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Lalitha Srinivasan celebrates 40 years of Nupura
- Sunil Kothari

January 9, 2019

On the occasion of the 40th year of Nupura Academy of Dance, I pay my humble tribute to Dr. Lalitha Srinivasan who shall continue to do her remarkable work in classical Indian dance. Lalitha Srinivisan has every reason to celebrate this landmark of her institution. Training scores of dancers in Bharatanatyam, she is herself a distinguished exponent, and believes in transmitting the best of Bharatanatyam to her disciples.

I came to know Lalitha during my tenure as an Assistant Director (Dance) at Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi, during 1982. It was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who had introduced her to me. She was to give a series of performances. Therefore I had spoken to dance critics in Delhi to cover her performances. There was something special in her exposition as she was an exponent of Mysore School of Bharatanatyam, having studied under the legendary Mysore Court dancer Venkatalakshamma, in league of abhinaya queen Balasaraswati.

Born in 1943 in Shivasamudram, her big joint family with an artistic streak noticed Lalitha's inclination to movement fairly early and put her through Bharatanatyam training at the age of ten. She learnt from Guru H.R. Keshavamurthy in Bangalore, but after marriage at the age of 19, she gave up dancing altogether. But being interested in theory she studied it and passed her proficiency exams with first rank. She had her arangetram in 1966. After a chance encounter with a disciple of Guru Dr. K. Venkatalakshamma, Lalitha knew she had found her calling as a dancer that belonged to Karnataka.

Venkatalakshamma was well-versed in music, Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu, and had seen the best years of dance, music and literature at the Mysore court. She taught Lalitha numerous compositions she knew. The Mysore style of Bharatanatyam started to assume its recognizable form in the nineteenth century under Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, and continued to flourish during the rule of Chamaraja Wodeyar IX who invited Chinnaiah, one of the brothers of the famous Tanjore Quartet to the Mysore court. Chinnaiah's influence was soon imbibed by the already present dance forms and further shaped a style of Bharatanatyam with an unmistakable flavour of its own. According to Lalitha, the rhythmic extravaganza was not entertained at the Mysore court. Instead, the lyrical beauty of the compositions, the melodious music with apt facial expressions and hand gestures was given precedence to, and a rich repertoire of abhinaya numbers developed. This sets the Mysore style apart from the other types of Bharatanatyam. Lalitha believes that nritta, pure dance, is a skill one can acquire through practice and technique, but abhinaya is the result of a dancer's personal views and their innate ability to interpret. It is highly individualistic. Therefore one can guide a person in abhinaya, but one can never fully teach it.

Guru Venkatalakshamma was a hard working dancer. She would go to her Guru Thayamma's house in the early morning hours and engage in a series of rigorous exercises, some of which included lifting coins and needles with the eyelids to train the eye muscles for the demands of intricate abhinaya! When it came to performance, aharya did not include heavy make-up or artificial jewellery. For three years, Lalitha went from Bangalore to Mysore every weekend to train under Venkatalakshamma. During that period, Lalitha was prompted by the Malleshwaram Ladies Association, to start teaching Bharatanatyam to a group of 65 odd girls that she later divided into several smaller groups to teach at her house. This is how Nupura School of Bharatanatyam slowly came into existence. During early seventies, Guru Venkatalakshamma started regularly visiting and staying in Bangalore, where she and Lalitha would teach and perform together.

Lalitha had an opportunity to visit Wesleyan University where she learnt her own innovative choreographies that reflected her drawing from the past and reinterpreting movement in contemporary and neoclassical contexts. She has researched and revived the Sulalitha Nritya based on Salaga Suda Prabandha of the seventeenth-century Damodara Pandita's text Sangeetha Darpana, and added to Nupura's gripping repertoire such inventive group pieces like the ones based on the works of contemporary Kannada poets, several dance dramas like Chitrangada, Prem Bhakti Mukti, Anveshane, Nisha Vibhrama, children's productions, Tat Tvam Asi based on Gita Govinda and various temple dances.

Her contribution to dance has won her many awards and recognitions at the state and national levels, including the Natyarani Shantala Award, Shiromani and Priyadarshini Awards. Karnataka Nritya Academy has published her two books, 'Dance in Karnataka and Dance Sculptures of Karnataka' and a biography of Guru Venkatalakshamma. Most recently, she has been awarded the honorary doctorate from the Women's University of Bijapur in Karnataka, for lifetime accomplishments in the field of dance. Lalitha's various accomplishments have received due recognition.

Nitya Nritya festival and seminars
Since the early eighties, Nupura had been organizing the Nitya Nritya National Conference and Festival of Dance held annually in Bangalore, which had showcased some of the most renowned exponents of various dance forms from across the country. The festival combined performances with academic sessions and lecture demonstrations to offer and incite further research in the field, and to promote the Mysore dance tradition.

