March 19, 2014

Grateful for his inheritance

The main hall at the Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatanatya Kala Mandir in Mumbai resembles a sanctum, with a large idol of Lord Nataraja surrounded by other deities. Eminent natyacharya-s smile down from photo frames adorning the wall. Guru Govindaraja Pillai and Guru Mahalingam Pillai, founders of the institution, have pride of place. Sepia prints of patriarch Tiruvidaimarudur Kuppiah Pillai, Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, E. Krishna Iyer, Serfoji II, ancestors Panchapakesa Nattuvanar and Venkatakrishna Nattuvanar line the other walls.

Guru Kalyanasundaram, the diminutive master who now heads the institution, walks in, welcomes me warmly, and then takes his time to pay obeisance to every deity and guru in the hall. His calm and assured demeanour and measured words are proof of his years of experience in a life steeped in art. “Ellam periyavanga potta picchai” (It is all the blessings of my elders) is the phrase he uses to constantly remind himself and us, that we are all but actors on God’s stage.

He recalls the past and talks in great detail about his group and thematic presentations for which he is well known. Occasionally he gets up to demonstrate a bhava or movement. 

Excerpts from the interview. 

Early life

I was born in 1932 in Tiruvidaimarudur. I was taught to dance when I was just four years old and had my debut at the Kumbheswarar temple in Kumbakonam on Arudra Darsanam day in 1938. The doyens Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Kattumannarkoil Pillai came and blessed me.

My forefathers Venkatakrishna Nattuvanar who was patronized by Serfoji Maharaja II, Veeraswami Nattuvanar, Panchapakesa Nattuvanar, my father Kuppiah Pillai, brother Mahalingam Pillai and brother in law Govindaraja Pillai have left a grand legacy which I have been continuing to the best of my ability. I feel blessed and proud to belong to that parampara.

I grew up in Tiruvidaimarudur and studied up to SSLC. Along with schooling we had to learn mridangam, vocal music, and languages. I had a special liking for Tamil literature and attended the exams conducted by Madurai Tamil Sangam.

Ambalavana Desikar’s time was a golden era – with the likes of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Madurai Pushpavanam, and great nagaswara and tavil vidwans from Tiruvenkadu, Tirupanandal, Tiruvidaimarudur as asthana vidwans. There would be concerts by these great masters as well as dance performances by our group. There were hardly any male dancers then. It was rare for a boy from a nattuvanar family to dance, but I have danced with the group as a young boy. All this was between 1945-48. Once I grew up, I felt embarrassed and refused to dance, but was forced to do so by family members. 

Move to Mumbai

My father and brother had a number of students. The Travancore sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini learnt Bharatanatyam from them in Tiruvidaimarudur on the recommendation of nagaswara vidwan Tiruvavaduturai Veerusami Pillai who was the asthana vidwan of Tiruvavaduturai adheenam, and also of the Travancore samasthanam. The performance of the sisters in Bombay was very successful and brought more students from the city to learn from my elders. Very soon the need was felt for the teachers to be based in Bombay.

My sister Karunambal and her husband Govindaraja Pillai first moved to Bombay. They established the Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir on Vijaya Dasami day in 1945. My father Kuppiah Pillai and elder brother Mahalingam Pillai soon moved to Bombay. 

Entry into teaching

After completing my schooling, I too joined them in 1949, but I was determined not to take up the family tradition of teaching dance! I wanted to take up a regular 9 to 5 job and I got one at the Oriental General Life Insurance Company in February 1950 on a salary of Rs. 75 with an allowance of Rs. 40. While working I also attended morning college from 7 am to 10 am. In the evening, I learnt typing and shorthand which was considered very important in those days.

Though I did not want to teach dance, I was soon drawn into the family profession. Some members of the Thackersay family wanted to learn Bharatanatyam from us after watching the bewitching dance of disciple Roshan Kumari. My brother-in-law persuaded me to teach them as I was used to travelling in the city, and also well versed in the local language. Later more students from the elite families of Birla and Khatau started learning from me in South Bombay. 

I also engaged myself in Ilakkiya Manram and participated in the Akhila India Tamizh Pulavargal Maanaadu for which I put up a programme using verses from Silappadikaram, Kamba Ramayanam, Tirukkural and Subramania Bharati’s songs. 

A full bench

We have always used live music for our shows. Our group used to take up nearly half a compartment in the train when we travelled to other cities. In my brother-in-law’s time we had a full bench with harmonium, mridanga, violin, flute, veena, mukhaveena, ghatam, khanjira and morsing. Thise days, the musicians were loyal to one group as there were not many dancers or dance groups in the field. The mridanga player was called ‘muttukkaarar’ as he was only expected to play along with what the nattuvanar had conceived.

The bani

The adavu-s are basic to any bani. How we put them together for korvai-s shows our intelligence. Our bani has taken shape after years of practice and polishing and has been handed down to us. It is not right if I change a hand movement and claim it is my creation. All movements should be complete as practiced for ages.

In the name of innovation or creation we have no business to tamper with the structure. Chatusram can only be four, can it become anything else? Can a mother become an aunt? I am not against change. But whatever you do should be such that it is spontaneously accepted by everyone.

In music when you are tuned to sruti, you are one with God. It is the same in dance. When you lose yourself in the art, you can see God. 

