Three cultural luminaries speak on Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai's contribution to Bharatanatyam.
The birth centenary of celebrated natyacharya Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai has been observed in different parts of the country by his disciples and other admirers, though not at the government level. The man who was known as the guru of the Bharatanatyam star Kamala Lakshman between the 1940s and '70s also trained a large number of other students who too became celebrated performers. Here, three eminent cultural figures recall his contribution to Bharatanatyam. Dance scholar Sujatha Vijayaraghavan notes the polish he brought to the presentation and his expansion of the repertoire, while Kanaka Srinivasan, who trained under him from childhood, relates personal memories of a giant of a man. Chitra Visweswaran, who feels his centenary has not been adequately observed by bodies responsible for cultural heritage, contrasts his teaching with that of other gurus she trained under. Edited excerpts from their responses:
Those days he was ruling the roost, but still he never charged fees in the school — only for arangetrams and after that for programmes. Even for arangetrams, from me, he didn't demand anything. He made it a point that the class should run smoothly (despite performance engagements). He introduced all the literature for dance. He was the one to use Subramania Bharati's poetry first. He would choose those poems which were suitable for dance. He took Kurathi from Kutrala Kuravanji as an item. There was a lot of opposition — “How can you do Kamalajasya kirtanam as a dance item?” One day, after hearing the critical remarks at the Music Academy, he came home very angry. He said, “I put my heart into it and they are all criticising it.” He called up K.P. Sundarambal and told her. Then we heard him say, “Yes, Akka, you are right.” He told his sister, “She says, you keep on doing your work. You are doing the right thing. If you keep on doing the same thing, what will you do in another 50 years? You think of the future.” So I think he did the right thing by introducing literature.
I would say (his single most notable contribution was) grace. He also made the presentation very stylized. His entries and exits were not just walking in and walking out. The whole presentation was polished and graceful. It was very powerful too. And there was subtlety of abhinaya. He was particular about the auchityam (propriety, appropriateness of a particular usage in a given situation). Of course, all the nattuvanars of those days were particular about auchityam. And his (use of the) glance (paarvai), through which communication comes. He also brought in (the depiction of) bhakti in a big way. And he enriched the repertoire. He brought in a lot of Tamil (literature).
I was initiated into dance by my mother, Rukmani Padmanabhan. My father, N. Padmanabhan, was then posted with the Indian High Commission in London. In addition mother admitted me into ballet classes. . Father was then transferred to Calcutta where my training in Manipuri, Kathak and Rabindra Nritya began. In 1961, when I was 10-plus, I came under the tutelage of a wonderful Bharatanatyam teacher in Calcutta, Smt. T.A. Rajalakshmi, a very prominent disciple of Sri Kuppiah Pillai of Tiruvidaimardur. The National scholarship for advanced study in Bharatanatyam brought me to Madras to find my dream coming true when Vazhuvooraar, as he was popularly known, agreed to accept me as a shishya.
Lessons with him were totally different from anything I had experienced in Calcutta. Raajappa teacher was a stickler for time and Vazhuvooraar had no concept of it; one was bound by discipline, the other was unfettered by it; one laid a strong foundation of grammar, structure and technique, while the other awakened me to ecstatic, unimaginable, heights of creativity. It was a swing from one end of the spectrum to the other – from the orthodox to the radical! His teaching methods were very unorthodox. Not for him the 9 to 12 or 4 to 6 concept of a class. He would call himself a master shilpi. He never made his students dance identically and moulded each one as it would suit them individually. To this day I follow his approach while teaching — the skeleton is similar, but each student is fleshed out differently. He never viewed or taught Bharatanatyam at a mere physical level. He awakened me to seek inspiration from nature and from life itself. While other teachers are acharyas, he was a Guru in every sense of the word.
If Rukmani Devi Arundale institutionalised Bharatanatyam, Vazhuvooraar popularised it especially through his star disciple Kamala. Such was the effect created that a phenomenonon of little aspiring Kamalas came to happen in every family… I too was one suchFurther, his sense of aural and visual aesthetics gave a certain refinement, grace and musicality to the style that came to be known as Vazhuvoor bani.
Keywords: Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai