Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan is recognized the world over as the foremost proponent of Bharatanatyam, a southern Indian classical dance which combines artistic expression with rhythmic footwork. Known simply as "Kamala" in India, her name has become synonymous with the art. She is a preeminent artist of the Vazhuvoor tradition of the dance, named for her guru, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai.
Born on June 16, 1934, in Mayuram, India, Narayanan began dancing at age five, taking lessons in Kathak, the classical dance of northern India. Young Kamala's uncommon ability brought her to the attention of Bombay's movie producers and she was offered one of her first roles as a young dancer in the Hindi film, Ram Rajya (Reign of Ram), released in 1939.
When her family moved to southern India during the Second World War, she began to study Bharatanatyam. In 1941 she had her arangetram or dance debut under the training of her first guru, Kattumannar Kovil Muthukumara Pillai, and was soon after introduced to Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, who became her new mentor. Under his training, she became an exquisite artist and established the "Vazhuvoor" tradition of Bharatanatyam as a leading style of the art. Narayanan's guru was quoted in the Indian press as having expressed his admiration for her unrivalled abilities as a dancer and her complete devotion to the art. Narayanan was popularly known as Kumari Kamala and later as Kamala Laxman.
During the course of her long career, Narayanan has performed thousands of times on stage and in scores of film roles. She endeared herself to the public through dance sequences choreographed by her guru to patriotic songs from the Tamil language film Naam Iruvar (The Two of Us), released in 1947, the year of India's independence from British colonial rule. In 1948 she was invited to perform as a featured artist at the prestigious Music Academy in the city of Chennai in southern India, one of the youngest artists to be accorded such a privilege, and continued to give annual performances at this venue until the 1970s.
Between the 1940s and the 1970s, Narayanan represented India at cultural festivals and events all over the world and performed before many world dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of her coronation in 1953 and former U.S. President Eisenhower during his state visit to India in 1959.
In the late 1970s, Narayanan moved to the United States and established the Sri Bharatha Kamalalaya School of Dance. She has been teaching in the New York and New Jersey area for the past 30 years and, though in her seventies, continues to dance and teach.
Narayanan has won numerous awards, including the prestigious title of Padma Bhushan given by the President of India in 1970, the Platinum Jubilee Award from Chennai's Music Academy in 2002, a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 from the Carnatic Music Association of North America, and the Natya Padmam in 2007 from Chennai's Brahma Gana Sabha.
Photo courtesy of Kamala Lakshmi Narayanan
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal agency
Kamala Narayanan discusses performing and teaching Kathak dancing.