In early 80s, Lalitha was anxious to learn about various classical dance forms. Therefore she started Nitya Nritya annual events in Bangalore inviting great masters like Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra of Odissi dance, Yamini Krishnamurty, Vedantam Satyam -female impersonator of Kuchipudi, Chandralekha who blazed new trails in Bharatanatyam with her innovations, Manipuri exponents the Jhaveri Sisters, Sonal Mansingh, Sanjukta Panigrahi, contemporary choreographic works of Mrinalini Sarabhai in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, Kumudini Lakhia in Kathak, the great Vainik and scholar Dr. Satyanarayana from Mysore, Kalanidhi Narayanan who had after a long interval started performing and teaching abhinaya for padams and javalis. Seminars were organized and thus it created an awareness about the plural vocabulary of dance and best exponents. I had attended some of those events and I remember having given an illustrated talk on Odissi with reference to dance sculptures with Aloka Kanungo. It was a pleasure to attend those seminars and performances in Nitya Nritya. The Srinivasans started conducting a five day festival from 1983 till 1999 for 16 long years. For various reasons they could not continue this festival of dance. In Bengaluru, in those years no other organization and even the Government of Karnataka had not visualized a national festival of dance on such a scale when in 1983, the first Nitya Nritya festival was organized.

Nupura School of Dance was established in 1978 in Malleswaram. Besides training young dancers in Mysore School of Bharatanatyam, with Nitya Nritya, Lalitha exposed them to other classical dance forms. Fortunate as the Srinivasans were, the response from dancers and gurus from other states and dance forms was exemplary. Those indeed were the halcyon days when one was able to watch, interact, absorb, and observe the demonstrations.

I recall during the Nitya Nritya Festival and seminars conducted for five days, one feasted one's eyes on performances of leading dancers including dancers from Bengaluru. From Mysore, Dr. Satyanarayana would conduct the morning sessions with scholarly paper presentations, demonstrations of Mysore School of Bharatanatyam, abhinaya sessions of Venkatalakshamma, abhinaya sessions of Kalanidhi Narayanan from Chennai and others. Dance and music scholar, critic BVK Sastri, Gurus U.S. Krishna Rao and his wife U.K. Chandrabhaga Devi, Bharatanatyam exponent Leela Ramanathan, Shanta Rao, Vimala Rangachar and her daughter Revathi and cousin Asha, Guru Muthaiah Pillai, son of Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Maya Rao's husband Nataraj, redoubtable critic S.N. Chandrashekhar and others were the prime participants. The Bengaluru gurus Keshava Murthy, Narmada, and Kitappa Pillai from Tanjore were very active and the morning sessions and evening performances were rewarding as one learnt a lot. From U.S. Krishna Rao's school, young dancers including Prathibha Prahlad and others were up and coming dancers. Manna Srinivasan was also part of these seminars and festivals and used to join us from Delhi/Chennai.

Nitya Nritya festival also bought us closer to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan branch of Bengaluru. H.N. Suresh, the present director of Bhavan, was a young, energetic and constant companion to Srinivasans and was part of Nupura dance school from its inception. The scholar Dr. Ranganath was associated with Bhavan. In Mumbai, I was a Jt. Secretary of the Cultural Wing of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan till I moved to Kolkata. Therefore our close association strengthened our relations in field of cultural activities in dance and music. From 2008 onwards, Bengaluru once again became my second home and I have been attending Nupura's annual festivals regularly for past ten years. I recommended inviting different dance forms like Sattriya dances of Assam and martial art form Thang Ta of Manipur. Srinivasans also invited the celebrated Odissi dancer / choreographer Ramli Ibrahim and his troupe from Kuala Lumpur to perform in their festival.

Lalitha believes that classicality and modernity run parallel to each other, and there is always scope for both. Nowadays, even when education is claiming our best students, since other professions are regularly seen as more lucrative, she thinks that a dancer's raison d'Ítre is to fully surrender herself to her art and cultivate the inner connectivity to outer movements. As one ages, the fertile imagination and experience takes one beyond the sole technique of the art. As one goes on practicing, one becomes aware of the possibilities, but also the limitations of one's body, and somehow one learns to push beyond these borders.

Lalitha Srinivasan is a rare combination of a performer, teacher, choreographer, scholar, musician, a humble artist and human being. On the occasion of 40th year of Nupura Academy of Dance, a five day festival of dance was arranged to celebrate also Lalitha's 75th birthday and several students of hers from abroad and within India came forward to pay their tributes to their guru.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic, Padma Shri awardee and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Dance Critics' Association, New York, has honoured him with Lifetime Achievement award.

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