Tete-a-tete – A Rare Gem: Guru Narmada – A lifetime of selfless giving and sharing

A couplet of Kabir that says:

The astonishing thing about Saraswati’s gift (of knowledge) is: The more you spend (share) the more it increases; without spending (sharing) it diminishes.

Living completely by the spirit of Kabir’s beautiful couplet, Guru Narmada has all her life contributed immensely to dance and students of dance with her generous giving and sharing of all her knowledge of dance.

Every successful artist in Bangalore would have learnt dance from Guru Narmada at some point or the other in their dancing career. A mother figure to all her students, they describe Guru Narmada as a great teacher and a good friend and guide. Caring, loving, sharing and giving are the qualities she possesses, making her close to each one’s heart.

Guru Narmada has been awarded the ‘Shantala award’ by the Govt. of Karnataka. Completing 25 years of teaching, Guru Narmada is one of the most senior dance gurus of Bangalore, who had her initial training from the late V.S. Kaushik, and training in the Tanjore style of Bharatanatyam from Guru K. P. Kittappa Pillai of Thanjavur for 18 years. The vintage Tanjore style of Bharatanatyam is known for its technical clarity, variety of adavu patterns sequences, and for the distinct movements of the limbs. Now 63 (born on 22-09-2004), she had her arangetram at the age of eleven and, in her teens, won state and central government scholarships for dance.

She began her dance school Shakuntala Nruthyala (in memory of her mother) at Bangalore in 1978 where she has trained many students. Inspiring in her students many rich, creative ways of using a particular adavu without sacrificing classicism is a notable factor in Guru Narmada’s teaching. She has encouraged her students to retain their individuality and creative freedom within the classical framework.

The guru has also been honored with the Karnataka Sangeetha Nruthya Academy award, the Shanthala Arts Academy Award, the Best Teacher award from the Music Academy, Madras, Karnataka Rajyotsava award and the Bestow Award from the Karnataka Cultural Association, California.

Your first steps?

I was six and scared of my first guru of a few months, a tough master, V. S. Kaushik (the one who started Sanathana Kalakshetra in Jayanagar). My career as a dancer actually began in 1952 under Kitappa Pillai who had just then come to Bangalore from Tanjore. Initially he was hesitant to teach me as I did not know Tamil and he did not know Kannada. I was ten and insistent. He followed the Tanjore Bani (Tanjore style of Bharatanatyam). Within a year of learning under him; I did my arangetram in 1953. Just eleven, it was a challenge for me. There was no Ravindra Kalakshetra or Chowdaiah Hall, only the Town Hall. It was very prestigious to perform in the Town Hall then. It was a small auditorium. There was a big list of invitees as my father was a famous general practitioner in Chamarajpet. To accomodate everybody, the arangetram was held for two days. I performed different items on both the days. I performed two different margams and we had different chief guests for the two days. A lot of people were present. There were only a few newspapers and reporters / critics; my performance was praised in all the reviews. I remember one famous reporter, Veera Kesari Seetaram Sastri. Veera Kesari was the name of the paper. He gave me a very good review.

How did Guru Kittappa Pillai come to Bangalore from Tanjore?

Kittappa Pillai was a popular teacher, famous in Tamil Nadu. Padmalochani, a Bangalore-based dancer invited him to teach in Bangalore and he agreed. He was very popular then, even in Bangalore. Many people knew about him here but initially only a few joined his classes. Padmalochani, Sudha Rani Raghupathi and I were his first students.

How long was he here in Bangalore?

From 1952-1990. Teaching was his passion; he didn’t care about publicity. When in Bangalore, he came in touch with Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini. He would go to Chennai and Mumbai to teach them. Even today you can see Vyjayanthimala dance in Kittappa’s style.

Which style of Bharatanatyam have you specialized in?

Tanjore Bani, the style taught by Kittappa Pillai.

Please tell us about the characteristic features of Tanjore Bani.

The Tanjore style of Bharatanatyam emphasizes the mastery of tempo, precision of technique, and dexterity in execution. The style is known for its clean geometric lines, variety of adavus (steps), and for its langourous movements. The abundance of technical richness in the creative ways of using a particular adavii without sacrificing classicism is a notable factor. One of the special features of the style as passed on by the great masters, is the execution of jatis (rhythmic sequences) and jati korvais (segments of rhythmic sequences) in vilambita kala (slow tempo) with controlled speed and clarity. Stress is laid on understanding the kalapramana (time cycles, cross-rhythms, and pauses) in vilambita (slow), madhyama (medium) and druta (fast) tempos.

Guru Kittappa Pillai was very good in nritta, famous for footwork. He was a perfectionist and very strict about it. He was very particular about aramandi, adavus and angashuddhi.

How much importance is given to abhinaya in Tanjore Bani?

Abhinaya, I would say is, a feeling or emotion which comes from within because we have to understand the meaning of a composition and develop abhinaya on our own. My guru taught us abhinaya and nritta. But he emphasised nritta. He believed in giving only an explanation about the composition to students; they had to understand and interpret the situations in the composition. One should give freedom to students to explore, so that they can develop their individual styles and not wind up as replies of their teachers.

