The photographer gently requests if she could raise her hand and strike a mudra for the camera. She does, and impeccably at that, with her weary eyes following her hands. Seeing the photographer go clickety-click, she then asks her sister Sita to adjust her sari and hair. “Hairpin sariya podu,” she says patting her hair in place. Even though illness and old age have reduced her mobility, renowned Bharatanatyam guru K.J. Sarasa cannot settle for anything less than perfect.

A group of charming, young students surrounds her and lets out cries of joy seeing 'Teacher' speak and smile after many days. They are excited to pose with their caring mentor and taskmaster-guru.

If you can still hear the sound of salangai in Sarasalaya it is because of these and other senior students who take turns to conduct classes for aspirants of the art. Otherwise, Sarasa leads a lonely life in her decrepit home-cum-dance school in Mandaveli away from the hustle and bustle of the dance world, of which she was once a significant part.

“These students and many others who are well-established artists, visit me whenever they can and are my only link to the world outside,” she says with moist eyes.

Rare distinction

The first woman nattuvanar, Sarasa has the distinction of conducting close to 1,000 arangetrams and 2,000 recitals, including those of Vyjayanthimala Bali, Baby Kamala and the Travancore Sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini. Many of those groomed by her are spread across the world being the torchbearers of the Vazhuvoor bani of Bharatanatyam.

Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu J. Jayalalithaa and famed writer Sivasankari are also her students. “Last year, Jayalalithaa visited me to seek my blessings. I was touched. Teaching for 60 long years has given me a lot - the joy of give and take, the pleasure of mothering so many children, discovering new energy levels, caring and sharing and cherishing long-lasting bonds. I certainly have no regrets about not being a performer,” says Sarasa.

Daughter of a nagaswaram artist Jagadeesan Pillai, Sarasa spent her early childhood in Karaikal where she saw 'Baby' Kamala perform and decided she wanted to dance too. After learning for a year from Muthukumara Pillai, who was Kamala's first guru, Sarasa came under the tutelage of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai. She moved to Madras and spent more than a decade in Ramaiah Pillai's gurukulam mastering every aspect of the art form.

“The entire day I would either practise, do nattuvangam or accompany my guru to film studios or the houses of his disciples to give classes. It wasn't surprising that dance became my life; I knew nothing else,” says the veteran.

Life was hard - no friends or outings and a hectic routine to follow. Sarasa was just in her teens when she began conducting classes at her guru's suggestion. Rathna Kumar, who runs the Anjali Center for Performing Arts in Houston, the U.S., is her first student. “I remember some of Ramaiah Sir's disciples telling him to allow me to dance rather than do the nattuvangam. And he would say a firm 'No'. It used to hurt. And he would console me: 'You can teach all your life, but not perform.' And, over the years, I realised how correct he was. Teaching helped me take care of my family of four sisters and a mother after my father's early demise.”

Before she opened her dance school in 1960, Sarasa would go to her students' houses seated in a rickshaw. “I once took the rickshaw to town (Parry's Corner) and bought colourful sheets to cover the top. Everybody referred to it as a 'rickshaw-car.' That was actually the first time I could indulge my fancy, and it was double joy since I bought it with my hard-earned money,” she smiles.

She remembers

Classes, rehearsals, choreography and performances her hands were full. She travelled across the country and abroad with her sishyas. “It was wonderful to perform in different settings and for diverse audiences. These journeys provided the inputs for my creative growth.”

With a straight face, she narrates how her troupe and she were once told to pack off by the organisers of the Kalidas Samaroh (Ujjain), when they came to know that the production was in Tamil. “It was in the late 1960s. We had used Sanskrit slokas but most compositions were in Tamil. My girls were crestfallen. We were getting ready to leave the next morning, when one of the officials came and informed us that a decision was taken to allow us to stage our production. Ironically, the performance was extremely well-received and we returned to Madras with the Swarna Kalasa award.”

Besides mastering the handed-down pieces, Sarasa did a lot of choreographic work including Krishna Parijatam, Aditya Hridayam, Silapaddikaram, Kunrakkudi Kuravanji, Desa Bhakti and Kutrala Kuravanji. What lent sparkle to her performances was the peerless combination of competent nattuvangam and remarkable singing. “If you are able to understand and experience the melodic beauty of the musical notes, your dance is certain to gain depth,” she says.

How easy was it to make a place in the male-dominated world of nattuvanars? “As expected, it took time to be accepted into the fold. Initial apprehensions later, the going got easy and exciting.”

So here's a teacher who's found equal fame as her many star performers. Her students, past and present, spell the secret: an amazing sense of humour, friendly ways of correcting, stress on discipline of form and technique, freedom to think, respect for other genres and styles and open to change.

Most important, Sarasa Teacher ensured that her students danced from their heart and not just with two right feet.