Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan
Bharatanatyam Indian dancer
2010 NEA National Heritage Fellow
Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan, born June 16, 1934, in Mayuram, India, began dancing when she was five years old. While growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), in northern India, she began learning the region’s style of classical dance, Kathak, whose name means “telling stories.” During World War II, her family moved to southern India and she began learning Bharatanatyam, a style that dates back thousands of years and, according to legend, was given to people by Brahma, the creator, as a gift of beauty and happiness during a time of great turmoil. The dance style has been called poetry in motion because of its fluidity and expressiveness.
Bharatanatyam dancers wear highly ornamented costumes that project the spiritual into the material world. Facial expressions and gestures symbolize an idea or emotion. In this ancient dance of south India that remains widespread today, dancers strike dramatic poses and their rhythmic footwork is made audible by an anklet of copper bells. Master dancers like Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan wear more rows of bells since expertise is measured by how little the bells jingle. Makeup, bangle bracelets, earrings, and rings make gestures and expressions more visible to the audience, but for this portrait Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan chose not to wear makeup, making the viewer think more about her costume and gestural movement. In this photo she is demonstrating Karuna (compassion or kindness), one of the nine rasas (emotions) known as the navarasas in Bharatanatyam. Although the costume of bright colors and a contrasting border looks like a sari, which is made from one piece of cloth, it is made from several pieces of cloth.