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Lakshmi Knight (1943 – 2001)– Tribute / Profile
by Kay Poursine, Connecticut, USA

Oct 2002

Lakshmi Knight, the only daughter of T Balasaraswati, died December 23, 2001 in her mother’s house in Kilpauk, Chennai. When I last saw Lakshmi, she was in a St. Francis Hospital cancer ward bed, Hartford, Connecticut. She told me she was determined to get on a flight to Chennai. It seemed possible to her at the time, that if she could get to her beloved mother’s house, maybe, just maybe, she would feel better and perhaps miraculously begin to heal. Muni, her long time close friend and assistant stood at her bedside and looked at me in despair. I reminded Lakshmi that if she left Muni behind in the U.S. he could not make his famous decoction coffee for her every morning. Lakshmi smiled and we teased him in the way I always loved. His coffee and cooking are superb. As I left Lakshmi’s room that day, I blew her an abhinaya kiss. She smiled a beautiful broad smile. Then her face reflected something astonishing. Perhaps I was seeing her knowledge and wonder at the mystery of what was ahead of her.

My first visit to India was a surprise. In 1976 Bala and Lakshmi sent a formal written invitation to both Kamala Cesar Buckner and me to study in what was then called Madras for 6 months. Kamala is presently the creator and director of Lotus Fine Arts in Manhattan. Both Kamala and I had previously taken classes in Bala’s summer residencies in 1973, 1974 and 1975 in California and Washington. I think this invitation was a leap of faith for Bala, especially when it was known that she was not inclined to teach westerners in India. The prospect of going to India did not hold the big fascination for me that it did for many westerners. India scared me.

Kamala and I flew to Madras, then experienced all the incredible ‘firsts’ that most westerners encounter on their first visit to India; intoxicating aromas of jasmine, sambar, idlis, roasting arabica coffee beans, temple camphor mingling with the strong pungent odor of the Kaveri river. I got sick several times. Bala worried and Lakshmi gave moral encouragement. Studying dance in India was harder than I had imagined. In six months Kamala and I learned complete programs of Bharata Natyam, every dance chosen in advance by Bala. It was important that each dance suit our level of skill and most important, fit our temperaments. Toward the end of my stay Lakshmi offered to sing in the recording for the padam Velavare. Velavare was an ‘advanced’ dance as far as I was concerned. Lakshmi’s voice on the recording is sensual, like a lark calling out for its mate and full of the essential emotion in the padam. To my surprise Lakshmi was cautious about how her voice sounded on the recording and I didn’t understand why. When Bala listened to the final tape, proudly nodding her head in approval, I was deeply moved by the glow of humble satisfaction on Lakshmi’s face. I then realized how difficult it was for Lakshmi to develop artistically under the watchful gaze of the great Balasaraswati.

How can I explain the loss of someone who I see in my mind’s eye inseparable from another? I see Lakshmi and Bala as one, especially when Lakshmi was performing or teaching class. Lakshmi had extraordinary sophistication combined with a luxurious sensuality and playfulness that infused everything she did. My fondest memories of both Bala and Lakshmi are happy excursions to the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar temple, shopping at the temple tank market, picking out the perfect sari, sitting on Bala’s veranda in the cool of the late Kilpauk afternoon and teasing each other about one silly thing or other. Coming back from an evening concert or a favorite dining and dancing spot, I got used to Bala sitting with Lakshmi in their living room asking for my ‘report’ on the evening. Although at first I took exception to it, I came to realize and be thankful that both Bala and Lakshmi felt a great responsibility for my well being. I miss this too much. How can you bring back someone’s laugh, or the way they tease you? I believe they are together now enjoying each other’s company, laughing, joking, dancing and singing in the grandest of saris.

The close bonds Bala and Lakshmi shaped with the American dancers who found inspiration in their company and teaching are an important part of the continuing life of this rare dance and music tradition. I have often wondered at my good fortune in seeing the incomparable artistry of Bala on stage and in class, having the opportunity to learn from both Bala and Lakshmi, and watching Lakshmi blossom into an extraordinary artist. Their legacy continues in the minds and hearts of the dancers they guided into this timeless tradition.

Kay Poursine trained in dance and music in the US and India from 1972 to 1983 under the guidance of the late T. Balasaraswati (1918-1984), assisted by her daughter, Lakshmi Knight, who died December 23, 2001. After Balasaraswati's death in 1984 Kay received further instruction in Bharatanatyam from Bala’s senior disciple, Nandini Ramani, a performer and educator in Chennai, India. While completing her MA at Wesleyan University, Ms. Poursine continued her music studies with Balasaraswati's brothers, T Viswanathan and T Ranganathan. She has performed and taught as a Visiting Artist in the Wesleyan Dance Department, the Wesleyan Graduate Liberal Studies Program and at residencies in the US and abroad.