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Life dedicated to dance

Guru Mahalingam Pillai, doyen among nattuvanars, who was associated with Mumbai's Sri Rajarajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir for 55 years, died recently at the age of 85. In this tribute, his younger brother, Guru T. K. Kalyanasundaram Pillai, leading dance guru, speaks to V. GANGADHAR.



Among those trained by him were many well-known personalities ... the guru flanked by Damayanti Joshi and Roshan Kumari.

EVER SINCE `Anna' fell ill, the telephone seldom stopped ringing. Most of the callers were his students from the U.S., the U.K., Europe, Japan, the Gulf countries as well as from all parts of India. Padmini, the only surviving member of the famous Travancore sisters (Lalita, Padmini and Ragini) who has settled down at New Jersey, was a constant caller inquiring about Anna's health. When Anna passed away after a brief illness, it was the end of a glorious chapter in the history of Bharatanatyam. He was a pillar of strength for us and we will miss him.

Imagine devoting nearly 70 years of one's life to the cause of dance and helping to spread it all over the country and abroad. We are `nattuvanars' from the tradition-bound town of Thiruvidaimarudhur in Thanjavur district, performing and teaching Bharatanatyam for over 300 years, dating back to the time of the Maratha rulers in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. Ancestors Venkatakrishna Nattuvanar and Panchapakesa Nattuvanar were honoured at the courts of Mysore, Baroda and Ramanathapuram and the latter authored ``Abhinaya Navaneetam," a Tamil treatise on Bharatanatyam. The tradition continued to flourish. We settled down at Thiruvidaimarudhur where Adi Sankaracharya preached Advaitham. Our father, Guru Kuppiah Pillai who lived to be 95 and the family of four sons and one daughter (all but one took to dance) followed the father in dancing at the temples and teaching the devdasis dance forms to be performed at the various festivals. The devdasis who had devoted their lives to God enjoyed a good reputation then. We began to teach individuals and among the first were the Travancore sisters, who became noted film dancers and then stars. When some dancing teachers from Bombay requested us to came over to the city and teach dancing to the local people, my brother-in-law Govindaraja Pillai and sister Karunambal made the first move and started the Rajarajeshwari Dance School in 1945. Father Kuppiah Pillai followed them. Anna Mahalingam Pillai, from 1945 to 1950, shunted between Bombay and the South and in 1950 settled down in the city. The dance school was a success from the start. Father, brother-in-law and Anna had imparted a stamp of traditional excellence on their art form. Our first student was Kathak dancer, Damayanti Joshi, who joined us the first day we opened. Then followed graceful and beautiful film stars like Kamini Kaushal, Nalini Jaywant and Waheeda Rehman. We also taught Kathak experts, Gopi Krishna and Sitara Devi.

Thanks to Rajarajeswari Dance School, Bharatanatyam won over Gujarati, Punjabi and Maharashtrian students apart from those from other States. Over the years, we taught students from Pakistan, Europe, Japan, Soviet Union and the U.S. The daughter of the U.S. Consul General in Bombay, Robert Carr, was our student, and so was journalist-writer Janet Fine.

We personified team work but Anna had some special qualities. During the Mookambika temple festival, Anna performed the difficult task of solo dancing around the temple several times to the tune of local songs. This performance attracted huge crowds and was believed to cure cases of mental illnesses. Anna was no doubt a traditionalist but was ready to experiment with innovations. It was the pure, classical form of dance, however, that appealed to him the most. Up at 4 a.m., he would collect flowers for `puja,' boil the milk, have his bath and then start his daily dance routine. Many people wondered how the family had remained united over nearly 60 years. The example was set by Anna and the seniors. Also, it was our custom to attribute our success to the efforts and guidance from the elders. They, on the other hand, commended the efforts and new thinking of the younger members. Today, it is only the family members who handled the two dancing schools in Matunga, and the ones at Chembur, Ghatkopar and Peddar Road.



With another of his famous students, the legendary Gopikrishna.

Several years ago, just before the arangetram of two of my star pupils in Bombay, I fell ill. Normally, the students always wanted their guru to be present at the function, to guide and bless them. In this case, Anna and my brother-in-law took charge. Anna made all arrangements for the programme and put the girls at ease. The arangetram was a big success. This was unique and spoke of family unity. Further, debuts were seldom organised without the guru being present. Anna dealt patiently with the Kathak stars who came to learn Bharatanatyam. Some of them were a bit arrogant because of the popularity of the dance form in the North and Hindi cinema. But they found it tough to handle the classical sitting and squatting postures of Bharatanatyam because Kathak mostly involved standing positions. Their `hastha abhinayam' was never perfect, but Anna was patient though tough in imparting them the lessons.

Anna helped to teach many film stars. Producer director V. Shantaram sent Gopi Krishna and Sandhya to us for tips when he made his colour magnum opus, `Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje,' but Anna was not keen to choreograph film dances.

Anna was not keen on `short cut' methods or crash courses. He explained to us that the long, hard road to perfection lay in a minimum seven to ten years of training before one was ready for arangetram. Many students dropped out due to various reasons like studies, marriage, careers, etc., but those who really cared stayed back and received our personal attention.

Anna respected and admired fellow dancers and seldom missed their performances. If he was busy or not keeping well, he used to send family members to the performances, with messages wishing them the best.

These gestures were well-appreciated. Anna won several prestigious awards including the one offered by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. But he cherished the Sruti Foundation award of the E. Krishna Iyer Medal for the development of Bharatanatyam. Krishna Iyer fought for the respectability of the dance forms and dancers. He was a lawyer who argued in court against the ban imposed in some temples on professional dancers. To popularise dance, Iyer accepted female dancing roles in Tamil films of those days. Anna admired such fighters to the cause of dance.

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