Tete-a-tete – Lalitha Srinivasan

Lalitha Srinivasan is a veteran dancer, teacher, choreographer and research scholar. She heads the Nupura School of Bharatanatyam founded in 1978. She has to her credit numerous dance ballets like Chitrangada, Sri Krishna Parijatha, Lasyoutsava, Prem Bhakti Mukti, Kaushika Sukritam, Gowdara Malli, Deva Kannika, etc. and is especially lauded for her innovative works like Anga Bhava, Kavya Nritya and the Sulalitha Nritya which is a revival of a 16th century dance form – the Suladi Anga Bhava, Kavya Nritya and Anveshane are milestones, not only in the history of Nupura, but also in the history of Karnataka’s dance tradition.

She is the holder of the prestigious Shiromani, Priyadarshini, Karnataka Sangeetha Nritya Academy and Karnataka State awards and was also a fellow of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India.

Lalitha’s mastery over abhinaya is a treat to watch. She has danced all over the country and also given numerous lecture-demonstrations. She completed her Master’s degree in history and did several other courses with distinction acquiring an interdisciplinary efficiency rare in most artists. Her studies at the Wesleyan University, U.S.A. added another dimension of her creative work.

Proficient in Kannada and English, and adept at dance, Lalitha has participated in many seminars on dance and other arts. She has contributed many articles to several well-known magazines and souvenirs, in both English and Kannada, on various aspects of dance and art.

Research-oriented, Lalitha has always looked for new horizons of work. She worked on the dance sculptures of Karnataka, collecting photographs and information on the various temples temples of Karnataka and has described many of the sculptures in the technical terms of dance.

The State Sangeetha Nritya Academy has published two of her books.

  1. Karnataka Nritya Ranga Maththu Nritya Shilapagalu.
  2. A Biography on Padmabhushan Dr. K. Venkatalakshamma

Do you come from a family of artists?

No. I am the only one in the family who has seriously taken to dancing. Dance was just within me and I would dance to all kinds of music right from the age of four.

In Hassan, during the yearly jatra (fair) and exhibition in summer, dramatists like Gubbiveeranna company and dancers like Maya Rao, Lalitha, Padmini, Ragini, Kamala Lakshman, U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi and her sister Yashodhara would come down to perform. As my father provided lights for their pandals, we were allowed to go everyday to watch the performances and had a wonderful time. I was fascinated by Kamala Lakshman’s performance and I would dance on my own trying out different movements.

My sister Vijayalakshmi who is ten years older than me was studying in college in Bangalore. She would see films of Vyjayanthimala and come back and describe how Vyjayanthimala had danced. She would sing for me and I would dance. I had a lot of fun that way.

Lalitha was born in Shivanasamudra on 24 August 1943. She spent most of her early childhood in Shivanasamudra, Jog and Hassan as her father was an electrical engineer who worked in those areas.

Her mother was a very good singer and could also play the violin. She had also acted in dramas in her youth. As Lalitha was very keen on dancing, her mother insisted on her learning music first. Lalitha’s sister, brother and Lalitha together learnt music for a long time until Lalitha joined her Pre-University Course (PUC).

The family came to Bangalore when Lalitha was ten. In 1954, she joined the Bharatanatyam classes at “Keshava Nrithya Shala”, an institution run by Guru H.R. Keshavamurthy. She performed regularly in all the programmes of the school and their dance! dramas, taking up the main roles until 1977, with a few breaks in between.

Breaks in her Dancing: Marriage, Child

So how did you get back to dancing again?

My husband had taken up a job in Mumbai. I was there for a year but I somehow couldn’t survive there. So, when he got a seat in ME here, we came back to Bangalore. I started going to dance classes again. When I was 22 years old, in 1964, I did my Rangapravesha. The then Chief Minister Nijalingappa presided and Venkatachalam, the famous critic, was the chief guest. He was very happy with my performance and gave a very good review, Shanta Rao was invited. My guru’s guru Nattuvanar Gundappa was present too. I was given genuine and appreciative reviews by art critics as a rising star in the field of dance.

She danced till she was eighteen years, when she got married in her final year B.Sc. Then there was a break for about three years after marriage.

The birth of her daughter, Manu, in 1968 led to another break in her dancing career. In 1970 she started dance again and her guru asked her to do the Vidwath (proficiency grade exam) as she had completed her senior dance exam successfully.

She did not perform much on stage as her family was not keen on her becoming a dancer; her parents-in-law were old. While she studied for Vidwath, she felt there was more she could do than what she was learning.

Lalitha-Guru Vekatalakshamma: the Quitessential Guru-Shishya Duo

What impressed you the most in the performance of Dr. Venkatalakshamma’s student?

