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by Ramli Ibrahim
When my bharatanatyam guru, Padmashri Adyar K Lakshman died on the 19 August, 2014, he left a rich legacy of dance repertoire for posterity. However, an era of bharatanatyam left with him. Not many in Malaysia know that Lakshman Sir had a profound influence on a generation of male dancers in Malaysia.
When Malaysians discovered that both Chandrabhanu and I studied under him, many aspiring Malaysian dancers especially male students, made a bee-line to his dance studio, in Gandhinagar, Adyar (Chennai). They came in droves hoping also to get the same training that Chandra and I had been privileged to undergo. The other famous male dancer who studied with Lakshman Sir, even before us, was Kamadev. An iconic poster of the supremely handsome Kamadev and the late Chandralekha in a pose from Navagraha decorated my wall for years. Anita Ratnam, Jayanthi Subramaniam, Bhrga Bassel, Radha Anjali, Meena Raman and Rojas Kannan are some of the well-known dancers who were under his tutelage.
During the late 60’s and 70’s Lakshman Sir began to gain a formidable reputation as dance guru through his stunning compositions. When Lakshman visited Australia in 1979 under Chandrabhanu’s invitation, I was also able to benefit from this and studied with him when he stayed with me in Sydney. From then on, it was Madras during the holidays.
Adyar K. Lakshman was one of the earliest products of Kalakshetra and studied directly under Rukmini Devi, its legendary founder. With the latter’s blessing, Lakshman started his own institution – Bharata Choodamani – based in Chennai, which continued the Kalakshetra tradition of bharatanatyam. However, Lakshman added his own creativity with new works, which further took the Kalakshetra bani (lineage school) into another quantum jump of positive and heightened creativity.
He was one of the first of the ‘international’ dance gurus who cultivated students from all over the globe. They came with their mothers and soon it was more difficult to meet Lakshman Sir in Chennai as he jetsetted to U.S., Europe, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Japan to teach or conduct performances.
Before Lakshman Sir became too popular overseas, his dance studio in Gandhinagar was a veritable ‘dance factory’. The main dance room was a thatch-roofed square pavilion without walls. The cement floors were not overtly hard and made such slapping noise when we stamped that they almost sounded like cracks of gunshots.
The floor had been specially compacted before it was cemented and was lovely to dance on. It was compulsory for the boys to wear dhoti and the girls to wear dance saris. The classes started early in the morning and continued till night.
Lakshman Sir himself gave the morning adavu class and taught his repertoire afterwards. His works such as Todayya Mangalam, kautvams, thillanas and varnams were considered the ‘in’ items in the 70’s and 80’s. Lakshman Sir was not known for his abhinaya or expressive dance but his signature works would always have the complex rhythmic dance nuggets, which challenged our virtuosic ability.
It was here in the Gandhinagar studio that we sweated it out, drunk with dance, performing untiringly and with relish, to master his repertoire, which are now ‘classic’ pieces. Lakshman Sir was the focal point, and we could sense the genius whose creative impulse was being stirred up. He took us along with his amazing burst of inspired creativity for more than 15 years. We sensed that it was important to be part of this fresh movement in bharatanatyam. There was such a traffic of musicians and dancers, to and fro, in his house. Bharatanatyam stars such Yamini Krishnamurthy, Puspa Bhuyan, Swapna Sundari visited him for special classes, to commission new works, or to ask him to conduct their dance performances as nattuvanar. Dance gurus and musicians came, conferred and went.
Simultaneously, dancers were groomed and made. I cherished the times, when for the first time, I was able to bring my students from Malaysia to Chennai to study as well as perform with Lakshman Sir. He wielded the cymbals with such panache; his soulful singing interjected by his crisp expert sollukuttus (dance syllables). The combination of being able to play the mrdangam (southern drum), to conduct the orchestra as nattuvanar and vocalist, placed Lakshman Sir among the accomplished artists – a performer-musician – of the highest calibre.
Lakshman Sir had an inherently ‘Apollonian’ mindset, and this was reflected in the very ordered mind and mathematical logic with which he approached the complex cross-rhythms patterns of his compositions. These were combinations of mathematical riddles disguised as sollukuttus, which could put us in knotted twists while performing, let alone reciting the dance syllables. Through his mastery of the mrdangam, he was able to translate the cross-rhythms into the most scintillating pure dance compositions, simultaneously bringing out the divine geometry of nritta (pure dance) in bharatanatyam.
In the last Purush Festival directed by Anita Ratnam last December in Chennai, I mentioned that I would like to dance again to Lakshman Sir’s accompaniment as I had not been able to do so for some time now. However, Laksman Sir was too ill by then even to attend the function that honoured him. The performance with him was not meant to be as he never quite recovered from his illness.
Dancing bharatanatyam to his composition and accompaniment, with his commanding bass voice and inspiring rendition of sollukuttus, was a sheer experience that would always bring the best in a dancer. We pay homage to Guru Adyar K. Lakshman, a beacon of bharatanatyam who has touched and inspired a generation of dancers. They have been forever changed through the contact with his art.
25 August, 2014