Sri R Krishnaswami

Pillar of strength and wisdom

Smt Sujatha Vijayaraghavan

Affable yet firm, R. Krishnaswamy became synonymous with the Narada Gana Sabha and its activities.
“I shall give you the mini hall for a weekend and pay the dancers. Will you be able to organise the programmes?” I was taken aback by the unexpected response from R. Krishnaswamy, secretary, Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai.

I had shared with him my angst over the phenomenon of sabhas in Chennai demanding payment from young dancers for performance opportunities that was striking at the root of the art and demoralising young talent. And that statement above was his immediate response.

The next day I met him, along with K.S. Subramaniam and Charukesi, who had been trying to deal with this problem with their organisation.

Krishnaswamy told us, “I shall give you the auditorium, lights, mike and take care of the ads and payment to the dancers. You will have to come out with a plan and run the show. I will not interfere with whatever you do. Let us try it out for a year and if it is successful, the arrangement can be continued.” He had given the auditorium for experimental theatre groups for a year of daily shows. He was now offering it for Bharatanatyam.

Thus was born Natyarangam, the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha Trust, Chennai, almost 20 years ago.

This was our first encounter with the kind of leadership that Krishnaswamy personified, whether it was in decision making, delegation or creating a climate congenial for new thoughts and ideas.

We were a crazy bunch, mad about dance, Bharatanatyam in particular. Every meeting was a brain-storming session generating several ideas, some wild, and Krishnaswamy sat through most of them, silent with a smile and guiding us towards clarity in our own thinking. Ever pragmatic, he helped us make plans, down to the last detail in the implementation of our ideas.

Our annual thematic festivals, the dance camp at Thennangur, a workshop for dance critics, the outreach programme Jana Bharatham, Project Poorna Margam, workshop for compering and many more that came out of the committee’s cauldron were supported by him.

Nor did he make us face pressures from any quarter regarding choice of artists. We were aware of the pressure and the flak he was taking from dancers and others. Never once did he even obliquely suggest or recommend a name to us. He came out with excellent suggestions once in a while and they turned out to be resounding successes. Like the time he suggested rivers as a theme, after the response for Kshetra Bharatham. Theertha Bharatham proved to be one of our great festivals. On the other hand, we were diffident about taking up the Upanishads as suggested by him more than a decade ago. When we decided to take it up last year, he gave the committee and the dancers the first lecture on the subject. Upanishad Bharatham was another successful festival.

With his vast and deep knowledge of the scriptures, epics, literature, languages, history, music, dance, drama and the culture of our people, he was often a primary resource person for several of the festival themes. More than once, he suggested and introduced rare artists or craftsmen to execute the backdrop or prop for the festival as he did when he brought people from the village to create scenes from the Ramayana with figures made of banana tree bark and rice flour.

When he came up with the idea of opening a slot for dance at 2 p.m. during the December festival, we were sceptical about the response from the dancers and also the audience. Two dancers were persuaded to try it out and were surprised to find a sizeable audience turning up. Now it is the most popular and sought after slot and extends over all the days of the festival.

The ease with which Krishnaswamy shouldered responsibilities such as the Narada Gana Sabha Trust and its activities, the temple and other organisations, the old age home, hospital and ashram at Thennangur, writing weekly articles for periodicals along with a demanding career as a senior advocate, was a lesson in time management and people skills. Easy to approach and with a sympathetic ear to problems of individuals, he was always available with help or advice. Until a couple of years ago, his late elder brother Suriyanarayanan, or “Suri Mama” as he was fondly called, shared his responsibilities in administration of the sabha. The bond and mutual respect the brothers shared was another object lesson to all those associated with them.

His allegiance to his Guruji Swami Haridoss Giri was his guiding light and he never lost sight of the values and tradition that needed to be upheld. While welcoming innovation and new ideas in the arts he promoted, he laid stress on the core values and strove to provide to the audience art not merely as an entertainment but as a means towards enrichment and elevation of the mind.

A connoisseur with more than 50 years of steering the course of the sabha, his respect for artists and reverence for the performing arts formed the basis of his leadership.

You may call it a code or Dharma for Sabhas he followed, as he stood tall among his peers in a city teeming with Sabhas.

The arts world will definitely miss him!

Sujatha Vijayaraghavan