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Renaissance Man

June 1, 2013

E. Krishna Iyer is the one dominant name you hear whenever Bharatanatyam is discussed from a historical perspective. I had no idea about his importance when he presided over my Arangetram held at the Mylapore Rasika Ranjani Sabha in 1951. We used to meet Krishna Iyer often in Mylapore, the hub of cultural events in Chennai. My family too belonged to Mylapore who's who, except that we lived in Sullivan Street in Santhome in an Art Deco bungalow surrounded by a jasmine garden.

Krishna Iyer, an advocate by profession, took to dance in his teens! Many in Thanjavur district had been exposed to Bharatam as Bharatanatyam was known because of it being part of the sacred enactment of Bhagavatamela natakams in villages like Melattur, Soolamangalam and Saliymangalam. Amateur theatre of this type attracted many young men in the early twentieth century as Bhagavatamela was performed by an all male cast. The young lads with pleasant features learnt dance from Nattuvanars to play the female parts. Krishna Iyer was born in Kalladaikuruchi, but was influenced by the strong Thanjavur culture. He learnt to dance and as a young man he performed, dressed in the typical female costume.

I remember him as an eminent personality of the old Madras cultural scene. He was the founder secretary of the Music Academy which gave him a position of influence. He was humble and unassuming. I used to see him travel around Mylapore in a hand drawn rickshaw, dressed in dhothi and jibba, with a neatly arranged angavastram with zari border, worn around his neck like a scarf. At that time he was the secretary of the Sangita Nataka Sangam. He took up causes in art with a boyish enthusiasm probably spending his own money. One such which had far reaching consequences was dance. He gave Therukuttu a big boost.

His mightiest effort was to bring the Kalyani daughters from Kumbakonam to dance at the Music Academy. What a calculated move that was! Bharatanatyam was instantly saved, resurrected, acknowledged, lauded, and given a new life. He helped Rukmini Devi find her gurus.... Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. When I was working on my book Women of Pride, the last of the Devadasis I spoke to, told me about their association with Krishna Iyer. They respected him and his knowledge.

In my 1995 dance theatre production Banyan Tree (Vatavriksha), I introduced both Krishna Iyer and his cultural adversary, the woman who was responsible for outlawing dance in temples, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, in a lovely pas de deux set to Muthuswamy Dikshitar's "Nottu Swara." My choreography depicted the battle of words the two engaged in, through the columns of newspapers. It was my way of acknowledging the great pioneer.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a prime disciple of Guru Kanjeevaram Elappa Pillai, is an exponent of the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. She is also a trained vocalist. She is the author of several acclaimed books: Bharatanatyam - the Tamil Heritage, Kunjamma - Ode to a Nightingale, Kapaleeswara Temple, Women of Pride -The Devadasi Heritage. Her film 'The Poetry of Dance' was commissioned by the Festival of India. The Mamallapuram Dance Festival started in 1991 was Lakshmi's brainchild. She has served on several arts committees. She has served as Vice President of Music Academy (Chennai) and is a member of South Zone Cultural Centre.


Welcome to the Narthaki family, Lakshmi. Delighted to read and hear your voice on the site.
- Anita Ratnam (June 2, 2013)

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