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A tribute to acclaimed singer Lakshmi Narayanaswamy
- Nita Vidyarthi
Photos courtesy: N. Shankar

June 24, 2019

On the 84th birth anniversary of the late Lakshmi Narayanaswamy, seasoned dancers offered their tributes by performing to her immortal songs, followed by a unique rhythm and melody odyssey by her worthy son, the well-known mridangam player N. Shankar's 'Layavinyas.' Held at the packed Guru Govindan Kutty Auditorium, Kolkata, the evening was a touching reunion of sorts for the large number of dancers - seniors, established and gurus in their own right - for whom "Lakshmi aunty" (to most) was not only their accompanying vocalist but an indispensable guide for the success of their performances.

Lakshmi Narayanaswamy
There were also present old associates, friends, admirers and connoisseurs of her rare velvety textured voice and style of singing. The main attraction of the evening was to hear her vocal art during the years from the sixties down to the nineties while accompanying the dancers. Well-known dancers performed with her popular and familiar numbers, drenching the evening with memory, nostalgia and a soothing indefinable experience with the performance grammar taking a backseat. The seniors were all Guru Thankamani Kutty's student at sometime or other.

Lakshmi Narayanaswamy was born in Thiruvananthapuram to music-loving parents in 1935 and was made to learn Carnatic music from the early age of 7 under Guru V.R.Krishnan, the direct disciple of the legendary Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer. She imbibed the Semmangudi bani and took advanced training with Neyantikara Vasudevan. She was also a follower of the great M.L. Vasanthakumari. Love for dance, drama and music made her participate in dramas, and she proved her versatility.

Newly-wed Lakshmi Narayanaswamy came to Kolkata from Kerala with her husband and eventually made it her home. She was the new entrant to the large population of the South Indian community in the city and became a singing and acting sensation for their productions. Thereafter, she became very active in Tamil and Malayalam productions. Her ability to express the nuances and the emotions of lyrics in songs and dramas spontaneously and effectively made her a much sought after vocalist. With her talent, golden voice and a wide knowledge of music as well as drama, her entry as a Carnatic vocalist for dance productions came to the fore when the famous dancing couple, the late Guru Govindan Kutty and Guru Thankamani Kutty requested her to be the permanent singer for their famed Kalamandalam Kolkata. She joined the Dance Department of Rabindra Bharati University in 1995 and ever since had been singing for dancers, and enhancing the appeal of their renditions. She had composed a number of thillanas, kritis and set tune to Jayadeva's ashtapadis.

Since 1964 for almost three decades, everyone's "Lakshmi aunty", a recipient of several awards both for singing and as a best actress, had not only been singing for renowned dancers but guiding them to evolve with the expressions of her renditions. She passed away on 15th September 2017 but the real tribute was arranged now.


The evening opened with a stotra by Mohiniattam dancer Mohana Iyer. Dr. Thankamani Kutty paid her tribute by lighting the lamp and offering flowers. Reminiscences by Thankamani Kutty and Lakshmi Narayanaswamy's associates followed. The eagerly awaited dance performances glorified by her singing began with a group Mohiniattam recital "Ananda Ganapati Paramananda Ganapati", a traditional prayer by Mohana Iyer, Priyadarshini Ghosh and their disciples of Natyanova in raga Puraneera, tala chempata. This was followed by an old piece 'Shyamala Stotram', "Manikyaveena" loosely ascribed to Kalidasa in raga and talamalika, spiced by the vocal intricacies of the singer. Needless to say, most of the time the magic of the recorded songs overpowered the dancing even if by a matured dancer. The pleasing duet by Mohana and Priyadarshini of the Swati Thirunal composition "Pannanagendra Shayana" that portrayed the virahotkanthita nayika in ragamalika, rupaka tala with 8 time units, was more of a padam and resonated with Shankarabharanam and ended with Bhoopalam - the dancing becoming secondary to the soul-stirring singing and range of the singer's voice.

Disciples of Mohana's organisation Mosaic presented a "Thodiyamanglam" in the Bharatanatyam style and a "Geetam Varnika" in which the songs were sung with utmost clarity, purity and agility around late 60's to early 70's, gliding delightfully through the phrases of raga Mohana in tala rupakam in the latter. Suchitra Mitra, a senior dancer now in Chandigarh, came specially for the occasion and offered two magical pieces choreographed by her set to Narayanaswamy's refined singing. The ashtapadi "Yahi Madava" unfurling the nuances of raga Sindhu Bhairavi in talam adi was a lovingly crafted animation of "agony-triumph" of Radha as the "uttama" who finally asks Hari to leave after spending the night elsewhere. The impact of the line "Tamanusar sarasiruhalochana ya taba harati bishadam" challenged emotional borders strongly. The most astonishing and dignified rendition in terms of singing and dancing came in Dayanand Saraswati's "Bho Shambho." Suchitra's restrained vigour and subtle physicality matched the singer's execution with a stroke of prescience. Lakshmi Narayanaswamy offered her unfeigned help to create some of Suchitra's best pieces.

Suchitra Mitra

Shouraja Thakur and Milan Adhikary

Muhul Mukherjee

Palazhi by Kalamandalam Kolkata

Abhoy Pal's choreography with Lakshmi Narayanaswamy's inputs and voice could not be more rewarding than Shouraja Thakur and Milan Adhikary's powerful Durga Stuti Ashtabhujeswari Anandarupini. Bhavayami Raghuramam took the audience to a soulful trip down the 7 episodes of Ramayana, rearranged differently for the duet. It was an experience to hear a tillana in raga Chenchuritti as well as experience the dancing of the duo. Even though signs of advancing age was obvious in the singing accompanying the shabdam by Kalamandalam's Muhul Mukherjee, the appeal did not tarnish. The popular Malayalam song Palazhi based on Mohini and Ksheerasagar performed by Kalamandalam dancers with Guru Thankamani Kutty's choreography was captivating. The evening concluded with the versatile tonal soundscape of diverse musical instruments in a performance that combined heartfelt emotion with infectious enthusiasm by Layavinyas musicians led by Lakshmi Narayanaswamy's son N. Shankar.


Dr. Nita Vidyarthi is a veteran critic of performing arts and writes on dance, music and theatre in leading publications.

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