Personalities: Nataraja Ramakrishna

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The word ‘Natya’ in the Two Telugus states today cannot be uttered without mentioning the name Nataraja Ramakrishna.

The reviver of Andhranatyam and Perini Siva Thandava, he was a virtuoso in three others, including the third native Telugu dance, Kuchipudi.  A scholar, skilled singer and dancer, and inspiration for cultural revival, he is the next of the great Andhra Personalities in our series.

Background

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The recreator of not one, but two dances, and with parents from both Telangana and modern Andhra Pradesh, Nataraja Ramakrishna’s story begins not in either of the two Telugu states, or even India, but Indonesia.

Born on the island of Bali (the last Hindu outpost in the  archipelago), the nrtta (rhthym) of Ramakrishna gaaru’s life was poetic even in this respect.  He was a dance maestro whose birth took place in one of Bharatavarsha’s ancient daughter cultures, who absorbed our Samskruthi and even invited brahmanas to settle  to spread the Dharma. How appropriate that a reviver of our culture hailed from an ancient absorber of our culture?

He would go on to revive not only Perini but Andhra Natyam as well. Fittingly, his mother (Damayanti Devi) was from Nalgonda district in Telangana and his father (Ramamohan Rao) was from East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh–a Telugu unity story if there ever was one. Nevertheless, he spent most of his life in Telangana, and very much represents the new state’s contribution to our common heritage.

He was interested in classical dance from childhood itself. Leaving his family, who did not approve of his passion, Ramakrishna went to Ramakrishna Math in Madras (now Chennai).

He was a student of Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam, and studied under Smt. Naidupeta Rajamma and Pendyala Satyabhama and learned from Natyacharya Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastri, the famous Kuchipudi exponent who opened the dance style up for women. Starting from 1971, Ramakrishna gaaru closely reviewed not only historical texts such as the treatise Nritta Ratnavali, but also the dance poses of the famous statues of the Ramappa Temple just outside of Warangal.

At 18, he later performed at the Nagpur Royal court where the moniker “Nataraja” was affixed to his name, Ramakrishna. The newly minted ‘lord of the dance’ had studied under Sukhdev Karthak. The Maratha king of Nagpur was a great patron of his, and Ramakrishna gaaru became a scholar of the sastras and a linguist in 5 bhashas.

A life-long bachelor, his was a life dedicated to the humanities. He sought to infuse new life not only in long dormant danceforms, but to revive the spirit of Telugu Thanam in our traditional artforms.dance.

For him, dance is his life partner; disciples are his children while his inheritance is his knowledge of art of dance. [2]

Achievements

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After decades of dedication, he was able to first write commentaries on the style before instructing students, ultimately nurturing the return of the great warrior dance: Perini.  [3] An exponent of Kuchipudi, intructor of Bharatanatyam, progenitor of Andhra Natyam, and reconstructor of Telangana’s Siva Thandava, he truly was a jewel of the Telugus.

Aside from his most famous contributions, he had a life full of achievement.

He has revived ‘Navajanardanam’, a great Prabandha dance tradition that was performed in Kunthi Madhava Temple at Pithapuram in the East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh. Dr. Nataraja Ramakrishna choreographed and staged “Sri Venkateswara Kalyanam”, “Kumara Sambhavam” and “Megha Sandesam”. [2]

  • Established Nrityaniketan in Hyderabad in 1955 for dance instruction
  • Wrote over 40 books on dance traditions of Andhra Pradesh and ancient dance forms.
  • Revived ancient spiritual dances of Agama Narthanams & Navajanardhana Parijatam
  • Helped propagate Telangana’s folk dance Chindu Yakshaganam
  • Repopularised the folk dance of Srikakulam and Vizianagaram: Tapettagallu
  • Repopularised Veera Natyam and Garagalu of East & West Godavari districts
  • Chairman of Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi
  • Awarded doctorate from Andhra University
  • Received Bharat Kala Prapoorna
  • Received NTR State Award under united Andhra Pradesh state
  • Awarded Padma Sri in 1992

Legacy

At a time of division among the sons of Telugu Thalli, Nataraja Ramakrishna gaaru is a story of unity. If he restored the great Warangal tradition of Thandava to Telangana, he reforged the ancient 2,000 year old classical dance style of the Andhras as a gift to a then united Andhra Pradesh. If returning Andhra Natya alone makes him an Andhra Ratna, then recreating Perini Thandava makes him a Bharata Ratna.

An Acharya of Andhranatyam, Perini, and Kuchupudi, a virtuoso in Bharatanatyam and a patron of Odissi, he was the complete narthaki, and one of the most respected dance teachers in our tradition. Not just a dancer or instructor, he was a true scholar. Even here he distinguished himself. Unlike our rote reciting “Arm-chair Acharyas”, he did extensive field research as well, going on expedition to Warangal and the Ramappa Temple.

Prominent disciples include Uma Rama Rao, Kala Krishna, Alekhya Punjala, Perini Venkat, and Odissi dancer Aruna Mohanty.

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A selfless encourager and guide of young artistes, he is the first to write and compose a Nrutya Nataka (dance ballet) on Lord Venkateshvara. For this reason his called the exemplar of Satvikabhinaya–the soul of Indian dance. As a riposte to Ivy Tower indologists, he not only gave new life to classical dance, but ritual, folk, and even tribal dance as well. Such was the breadth of his scholarly patronage and love for dance as artform.

He passed away in 2011 at the age of 88, but his legacy lives with us today and will live on for 1000 years. He is described as a Kuchipudi legend, a recreator of Perini, and a restorer of Andhranatyam. It is as though he blessed each state with a dance tradition, and gave one more for Telugu unity. Each brother may have a house (and a danceform!), but Telugu Thalli is our common mother, common culture, and common heritage.

That is the message of the life of Padma Sri Nataraja Ramakrishna.

References:

  1. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/article2084870.ece?homepage=true
  2. http://andhranatyam.com/gurudeva.htm
  3. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/girija-devi-nataraja-ramakrishna-sangeet-natak-akademi-fellows/article1106137.ece
  4. http://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/book/andhranatyam-lasya-dance-tradition-of-andhras-rare-book-NAJ098/
  5. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-fridayreview/art-form-comes-alive/article6987493.ece
  6. http://www.narthaki.com/info/profiles/profl125.html

One thought on “Personalities: Nataraja Ramakrishna

  1. Great post about a great personality. Never knew of these art forms. Kudos to you for bringing out these gems. You will certainly open the eyes of many with these posts!

    Thank you.

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