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Musical Footsteps in Poetic Dance: Jamuna Krishnan
- Dr. Navina Jafa

May 17, 2019

"Come to me, Abhinaya and poetry is healing!" It was a time when I was facing several personal challenges, and this invitation by the iconic Guru Jamuna Krishnan was hard to ignore. It galvanized me to travel dusty roads from Delhi to Faridabad once a week for two years. Arts is a process of image making, and awakening imagination, but the entry into the universe of Jamuna Krishnan ignited the process to access an unimagined cosmos.

As one entered her home, you encountered- the invigorated painted image of a Kartikeya riding a parrot, a carved wooden masterpiece of Krishna under the bower, a bronze of a dancing Shiva; host of books in different languages neatly packed in plastic bags, a beautiful carpet, birds singing in the porch outside where hung different plants in terracotta pots - multiple beauties that took each artist to an imaginative sphere.

I would sit, Rita, her house-help dressed in magnificent South Indian saris promptly served me one of the best South Indian filter coffee; and then - dramatically Jamuna Akka came in holding a small, beautiful embroidered bag carrying her mobile phone. The cerebral warm ups to the class of abhinaya were unique - every class began with conversations about latest news in the world - cricket matches, movies, arts, crime and of course dance. Looking back, it was a distinct way she prepared the mind by transporting it into variety of spheres of existence, the tempo built and she would take out a diary and say, "Now get up and start..."

On 15th May 2019, the news spread that 75 year old Bharatanatyam Guru Jamuna Krishnan is no more. This obituary is about the essence of the person and her contribution.

What defined Jamuna Krishnan was her zeal to 'know'. While deeply embedded in the South Indian culture, she was a Delhi girl. It became natural to amalgamate the North -South Cultural Axis within herself. Her training in Bharatanatyam dance and music was rigorous. Career wise she was not merely a dancer, but an academician in Economics in the Indraprastha College in the Delhi University. She made friends with several scholars in the Hindi department. Gradually, Jamuna invested in exploring literature in a range of linguistic territories. From a variety of North Indian Hindi dialects to South Indian languages. Next she sought to marry poetry with music and applying it to dance. In this, she began learning with the notable abhinaya Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan.

Bhakti towards Knowledge:
Jamuna Akka's continued journey in image making was designed on variety of routes. She committed herself to explore a range of Bhakti (devotional) literature. Annually, she read the entire Ram Charit Manas of Swami Tulsidas (during the September- October period) and the entire 4000 poetic verses of 8th c Divya Prabhandams written by the twelve Alvar Tamil Vaishnavite poets. She traversed the idiom of feminism from Meera to Andal, from the Radha of Vidyapati to that of Jayadeva. Her search was endless - somewhere the lines and dichotomy of the male-female, the form-formless, North-South India disappeared. Somewhere Jamuna Krishnan rose above all differences, all divisive, fractious lines as she expressed herself in the musical tunes that she gave to the variety of poetry. Such was the wonder of those tunes that the intrinsic soul of the poems opened a cosmos of image making for the dancer.

Image Making
"Using poetry in dance is a sojourn of delving on implied metaphors, hidden signifiers to draw and build inner connections through images which comes after a dancer goes through large amount of reading," said Jamuna Krishnan. Allusions to mythology, connection with natural symbols provide the resources for executing abhinaya.

To create poetic connectivity, Jamuna once gave an example of the love to the Lord by referring to two Vaishnav mystic poetesses. Andal (7th/8th c), the only female Alvar Vaishnavite saint from Tamil Nadu, and Meerabai, the 15th -16th c Vaishnav bhakti saint from North India. In one song, Andal feels the onset of monsoon by observing the red insects teeming on green leaves. The sound and moistness of and in nature reflects her own readiness to welcome her lord to return. Simultaneously Meerabai, found Jamuna Krishnan, responded to the monsoon and wrote that in the rainy season her clothes stick to her body, and the moistness is like fire, she appeals for her Giridhar to come and soothe her.

Both Andal and Meerabai married the truth and journeyed to be evolved, where on one hand Andal after dreaming she has married the lord, wakes and asks for the sacred conch and as she places it on her lips she recalls the experience in the form of a kiss; Meerabai on the other hand says that she planted the creeper of love, watered it with tears and has grown in her inner self.

In both, Jamuna found that irrespective of the gap in centuries, and different regions, the devotional poetry bordered on the erotic, and it is this implied layering that was explored by her in music and dance.

The Compassionate Self
Jamuna Akka's immersion in the world of knowledge filled her being in a manner that she gave and gave with gentleness and simplicity. She gave to anyone who came to learn, to struggling musicians, to her house help, to relatives and friends. Perhaps, some cheated her, some forgot her, some laughed at her...little did they realize that yes for some moments she was hurt but then bounced back like a child.


Jamuna Akka's most charming, delightful and childlike memory is of her energetically celebrating Golu, festivals of dolls during the autumn, Navaratri. Her infectious exuberance led to opening her large collection of dolls. The entire household and students were involved in the creation of different worlds around different themes. There would be different foods and gifts of saris for all. Her poetic world took on a new flavor, one still hears her saying, "The world of poetry, of abhinaya and life is a means to explore inner landscapes of passion, love and compassion, it is both self-evolving and self-dissolving." She surpassed parochial linguistic divides and created connecting lines through the medium of unimagined image making.

One can hear Jamuna Akka singing from a verse written by Vidyapati "...Innumerable Brahmans (imperishable energies of various souls) come, go and dissolve, only YOU, O! Krishna have no beginning or end. Birth begins from you and dissolves in you like waves in the ocean..." What Jamuna did was the work of three artists for which she always had the partnership of her amazing husband Krishnan. One hopes that her students and especially her devoted talented daughter Ragini Chandershekar with her father Krishnan take flight where Jamuna left and chart a new path to light. Chandershekar (Ragini's husband), who actually performed the last rites, has stood with Jamuna Akka and Krishnan more than any son.
Farewell, Jamuna Akka!

Navina Jafa did her Phd on socio-economics, and aesthetics in the world of Kathak Dance in 6 urban towns of North India under Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan and urban historian Prof. Narayani Gupta. She learned Kathak from Gurus Pt. Birju Maharaj, Munna Shukla and Reba Vidyarthi. A Fulbright scholar at the Smithsonian Museum, she worked on cultural management and diplomacy. She runs a business on Academic Tourism and is vice president of Centre for New Perspectives presently working to create sustainable livelihoods for marginalized street-folk performers.

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