What is the difference between the Pandanallur and the Tanjore styles of dancing? Many are of the opinion that you follow the Pandanallur bani.

Pandanallur is a village close to Tanjore. Actually there is not much difference between the two styles.

There are so many styles of dance in Bharatanatyam; how is each different from the other?

Whichever the style, the basics are the same. Of course, each style emphasises a certain aspect — the Mysore style gives more prominence to abhinaya (facial expressions), the Valavur style emphasises poses and bhangis, the Pandanallur and the Tanjore styles emphasise the nritta aspect (pure dance). Each style has its own beauty.

Please tell us about your dancing career.

Till I passed out (B. Sc.) of Mount Carmel College in 1964, I was performing regularly, in and out of Bangalore. I was a scholarship holder for three years in dance. I did not change my guru. I got a gold medal from the Maharaja of Mysore. It was very prestigious then. In 1965 I got married to D. Krishnamurthy Rao, an engineer. He had not seen my dance. So my guru arranged a show right there in the kalyana mantapa. I danced the day before my marriage – it was a novel experience for me.

Husband’s untimely death upsets plans

After the marriage, we had to go to Hyderabad. I was very hesitant to leave Bangalore. But then I made a rough copy of all the dance material and wrote everything down. Using this material, I would perform in Hyderabad. In 1970, I conceived and had to stop dancing. I had plans of pursuing dance after delivery but unfortunately my husband passed away in a big accident – a head-on collision. I had to come back to Bangalore to my parents, and my son was born. I was really depressed without my husband and would see my son and comfort myself. My dancing life seemed like a distant dream. I was not sure of the road to be taken.

My guru makes me a guru…

One day my guru Kitappa Pillai came home and insisted that I should take up dance classes to occupy myself to get over the tragedy and take care of my child. I hesitated arguing that I had lost touch and that nobody would come to learn from me. But encouraging and blessing me, he started the classes for me and asked me to continue them. I began teaching dance on 5 Sept. 1978 because it was Teacher’s Day and named the school Shakuntala Nruthyalaya (Shakuntala is my mother’s name.) My guru gifted me with a tala (natuvanga) and blessed me. He would visit me often. Simultaneously I started classes in Whitefield. Srividya Natarajan who is now in Chennai was my first student to do her arangetram. Then there was no looking back. I have had so many students and conducted so many arangetrams that I have lost count.

My first step abroad…

My foreign tours began in 1991; I first went to the US on an invitation by Malathi Iyengar. I have traveled all over the US, the UK, Dubai, and taught many students who still come to me when they come to Bangalore. I travelled widely till 2000.

You have so many loyal students all over the world, what do you give them as a teacher that makes them look up to you so much?

There have been many major disappointments in my life. I underwent a major operation in 2002, a surgery in my leg because of a blockage in an artery. But my students are like vitamin pills for me. They make the energizing difference to my life. I really don’t know what or how much extra I teach them. They have learnt a few things from me which I presume are helpful to them. I am so glad that I have been able to give them something they treasure. The affection they have for me is more due to God’s grace than my hard work. God is great!

But there must be reasons for the special bond between you and all your students?

I always tell my students to open their hearts and teach. Don’t look at the watch and teach. When students come to learn out of their own interest, don’t think that it is your duty to teach but that it is your pleasure. Be loving. The more you give, the happier you will be and God will give you more.

I have completed 25 years as a teacher. And I am always open to new ideas. I send my children (students) to workshops and to other teachers to learn. I make it a pint to attend and see some performances. If I have missed out on some aspects of abhinaya or nritta, let my students learn from teachers who know those aspects, for I feel the more you learn the better.

As a teacher you should never fear losing your students. They will always come back to you if you have taught them all you know, openly with love and affection.

Do you follow any specific method while teaching?

I don’t have any rules. I serve students night and day. While teaching you should not hurry, you should involve yourself totally in teaching in the stipulated time. I love to spend a lot of time with my children (students) – my class is not at all like a regular dance class. I create a friendly, homely atmosphere for them. I have put up a board because then there will be a commercial air. I am not eager to make money. I am really proud of my students.

To become a good dancer or a performer, what is important technically?

Concentration and regular practice in the right way make one a good dancer. Kittapa Pillai never used to stand and show us how to dance. I have continued this tradition as I feel it helps you develop your own individual style – whether walking or standing in a pose or anything. Even with abhinaya. We have to give some liberty to the students, allowing them to do what they like within the basic framework. This helps them develop their skills and become good teachers. Otherwise how will this art grow?

People say: “Narmada’s jatis are very crisp, fast and visually very beautiful”; what are the things you keep in mind when you choreograph?

Usually if I take a particular hasta, in a jati, I tend to finish one karve using the same hasta (till the karve finishes) as there will be continuity. The adavus have to be catchy and easy for a dancer to do them. There should be a smooth flow, and the dancer has to enjoy doing it.

