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Art is not just an entertainment but a wholesome exercise, says dancer Lakshmi Ramaswamy
Lakshmi Ramaswamy, a disciple of Smt. Chitra Visweswaran, has carved a niche for herself as a performer, teacher and choreographer. She is an 'A' grade artiste of Doordarshan and also an empanelled artiste of ICCR and South Zone Cultural Centre. Lakshmi also trains 'karanas' under Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, 'abinaya pieces' under Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan and Tamil texts under Dr. S Raghuraman.

Lakshmi, a recipient of the senior scholarship of the Central Government, was the only dancer selected from India for the 'Fulbright' fellowship during 2000. She was attached with Golden Gate University, San Francisco (USA). She has been awarded the titles of 'Yuva Kala Bharati', 'Abinaya Aadalarasi', 'Natya Kala Ranjini', 'Nritya Vidhya Ratna' and 'Natya Kala Vipanchi'. She has also won the coveted Balasaraswathi endowment prize of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. She was specially invited to perform in the World Ethnic Dance Festival, San Francisco. Representing South Zone Cultural Centre, she was sent along with her students to Sri Lanka during Navarathri in 2003.

She has led workshops In India and abroad. Holder of twin Master Degrees in Commerce and Bharatanatyam, she has served as resource person for refresher's course in Annamalai University. She has been external examiner for Kalakshetra and presently serves as guest faculty at Madras University for MA Bharatanatyam course, where she has registered for her Ph.D. She also regularly contributes articles and reviews in journals. She is a founder director of Sri Mudhraalaya, where she trains young aspirants in the art. "Generally, I would call myself as a person very passionate about dance, awestruck especially to the depth and width of it and would like to spend time with it as much as possible. Just as Anjaneya wanted to be in places wherever 'Rama nama' was chanted," LAKSHMI RAMASWAMY tells SANGEETHA SHAYAM in a free-wheeling interview.

Tell us about your Gurus. How different were their teaching styles?
Answer: My first teacher was Indira Krishnamurthy, who gave me the flavor of ‘classicism’ and took me to an arangetram. I lived down south in Tirunelveli, where we did not have a good teacher for dance at that time. When my parents heard that she had come down, we went and met her. She took me as her student in May 1985 and I had my arangetram in March 1986. She taught me both Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. After finishing a margam in kuchipudi, I only concentrated in Bharatanatyam. She was a teacher who gave me full, whatever she had learnt from her teachers. Her teachers were Shoba Naidu (Hyderabad) for kuchipudi and Tirukokarnam Rajalakshmi Amma in Bharatanatyam. I had done around 100 performances in and around Tirunelveli area, got my Doordarshan grade in Tiruvananthapuram Doordarshan, won youth festival gold medals consecutively for three years while in college, and a 1st prize in a state-level Bharatyar competition with Nellai Sangeetha Sabha by then.

After my marriage, I lived in Erode for some time. Later, my husband got a transfer to Chennai. I joined Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts in March 1991, when my son was 10 months old. From there on, I had been under her able guidance. It was tough to restart right from ‘tattadavu’. Since it was a change of style, Chitra akka advised me to restart so that I can learn the methodology properly and assured that I will not regret doing that. Sincerely, yes! I do not regret that I started all the way from square one.

Classes with her were really an eye-opener. She encouraged the practice ‘to question’, to think and rethink. She wanted her students to be thinking dancers. She made me understand the psychology behind movements and the meaning for every move my body parts made. I started working as a part-time staff and later was inducted as a full-time staff. Apart from dancing, I was part of all her group productions and learnt while working – lighting, stage décor, costume designing, program co-ordination, office-file maintenance, stage management, institution management and was even taking practical and theory classes. This exposure to the management side of the performance art helped me to think of arts management for which I applied later the ‘Fulbright’ program.

To Raghuraman sir, I got introduced through Vanathy, who sang for one of my performances. I was given the theme ‘arpudam’ by Narada Gana Sabha in its annual festival of innovative performances, the Natyarangam festival. I was into research and looking for material to put together. He came forward unassumingly and started taking class with references from Tholkappiam. From then on, my urge to know the concepts in the theoretical side got nurtured and this journey is still on.

The MA Bharatanatyam course at Madras University gave me an opportunity to interact with teachers like C.V. Chandrasekar and Kalanidhi Mami. I fell for Mami’s teaching and continued learning padams and javalis even after finishing the course. Dr. Padma Subramaniam took me as her student under Nrithyodaya, to learn the karanas.

