It was designed by the gods to make me a dancer: Yamini Krishnamurthy

Yamini Krishnamurthy
On 31st May, during the afternoon session of their World Dance Day celebrations, Geeta and Rajiv Chandran invited Dr Yamini Krishnamurthy for an interview. Geeta is a renowned Bharatanatyam dancer who has been awarded the Padma Shri. Yaminiji, a world-renowned Bharatanatyam legend, has recently been awarded the Padma Vibhushan.

As I entered to report the session, I thought maybe, as a layperson, I would not be able to write or understand much of a conversation between these two doyennes of dance. Maybe the discussion would be too heavy or maybe there would be a lot of technical jargon for an outsider  like me to understand! But there I was, sitting and listening to a very informal chat that had the audience in splits with laughter. Some even clapped loudly and spontaneously.

Dr. Yamini Krishnamurthy came across as a very candid, straightforward person, truthful to the extent of even being childlike, uncomplaining and hardworking, with an irrepressible sense of humour. The fast-paced part, Rajiv Chandran’s rapid-fire round, was enjoyable too. Here, we got to see that greatness does not always come with arrogance in life. On the whole, a very fulfilling experience. A few excerpts…

Rajiv Chandran: For both Geeta and me and for all of Natya Vriksha, dance cannot get bigger than Yamini Krishnamurthy. We have watched her riveted in our childhood every weekend, watched her Kuchipudi, Bharatantayam, even her Odissi, and we’ve been mesmerized by her father’s commentary, which really placed the dance in a different setting for each one of us. But this is also an event for Gen Next, the young generation of dancers.

When you go to Wikipedia and type Yamini Krishnamurthy, it says she was born on a full moon night and her grandfather named her Yamini Purnatilakam. And I think that if there was one individual who has entirely lived up to her name, it is Yamini Krishnamurthy.

Best known for her worldwide stage expositions of Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam and Odissi, her name is synonymous with Bharatanatyam. She has been hailed as a trendsetter and path-breaker, commended as the one who revived Kuchipudi, and acclaimed as the one who has given a new dimension to Odissi.

A living legend in the arena of classical dance, Yamini Krishnamurthy has broken fresh and luminous ground in the field of classical dance. It is perhaps in the area of rhythmic patterns that her contributions are most prized. As for National Awards, there is not one that she has not won - the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi awards… among the state awards, the Kalidasa Samman, Sahitya Kala Parishad Samman, doctorate of the Venkateshwara University, and devadasi of the Venkateshwara Devasthanam.
The Films Division produced a film on her - in those years, it was screened before we saw a Hindi movie, a biographical film by R Babu. She also made a 13-episode TV series called Natya Murti.

She’s cherished, acclaimed, applauded, and for the next two hours, she’s ours!

Geeta Chandran in conversation with Yamini Krishnamurthy

Geeta Chandran: Today, I am a little nervous sitting next to Yamini akka. Whenever I meet her, I take back a few things, like her infectious laugh. Today, I would like her to say a few things she has not said before.

Our whole idea was to enable Gen Next to connect to a person with 50-60 years of a dance career, having learnt it, taught it, performed it, written about it... We have people here who have been associated with her for very long. Leela akka (Leela Venkataraman) is here, who would present her performance at the Ashoka Hotel. Kamalini akka (Kamalini Dutt) has to be commended for documenting her; Yamini  was the beginning of the generation of legends who was documented. When I was seeing the archives, I saw a lot of work salvaged by Kamalini akka. We saw Yamini akka perform on DD National in prime-time, the 9pm slot, where dance took centrestage. She was the brand ambassador for India for dance. Politicians would call her at a day’s notice for international performances.

I would like to begin by asking, what were your earliest memories of dance?

YK: I was in the temple town of Chidambaram, where I would visit the temple of Shiva-Nataraja, the god of dance. It was entertainment for me to see the sculptures till the age of 5 years. I learnt the movements by observing these sculptures. Dance is something that comes from within you. It was designed by the gods to make me a dancer. My father understood my mind, since I was a stubborn child.

Geeta: You talked about temple sculptures. When you take a pose or a freeze, did it actually come alive to you by recollecting all those sculptures that you had seen in your childhood?

YK: I was inspired by those sculptures. They settled in my mind and they would come alive in my body. But why I became a dancer, I cannot say.

Geeta: Let’s start from the age of 5 – what happened after that?

YK: We went back to our place in Madanapalli, a small town. There, my father wanted to occupy me completely. I had teachers galore one after the other – dance, music, violin, a whole stream of teachers coming. Then they put me in school, which was very boring. I would go around and look at the trains, wanting to sit in one. This was my childhood.
Geeta: About your first dance class…?

