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Rani Jayalakshmi Nachiyar
The dancer Pandanallur Jayalakshmi (1930-2017)

March 18, 2017

Pandanallur Jayalakshmi

With the passing away of this renowned dancer this month, the world of Bharatanatyam has lost a legendary artist who blazed an unforgettable trail in her youth.

The name of Pandanallur, a temple town near Kumbakonam is synonymous with the most renowned Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai. Equally famous in her time and remembered as the darling of Pandanallur is the dancer JAYALAKSHMI who became a legend in the short time that she danced. A star at a young age when most dancers were in fact young girls, she gained a reputation unmatched in the history of Bharatanatyam. In her own words: "It all happened so fast that even I never imagined that I would be so famous and so popular." It was a dream run for the young girl, her talent shining with each performance, so much so that long after she stopped performing she was talked about as one who was "born to dance" and was blessed to bring fame and name to both her guru and her homestead....the village of Pandanallur. Today the temple of Pasupatheeswara stands tall. When she was an eight year old, Jayalakshmi had her arangetram on an auspicious day in this temple. The house of Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai is still there in its modified form. So is the house of Jayalakshmi, with the walls adorned with portraits of her and the Rajah of Ramnad, her husband. A bygone era lingers only in memories. A visit to the temple and its beautiful precincts presided by Shiva the Lord of the dance makes us believers sensitive to a lost history.

Sometime in the 1960s, Jayalakshmi danced in her palatial bungalow in Cenotaph Road (Chennai) for a few friends. What an unexpected treat for me...and for the few present including my mother who knew her, Mrinalini Sarabhai and others. One could see her expertise in the Varnam (Sankarabharanam as I recall) and in a few Padams. I was wondering could such a young dancer retire?!

When I set out to seek the last of the hereditary dancers for my book Women of Pride, Jayalakshmi was on top of my list. It was I think in the seventies when I was proudly indulging in research on a grand grant of Rs. 500 a month. Cordial, charming and full of life, Jayalakshmi spoke at length about her family, her roots in the community of dancers and musicians, her mother the dancer Rajayee who also was a skilled singer, and her brother an ardent mridangam vidwan.

Jayalakshmi told me how the guru popularly addressed as Thatha (grandfather) visited her as she lay in a cradle in her mother's house. He blessed the baby and foresaw her dancing career. He is supposed to have quipped... "Shall we start lessons right away?!" He taught her to dance when she grew to be the "beautiful swan" of the village, and she in turn did not disappoint the elders. Her gurukulavasam was indeed intense. From dawn to dusk she would be in the Silambu Koodam - the house of the guru, learning everything that would make her a complete artist. Rising before the sun, she with other youngsters had to do their music sadhana. Following that were hours of dance training. The evenings in the house, lit with oil lamps, were meant for lessons in abhinaya. A quick learner, Jayalakshmi became a talented performer at a very young age.

Pandanallur Pasupatheeswarar temple

In those days, performance opportunities were extended to the guru who in turn decided which of his pupils would fit the bill. Needless to say, at a very young age, Jayalakshmi fulfilled the stiff standards set by the guru that people started asking for her performances in particular. Temple festivals, weddings, and then sabhas in Madras, and royal palaces all over South India and even distant Bombay were in her itinerary. A star was born and she was the apple of the eyes of both her mother and guru. Surely if a guru is assessed by his shishya, she proved to be the exceptional talent on which rested Meenakshisundaram's reputation. It was she who gave the place 'Pandanallur' a glamorous image. The studied elegance and facile movements, which was her own, stamped the style of dance with a special identity. Thatha composed innumerable pieces for her. Her sense of rhythm and perfect timing impressed even expert mridangam vidwans. Like a spirited gazelle, she leaped and twirled, struck the floor firmly with her feet, stood still, smiled with a dimple on her cheeks, and stunned her audience. Her beauty mesmerized writers who described her as a sculpted ivory figure come alive. An apsara had come to dance among mere mortals.

Many may know the particularities of the guru's bani. Fast footwork, precise movements, fluid graceful pure dance, evocative abhinaya, and sparkling tempo....all of this was a facile exercise for the young Jayalakshmi. Furthermore, she was such a pretty girl that the older dancers treated her with much affection. Her personality developed with each performance and great musicians and pundits of the time not only praised her but went out of their way to seek out her performances in temple festivals and other events. A Tamil phrase used often was: Pamparama aadinaal....she danced like a top... implying that she was swift, smooth and perfect in her dance.

At the height of a whirlwind career, she danced once in the famous Rameswaram temple. The Sethupathi or Rajah of Ramanathapuram who was the patron of the shrine was present along with a large crowd. Bewitched by her beauty and talent he approached Jayalakshmi's mother and asked to marry her. Jayalakshmi felt it was her moment. She knew this was the man she wanted to be with. Soon she entered the palace of the Rajah as the favourite youngest queen. In my conversation with her she recalled with a big smile that Meenakshisundaram Pillai composed a special Varnam for her in the raga Vachaspathi. It was addressed to and in praise of the Rajah and went like this. "...The great connoisseur of art that you are, I have implicit faith in you, Now is the time to take pity on me....O moon of the universe...," a perfect shringara piece which the dancer performed for her beloved. The composer- guru was suitably rewarded with a sparkling diamond ring. As for Jayalakshmi, she had already won the heart of the Rajah! In a lilting voice she sang the Varnam for me and indulged in a bit of nostalgia, her eyes moist, and her memories making her rather tongue-tied.

The Rajah and she had children and she led a grand family life. She continued dancing for a short while after her marriage and decided to stop when both she and her husband agreed that she had proved herself as an artist and there was nothing more to achieve. Many in the traditional families of Nattuvanars and dancers spoke about this star of dance for years. They recalled her sense of laya, the speed of her footwork and the amazing grace of her entire performance. Rukmini Devi who had seen her perform admired her subtle abhinaya and the nuances of shringara which she could command with ease which were hard to emulate. She lived a quiet life in her autumn years in the home of her son in Chennai. The history of Bharatanatyam will always be lit by the mere mention of this great artist.

There will always be only one Pandanallur Jayalakshmi.

Dedication in the book

(For a detailed account see page 128 of my book WOMEN OF PRIDE- Roli Books, 2008).

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.

Wish someone had interviewed her when she was still alive, on video. She would have had so much to share and we would have all caught a glimpse of this celebrity.
- Khannah (Oct 24, 2020)

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