Innovative ideas 

The first arangetram I conducted was that of Sheela Pati. I chose a verse from SundaraKandam of the Kamba Ramayanam for the child. I strongly believed that Tamil literature should be introduced into mainstream Bharatanatyam performances. Tiruppavai and Tiruvembavai which were already traditional temple upachara-s, were being used in dance, but not much from Kamba Ramayana or Silappadikaram, as they belonged to a secular genre not performed in temples.

Later on I used verses from Tirukkural and other ancient Tamil works also. Every time I took up new subjects or themes, I made sure to consult experts and did considerable research. We took pains to project this “ilakkiya nayam” – literary niceties, in natya.

I like to add a relevant prelude to a specific song. I feel it puts it in perspective and helps the audience to understand the story being depicted.

I once led a 30-member troupe to Nepal on the invitation of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya for ICCR. During the two week tour, we performed traditional items with synopses in English. While there I decided to experiment – I wanted to present an item in the Nepali language. I scouted for and got a simple verse written by their national poet Dr. Ginde, a song that would immediately strike a chord with the locals. I also had a Nepali singer sing along with Indubala Ganapati for authenticity. The beautiful song was about a nayika waiting for the return of her hero from far off lands.

Similarly, when we went to participate in the International Arts Festival of China in 1989, we found a Chinese song by a famous poet, had interpreters give us the word-by-word meaning, and employed the services of a Chinese singer. The Chinese people were thrilled to see this unique blend of their song with our dance.

Natyam is a language. We use hand gestures all the time in everyday life. In classical dance, it is codified and systematised. Why then should language be a barrier?

Association with E. Krishna Iyer

E. Krishna Iyer was a family friend. The association continues as Krishna Iyer’s great granddaughter is a student of our dance school.

When Krishna Iyer was selecting a teacher to head the Department of Dance at Baroda, he asked me to take the post. I declined as our family custom does not allow me to work for another institution.

Krishna Iyer fought the anti-nautch movement tooth and nail not for any personal interest. It was his passion to save the art from oblivion. If my family or the nattuvanar community had fought for continuing the tradition, you could say it was for our own survival. We know of families in Pandanallur, Tirunelveli, Kutralam, Tanjai and Tiruchi that had to change over to farming. We feared for our future. It was Krishna Iyer who was responsible for the renaissance. I am therefore privileged to have received the prestigious medal named after him from the Sruti Foundation.

Some memorable experiences

In 1986 senior guru-s of different dance forms – Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi and Kathak – were invited to present a programme together in Hyderabad for the event called National Integration through Dance. Though I was the youngest, I was asked to collaborate with greats like Kelucharan Mohapatra, Vempati Chinna Satyam and Birju Maharaj. It was a grand sight to watch four guru-s conducting the show, along with musicians for each style. I did the nattuvangam, Kelubabu played the pakhawaj, and Birju Maharaj played the tabla. It was an experience of a lifetime.

Another milestone in my career was presenting Kalki’s Sivakamiyin Sapatham during the writer’s centenary celebrations at the Shanmukhananda Sabha in Mumbai. It was a historical event in the presence of former President R. Venkataraman, Kalki’s daughter Anandi Ramachandran and son Rajendran accompanied by his wife Vijaya.

Family involvement

My wife Mythili started assisting me in dance classes after my heart ailment in 1969. Now she is an experienced teacher at our institution. She completed the Intermediate course at Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College in Tiruchi. She learnt dance from Kamalambal, a senior devadasi and also from Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai. As per custom, she was not allowed to perform in those days.

My nephews G. Vasant Kumar (son of Govindaraja Pillai) and M. Viswanath (Mahalingam Pillai’s son) teach at our Chembur and Ghatkopar branches. My son Harikrishna, a graduate from Poddar College, is now actively involved in teaching dance and conducting programmes. Nowadays I teach only the advanced students, and prepare them for performances.

Prime disciples

The sisters Vani and Meera Ganapati were prime students who performed prolifically in the 1970s. Their mother Indubala Ganapati sang for their programmes. Three generations of Asha Bala’s family have learnt from me. Malavika Sarukkai, a senior and top ranking dancer today, learnt from me for about 14 years. Viji Prakash, Lata Pada, Preeti Warrier, Pratima Choudhary and Gowri Rao are some of my students to make a name for themselves. Dr. Malati Agniswaran is now Dean at Kanak Rele’s Nalanda Dance Research Centre, Mumbai.

Sitara Devi learnt a khandita nayika padam Vanda kaariyam edayya from us as she wanted to present it at Swami Haridas Sammelan conducted by the Sur Singar Samsad. The famous Kathak dancer Gopi Krishna learnt Bharatanatyam from me.

The dance scene now

In earlier times, school or college education was secondary to those who chose to learn the fine arts. Distractions were few. Teachers too did not hanker after houses and cars.

Today students have no time to devote entirely to the art. They are intelligent, but are squandering it in too many avenues, though they do make the best use of whatever is available. By the time a student reaches the ninth standard, she is under great pressure to score well in studies. Added to this is the problem of distances and traffic jams in a city like Mumbai. There are a few who resume dance lessons after the period of intense academic pressure. It is interesting that some students come because their parents believe that good habits and values are inculcated while learning this discipline of dance – that they become cultured and develop a broader outlook.

I tell my students to get immersed in natya. Even in a taiyya tai class there can be grace in the way you lift the foot and stamp it on the floor. Enjoy the beauty of the movement, don’t do it mechanically. Even now I like to get up and demonstrate a movement in class. It is my responsibility towards my student. If my father could do it at 95, why not I at 80?

Interviewed By