YK: One devadasi used to come to teach me. She was very old and she would sing “madhuram madhuram”. From there, we moved to Chennai, and here started my rigorous training. I must have been 11-12 years old. My father put me into Rishi Valley to get rid of me, but that also did not work. The school asked my father to take me back.

Mine was a very difficult childhood, and my father had a lot of problems with me. Then he put me into Kalaksshetra around the age of 12-13 years. After getting my degree, my father called all the nattuvanars – Kittapa Pillai, Ellapa Pillai, Dandayudhapani Pillai, a whole stream of teachers, as if he wanted to punish me.

 Geeta: What did you learn at Kalakshetra?

YK: They teach a lot of things – music, literature, and a whole lot of other things. I was practicing dance in front of the mirror most of the time, and I would make a deal with the chowkidar and walk out. I completed three years, and then they gave me the diploma without me even completing the course (laughter)! Then I started my career in dance.

Geeta: But what did they teach you in Kalakshetra?

YK: They keep on repeating the steps, non-stop. Tat tai ta, tat tai ta, a 100 times. The traditional nattuvanars had a teaching technique that was quite different from that at Kalakshetra.

Geeta: Did you perform any of the pieces you learnt at Kalakshetra?

YK: Yes, Atthai (Rukmini Devi Arundale) was very fond of me. She took me in her kuravanjis. She was dancing then and she made me one of the sakhis. We went to Chidambaram, and to Delhi also. That time was interesting, but my mind was in the direction of becoming a great dancer. So it did not work out.

I had a wonderful rapport with the nattuvanars. They taught me the Tanjore and Kanchipuram style, out of which finally I made my own style.

Geeta: The first teacher was Ellapa Pillai sir?

YK: He was a wonderful singer. His compositions were very complicated and interesting. He taught me jatis in sapta tala, in which I got a very good name. When I performed sapta tala in Lahore, they came out of the auditorium, singing ri, ri, ri… (laughter). They were very impressed.

(Geeta and Yamini sing a line from the Useni Swrajathi composition; Geeta continues singing as Yamini does the abhinaya to much applause)

Geeta: This ri ri ri portion is wonderful. It is part of a charnam (they sing together). The swara stays in the mind.

YK: On top of it, in Lahore, my father said that it had been created by Hussain (laughter)! It was actually raga Useni, but they really got impressed. They were ecstatic about the Hussain bit! (laughter)

Geeta: Going back to Ellapa Pillai, who could sing very well, and who was very musical, his style and Kalakshetra styles are very different. How did you adapt?

YK: I can adapt from any style. There is no problem. Ultimately, what stays is my own style, which is very overpowering.

Geeta: What do you remember of his classes? What are the salient features of his style?

YK: He was a wonderful singer. He and his cousin would sing for Bala (T Balasaraswati), who would come to my class too. He composed the tanam varnam Viriboni. Bala was watched and written about and praised for the masterpiece.

Geeta: Viriboni is a tanam varnam, which is very difficult, and she (Yamini) would perform it. It is in ada talam, which is again very difficult. Yamini was the first one to perform it. When we watched her, we wished she would perform it again, since it had a lot of repeat value. You see a piece over and over again, and every time you take back something different from it. These days, dancers don’t repeat – they try and churn out something new. Viriboni she knew like the back of her hand. She could fly with that basic varnam and create layers with it. How did Viriboni come about?

YK: It is the first tanam varnam composed by musicians. It has its status. The charnam, we put it in tisram.

Geeta: How did Ellapa Pillai think of Viriboni?

YK: I would ask him questions and not leave him alone. He said we could do a charnam in tisram, and I told him start today itself.

Geeta: He drew a lot from music.

YK: He inspired me. He was a very egoistic fellow, all the time thinking about himself. I said never mind, he would always talk about himself, never start a class immediately.
Geeta: Today, if we waste even five minutes, it’s like we are wasting class time. The nattuvanars used to talk a lot. It was a process – listening to them, their experiences, we could imbibe a lot.

YK: That was the interesting part of it, since you could know the emotional side of them.

Geeta: Any other pieces you learnt from Ellapa Pillai?

YK: He was very good at padams, even Bala learnt padams from him. Bala would sing with Jayamma. He was very talented.

Geeta: Do you remember any padams he taught you? Did you perform any of them?

YK: Yes, I learnt and performed a lot of them. But I was more interested in the rhythmic pieces. I performed in Chennai, Bombay and Delhi.

Geeta: Did he create jatis for you or were they traditional jatis?

