Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Perfect Dancer And Rukmini Devi's First Guru


Most connoisseurs of classical dance in India will agree that if a count of about half a dozen greatest classical dancers of India in the 20th century is taken, the legendary Mylapore Gowri Amma, Rukmini Devi’s first Guru, would easily be one among them. She was the last bastion of the Devadasis attached to the Kapaleeshwara Temple, Mylapore, Madras, who held the dignity and honour of her profession until the Anti-Nautchl Bill was passed by the government and the Devadasi system was abolished.
To most classical dancers, Gowri Amma represented pinnacle of perfection who was particularly noted for the perfect synchronization of muscle movement and emotions.

Gowri Amma was the senior most among the well known Bharathanatyam dancers in the early part of 20th century when classical dance was slowly emerging as an art form in its own right. Born in 1892 she was the great grand- daughter of Mylapore Dhanam who was a noted musician. Her mother Doraikannamma was a dancer who had learnt under the famous dance teacher Krishna Nattuvanar of Tanjore. Doraikannamma was herself an exquisite dancer and her ravishing beauty was an extra-ordinary point in her favour. Her beauty was such that when she passed away her widowed husband refused to get treatment for his falling eye-sight saying that the need for recovery of the eye had ceased with the death of his wife. Coming from a long line of hereditary artists well versed in music and dance, Gowri Amma had a natural cultural bearing displaying her art with restraint and refinement.
Gowri Amma had her early training under the great master Nallur Munuswamy Nattuvanar and developed Abhinaya under the tutelage of her mother. Short of stature and fair of complexion and endowed with a musical voice, she was one of the few Bharathanatyam dancers who sang while doing Abhinaya. No wonder that her performance at the Music Academy, Madras on 3rd January 1932 received high acclaim both from the public as well as by the press.
As Gowri came from a family of traditional temple dancers, she took to temple dancing as her career. She was the last Devadasi attached to the Kapaleeshwara Temple at Mylapore, Madras. Unfortunately with the passage of the Anti-Nautch Bill by the government which abolished the system of employing Devadasis by the temples, she lost her job and became unemployed. Even she had to vacate the house allotted to her by the temple. She requested Rukmini Devi many times to persuade the temple authorities to let her continue in the same house but Rukmini Devi’s appeal went on deaf ears. It is said that when she vacated the temple residence and her intimate association with the temple came to an end, she was disheartened. However, such was her bond with the temple that she chose some place to stay close to the temple. Thereafter, the first thing she did every morning after getting up was to open the window of her room and have a Darshan of the gopuram of the Temple. .

In 1932 on an invitation from Sri E.Krishna Iyer who spear-headed the movement for the revival oh Bharathanatyam to its original pristine glory in the thirties,, Rukmini Devi went to see the dance performance of Gowri Amma at the Music Academy. Madras. After seeing the dance, Rukmini Devi observed “I could see that the dance was highly classical. Gowri Amma is an expert in Bhava”. When Rukmini Devi was in search of a dance teacher the well-known Sanskrit scholar Prof.Kunhan Raja suggested the name of Gowri Amma and took her to Gowri Amma’s residence at Mylapore. Recalling her meeting with Gowri Amma, Rukmini Devi writes “Many teachers were suggested to me, but I went to meet Gowri Amma in the home where she lived in Mylapore. My first lesson started with her as my teacher with the sabdam ‘Sarasijakshulu’. After that I arranged for her to come to Adyar to my home to teach me”.
Paying glowing tributes to the artistry and inner talent of her Guru Gowri Amma, Rukmini Devi further writes “Another special feature about her was that she had creative ability to compose dances to the song, a rare talent exhibited by dancers. Her ideas were very creative, expressive and beautiful. It was my good luck to have had her in Kalakshetra and to support her and also get the benefit from her as much as possible.
A particular posture of the body, a dignity of movement combined with grace and expressiveness of face which had an element of surprise all the time. These were some of the special features of her dance. Perhaps this comes from someone who has inherited by birth, the quality which others are not able to have”

