For Mungara, a six-year-old Telugu-speaking girl growing up in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu in the ’50s, there was something mystical about the 2,000-year-old Thillai Natarajah Temple that stood not far from her house. Be it the bronze statues and stone sculptures depicting various deities and legends about Nataraja’s taandav or the famed gold-plated gopurams and the thousand-pillared mandapas, she would perennially “get lost in the magic of this temple and its stories”. The grace and grandeur of the temple and the people who stood in stone, was invocation enough for the little girl to swirl in the temple, holding her skirt, looking up in awe.
Years later, in the early ’70s, when the little girl who grew up to be Yamini Krishnamurthy was spinning and showcasing variations of Kuchipudi at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the audience was left delighted. The guest list included Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau, who, to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s surprise, went up on stage, held her hands and said, “Keep dancing. Don’t stop. Just keep dancing.” “Such was the pull of her dancing,” said dance critic Sunil Kothari at a dinner hosted by Krishnamurthy’s friend Anita Singh, director, Indian Music Society, recently.
The doyenne of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi, three out of six recognised classical dance forms in India, was awarded Padma Vibhushan by the Government of India, this year. Her Padma Shri came in 1968, while the Padma Bhushan was given to her in 2001.
“I was destined to become a dancer. One has to understand that everything going smoothly is unique. I am grateful and fulfilled. I have found my parakashtha (summit), something that an artiste spends a lifetime seeking. What more does one need? There is no frustration or regret. It’s been a wonderful life,” says Krishnamurthy, wrapped in a bright yellow silk sari, rolling her kohl-rimmed eyes at Yamini School of Dance in Hauz Khas. At 75, her words are punctuated with animated gestures as she dregs memories from the ’60s and ’70s — a time when classical dance had just stepped out of temples and courts and onto the proscenium stage.
“It was a very auspicious time to be on stage and dancing. India had attained independence some years ago, things were settling and arts were being valued. I came at the right time. This wasn’t a time when dance was being looked down upon or attached to prostitution. It was a serious vocation and soon I was travelling world over with it,” says Krishnamurthy, who learnt dance at Kalakshetra for a while but withdrew because of the regimented schedule. She later learnt from the famed Guru Kittappa Pillai, Guru Elappa Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Amma.
Bharatanatyam ’s status owes much to what Rukmini Devi Arundale did to it. She took Sadhir — the dance of the devadasis, considered vulgar in the ’20s — and turned it into modern-day “puritan” Bharatanatyam by stripping it off the extraneous shringaar ras and erotic elements. Krishnamurthy’s father was a scholar and interested in the arts, which is why she learnt the same art form and had her aarangetram in Chennai. Until one day, when a rickshaw pulled over in front of her house and dance teacher Vedantham Laxminarayana Sastri stepped out. “He insisted that a Telugu speaking girl should learn Kuchipudi and not Bharatanatyam. I told him I enjoyed Bharatanatyam but he could also teach me Kuchipudi,” says Krishnamurthy, who was immediately smitten by Kuchipudi’s abhinaya, its fluid form and quick nritta. “It suited my temper. It was lyrical, like poetry in motion. Being good at it, set me apart,”
But the dance form was considered folk at that time and not classical by the purists. “They called it film dance and looked down upon it. But I danced all over the world with it. Global recognition helped and Kuchipudi was soon considered an important classical art form,” says Krishnamurthy, who is the Asthana Narthaki of the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam, a position offered to her by the temple in Chittoor, where Krishnamurthy was born.
However, success didn’t come without challenges or sacrifices. Her father sold most of their property so that his girl could dance uninterrupted, learn and travel. “The success is his and his completely. It wasn’t easy to have an unmarried daughter dance all over. My sister also gave up her career so that money could go in my dance. She had a lovely voice, so she began singing for my shows. My mother was not happy with the situation but had to make peace with it. I’m fortunate and glad that I didn’t turn back and let him down,”
Krishnamurthy chose not to marry, a decision she says was surprisingly uncomfortable for others and completely normal for her. “Dance was fulfilling enough. I didn’t need a man to help me feel complete. Dance did that in more ways than one,” she says.