YK: He created jatis for me. He created Natanam Adinar. The more you were with him, heard him out, the more you could get out of him. You had to praise him.

Geeta: After Ellapa Pillai you went to Dandayudhpani.

YK: I don’t go, I need them. Dandayudhpani came for a programme in Delhi in some theatre. He composed a varnam (Adi Sivan) and taught me a Todi varnam. He used to talk a lot – once he told me how he fell into a well and how he saw Yama. I thought he was mad, but he was good. I liked his jatis. The jatis were also done by Srividya and she was good. She had used his talent as a teacher.

Like a bee on a flower, I would go to different people and pick their best. I had a good idea what each teacher had. I did not want to stay with one stream and wanted to go to many streams and find salvation. Vadakku (Crisp – over geometric dance) style my dad was not interested.

Geeta: Next about Kitapa Pillai.

YK: We went to Bangalore in the summer and a cottage was booked for us. He was teaching there nearby. I stayed for three months. I learnt from him Navasandhi, tana varnam – they were temple rituals and items.

Geeta: Have you performed the Kamboji tana varnam?

YK: Many times. My sister Jyoti learnt the music very quickly – that was another advantage for me. She helped me.

Geeta: Tell us about abhinaya with Gauri Amma.

YK: This woman was a tragic woman. She made me sad. She had nobody to look after her. She was a good singer. She taught many people. Her presence was nice and brought the flavour of the period. She taught me some javalis and Kshetrayya padams.

Geeta: So you would talk to her?

YK: No talking much. We had to give her good lunch. We made a big plate for her, she was very happy.

Geeta: And about Ganpati tailor?

YK: He was bad with deadlines, but we never required any alterations.

Geeta: How did you travel?

YK: I enjoyed travelling by train since I could catch up on my sleep and on my reading.

Geeta: Your musicians would stay with you. You could rehearse every day.

YK: This was possible when my father sold his property. Then I got very comfortable creating with my own musicians. They were the best of musicians – two singers and one on ghatam. Everything was very well-settled.

Geeta: What about learning Kuchipudi?

YK: I had not seen Kuchipudi. My dad saw it in a movie. He had seen Dashavataram. One day, an old man - Vedantham Lakshmi Narayana Sarma - came to my house. He said you are a Telugu girl, you are doing Bharatanatyam and not Kuchipudi? He started teaching me then and there. He was teaching some zamindars and he had heard about me.

Geeta: You started learning pieces straightaway rather than the basics and adavus?

YK:. My father brought Vedantham Lakshmi Narayana Sarma to stay with us permanently. Then started my tapasya. He started the Dashavataram right away.

Geeta: Did your Kuchipudi impact your Bharatanatyam?

YK: You know many languages, do they affect each other?

Geeta: How did Odissi happen?

YK: Around the same time. My uncle initiated it. He sent for Pankaj Charan Das from Odisha. So from 5 to 9 or 10 (at night) I was dancing.

Geeta: Did you enjoy Odissi?

YK: Yes, I enjoyed it, but I did not have people to sing for me or for my rehearsals. I used to practice with a guru from 8.30 to 10.30, but I would not perform to recorded music. I am not successful because I create on the spot.

Geeta: You travelled with three styles of musicians!

YK: Yes, three styles of musicians. My sister Jyoti was very good.

Geeta: Talking about your family, your father - he was a very big factor in you success. We would want to listen to his explanations as much as your dance. What are the inputs he brought into your dance?

YK: He enlightened and explained about dance. Dance is all about beauty. We had three sets of admirers in the audience - for Appa, Jyoti and me.

Geeta: He sacrificed a lot.

YK: He spent all his money, property and time on me and neglected all his other children. I miss him and his advice so much. He did a Vedic ballet and you could see the creativity in it.

Geeta: Tell us about your sister.

YK: She wanted to study further but Appa cut it off. She was trained in music and I was too.

Geeta: Whom do you admire from among your peers?

YK: Bala. She mesmerized me so much that I did not want to dance anymore. I was so depressed. Her singing was amazing. Then Appa encouraged me.

Shanta Rao was another personality I admired. And Vedantam Sathyanarayana Sarma in Kuchipudi.

Geeta: When did you start teaching?
YK: Teaching came to me when I became famous. People would come up to me and ask me to teach their daughters, and as you teach, you get involved with that person. I have taught 400-500 girls.

Geeta: Did you get ample support from the government?

YK: It was family that supported me, and the admirers who sustained me. If the people love you, that gives you longevity.

Geeta: Tell us about Natya Murti, your TV series on DD.

YK: All the temples came alive. It was a good idea and we did new items that were interesting. 13 episodes meant going from place to place.

