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Kalanidhi: A Treasure Trove of Abhinaya

Text: Paul Nicodemus

Kalanidhi Narayanan was one of the greatest representatives and teachers of the art of Abhinaya. She was an eminent Bharatanatyam exponent, Padma Bhushan Awardee, Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee, Tagore Fellow and a teacher par excellence. Her mastery over the navarasas and her expressive eyes and face conveyed myriad moods and left her indelible imprint as a teacher. Her dance journey could be divided into two phases — between the age of 11 and 16 and reentry into dance in her late 40s. Kalanidhi Ganapathy, as she was known before marriage, had her arangetram at twelve and went on to perform in a number of concerts until she reached sixteen. She was successful and garnered critical acclaim from all quarters. She got married into a conservative family and her dance career came to a halt as she completely focused on building a family.

She again resumed her career in dance after a long gap of 30 years and founded her school Abhinaya Sudha in Chennai in 1973.

A chance meeting with YG Doraiswamy, a dance connoisseur made Kalanidhi Narayanan return to teaching classical dance. She took on the assignment of teaching abhinaya to Alarmel Valli, a young dancer. It was not an easy task for someone to get back to dancing after such a long gap but Kalanidhi took it up as a challenge. Thanks to her strong will and love for Bharatanatyam, she embarked on a new journey. She was even known to have enrolled in a course conducted by Dr Padma Subrahmanyam to fine tune her dance theory. She soon reached the zenith and became the most sought-after teacher of abhinaya. Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Protima Bedi and Pratibha Prahlad were some of her early students.

She also published and released several CDs and DVDs on the various aspects of the dance form, and most of them contained live demonstrations by her. Today, these serve as valuable references to those interested in learning dance in its most pristine form. She was indeed a treasure trove of abhinaya.

Kalanidhi was a revered teacher and created hundreds of students who are spread all over the globe. She established dance schools all over the world and frequently travelled to monitor them. Her workshops attracted a lot of interest in Europe and North America. She nurtured her students to have an inner understanding and encouraged them to have their own interpretation. She was known for maintaining a wonderful relationship with her disciples.

‘Kalanidhi Narayanan’ – A name that can connect you with Eternity

Text: Dr. Smruti Vaghela, Assistant Professor (Dance), Faculty of Performing Arts, The M. S. University of Baroda

Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan was born on December 7, 1928. Her name has been added to the golden page of history of Indian classical dance. ‘Kalanidhi’- a treasure of Art – has become a synonym for Abhinaya today. When hearing the word abhinaya the picture of Kalanidhi Narayanan flashes in our mind. No student of Indian classical dance is unaware of her name. This Brahmin girl was the early non-devadasi girl to learn the dance from various gurus. Her mother had seen the renaissance era of the 30’s and 40’s. She was very keen that her daughter learn dance.  She took Kalanidhi to Mylapore Gowri Ammal, the last of Devadasis of the Kapaleeshwar temple in Madras when she was seven years old. She was trained under various gurus such as Kannappa Mudaliar of Kanchipuram, Chinnayya Naidu and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. Her passion for dance lead her towards the search for padams and javalis and she met Kamakshi Ammal. Her teaching gave her new dimensions to abhinaya.

It was a memorable moment for me when I met her for the first time in a workshop of ‘Abhinaya’ in my own city Vadodara. She had treated me like I was her own child. She made me very comfortable through her eyes and words. One can feel that her words came from within. I was surprised when she gave a token of love, hangings for kurti, to all the participants after the workshop and it became a very precious gift for us.

I received a warm welcome when I went to her to learn more aspects of abhinaya in Chennai. I was fortunate to learn many methods of abhinaya along with few items. Though mami could not give much time due to her illness but whenever we had sessions on learning abhinaya she used to give 100 per cent wholeheartedly. She used to teach without worrying about her health. She emphasised on the awareness of lyrics and the three progressive stages of abhinaya, Shabdartha, Vakyartha and Padartha. I can never forget her three Padams ‘Krishna ni’, ‘Chaliye kunjanamo’ and ‘Choodare’. She could show hundreds of ways to approach a single situation. How to explain the process of abhinaya was her expertise. I actually used to feel the connection and the purity of the relation between her and her disciples.

“Eyes should speak while dancing” and this proverb truly holds for Kalanidhi Narayanan. She could communicate through eyes. She had a very good command on teaching and her expertise lay on the process of teaching the abhinaya. The way she taught, teaching the minute details of abhinaya and going in depth was remarkable and she could hold the interest of her disciples throughout.

Her method of teaching abhinaya was totally different from others. She developed a very revolutionary approach for abhinaya, which I found in her own senior disciple ‘Bragha Bassel’. Apart from Braghaakka, Priyadarshini Govind, Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Jayanthi Subramaniam, Shanta Rati Mishra, Pratibha Prahlad and many more popular dancers were trained in Abhinaya from mami. Her dedication for dance earned her many prestigious awards like the Padma Bhushan Award from the President of India Giani Zail Singh in 1985, the Nritya Choodamani Award from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in 1990, the Kalaimamani Award from the government of Tamil Nadu in 1990, the Central Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1991, the Kalidas Samman award from government of Madhya Pradesh in 1998. Through her abhinaya we could actually feel eternity. At the age of 87 years on February 21, 2016 we lost the great abhinaya guru Kalanidhi Narayanan.