What are your dreams for the future?

I have left the task of dreaming and doing to my children (students) because I have trained so many of them and they have become very good teachers. They are continuing the tradition and that makes me proud. Even though they change the choreography, they are doing a wonderful job.\

Do you have any message for upcoming artists?

All upcoming artists today have so much potential, teaching capacity and choreography skills. What they lack is patience. They need patience – as a teacher as well as a student. Dedication and concentration are, of course, always a must for anyone striving to come up.

Naru Aunty

Students are everything to her.

She is fondly called Naru Aunty by her students, who can on days they do not want to dance, go to her and sit up chatting. A lady who has faced a lot of hurdles in her life, she is always charming, smiling and giving when teaching dance. She is one teacher who always wants her students to learn more, learn new compositions and enthusiastically wishes that they become good dancers.

About fifteen years ago, Guru Narmada became a very important mentor in my life. She invested endless number of hours in instilling devotion, dignity, classicism, and aesthetics in dance. Dancing to her nattuvangam is both fun and exciting as her modulations match the adavus beautifully. She wields the cymbals and does the vocalization with no frills and fancy, but with complete command.

I am always inspired by her sense of humor and her outlook on life and circumstances, however challenging they may be. The act of giving comes easily to her, as she is very eager to impart her knowledge and enjoy the progress of her students.

Thank you dear guide Guru Narmada for helping us explore a world of beauty, and find your own niche.

Malathi Iyengar, Los Angeles, USA

She is the most giving teacher, very loving and very kind-hearted. She is loving and kind not only to her students but also to their family and everyone associated with them. She makes learning so much fun. Being with her itself is a great joy. Her style of dancing is remarkable and as jubilant as her nature is. I can proudly say her style is the best in Bharatanatyam.

One of her unique qualities is that she gives the same kind of respect and love to a child as well as an established, accomplished person.

She is very creative in exploring nritta. As a natuvanar, her nattuvangam is very powerful.

I am very proud to be her student.

Nirupama Rajendra

After being trained in Kuchipudi by Guru Vempati Chinna Sathyam for many years, the only other style I have learnt is Bharatanatyam from my only other guru, Guru Narmada, one of the finest gurus in Bangalore. She has strictly followed Guru Kittappa’s style without tampering it. I share a great rapport with her. As long as I was with her I was a part of her family. In fact she considers all her student a part of her family – this quality sets her apart from the rest. I admire her choreography skills.

Manju Bhargavi

Naru Aunty is like my second mother. Earlier when I used to be very absent-minded and forget things easily, she would protect me from getting scolded by my mother. Whatever I am today, I credit it to her. She installed confidence in me. She has a terrific sense of humor. As a teacher she always encourages creativity. She is a modern thinker and a free-spirited woman. I am not a publicity-conscious person but thanks to Naru Aunty, several people know about me and my activities.

My bonding with her is very special and will always be.

Lakshmi Gopalswamy

Naru Aunty is my best friend. Whatever I am today is because of her. There are days I just go up to her place not to dance but to sit and chat and gossip with her. As a teacher she is the best. She is very encouraging and gives space and freedom to her students. She never holds back her students from going and learning from other teachers.

Sathyanarayana Raju

Naru Aunty gives her students space to develop their individuality. She has a great sense of humor and makes fun of her own life even though she has gone through so many ups and downs in lie. It is because of her that we all have learnt how to face life positively. Her jathis and choreography are the best. Her personality makes her students bond with her and with one another.

It is because of Naru Aunty that I am able to have dance as my profession and make a comfortable living. All the credit goes to her. Aunty, you are the greatest teacher.


I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from Naru Aunty.

A selflessly giving teacher, every time she watches her students perform even in a regular class, she watches them with so much love and passion. In today’s commercial age, she never holds anything back while teaching anybody, whether a young student or an older one.

She gives her students freedom to share their thoughts and ideas and encourages them to bring out their individuality. She builds a lot of confidence in us. The guru-shishya relationship would be so much fun if everyone was blessed with a teacher like her.

Her jathis and choreography are full of energy and prove those wrong who think that classical dance is boring.

Thanks Aunty for all that you have given.

Anuradha Vikranth

I have been Aunty’s student for the last 22 years now. She is a wonderful teacher. My relationship with her goes beyond that of being her student. She knows how to handle her students with love. Most of Aunty’s students are capable of doing things on their own even in choreography, simply because she has a liberal mind and allows us to put in our own ideas. That is why most of the established dancers in Bangalore are her students.

She has a distinct style and dancing to her sollukattu is so much fun. My nritta foundation is good only because of her.

I am lucky to have her as my Guru. I would like to continue her tradition of teaching.

Soundarya Srivatsa

I have joined Aunty’s class recently, but aunty has always been a source of inspiration to me and I feel blessed that I have an opportunity to learn from her.

Aunty is very loving and sweet, but at the same time strict in her own ways when it comes to dance and knows what best to get out of each of her students.

Aunty you are a wonderful teacher.

Shama Sanjay