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Where are the master gurus?

by Gowri Ramnarayan

In group shows by disciples of leading Bharatanatyam artistes of today, have you noticed how everyone on stage seems to have been cast in the same mould? Each physical movement, gait and glance, is a perfect copy of the teacher's style. Padma Subrahmanyam's disciples are reprints of the original edition, down to the flutter of the lashes. Alarmel Valli's students reproduce her light-on-the-toes leaps. Sudharani Raghupati's pupils strike sculpturesque poses, and Chitra Visweshwaran's sishyas are able to replicate even the attamis of their instructor. If Lakshmi Viswanathan nods her head to the music during abhinaya, her followers do the same at opportune and inopportune moments.

The result is a proliferation of clones. Individual identity gets submerged in a mindless uniformity.

Take a minute to review the seniors. Can you deny that each one of them - from Kamala to Malavika Sarukkai - has a distinct style to refract her individual character and approach to the art? This despite some of them sharing the same guru at a certain phase in their life - as did Kamala, Padma and Chitra. Alarmel Valli and Meenakshi Chittaranjan were practically classmates. Rukmini Devi and Mrinalini Sarabhai were honed by the same guru. Yet, there are no carbon copies in this list.

Why has the individuality of the past given way to the sameness of today?

Perhaps the answer lies in the hereditary teaching methodology developed over centuries by certain families in Tamil Nadu.

Sadir, the precursor of present day Bharatanatyam, was practised by members of a particular community. Its male members eschewed performance to sharpen their skills in nattuvangam - a composite term for teaching the classical dance genre, and conducting its performance. They were the nattuvanars, who trained the women (devadasis) to dance at temples as part of the daily and festive rites. In the royal courts the ritual became art. Sadir was indispensable at the family functions of well-to-do officials and landowners. Social status was determined by the number and quality of the performers on such occasions.

The community of dancers and dance gurus was nurtured by multi level patronage. They were entitled to payments of cash and kind from the temples they served. Inscriptions reveal that the 400 dancers, their gurus and orchestras, were maintained by the Brihadeesvarar temple, Thanjavur, with munificent grants, including the daily disbursement of oil, turmeric, betel leaves and nuts! We hear of the appointment of the Vazhuvoor nattuvanars a thousand years ago, to teach the Chola princess Kuntavai. There were impulse gifts at court. A monarch, pleased with a bravura performance, would shower the dancer with costly gems and land grants. The nattuvanar too came in for praise and gifts. The scales were balanced - one group could not survive without the other.

The three main schools of nattuvangam to have come down to this century were evolved in the villages of Pandanallur, Vazhuvoor, and in Thanjavur town.

The first and last share many stylistic features. Both claim descent from the famous musician quartet of Thanjavur - Chinniah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu. Disciples of Muthuswami Dikshitar, the brothers won plaudits for their musicianship and ability to compose. Today, their compositions are rarely sung on the stage, but still form the backbone of the rich repertoire of their nattuvanar descendants.

Guru Kittappa Pillai.

When people asked the by now blind and notoriously picky Veena Dhanammal why she attended the dance shows conducted by the Pandanallur doyen Minakshisundaram Pillai, she would say, "To hear Minakshisundaram sing of course, what else?"

Though Minakshisundaram Pillai's son-in-law Chockalingam Pillai and grandson Subbaraya Pillai were not as musical as he had been, their training avoided tinselware. With them the Pandanallur school became renowned for its mastery of laya, precision of technique, and dexterity in execution.

Thanjavur boasts of the rarely remembered Kandappa Pillai, guru of Balasaraswati, and his son Ganesan. Its stalwart Kittappa Pillai is still with us. This school accented the musical heritage, making the auditory experience match the visual in subtle grandeur. Another branch of this clan from Tiruvidaimarudur migrated to Bombay in the 1950s. At their Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatanatya Kalamandir, three generations of nattuvanars have trained hundreds of students - from filmdom's Nalini Jaywant and Kamini Kaushal to Vani Ganapathy and Lata Pada. They are the only gurus of the old school to retain some authenticity while adapting to the frenetic needs of a modern megapolis. Yet, there are those who perceive a sea change from founder Kuppiah Pillai to grandson Vishwanath. Vazhuvoor insisted on speed and sparkle, meandered into catchy, showy experiments, earned glamour with dance choreography in films, but commanded respect in its best exemplars.

