It could have been a classic case of falling between two stools, but she managed to build a bridge on them instead. For over two decades, Jamuna Krishnan honed her sense of balance by straddling the worlds of Economics and Bharatanatyam. Subsequently, she decided she would concentrate only on Bharatanatyam, and has since the early 1990s been a well-respected dancer, choreographer, and teacher. For her impressive body of work in dance, she was conferred the Padma Shri this year.
Krishnan, 71, came from a family that encouraged both academic and artistic excellence. She recalls wistfully: “My father couldn’t sing, but he used to dust my mother’s tanpura every morning before he left for work. I think I started learning music, thanks to my mother, who was a wonderful Carnatic vocalist.” Brought up in Delhi, Krishnan studied in St. Thomas’ School and went on to doing her graduation in Economics from Indraprastha College and an MA from Delhi School of Economics. And while she studied economics in college, she economised on free time to study music and dance at home.
She became a Lecturer in her alma mater, got married to a corporate executive, gave birth to two daughters; life was beautiful. Dance could easily have been relegated to a has-been hobby. Instead, Krishnan would get up at 5.30 am, cook, pack lunch for everyone, and then at 7 am head to a garage next to her home for dance practice with her guru, KJ Govindarajan (later, she also learnt from Kalanidhi Narayanan). A couple of hours later, she would be in college taking classes, correcting papers and making notes. Sitting in her well-appointed living room she says: “I tried finishing as much of college work as possible in college.” Back home, after lunch with her children, she would again hone her artistic skills from 4 to 7 pm. This was the time she looked for additions to her repertoire, composed music, and taught. Incidentally, her first set of students were her daughter Ragini (five years old then) and Ragini’s friends. Her husband meantime, would be back from office to take the children out to watch a dance recital, or any other cultural show. Perhaps that’s how today Ragini is a proficient Bharatanatyam dancer, having imbibed the arts organically.
As they say, the harder you try the luckier you get, so also for Krishnan doors opened, fostering her creative excellence. Her friend in the Hindi Department in IP introduced her to Vidyapati’s devotional poetry. “Just reading it made me calmer…it opened up a world of possibilities for me in dance,” she says, shaking her head. Soon she was reading the works of Surdas, Meerabai, Kabir and Tulsidas too. An idea began germinating: Why not set this poetry to music and use it for Bharatanatyam?
She did that — choreographed a set of Bharatanatyam pieces that were set to music using bhakti poetry in Brajbhasha, Maithili, Bhojpuri and Avadhi. “The only person I turned to for approval in this experiment was my guru. I would pick those poems that I thought could be expressed well through the Bharatanatyam grammar, and my music guru, S Gopalakrishnan, gave me the freedom to compose without adhering strictly to a particular raga.”
She recalls stoically how the first time she performed these pieces in public, there were mixed reactions. On the back foot after that, Krishnan says it was only her guru’s counsel that kept her going. Thank God for that! Today she is feted for this very work and has added to her repertoire choreographies based on the poetry of Subramania Bharati and the divyaprabandhams of the Alwars in Tamil, among others.
After 26 years of teaching economics and being a practising dancer, Krishnan decided to focus on Bharatanatyam, and teaching her ever-growing number of students. It was also the time when her older daughter fell ill, to tragically pass away some years later, when she was just 28. “I think the philosophy behind bhakti poetry helped me stay anchored at that time. Dance also has the ability to prevent you from getting scattered in the face of adversity.”
Asked whether she always wanted to be a professional dancer, Krishnan says:“The process of learning dance has been truly enjoyable. I had no plans of becoming a professional dancer. It just evolved. Also, today I’m in no race, getting upset why so and so has got a Padma Bhushan or a Padma Vibhushan, and I haven’t.”
Perhaps it is to do with her varied interests, whether it is taking up the maintenance of a public park, helping in the creation of pedagogy to integrate the arts with general education, or contributing to organisations that help disabled and destitute children, Krishnan gives the impression of being a dancer who is deeply committed to her art, yet someone who realises there is more to life. As she says with a shrug: “I believe in holistic living, where art is one facet.” That’s balance.