Cultural bridge: The epic muses

Cultural bridge: The epic muses

Bharatanatyam dancer Lakshmi Ramaswamy tries to reconnect the ties between the modern man and ancient texts

Graceful: Lakshmi Ramaswamy

It’s been a journey in tandem — of moves and words keeping pace with each other, each spurring the other on. It’s also been an exploration of frontiers — new and ancient. Lakshmi Ramaswamy is one of those rare artistes who’s as much an artiste as an academic, whose textual articulation is matched by her dance vocabulary. Besides the plethora of awards and other recognition as an artiste, she is a PhD laureate, the author of a couple of books including Shall We Know Natya, which explains bharatanatyam in lucid terms that even lay readers can relate to, and a handful of research papers. No surprises then, her dance performances appeal to the intellect as also to emotions.

Right from her first choreography, Sculptor’s Dream, performed at the IDA festival, where it was judged to be the best choreography, she has always looked to explore new territory. In 2005, Lakshmi Ramaswamy delved into Sangam Era (200 BCE – 200 CE) literature to choreograph the forgotten ancient gems that only figure in textbooks. This production took shape as Sangamum Sangamamum that strung Sangam-age Tamil poems from Agananooru, the accent of the Agam poems being on emotions. Meanwhile, the Puram texts or Purananooru (another Sangam-era compilation) are about man’s interface with society, ethics, friendship and bravery, war, education, justice, and so on. “The Sangam poems are timeless,” she says, “They have many layers, and are a delight to explore and bring out as natyam.”


When Lakshmi produced Purananooru in 2012, she structured it with a grandfather-grandchild conversational thread to string the stories together.

Voicing the thoughts of many of us who have become disconnected from our ancient texts, the child asks the grandfather, “How are these stories relevant today? These events happened before 2,000 years.”

As the grandfather presents the stories from the Purananooru, many in the audience discovered pride and joy in connecting with our eloquent ancestors through the moving Purananooru literature. As Lakshmi points out, experts reckon from cross-references of incidents narrated in these texts that all the stories of Purananooru happened, or have been improvised from real incidents.

Not getting set in a mould, she has been choreographing diverse genres, from folk genre like pallu (farmer songs) and madakku (poems that give different meanings when the sentence is split at different points), or even new-age poetry. Down the years, she has choreographed over 280 works, and has staged solo and group performances in the US, the UK, Canada, France, Arab countries, Australia and Sri Lanka. As India’s first Fulbright Fellow in bharatanatyam, she chose to study ‘Arts and Cultural Management’ at Golden Gate University, San Francisco and got exposed to how the famous San Francisco dance companies operate, and how they document their work. “I was amazed to see the kind of support system enjoyed by artistes there, and they were amazed at how we Indian artistes operate without any support system to speak of,” remarks this dancer, who happens to be an empanelled artiste of the India Centre for Cultural Relations (ICCR) as well as the South Zone Cultural Centre (SZCC).

Music, dance and theatre inputs in Silappadikaram (dated 2–4 CE) is the subject of her Senior Fellowship with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, since “In Silappadikaram, Ilangovadigal gives a lot of information on the music, dance and theatre of that era.” She has presented research papers at Semmozhi Maanadu (International Conference for Classical Tamil); ‘Dialogue Through Dance’ for Urbaniana University, Rome, and ‘Methodology for Institutional Teaching in Dance’, Madras University. She teaches bharatanatyam theory at the University of Madras, develops curriculum for the same at a few universities, and in addition, she blogs.

Lakshmi’s foray into ancient Tamil literature was accidental. A meeting with Tamil professor S Raghuraman triggered it off, and she became enchanted by these beautiful poems. She started reading up ancient Tamil literature, beginning with Tholkappiam (that amazing book on Tamil grammar that elucidates the rasas of human relation), Silappadikaram, and many more. Later, she co-authored Natana Kalaichol Kalanjiam, an encyclopedia of bharatanatyam terminology, with him. She also translated his book History of Tamil’s Dance.

A sum of all

Today, Lakshmi is a professional dancer, teacher, producer and academic, and the mix of all these experiences makes her a hit with audiences whenever she is invited for dance workshops or lecture demos for the lay audience.

The road that has brought her here started in her hometown Palayamkottai in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, when she was all of five years and her mother took her to dancer Indira Krishnamurthy and enrolled her as a student. Lakshmi staged her arangetram just a year later. Though she excelled in academics and acquired a Masters degree in Commerce, when she relocated to Chennai following marriage, Lakshmi continued to hone her dance skills. She became a student of Padma Shri Chitra Visveshwaran, who advised her to relearn bharatanatyam from its basics, which she accepted and benefitted from. She also learned karanas, the dance movement grammar, from Padma Bhushan Padma Subrahmanyam and abhinayam or facial expressions from Padma Bhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan.

As a dancer, her language tends to be subtle rather than overt, and she feels quite confident in stepping into a dance in a regular sari, such as at a lecture demonstration. And in an era when many dancers feel compelled to break out of the classical matrix, Lakshmi likes to uphold traditional bharatanatyam grammar without dilution and straying away.

“There is so much to discover within the grammar of bharatanatyam. It is not a restrictive genre. Why break it? Bharatanatyam has its own identity. Why disfigure it?”

Her own dance school, Sri Mudhraalaya, where she teaches all aspects of dance including its production aspects like stage management, lighting and the like, operates more like a gurukulam than a modern school. She advocates a deep grounding in literature for budding dancers, holding that this would preempt monotony from choreographies and bring in more audiences for classical dance.

Today, her students are carrying forward the baton, and have started satellite dance schools under the Mudhraa tag and philosophy. She says, “Learning dance helps you learn many other things and develops a person’s holistic capacity. All children need exposure to it.” In fact, the paper she presented as a scholar was ‘Learning Arts and Learning through Arts’.

Her last word? “Bharatanatyam is a genre that is not restricted for the connoisseur or the layman. You need only one exposure to a quality performance to get mesmerised by it for eternity.” 

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