I was quite impressed, especially with the Varijha Mukhi, a javali (one of my favorite pieces even today). The stances and movements reminded me of Odissi which I have always been fond of. I feel that’s something that I have missed out in my life.

I knew that I could be good at abhinaya. These were from the soil of Karnataka and being a fanatic Kannadiga I was determined to learn them.

How did you association with Dr. Vekatalakshamma begin?

My husband and I went to Mysore to meet her after I watched her student’s performance. I told her I was very keen on learning abhinaya from her and joined her classes. I wanted to learn padams, javelis and ashtapadis from her, but she insisted that I learn some varnam also and taught me a varnam during that time.

Could you tell us more about your association with Guru Venkatalakshamma?

I was lucky to be so closely associated with Guru Venkatalakshamma.

In 1984 we started Nitya Nritya, an annual National Dance Festival. During that time she would come from Mysore and stay with me for a few days before or a few days after the festival. She also stayed with me whenever she came to attend some high court cases regarding her land.

Until 1990, till her 85th year, she came regularly to Bangalore, always staying with me. My parents-in-law were obliging. They took good care of her and she was very happy at my place – it became a second home for her. How lucky I was – rarely does a guru come down that often to a shishya’s house! It was like a Bhagirathi coming down.

It was not just about learning from her; we used to sit in the evenings and nights and talk about the intrigues of court, the many aspects of dance, her observations about dance and dancers, her guru Jatti Thayamma’s way of teaching, her performances – everything. She was such a good story teller. My mother and Guru Venkatalakshamma have made a tremendous impression on me. Both of them were very clever and shrewd women.

About 1973, Lalitha saw one of Dr. Venkatalakshamma’s (a veteran dancer of Mysore) students doing javali and Devaranama and was highly impressed.

In 1975-76, she went down to Mysore every weekend to Dr. K. Venkatalakshamma, to study and specialize in abhinaya and the Mysore school of Bharata-natyam. She also studied under Mugoor Jejamma, another well-known exponent of the art at Mysore.

As Lalitha had been acclaimed as one of the top artists of Karnataka and was doing fabulous work as a teacher and choreographer, in 1978 the Karnataka Sangeetha Nritya Akademy chose her to assist Dr. K. Venkatalakshamma, at an abhinaya course conducted by the academy. In 1980, the Central Sangeetha Nritya Akademy financially assisted a course by the same Guru at Nupura for six months to groom six artists in the Mysore school of abhinaya. Again in 1982-83, when the same academy set up a six-month course to promote the Mysore school of Bharata-natyam, Lalitha was asked to assist the veteran Dr. Venkatalakshamma.

Lalitha, the Guru

How and when did you take to teaching?

My family was involved with the Malleshwaram Ladies Association; my mother-in-law was herself a president. They asked me to start dance classes at their institute. Being a serious, dedicated person, I began teaching in earnest.

How and when did you start Nupura?

As the number of students grew, they needed more attention and they were very eager to learn more about dance in depth. Some parents started asking me: Why don’t you teach our children individually?

I thought that I should start an institution of my own dedicated to Bharatanatyam and in 1978 I started Nupura. Luckily I have had wonderful students – Shrimati, Sudha Krishnaswamy, Vatsala Kamath and Haripriya Kasturi are some of my senior students. Dr. Venkatalakshamma had started coming home. She held workshops at Nupura. in 1981 Haripriya became my first student to do Rangapravesha.

Your students are trained in teaching, singing, nattuvanga also?

Yes, I have made music compulsory, one class per week for all students. I take three classes for beginners until they come up to the varnam level; by then they are in PUC, they also start bunking the class. So I bring it down to 2 classes, but if we have performances they come on weekends also and practice.

I make the senior students do nattuvanga because after their arangetram I ask them to take classes for beginners. On our anniversary day I  never do the nattuvanga. My senior students have to handle the whole show including the costumes for the groups and all the students except the very new ones dance on anniversary day.

Nupura is one of the well-known institutions of dance in Karnataka. A sensitive teacher, Lalitha has been able to bring out the best in many a young dancer.

Lalitha trains her students in theory, music and nattuvanga so that they turn out to be full-fledged artists.

For the past 3-4 years she has also been conducting yoga classes in summer, a six- week course from May to June.

Nitya Nritya – Nupura’s Annual National Festival of Dance

Nitya Nritya was a popular dance festival we all remember which was started by you years ago?

I am proud of having started Nitya Nritya in our state – the first ever dance festival conducted in Karnataka. A one-of-its-kind festival, we conducted 15 of them from 1984 to 2000, missing only one year. Vimala Rangachar, B.V.k. Shastry, and Dr. Satyanarayana were of great help in conducting the festival. We had seminars and lecture demonstrations, and invited upcoming and established, local and national artists of all styles of dance to perform. I always felt exchange of knowledge should be there.

