To trace a seven-decade journey is challenging, more so when it concerns a personality as iconic as Lakshmi Viswanathan. Beyond the many awards that she received (Kalaimamani, Nritya Choodamani, Nritya Kalanidhi and more), Lakshmi was a sensitive artiste with a refreshing sense of candour and irreverence. Traversing the realms of performance, curation, scholarship and writing with ease, she was a powerful presence in the landscape of dance.

A prime disciple of Kanjeevaram Elappa Pillai, Lakshmi took great pride in carrying forward the Thanjavur bani of dance and music, even authoring several books on it, including  Bharatanatyam: The Tamil HeritageKunjamma: Ode to a Nightingale and  Women of Pride: The Devadasi Heritage.

True to the style

K.P.K. Chandrasekaran, son of celebrated nattuvanar Kittappa Pillai, of the Thanjavur tradition recalls, “Whatever Lakshmi Viswanathan presented, she always remained true to the style.” Says senior dancer Geeta Chandran, “Lakshmi’s vast knowledge of the history of Bharatanatyam, its renaissance and its meanderings — both meaningful and meaningless — since its rebirth were all issues that fed both her intellect and humour. A few days before her passing, I heard her speak on devadasi Gnanam as part of the Sangam Festival at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.”

Lakshmi’s research on dance was crucial as it highlighted the salient features of the Elappa Pillai style. She travelled around the world sharing the beauty and richness of the Thanjavur bani. A past convenor of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha’s Natya Kala conference and the former editor of the Kalakshetra journal, Lakshmi’s penchant for the rigorous study of dance history was an important aspect of her career.

Her attachment to the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore inspired a publication in 2006, which provided a thorough exploration of the temple and its festivals. Her exploration of the devadasi tradition of Thanjavur was refreshing, as she was a direct disciple of the nattuvanar tradition. Her treatment of the repertoire pieces reflected the aesthetic of the past. Her book on the devadasi heritage was a tribute to the women who belonged to that lineage.

Lakshmi’s training in Carnatic vocal music under T. Muktha, Tiruvaiyaru Krishnamurthy and Tediyur Narayanaswami informed her dance immensely. She also trained in Kuchipudi under Vempatti Chinna Satyam.

All in the family

Veteran Carnatic vocalist Charumathi Ramachandran recalling the rapport that she shared with her sister, both on and off stage, says, “I sang for her performances for 20 years. We were inculcated into the arts at a young age by our parents. We would never miss participating in the school culturals. Lakshmi was very focussed on dance. She was always eager to add to her knowledge. She would read a lot and learnt new pieces from Vazhuvoor Samaraj, Sankari Krishnan and Mylapore Gowri Ammal to widen her repertoire.”

Lakshmi during a performance in 2017 at Sivagami Pethachi auditorium in Mylapore, Chennai.

Lakshmi during a performance in 2017 at Sivagami Pethachi auditorium in Mylapore, Chennai.
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According to dancer-teacher Roja Kannan, who is the president of ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India), “Lakshmi Viswanathan was a trained Carnatic vocalist, who would sing while beautifully demonstrating abhinayam. We at ABHAI had the privilege of holding many Abhivriddhishalas with her, where she shared her knowlege of padams, kirtanams and javalis. When she headed ABHAI, she introduced some landmark events into the institution’s calendar. The first Mahabalipuram Festival of Dance was conceived and curated by Lakshmi akka. It was held at the historic site of Arjuna’s Penance at the Shore Temple. It soon became a popular dance festival and was eventually taken up by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation.”

Lakshmi had a distinct style of abhinaya, expressing subtlety and nuance in her approach to even the fieriest of nayikas. One of her most popular renditions ‘Entati kuluke’ saw her embodying a nayika who was as bold and honest as she was. Her notable productions include ‘The Banyan Tree’ in which she staged the tension between E. Krishna Iyer (who presided over her arangetram) and Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. ‘My Tyagaraja’ was another landmark production about the life and times of Bangalore Nagarathnammal.

At her home in Chennai

At her home in Chennai
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Understanding of literature

According to Bharatanatyam exponent Rama Vaidyanathan, Lakshmi’s exceptional grasp of the art form and her deep understanding of literature made her stand out as an artiste. As she herself put it, she loved to “swim in the sahitya”.

She had the ability to look at the various layers, and also at the multiple contexts of any literary work. As the convenor of the Natya Kala Conference, 2022, I had the privilege of inviting her to present a session titled ‘Tanjavur Natyam – Roots of Sringara’. She lived life on her own terms, living every moment with elan and relishing all things beautiful. She had varied interests and friends across the world. Her last Season in Chennai was a happening one, packed with lectures and performances. It was as though she was bidding goodbye to all the people she loved, and the spaces that she had inhabited all her life.”

When one looks at an artiste’s legacy, it is only their body of work that is spoken about. In the case of Lakshmi Viswanathan, she has bestowed upon us a legacy that is both professional and personal. The dancer was known for enjoying long conversations and encouraging young artistes.

Bengaluru-based Praveen Kumar remembers how one never felt intimidated by her presence and knowledge. “You could just pick up the phone and chat with her. It was a rare quality in a dancer of her stature.”

From her debut at the age of seven at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore to her lectures this December Season, Lakshmi Viswanathan embraced with passion every facet of Bharatanatyam.

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By Dipak

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