Indira aunty introduced me to classicism, Chitra akka made me read in between lines, Raguraman sir made me look at its depth, Paddu akka freed me out of inhibitions and Kalanidhi mami took me to a range of abinaya.

I am what I am, because of all my teachers. And cherish the learning opportunities with each one of them and I bow down with due respect and reverence for their teaching.

You have received the Senior Scholarship and fellowship for Bharathanatyam from the Department of Culture, Central Government of India. How did you prepare for this?
Answer: It was not difficult to apply or appear for a senior scholarship examination with a teacher like Smt. Chitra Visweswaran. I knew about it through the newspapers and duly applied. I prepared meticulously the items of margam I had learnt already thoroughly. I learnt the slokas of Abinaya darpana on the theoretical part. I also worked on the mathematical calculations of each korvai and jati in my repertoire and practiced reciting the jatis with tala and nattuvangam.

Tell us about being chosen for the Fulbright Scholarship at the U.S.?
Answer: Fulbright is a programme of the U.S. Government in which scholars from that country can go to other countries and other country scholars to the U.S. There are more than 42 branches of study for which a Fulbright could be applied. []

The administrative part of a performing arts organization gave me exposure in a new area that I did not know before. I was interested in that. I took ‘arts and culture management’ studies through ‘Fulbright’. I was affiliated to Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

I believe that art is not only entertainment (especially Indian arts) and it is a wholesome exercise to both body and soul of any individual and it enhances individual capacities. I came across researches done by associations such as AAAE which proved that people who are ‘art exposed’ out-do those who are ‘not exposed to art’. So, it is not only that one learns the art but also develops many more qualities while learning an art. That made me work on the topic.

You have dealt with a lot of Tamil literary works in your choreographies. For instance, you have dealt with the Thiruvaranga Kalambagam. I believe you are now working on a project on Sangam literature, too. Tell us about your interest in Tamil literature.
Answer: I never had any interest in Tamil during my younger days!! In fact, it would be a ‘just pass’ subject!! With introduction to Raghuraman Sir, I understood how vast and deep my mother tongue was. And that love is multiplying day by day, and the Phd is now in ‘koothanool’. Most of my productions have been in Tamil.

  • My first work was ‘silambu vidu thoodu’. This was first conceived for the Natyanjali at Chidambaram. I wanted to send him a message through dance! I spoke to Raghuraman sir about the idea and overnight, he had penned the lyrics for me! It grammatically follows all the requisites of a thoodu literature.
  • Next was a solo theatre, ‘Aalaavathu eppadiyo’. This was on the lives of four Saiva saints, triggered by a four-line poetry of Pattinaththaar, who says, ‘I do not know the amount of devotion through which senaapatiyaar killed his own son; the devotion through which Neelakanda Naayanaar restrain youth; the devotion through which Kannappar pulled out his own eye, if so, when would I be qualified to your blessing, O Lord’’.
    “vaallaal magavarindu ootta vallen allen Maadu sonna soollaal ilamai turakka vallen allen
    Naallaaril kann idanthu appa vallen allen
    Naan ini chendru aalaavathu eppadiyo tirukkaalaththi appare!”
    With that, the stories of the four saints were expanded.
  • Next was ‘Sangamum sangamamum’. The Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram announced a production grant in 2004 for sangam literature works. It was the time when I came across some of the Sangam poetry while learning Tholkappiam under Raguraman Sir. Sangam literature ‘Nattrinai’ was chosen and poems culled out. Nattrinai is a collection of 400 poems of various poets of the Sangam period, dealing with ‘aham’, the love life.

    The chosen poems were strung in such a way that it included all technical requirements of the aham poetry – with all the five landscapes, their associated emotions and moving on a story line. It took almost a year for me to put together the group production.
  • Then was the ‘Jagam nee, Aham nee”, the story of Mahisasura mardhini, done for the South zone cultural centre’s tour to Sri Lanka during Navarathri, 2004. It was a marathon production where we had only 10 days time to create a production! Lyrics were written in two days, music in two days, choreographed in the next two days, rehearsed for two days, studio recorded, costumes designed and stitched and left for sri lanka in the next two days! It was staged 12 times in the 9 days, including one performance in Parliament of Sri lanka.
  • Next was Tirumalai Aandaver Kuravanji on Lord Muruga of Paimpozhil.
  • Tiruvaranga kalambakam is a 12th century work of Pillai Perumal Iyengar on the Lord of Sri Rangam. This was again funded by the Tamilnadu Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram. Since I had done a production each on Siva, Devi and Muruga, I took Vishnu through this work. Kalambakam is a huge work with 18 units. We chose 9, reflecting the navarasas for the production.