Gowri Amma was also a dance teacher to Dr.Padma Subramanian, another exemplary dancer of the country. The teacher was so fond of Padma and her talent that she would often visit Padma’s residence in Gandhinagar, Adyar, to teach her. She would treat Padma’s house as her second residence. As she became older and frailer, her grand daughter was accompanying her to Padma’s residence and other places Gowri used to visit.
According to Dr. Padma Subramanian, Gowri Amma became blind with the passage of time and that she refused all medical treatment saying that it was all God’s will. She was taught music by the veteran Sangeetha Vidwan Sri Araikudi Ramanuja Iyengar to whom she was extremely devoted. Gowri Amma narrated to Dr.Padma that one day her music teacher appeared in her dream and told her “I will give you sight in one eye tomorrow. As far as the other eye is concerned, when you visit Tirupathi”. To Amma, her Guru was God himself, identified with the Tirupathi deity. The next day she woke up to find, miraculously, sight restored in one eye. However, later, though Padma made several attempts to take her to Tirupathi she could not succeed. The other eye remained blind till her death.
The well known dancer of Madras, V.P. Dhananjayan, happens to be another student of Gowri Amma .In his nostalgic memories of his teacher, V.P Dhananjayan says “Gowri Amma’s graceful body movement and facial expressions were just divine. We were able to imbibe a great deal from her. When she used to teach us in Kalakshetra, one of her grand daughters used to accompany her to Kalakshtra in a bus and she used to walk all the distance from Adyar Bus terminus to the Theosophical campus, quite a distance, where Kalakshetra was situated till 1963”

Having devoted and dedicated her entire life to the cause of dance and having n trained such great talented dancers like Rukmini Devi, Dr.Padma Subramanyam, T.Balasaraswathi and others, the last days of Gowri Amma make sad reading. Towards the end she led a life in acute penury. She was among the first artists to receive a gold medal from Sangeetha Nataka Academy. Yet, she would say “What use is this gold medal to me who does not know where her next meal will be coming from?” This statement is also confirmed by V.P.Dhananjayan who says “Occasionally Gowri Amma used to ask us for bus fare. We used to collect a few annas or a rupee, since we were also poor children with no money in hand even for our own maintenance.”

The penury was caused by her drunkard son’s wasteful ways. All her earnings she was getting from Kalakshetra and from her tuitions to several dance students were thrown away on liquor by her son. When finally Gowri Amma died on 21st January 1972 in penury in her grand daughter’s house who was her only support, the grand daughter did not have enough money even to buy a garland for Gowri Amma’s dead body. The last rites were performed and looked after by Rukmini Devi and her institution the Kalakshetra.

What made Gowri Amma unique? Rukmini Devi answers “To a certain extent, all her pupils have benefited from her yet there was something they did not capture. A particular posture of the body, a dignity of movement combined with grace and expressiveness of face which had an element of surprise all the time. These were some of the special features of her dance. Perhaps this comes from someone who has inherited by birth the quality which others are not able to have”


Dear Murty Uncle,
I read your gowramma piece immediately after reading a biography on MS by TJS George. This touches on the transition of both bharatnatyam and Carnatic music and the i discourse on how these two forms were taken from devadasi world to become "Brahmin" in ethos
It spoke of balasaraswathi and rukmini devi's diff of opinion . Your article enriched my scanty knowledge of music and dance.
Warm regards,

On Nov 29, 2009, at 10:54 AM, bmnmurty wrote:

> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Dhananjayan v.p.
> To: bmnmurty
> Sent: Sunday, November 29, 2009 9:14 AM
> Article on Gowri ammal:
> As usual your article is very concise and informative. This will be very useful for all publications and research workers to throw light on this legendary Bharatanaatyam great.
> Could have added a little bit more of the personal experiences of those great artistes whom you have quoted speaking about her. Hope you are using the picture I gave you for publication.
> Dhananjayan
> .

Created: Friday, November 20, 2009 10:38 AM


At May 9, 2016 at 4:40 AM , Blogger Mohammed said...

interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you

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At May 7, 2018 at 9:11 AM , Blogger jap said...

Gowri Ammal's story is so moving. Someone has shared a brief video of her dancing which also is such a moving spectacle. Sad that an entire temple/homebound practice of music and dance has been brought down to a level of commercialism in today's india. Foreign powers started it and insiders have decimated it.

At March 18, 2019 at 11:27 PM , Blogger Veena said...

Can u please share the link of Brief video about Guru Gauri Amma ?


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