Malini Krishnamurthi, artistic director of Natyanjali Foundation for Performing Arts, says, “I see my choreographic works as paintings. My color palette consists of lines of movement, facial expression, storylines, tunes, and rhythms. With these I like to create something that will entertain and educate people.
“For our 30th production, ‘Magic of the Gods,’ I wanted to explore a spiritual extension and establish a rapport with my audience,” she says.
Transcendental devotion is the theme of the recital, starting with a short dance drama on Padmavati and Lord Srinivasa, a thoroughly entertaining tale of how the lord is captivated by the princess and contrives a marriage proposal. Apart from the appeal of the drama itself, Krishnamurthi’s decision to embellish it with a gypsy vignette, along with dance and music interludes (jatis and swaras, respectively) speak of her innate ability to connect with the audience. The other focus of the recital is an evocative portrayal of Mira Bai, the poetess-queen of Rajasthan, “Pada raj mahima mai jani.”
In addition, stylistically composed Hindustani ragas and enactments will bring to life her anguish at being shackled to royal life and her yearning to bond with Krishna. The lineup also includes “Anandam Pongum Inda Tandavam,” a raga- and tala-malika piece to be presented by six senior dancers as a fiery devotional in praise of Lord Shiva, with strong tandava poses underscoring the sophisticated choreography. An ode to Lord Ayyappa nudges the audience deeper into the spiritual journey.
Krishnamurthi’s works frequently explore newer intellectual and creative boundaries. A pioneering effort was the varnam in “Atta” thalam a cycle of many beats and very challenging to perform. She enjoys the unique distinction in the dance community for choreographing a dance to a Ragam Tanam Pallavi—usually claimed only by vocalists. Her “Nauka Charitram” was a visualization of a boat ride by the gopikas with Lord Krishna on the Yamuna river. A fusion composition—“Pushpanjali” by Ganesh and Kumaresh, the violin maestros, in Karnatik music tradition—was rendered in Western-style incorporating the Western drums.
The spiritual tone of this year’s production is not surprising, given that Krishnamurthi has stressed on giving back to society; the proceeds from “Magic of the Gods” will benefit Akshaya Patra, an organization that aims to feed and educate underprivileged children in India.
Last year, the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California bestowed the title of “Asthana Vidushi” (community scholar/teacher) on account of her dedication to teaching dance to community children. An interesting side to Krishnamurthi’s personality is that she holds a Ph.D in Information Systems, and teaches information systems and decision sciences at Cal State Fullerton.
With Natyanjali turning 30, Krishnamurthi scales a significant milestone in the dancing world as well. She speaks about her life in seemingly disparate careers.
How did you manage to be a woman of science and dance?
Determination! Growing up, there was a strong press for education, learning, the classical arts and service to community and humanity. My mom was forbidden to dance, but she inspired me to take it up. After a master’s in economics at the University of Bombay, I landed in Chicago in 1980 with two suitcases filled with books on economics, French, cooking, and dance music with a determination to pursue and succeed in both, academics and dance. Personal computers were the rage then, so I decided to change my major from economics to management information systems. In parallel, I sought out my first opportunity to perform, at a Thyagaraja Festival in Milwaukee.
Over the years, what experiences have shaped you as a dancer?
Fortunately, I was interested in dance from day one. Smt. Rukmini Arundale, the prominent dancer and theosophist, was a family friend and my mother elected her to serve as a role model for me. I would visit her at Kalakshetra often. My first dance teacher was Shri Adyar Lakshman in Chennai. My inspiration then, were the older students whom I would look with wonder when they danced nonstop. Later, I was a student at the Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir.
What drives/inspires you as a person, a teacher, and a dancer?
I love engaging creatively, in both scholarly and artistic fields. I like to belong to the giving side of humanity, and always think in terms of community. As a teacher, I love to share the knowledge that I have gained—happiness is being in the classroom. As a dancer, I love the spiritual connection that dance provides; I love to tell stories and connect with my audience.