Different facets of K.J. Sarasa come through in this tribute paid by friends and disciples.
She was born to nagaswaram artist Jagadeesan Pillai and Valliammal in Karaikkal on March 10, 1937 and came to Madras in the 1940s. She trained for over 15 years under distant relative, Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai, in music, dance and nattuvangam. Karaikkal Jagadeesan Sarasa (KJS) also had the opportunity to study film choreography in depth as she used to accompany Ramaiah Pillai to film studios when he was the dance master.
She adopted various dance techniques for films such as ‘Kaaval Deivam' for Sai-Subbalakshmi and ‘Amara Silpi' (a Kannada film) for Saroja Devi. She also choreographed dance numbers for stars such as E.V. Saroja and Rajashree. This stint ended when she quit after having worked for a dozen films as she felt that the erratic shooting schedules disrupted her disciplined routine.
Among the famous persons she trained are dance master Raghuram, grandson of veteran film director K. Subrahmanyam, Shobana and Kamal Haasan.
KJS had also sung in several concerts besides singing for her guru's disciples. In 1952, she became the first female nattuvanar, for Vyjayanthimala, in Karaikudi, when she took Ramaiah Pillai's place as he had prior commitments.
In 1960, Sarasalaya, the name suggested by her disciple and writer Sivasankari, was set up.
For Seetha Ratnakar her performance trips to places such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka with KJS are unforgettable.
It was a routine in the 1960s for Sarasa's group to win the the first prize in the All India Inter-State Cultural ompetition in Folk Dance conducted in New Delhi on Republic Day. Each dancer was given a medal and Seetha has preserved the one she was given in 1969.
Personalities from the dance, music and film fraternity talk about KJS. A round-up:
Sudharani Raghupathy: To dance is easy but to teach it isdifficult. Vazhavurar had told me, “As KJS had a total grip of laya, thaalakkattu and her dance had a powerful finish, I advised her to choose teaching as it is a more challenging profession, and she obeyed…”
KJS was a sensitive artist. She considered dance a divine art. We were very close and shared views although we belonged to two different schools (Vazhavur and Kittappa). We had common disciples as we often swapped them. Her death leaves a huge void in the dance arena.
M.V. Narasimhachari and Vasanthalakshmi: KJS was a rare and wonderful person, who appreciated good music and dance. Once, when she was passing by Mylapore Fine Arts Club, she heard me singing. She walked in thinking it was Dr. BMK, but sat through my concert and left only after conveying her appreciation. Whether the artist was major or minor one did not matter to her, only quality did.
Another time, I was a judge at the Iyal Isai Natak Mandram Dance competition and KJS was on nattuvangam for her student. Her disciple used the ‘illusion' mudra for ‘Neemaatalu Yemaayanuraa.' When I pointed out this mistake, she promptly accepted it. Down-to-earth, KJS strictly adhered to the Vazhuvur tradition and style. When we visited her during her illness, she welcomed us with warmth and affection. She had dedicated her life to Bharatanatyam and as long as the dance form is alive her name will live on. One regret is that she was not conferred Padma Bhushan.
C.V. Chandrasekar: When I was young, I was captivated by her singing. . Her nattuvangam was always clear and nice. I remember her replying to a question from the audience at the Krishna Gana Sabha that she would welcome and incorporate anything beautiful into the art of Bharatanatyam. I went to see her when she was ill. She not only met me but also tried to make herself presentable. Gurus, generally, do not like to part with their disciples, but KJS asked me, “Why don't you take my Shanmugasundaram under your wing and teach him further.” I was moved.
Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam: KJS had been my nattuvanar after my arangetram. She accompanied me on many of my programmes. She was a very good singer, which was an asset. We honoured her during Nrithyodaya's Golden and Diamond Jubilee Celebrations.
Rhadha: KJS was a hard working and successful guru. For many decades, since 1958, she sang for the three of us (sisters Kamala, Rhadha and Vasantha). As the first female nattuvanar, she proved that she was on par with men. She was not only immensely creative but also talented in abhinaya. Her disciples will carry on her rich legacy.
Shantha and V.P. Dhananjayan: Her nattuvangam was an attraction. Ten years ago, after watching ‘Tyagaraja Vaibhavam' that we presented she said with tears in her eyes, ‘I saw Tyagaraja alive today.' When we paid her a courtesy visit during her illness, she was bed-ridden and unconscious. To the surprise of her family, on hearing us calling her name, she opened her eyes, recognised and blessed us. She also told us she would get better soon before slipping back into semi-consciousness. She richly deserved Padma Bhushan but never got it.
Dance master Raghuram: The year has begun on a bad note for me. I could not pay homage to my guru as I was in the U.S. In the 1940s, my maternal grandfather, K. Subrahmanyam, started a Society – Nadana Kala Seva, where children were taught Bharatanatyam by eminent gurus including Gopinath, Vazhavur Ramaiah Pillai, Bolanath and KJS. Initially I learnt Kathakali (from age 5) from Guru Gopinath. In 1956, I switched to Bharatanatyam under KJS. She was famous for her facial expressions. She was also a great singer and known for her bold jatis. She had a sense of humour and used it to correct our mistakes. I learnt dance along with J. Jayalalitha (they had arangetram in the same year – 1960), Kamal Haasan, Sivasankari, Ratna Papa, Prema Chaturvedi among others. Under KJS's expert guidance, we also staged numerous performances.
Without her teaching, it would not have been possible for me to do choreography for movies such as ‘Salangai Oli.'
Chithra Visveswaran: KJS emphasised musicality even in the rhythmic aspect of dance especially in the Jatiswaram and graceful execution of adavus. Having been trained in the holistic tradition of music and dance, she reflected this very important aspect of the Vazhuvur baani. KJS, Rajarathinam Pillai and Vazhavur Ramaiah Pillai were a magical trio and were also greatly responsible for supporting Kamala's dance and making it successful. As the guru, she transmitted her expertise to her disciples.
Sailaja: KJS was an exemplary guru of the Vazhavur style. Her deft handling of the nattuvangam coupled with her excellent singing made shows a delight. She was a mother to all her students and paved the way for a defined career for them. Most of the senior and renowned artists have been trained by her. keep the light shining.
S. Balasubramaniam of Kalaniketan: Humble and generous, Sarasa never demanded money. Happy to receive the modest sum that we could afford to give her, she would first share it with her orchestra. I have never seen her use harsh words to her students and she treated them alike, irrespective of status. (He also sent the picture of K.J. Sarasa with the present Chief Minister during a performance for Kalaniketan)