We come back to the crucial query. What is the difference between a nattuvanar and a dance teacher?

Ask the dancers themselves and they will say it starts with the nattuvanars being treasure troves of knowledge, not book learned or theoretical, but with the heritage of a practical methodology and wisdom. Their cultural matrix and racial memory made them intuitive in teaching. They taught their students as much by what they said as by what they did not say.

As the repositories of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience, the nattuvanars were greatly sought after during the renascent phase of Bharatanatyam in this century. They became indispensable guides to the women of the so-called "good families", who took up this art for the first time, without any background or exposure to it. There was no other access to the art except from this singular stronghold of an oral tradition, which could be imparted only in practice.

A class factor entered the picture as never before. During the British rule, sadir had been looked down upon as immoral and bawdy. Social reform banned "nautch" from the temples. The devadasis suddenly lost their livelihood.

The nattuvanars too fell on evil days. But when nationalism fired pride in Indian culture, women like Rukmini Devi were inspired to take up sadir, rename it Bharatanatyam, and stage it in a different context and milieu. There was a major shift in the aesthetics of presentation. Temple and court were replaced by city and auditoria. Gods and kings made way for the middle class rasika.

The devadasis dwindled in number, gave up the struggle and lapsed into anonymity. There was just one Balasaraswati to win worldwide acclaim, one Gowri Amma to teach the techniques of abhinaya.

But the nattuvanars found they were in great demand. They were entering the arena of an altogether different class. The social stigma did not vanish at once. An oldtimer recalls how, at her liberal father's insistence, she continued her lessons in the village during the vacation with Minakshisundaram Pillai. The whole agraharam disapproved. Twice a week, the nattuvanar would arrive on a bullock cart, for a whole day's teaching. He was fed, but always without the ghee and curds reserved for guests of high caste.

The fear of losing their self respect made the nattuvanars clannish and touchy. The least misunderstanding would become a major issue. They could pack up their cymbals and desert a growing institution like Rukmini Devi's Kalakshetra. Chockalingam Pillai was ready to face the struggles of starting his own classes rather than accept what he deemed loss of face.

Students who strayed, or took help from other teachers for reasons however valid, were dropped forthwith. No amount of pleading could make the nattuvanar relent and take the errant back to the fold.

To the nattuvanars of the old school, teaching was not a time bound process. They could and did take class for hours until the student begged for a break. Some of them were money minded , but were strangers to the business acumen of the modern world. With the possible exception of those of the Bombay school, the nattuvanars did not know how to save, or build institutions to invest profitably back into the art. They had no survival strategies, no grasp of publicity, and no social skills to impress the right people to tap sponsorship and support. That is why, once their skills were acquired by others, and they lost their exclusive control over what had been their personal heritage, the class waned into a fringe existence. Not even scholarships from State and Central Akademis for the nattuvanars to train members of their own families in the hereditary art, could arrest the decline.

With dance schools everywhere and the boom in theoretical studies, why should the nattuvanars still be mourned? With dancers conducting the recitals of their students, or hiring professionals for cymbal and sollukattu, why should people still feel wistful about an Ellappa Pillai or a Dandayudhapani Pillai?

The major reason has to do with the one to one relationship between guru and sishya. He was the only one who had the right to conduct her shows and always with the same orchestra of his choice. This predictability fostered confidence and rapport with the musicians.

Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai conducting a programme of disciple Radha with M.S.Subbulakshmi as the singer.

With the nattuvanar there was no uniform syllabus or choreography. Two students may be taught the same varnam but they could not perform together as the tirmanams and sancharis would vary. Individual attention focussed on the ability and nature of each disciple and designed her numbers accordingly. The best nattuvanars composed on the spot.

The nritta passages were not arrived at by mathematical calculations. The nattuvanar had the time to develop creativity in laya as the busy performing teacher cannot do. Their accent was on the visual patterns shaping the laya. Short, crisp tirmanams achieved this rather than the concoctions of inordinate length in current practice, which are mere tests of the dancer's stamina.

