Bharatanatyam dancer Narthaki Natraj pays tribute to her guru K.P Kittappa Pillai, on his birth centenary

Thelivu guruvin thirumeni kaandal

Thelivu guruvin thirunaamam cheppal

Thelivu guruvin thiruvaarththai keyttal

Thelivu guruvuru sindhiththal thaaney!

- Thirumoolar Thirumanthiram

People often ask me whether my love for dance was born out of the realisation of my unique gender, or whether it was my love for dance that made me realise my femininity. I can only answer with a riddle. The moment I became aware of my femininity was the moment I was drawn to Bharatanatyam. And the moment I became aware of my destiny as a dancer was the moment I embraced the feminine.

My tryst with dance began in my village of Anuppaanadi. I would watch old movies, and absorb the dances of Padmini, Vyjayanthimala, Kumari Kamala, Sayi and Subbalakshmi. I would try replicating their moves at the village temple. I have performed in every temple in and around Madurai. That’s when I met my first mentors, dance teacher Naamanoor Jayaraman and Madurai T.G. Jayaraman; they recognised my talent and honed my skills.

Thanjavur bound

I was fascinated by Vyjayanthimala’s dancing and was determined to learn Bharatanatyam from her guru. I made my way from Madurai to Thanjavur in 1985. At that time, I did not realise that I would be knocking at the door of a man who was an institution by himself. In Thanjavur, right opposite the Sankara Math was the house of the Thanjai Naalvar — ‘Ponnaiyaa Nilayam.’ I marched up to the house with the confidence of the naive. A gentleman of about 70, clad in a veshti and melthundu, was sitting on the verandah, chewing betel leaves. It was Thanjavur K. P. Kittappa Pillai.

Overcome with emotion, I prostrated before him right there. I poured out my story, my journey and my thirst for dance, to him. He asked me to show him what I knew. Both my gurus in Maduari followed the Thanjavur tradition, and so, when I danced, Guru Kittappa Pilllai was delighted. But he was too busy to accept me as a disciple. But I refused to give up. I pursued him for months, showing up at every concert of his. After a year, he finally accepted me as a student. My training under him proved to be the golden period of my life. My guru taught me everything, from the thattadavu to the rarest items he had in his custody. As he led me through every step, he would pause and explain the importance of that step, its unique attributes, how it began and what modifications it had seen down the ages. After practice sessions, he would sit on the porch and tell me more about the art form. As I relive those moments, I realise what a divine experience it was.

Kittappa Pillai was not only well-versed in dance, he was a fine Carnatic singer and a mridangam vidwan too. My dance took shape to the sound of his voice and his beats.

As I would practise, a group of elderly women would gather outside my guru’s house and watch me perform. Between lessons, I would talk to them. They would tell me what step would come next, and ask me to get my guru to teach me a particular item. Once, when I requested him to teach me an item, he asked, “Who told you to ask me all this?” When I told him, he smiled. And then said that the women were known to the family since the days of the Thanjavur Quartet! They were devadasis who had been performing at the temple. After that, I met them often and learnt a lot from them, especially abhinaya.

My guru’s cousin was the Bharatantyam exponent Pandanallur Subbaraya Pillai. His jatiswaram and varnams were captivating. One day, I asked him, “When are you going to teach me those varnams?” Subbaraya Pillai, whom we fondly called Annachiyappa, smiled and said, “If you had come to me first, I would have taught you. But after learning from my brother, what could you possibly have to learn from me?” His respect for his brother was moving.

My guru firmly believed that ‘how’ and ‘what’ are not the only parameters one must keep in mind while performing. The history of an item, its significance and its inherent qualities are just as important. While teaching me the tenets of the Thanjavur Quartet’s navasakthi, soolaadhi, melapradhi and other uruppadigal, he would tell me everything there was to know about them. Before he taught them, he told me, “Each of these items is a priceless gem. Even if you become too old to perform, or feel too tired during a performance, you must never change them. These have been guarded through time and from time, by my ancestors and have been passed on to me. They are heirlooms and I am handing them over to you.” It is a promise I have never broken.

As he wove together adavus, jathis and gathis, it was sheer poetry. He taught me how to move from one strand to the next without tangling them together. The way vadhiyar would recite the jathis is unparalleled. Often, exponents of dance and music would rush to the hall to listen to him.

As I danced the varnam, sometimes my guru would forget himself and begin to sing, so much so that the main singer would stop and listen, mesmerised. Sometimes, in the middle of a performance, he would say “Ah! You've done well!” It was this validation that I longed for. Even today, sometimes, during a performance, I can hear his voice call out “Sabaash!”

Treated with respect

When I decided to move to Chennai, the praise my colleagues and the contemporaries of my guru lavished on me was a source of inspiration and support. When I introduced myself as a disciple of Kittappa Pillai, people would look at me with respect.

I was fortunate that when the Tamizh Palkalai Kazhagam in Thanjavur made vadhiyar the Head of the Dance Department, I became his assistant for four years. That’s where I learnt the nuances of teaching dance.

I remember the day I had to audition for my gradation for Doordarshan. To everyone’s surprise, my guru came there to do the nattuvangam.

Kuchipudi maestro Vempatti Chinna Sathyam, watching this, marvelled at how lucky I was. I was immediately given the ‘A-top’ grading. It was, indeed, rare for a guru to do nattuvangam for his disciple’s audition.

Today, I travel across the world to showcase my art and meet people, who treat me with respect. As I climb the rungs, I know my guru is with me, watching me and guiding me. And that is the greatest gift I have ever received.