Sangam literature work gets its second stage opportunity only now, after four years of its first staging and all of us are so eager to perform. It will happen at 2 p.m. is on December 25 at Narada Gana Sabha.

Apart from productions, I have included such small poetry in my repertoire; choreographed alarippu in viloma kanda and tisra druva. My short productions include sculptors dream (done for IDA festival, with only instrumental music), Panca tantra, hunter and the deer (done for younger students), oozhikoothu (Bharatiyaar), Aindum Ayyanum (comparison of number five with Shiva), Asta nayika, Dasaavataara Varnam etc.

You have your Masters in Bharathanatyam from the University of Madras. Tell us about this academic approach to dance education.
Answer: I was having my ideas of Ph D even before that, but when I approached various universities, I was denied because my basic Masters degree was in commerce! Even before the Madras University opened it Masters Course, I had met Ramanathan sir to request him to start one such course for the benefit of dancers. The music department is celebrating its 75th year this year, but Madras, known for its classical dance, did not find a beginning. So, when I heard about the course (credit goes to Dr. Premeela Gurumurty, present Head of the Department of Indian Music, University of Madras, for starting this course), I joined without a second thought. Today, I work as a guest faculty for the course and on my Ph D.

Your experiences while doing the Ashta Nayika...
Answer: Classes with Kalanidhi mami were so interesting. I learnt developing abinaya with subtlety. I was chosen by her to represent ‘Kalahantarita’, a self cursing heroine. Poetry was from Sangam literature and so, it was double joy for me. It was happy in the beginning to accept. I later understood how difficult to place myself with many of mami’s senior students. Each of them was well known. That triggered in me a sense fear and challenge.

There were not many interactions, since each nayika was a separate episode. But I took care to continue from the previous nayika and give a lead to the next one. It was critically acclaimed and earned good name for me.

How is the dance scene for upcoming artistes in India?
Answer: It is encouraging. Unlike former times, youngsters today get more opportunities. At times, it has become a commercial exercise for performers. Organizations that give opportunity for talent could be finger-counted.

Upcoming artistes should work well on the performance side as well as on the academics behind arts so that they are able to come up with performances that keep out monotony. From the organizers point of view, one can argue that they are constrained since the audience turn out is reducing day by day.

Do you teach?
Answer: I love teaching. I am not a teacher who came to teaching out of frustration. I do it for the love of sharing to those who are eager to take up this art at a time when life is getting mechanical.

Sri Mudhraalaya was formed to teach this art to youngsters. Apart from learners and performers, today it has satellite institutions (classes run by my students) in various parts of Chennai: ‘Gnana mudra’ at Chrompet, ‘Dhyana mudra’ at Purasawalkam, ‘Surya mudra’ at Virugambaakkam, ‘Chandra mudra’ at Ashok Nagar and ‘Purna Mudra’ at Tiruvottiyur.

Exercises for body flexibility, theory, prayer slokams, dancing, choreography and nattuvangam are taught. Students have put up their own group productions, get together for group productions and perform nattuvangam for me as well as to each other. They have won competitions such as ‘taka dimi ta’, ‘Tamilnadu Eyal Isai Natakam’ and senior scholarship of the Central Government.

How do you manage the time between home, academics, dancing and teaching?
Answer: I have learnt to do it through experience. It is also the challenge of today. Anyone for that matter has to be a mother, sister, wife, daughter apart from working in an office! It is a little pre-planning that helps to balance. I tell my students, ‘anticipate and be prepared for the worst, so anything which comes will be better than that!’

What are your upcoming programmes/projects?
Answer: Immediate one is the lecture demonstration on 23rd November for Narada Gana Sabha, where Raguraman sir is giving a lecture on ‘aham and puram of Sangam literature’ for which I am going to do the demonstration part.
N. Elangovan -
I am glad with the way of life and approach for the art form, preserved in your hands and passed on to the next generation through Mudhralaya. I pray to God that your service to the human kind continues in this art form for many years to come.

Devi Ghanshyamdas -
This interview reveals that there is no end for learning even in arts which most of them do not know.I am very happy that most of the Tamil literature are coming to the picture, having given a dance form which is more intersting to watch...since am a lover of tamil...At one place, Mrs. Lakshmi Ramaswamy said that she had restarted her learning from thattadavu after her marriage. It is really a courageous decision. I admire this very much. Every production of her is of different of approach.
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