Why did you stop conducting Nitya Nritya?

A combination of personal problems and escalating all-round costs with dwindling sponsorships forced me to discontinue Nitya Nritya.

Lalitha, the Choreographer

Lalitha launched into her choreographic adventures from 1976 onwards, bringing in fresh numbers of rare quality and calibre. To popularise her work, she chose the local language. She has choreographed old and difficult traditional numbers. She has also choreographed specially for children and group numbers for her well-trained students and dance-dramas of varied themes; she herself has danced in many of them.

Some of her other full-scale productions are Chitrangada and Sri Krishna Parijatha – mythological lores in the local language; Lasyotsava, on the beautiful Hoysala Temple at Belur; and Prem Bhakti Mukti based on the life history of the saint poetess Meera Bai of Rajasthan.

Lalitha is well known for her subtle and sensitive abhinaya and hence she has lived the roles of Chitrangada, Satyabhama and saint Meera in the above productions.

While I was teaching we had some offers from the Bal Bhavan, a Centre for Children, to present dance-dramas by children. Vimala Rangachar obliged us with several performances every year at their dance festival for children. So I choreographed dance-dramas like Koushika-Sukritam, Nouka Charitre and Sogini Uttara and Bibi Nachiyar. These four dance-dramas were done in Bal Bhavan from MLA for many years.

Since I went to Dr. Venkatalashamma I started getting back on stage and wanted to do something new also. So I presented Shringara Nayika, a dance feature in 1977 from Geetha Govinda on Ashtanayika Bedha. Some of the ashtapadis were taught by Dr. Venkatalakshamma and a few more I choreographed myself. H.K. Narayana composed the music and we have danced that all over India many times.

Bharatanatyam – the Mysore Style

What are the main characteristics of the Mysore school?

Though people say there is nothing in the Mysore style, I have found a lot of things in it to satisfy me. I have faith in it; the pity is that others like Koushik’s school and Radhakrishna’s school and the Mugur School haven’t done much to promote this style of dance.

In the Mysore style, nritta was not very enhanced because in court they wanted sober dancing, basically shringara rasa and bhakti rasa. The court was full of scholars. They enjoyed Amarushataka, Mukunda Mala and Krishna Karnamrutha shloka, Bhakthihari’s Neethi shathaka, vachanas from Kanakadasa and Purandaradasa’s kruthis. Sahithya used to be appreciated. People in the court were very well-informed about dance; they could easily find fault if the dance went wrong in hand gestures or any aspect. Ashukavithes were danced in the court, i.e. any musician or a scholar would send a few lines with a couplet of sahithya and expect the dancer to sing it and also dance. So the dancer had to be a musician also! Stances, the thribhangis, are used a lot in the Mysore style. There is more grace in this style because there are more lyrical flowing movements, but the abhinaya portions are wonderful. Only people who have learnt and enjoyed it know what it is.

So the Mysore style has given more importance to abhinaya and sahithya?

Yes, abhinaya, sahithya and melody are very strong in this tradition. Probably in the Mysore style of dancing there are more of abhinaya items than any nritta. Mysore people do Kshetreyya padams, but these padams are not done in Tamil Nadu.

But Kshetreyya’s padams are in Telegu, aren’t they?

The Kshetreyya compositions taken up by Mysore dancers are different from those done in Tamil Nadu. Kannada javalis are innumerable. The astapadhi tradition came down to Orissa when the Ganga king of Karnataka, Lakshmana Sena, was ruling over it in the 12th century AD. So there was a lot of give and take between the people of Karnataka and Orissa. I have seen Dr. Venkatalakshamma and Kelucharan Mahapatra perform the same asthapadis like nathahare, ratisukhasare and yahimadhava – they are so similar that we cannot differentiate between Odissi and Bharatanatyam. There is hardly any difference in their hand gestures, the way they narrate and so on.

Why is Mysore style not popular?

Nobody has kept to the tradition assiduously and the nritta aspect is becoming complicated these days. One has to learn to balance between nritta and abhinaya.

Once a dancer is exhausted doing a complicated nritta, she won’t be able to do abhinaya, the emotive part, well. Maybe the Mysore style dancers were so involved in abhinaya, bhavabhinaya and rasabhinaya, nritta was of little consequence to them. Abhinaya made them inactive, as I suppose in the courts jumping around and doing rhythmic and acrobatic things was not appreciated much.

In the Mysore style how do you teach the nritta aspect to students?

I have learnt a lot of nritta attitudes from Guru Keshavamurthy and Mugur Jejamma who belonged to the Kanchi school of dance. We have developed nritta quite a bit now. All dancers I feel should consciously keep a balance between nritta and abhinaya. Personally I feel I have done that. Most dancers in Mysore style lack the stylized presentation that is very important these days.