Geeta: She did a 13-episode serial associated with temples, and the pieces that were associated with these places. The music was by Rajkumar Bharti.

YK: We visited different places at different times and sometimes, we did not have proper accommodation or even meals.

Geeta: Which were the countries you liked performing in?

YK: I went to Russia three times. They are familiar with our culture and then London, USA, Japan, Mexico… Among the Indian cities, I would perform anywhere as long as I had a good audience.

Geeta: How is the dance seen today? What is the attitude of the current generation?

YK: They are very bright and very decided, but the commitment or tapasya or undivided attention is not there. They want to learn a lot of things at the same time.

Madhavi Mudgal: Do you remember what you learnt in Odissi?

YK: Pankaj Charan Das came to Madras, the pieces we learnt were Panchakanya, Draupadi, Ahalya, ashtapadi, pallavi, Shankara Bharanam. I liked the costume for Odissi and I also had the chance to learn from Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. They were both wonderful teachers.

Geeta: One time you performed in Delhi in the 70s, around midnight, after Shambhu Maharajji. You did a Janaki Varnam. You wanted a quicker pace to wake the audience, and nobody knew Bharatanatyam.
YK: Delhi has not been a problem. But performing in other states – MP, Odisha, Bihar… In MP, there were two paan-chewing people who threatened ‘achha karo’. And then they came three times to Motihari.

Geeta: Did you impact people?

YK: I just perform and do what I have to do. And I clicked. In MP, they did not know Bharatanatyam. There were two dacoits sitting in the front. I was slightly scared. But I still don’t know why they liked it and called me again. The women there told me, “aap toh bijli ho”(you are like lightening!). Then I visited Iran and Afghanistan and people loved me.

A student: Was there any exercise or activity that you did for your body strengthening?

YK: Exercise is for a person who does not have talent. I don’t like exercise and I don’t believe in it.

Anita: After a tour of Europe, Adyar Lakshman sir was doing the nattuvangam for you for the Kuchipudi piece Krishna Parijatam. And in the middle of the performance, when you did the ra ra ra, men actually got up and ran up to the stage, even without knowing the meaning of the lyrics. The musicians were frightened, but you continued even though the men thought that you were calling them!

Leela Venkatraman: I used to do the compering for the performances at Ashoka, and Yamini’s were always special. For one of the performances, Mrs Gandhi had a special noting in the file, that this piece with ra ra ra will not be performed, since a lot of foreigners were coming on to the stage!

What was the reaction from nattuvanars when you created a new style and definition?

YK: My nattuvanars had no problem, and they were very accommodating. The only problem was the money.

Geeta: Which mridangist did you miss the most?

YK: Subramaniam. Some of the mridangists are mathematically genius, but he produced good sound and that gave a dimension to the dance.

Geeta Chandran, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Rajiv Chandran


Rapid fire by Rajiv Chandran to Yamini Krishnamurthy:

Favourite actor: Dilip Kumar
Favourite actress: Waheeda Rehman
Favourite villain: You!
Favourite film singer: Mohd Rafi
Favourite dish: Chithra annam. But, I was never a great eater. Eating is only for survival
Favourite flower: Jasmine
Favourite perfume: Sandalwood
Favourite holiday destination: No holiday
Favourite temple: Chidambaram
Favourite politician: None
Favourite colour: Gold
Favourite raga: Shankarabharanam
Favourite classical singer: Vasantha Kumar
Favourite musician: Nadaswaram
Favourite dancers: Shanta Rao and Balamma
Apart from dance, any other field of interest: Nothing else, or sitting quietly under a tree
Dislikes: You (to Rajiv) and some critics
Favourite movie: I was not allowed by my father to watch movies. I must have seen just five or six. We were just allowed to watch Biblical movies like Ten Commandments
TV: I don’t watch it except for something interesting in the news
Politics: Not interested
Cooking: I only give instructions to my cooks
Shopping: No shopping
Malls: I haven’t been to any malls
A dream moment: I don’t dream. I’m always alive
Daily ritual of prayer: I’m a good human being
What would you be reborn as: I don’t want to be reborn, going through it all over.

Anita Ratnam, Dr Sunil Kothari, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Leela Venkataraman and  Mr Ramakrishnan (Member of Parliament)

Pics: Anoop Arora


  1. thanx for sharing this. you have nicely written. I first saw respected YK at a function in IIT Kanpur way back in 1979 to 1980 (i think) Since then i have been watching her several times. Also i get info on her through works such as yours?. last i saw her live in St Stephen's college New Delhi during a SPICMACAY program i think in 1995-96. Keep writing. subhkamna.


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