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Kamala Narayan turns 75
- Uma Dandapani
e-mail: uma.dandapani29@gmail.com

Jun 26, 2009

It was a special celebration for Sri Bharata Kamalalaya, the Long Island, New York based Bharatanatyam school established in 1980 and directed by the legendary dancer, choreographer and teacher, Kamala Narayan. She is often remembered by her former name, Kamala Laxman, but known simply as "Kamala." This is the platinum year of the distinguished artiste. Along with Kamala who completed her 75th year on June 16th, the dance school celebrated its 28th anniversary with the staging of two programs: one performance held on May 30, 2009, at the Montgomery Upper Middle School Auditorium in Skillman, New Jersey; another show staged on June 6, 2009, was sponsored by the Yonkers Public Library (Riverfront) in Westchester County, New York, at that venue. A commemorative souvenir on Kamala was printed for this occasion.
The program included two thematic presentations: 'Om Nama Shivaya' and 'Vetri Vel, Veera Vel.' Other dances in the program included traditional margam performances. The presentations were based on an eclectic selection of music that included compositions by classical Carnatic musicians, as well as those of contemporary dance musicians such as S. Rajeswari and the late teacher-choreographer Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai, both of whom were singers in Kamala's dance orchestra for many years. There were also a couple of dances based on songs composed by the 16th century Gujarati poet, Narsimh Mehta, and the contemporary philosopher, Dayananda Saraswathi. As with every program conducted by Sri Bharata Kamalalaya, Kamala dedicated them to the memories of her dance gurus, Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai and Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai.

The effulgence and talent of Kamala, who ranks among twentieth century luminaries of Bharatanatyam, is regarded by connoisseurs as a trailblazing contribution in the renaissance of the art. Former Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, would refer to Kamala as the "Queen of Dance." The artiste finds mention in sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar's autobiography, 'Ragamala' published in 1999, in which the former Kamala Laxman is referred to as a "fantastic" dancer with a "dazzling" stage presence.
During the course of her long career, she has had thousands of stage performances and scores of film roles in Hindi and southern Indian languages. The artist's dance sequences choreographed by her guru, in the patriotic Tamil film 'Naam Iruvar' released in 1947, won her unprecedented popularity. Footage on some of her film dances can be viewed on Youtube, including the song, "Gandhi Mahan" from 'Naam Iruvar.'

Kamala represented India at cultural festivals and events all over the world, between the 1940s through the 1960s. At the behest of the government of India, Kamala performed before many world dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth of the UK on the occasion of her coronation in 1953, former US President Eisenhower during his state visit to India in 1959, former Chinese Prime Minister Zhou-en-Lai, leader of the erstwhile Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, and King Hussein, former monarch of Jordan. Among the many awards conferred on Kamala are: the Sangeet Natak Award in 1968 and the Padma Bhushan from the government of India in 1970. In 1989, she was the first recipient of the E Krishna Iyer Award instituted by the Sruti Foundation of Chennai, India. In January 2002, she was conferred the Platinum Jubilee Award by the Music Academy of Chennai, India, in commemoration of their Platinum Jubilee Year. In 2004, she received the Sangeetha Saagara Award from the Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA) for her "seminal contributions" to the art of Bharatanatyam. In December 2007, Kamala was awarded the title of Natya Padmam by the Brahma Gana Sabha of Chennai, India.

At the recent 2009 Anniversary shows of Sri Bharata Kamalalaya, the school's many performers displayed competence and talent in their individual dances. Rubica Aier, a senior student of Kamala, displayed the meticulous training of her guru in her performances marked by rhythmic proficiency, expressive subtlety and stylistic poses. This high school graduate will pursue her interests in mathematics and dance at Stanford University, where she is headed in the coming academic year.

At a sumptuous reception following the program in Westchester County, New York, Kamala's 75th year was feted by the school's students and families. Standing before a cake with a symbolic candle, the elderly guru prayed for an ideal world with "no more violence" as she blew out the candle.

Several months ago, when this writer asked Kamala what dance meant to her, the artist summed up all her years of passion for the art in three meaningful sentences. "Dance is my life. It is what makes me live. When I dance, I find freedom," she mused. The depth of her love for the art was revealed in these reflective remarks. Dance is, indeed, part of Guru Kamala's spiritual core. It is her language for communing with the divine. Through dance she experiences liberation; she imbibes a divine bliss.