Is anyone promoting the Mysore style in Mysore?

Shakuntala, Guru Venkatalakshamma’s granddaughter, is there; there are some of her students, but their presentation is not attractive. I have discussed this issue many times with them – presentation, music, nattuvanga has to be good. Some have not bothered about those things. Dancer Radhakrishna has so many compositions, that even three, four generations cannot dance them all. Lack of good students and unwillingness to share compositions are other problems we are facing. Those who are serious about dance want to learn the Pandanallur or Tanjore style of dance. As the popular saying goes in Kannada “shankadinda bandre thirtha”. People feel that only those who have learnt those styles can dance Bharatanatyam. Guru Venkatalakshamma did not get due credit for her knowledge and contribution to the Mysore style of dancing. BVK Shastri once told me that I was fighting a losing battle. As long as I am convinced that I am doing good work, I don’t mind fighting this battle till my dying end.

What distinguishes the Mugur style of dancing?

The adavus are very different and good. I have incorporated them in my teaching. Dancers of the Mugur style also used to do angasadhane, exercises particularly meant for dancers. There is only one person now, Madhav Rao from the Mugur style. He must be around 70 and is in Udupi. I have often asked him to teach in Bangalore, but he has not done so. Guru Jejamma was a very good teacher; I am fortunate to have learnt some nritta pieces and adavus from her. When I went to Mysore, Dr. Satyanarayan had told me that if I wanted to do something of Karnataka, I should try the Mugur style which was famous for nritta.

You are a staunch Kannadiga. All your productions are in Kannada and Karnataka-oriented?

Yes, I am a proud Kannadiga. I have done productions for sahithyas of Kuvempu, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar and D.V.G. I have done the kavya nrithyas of almost all the poets and I have brought out the Suladhi Prabhanda which existed in classical dance repertoire even before the Thanjavur quartet. B.V.K. Shastri would tease me, ‘We talk about Kannada and Karnataka, then why do you do the same Tanjore varna, shabdam, jatiswara and so on? See what you can do that is from Karnataka.’ So he brought me the Suladhi Prabhanda which has been described in detail in Damodhara Panditha’s Sangeethadarpana of the 17th century AD. For ten long years I worked with it. I also had a Sanskrit teacher with me to teach me and translate those verses.

Tell us about Suladhi Prabhanda.

Suladhi Prabhanda is supposed to have come down from Bharata’s Natya Shastra. But it was danced all over South India. It is very difficult in the sense that it has salagasuda prabhanda, i.e. suladhi talas, that is alankara telas. They are at different paces; that is why people cannot hold on to it. One is in vilambha, another is in druthkala, one more in madhyamakala; so it is very hard and also it is marga paddhati, not desi paddhati. So the charis, karanas and brahmaris all come into play here. I have reconstructed it with the Human Resource Department fellowship. Haridasas used to dance with devotion to suladhis which were thousands in number. They just kept to the rhythm and did bhajan, but they came into the classical repertoire as all Karnataka literature have described suladhis in their text.

Guru Radhakrishna has sapthataleshwari jathiswaras, sapthataleshwari varnas, and sapthataleshwari thilannas with him. About ten/twelve of them must be the derivatives of suladhi. Unfortunately nothing is available in print.

You have been the executive committee member of Nrithyakala Parishath since its inception; what is your role there?

I am sorry to say that I haven’t done much there. Performances are profuse these days with many opportunities available for dancers. The Nrithyakala Parishath is unable to collect the kind of money needed for putting up performances. So I would rather do academic work to improve the level of dancing in Bangalore than give people opportunities to dance. We could have group discussions, exchange of ideas, lecture-demonstrations and teachers training. If teachers improve, the quality of students will also improve. So I have always said that in summer we could have a 15-day coaching class for teachers. I have not been able to do that and I cannot take up such big projects by myself.

Your fondest wish?

I would like to do more to promote the Mysore style of dancing. I have been conducting workshops in Guru Venkatalakshamma’s name for the past three years. I feel that there is a structure to abhinaya and that there is a method of teaching it. Teaching abhinaya is very difficult. I would like to impart the method to the next generation.

Your message?

You must have a passion for dance, otherwise you cannot learn dance. To come up in the field is also very difficult. It is not easy to learn well like in other professions. A dancer has to make many sacrifices.


Whom do you remember in the field of dance when you think of Bharatanatyam? The first person who comes to your mind is the one who performs abhinaya well. What remain in the human mind are the emotions shown by the dancer. That’s why even today people talk of the abhinaya maestros – Balasaraswathi, Kalanidhi mami, Venkatalakshamma.