are but some of the words that I can associate with him. It is very rare to see such committed, genuine teachers who give 101% to their art and such care to their students. Today, it's a little rare to find teachers who are not performers. It's also becoming increasingly difficult to find committed students, willing to put in hours and years of hard work, under a single guru, just to learn the art for its sake.

You are a reputed solo performer. How difficult or easy is it to choreograph / perform solo?
Choreography for solo and group productions each poses its own set of challenges. In a solo format, unlike in a group production, the ENTIRE onus of attracting an audience and keeping them engaged falls on one individual. This therefore calls for an enhanced level of artistry. It's a matter of personal choice that I prefer performing solo, partly also due to the advice of my guru to perform thus.

You have received excellent reviews from venerated critics like Subbudu, T.S. Parthasarathy, V.A.K. Ranga Rao, Leela Venkataraman and K.S. Mahadevan, to name but a few. How has the reaction been from seniors, fellow artistes and the average rasika?
While it is every dancer's dream to receive positive reviews from fastidious critics, the joy of receiving a heartfelt compliment from a senior or a lay rasika is indeed indescribable. Once, Vyjayanthimala Bali witnessed my performing to the Tyagaraja Pancharatnam, 'Endaro Mahaanubhavulu', wherein I enacted the story of Shabari to a particular lyric. After the recital, she came to me and expressed her delight at my depiction. To this day, whenever she sees me in a crowd, she addresses me as "Shabari"!

Similarly, veena maestro Chittibabu (from whom I also learnt veena briefly) once came to my Bharatanatyam recital. When asked whether he could comprehend what was performed in Tamil (his mother tongue is Telugu), he answered by saying, "Your abhinaya makes it so easy to understand any language."

A few years ago, I was fortunate to perform a rare Tarangam in praise of Lord Venkateswara at the samadhi of Narayana Tirtha. Many in the audience expressed their joy and were moved to tears at my depiction of the story of Haathi Ram Babaji - an old, ardent devotee of the Lord.

These are truly the moments that make you feel blessed to be an artiste.

Receiving an award from M.S. Subbulakshmi

Handmade doll by Lakshmi Mani

How supportive have your family-members been in this pursuit of yours?
I'm truly blessed to have a supportive family, starting from my grandmother and mother, who sang beautifully. One sister used to dance with me until her marriage. My other two sisters used to render the vocal for my programmes, while one of them also does the nattuvangam. My daughter presently sings for me, while also helping in choreographic interpretations. My father was a big source of encouragement to me, as are my brothers, too. No artiste can do without pillars of support at home.

What are your other interests?
Handicrafts is a big passion. I make handmade greeting cards, dolls and home décor items. It is an art I've inherited from my mother. I also hold diplomas in interior designing and journalism.

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