The nattuvanars rarely danced. Their hands indicated the movements. They used colourful metaphors and idioms to convey the effect they wanted in each adavu and korvai. There was no visual presentation to clone, no mannerisms to copy. Each pupil had to do what came naturally to her within the framework of technique. This exercised her imagination, induced self criticism, and made her creative as she matured in her art.

Abhinaya posed problems peculiar to the times. Earlier, the devadasis had other performers in the family, street and village as role models to serve as the basis of a personal style. But the new upper class entrants had no such visual examples. How could they pick up the techniques of abhinaya from their male teachers to evoke the essentially feminine experiences detailed in the songs they danced to? Especially as the nattuvanars were hampered by the need to curtail the sringara quotient for the new class of trainees. "This art is just emerging out of decadence. Let us keep it dignified," was the refrain of Chockalingam Pillai. An old student recalls, "Edo oru vahaiyil varugudu" was taught to me as a bland and literal "Something is happening to me". It was much later that I realised it referred to a woman's sensual longing!" The best devadasi performers could touch the depths of emotion with exquisite refinement as those who remember Balasaraswati's "Teruvil vaarano" would testify. That sensibility was beyond the nattuvanar.

But the traditional dance community had an advantage unattainable to others. They were unsullied by Macaulayian education. Their lifestyle and art did not belong to different compartments. They had a direct, intimate, everyday exposure to the temple ambience, and could draw inspiration from it. The invocation "Jaya suddhapurivasa" prefacing the Vazhuvoor recitals is a todayamangalam sung during the arati for the Gajasamhara murti in their village temple. This was followed by hour-long tandava jatis, intoned by the nattuvanar and his apprentices. This created the illusion of the sculptured figure coming alive to dance to their chants.

Doesn't this training of both ear and heart explain Ramiah Pillai's inimitable resonance in reciting jatis and wielding the cymbals? The Rajarajeswari clan was the recipient of the "parivattam" (a scarf tied round the head) at the Konkaneshvarar temple, with the privileges attached to it. The temple being home ground, they could adapt its rituals, like the kavuttuvam, for the stage.

The nattuvanars had their own family reserves to tap at will. They did not have to resort to kritis, bhajans and abhangs in the name of innovation. Nor did they need to undertake thematic adventures often ending in disaster. Or work with structural abstractions to capture attention. Legends and myths were a neverfailing source of sanchari bhava. The splendour of the temple visuals they grew up with transformed these stories into emotion soaked images, not the dry narratives we see today.

Since the nattuvanars did not perform on stage, they could focus all their energies on the student. There was no competitiveness, or the fear of the student overtaking the master. With the old guard, there was no package deal for quick consumption. Though he could be extremely stingy and mean at times, the nattuvanar could also share generously with the worthy pupil. His success depended upon hers. Their relationship was unique. If it has a parallel in modern life, it is that of the sportsperson and coach, of P. T. Usha and O. M.Nambiar!

Nattuvangam demanded a training from childhood, more taxing than that of the dancer. Their veshtis bound with a sash and bells on their feet, the boys went through all the exercises and repertoire of the dancer in the silambukoodam at home. There were lessons in classical music, in reciting jatis, playing the cymbals, and the mridangam in some cases. Telugu was a must, Sanskrit optional. They assisted seniors in classes, and at temple services, in reciting jatis and singing hymns as part of the 16 upacharas. The seniors constantly warned them to preserve the purity of their tradition and not to share it with the unworthy.

The greatest strength of the nattuvanars was their exposure to the best music of their day, especially the mellow nagaswaram. This gave them an edge over others in creative choreography. Many family members were musicians. Among Ramiah Pillai's ancestors were veena, nagaswaram and mridangam vidwans. Govindaraja Pillai of the Rajarajeswari school was a vocalist, mridangam and nagaswaram player. The late Muthuswami Pillai of Mylapore could surprise you with a padam where the raga evoked the bhava. And if you had heard Kittappa Pillai sing the rare jatiswaram in Chakravakam for Sucheta Chapekar, you knew half her battle was won with his rendering of it.

There are survivors of the old tradition today, some of them in unknown villages and towns. They are but shadows of the master gurus who have vanished with the ethos of their lost world.

This press release was published on 16 Oct 2004 . For more information, please contact by e-mail:

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