A perfectionist, K.J. Sarasa is remembered for her values, affection and generosity.
There was not a dry eye in the Sarasalaya dance hall on Monday evening, as Guru K.J. Sarasa’s family, students and associates filed past her one last time...
In her passing, we have lost one of the last surviving traditional nattuvanars, a flag-bearer of the Vazhuvur tradition in Bharatanatyam, a much-loved and venerated Guru, an artist with prodigious talent in abhinaya, choreography and recitation of sollus, a woman of courage who survived in a male-dominated field and a
responsible human being, took care of her family all her life.
Guru Sarasa lived and breathed music and dance; there was none as dedicated and committed. Music was her first love, and it is no co-incidence that the first students such as Rathna Kumar and the last of the senior students such as Bhargavi Gopalan, both claim that Teacher would make them stay after class to sing! She was perhaps too busy in the intervening years to indulge herself...
Incidentally, Guru Sarasa was first a singer with Guru Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai before she turned nattuvanar. Rathna goes further to say that Teacher’s music was highly regarded in Andhra Pradesh, especially her “Sakhi Prana” (Chenchuruti) and “Chinnanchiru Kiliye” that she sang in Adi tala, that she was invited to perform there so they could hear Teacher sing!
As an artist and choreographer, she was passionate about the world of Bharatanatyam. She relished the rhythmic undulations in jatis and her strong renditions were a pleasure to hear. She preferred the nritta statements to be crisp, fast-paced and above all enjoyable. And that was her ultimate goal - to give the audience an enjoyable experience.
She had a penchant for speed, in nritta and in choreography as well. Srekala Bharath recalls Teacher choreographing (1996) the Mand Thillana in 15 minutes and ‘Swami ninne korinanura’ the Ponniah Pillai ashtaragamalika in 45 minutes!
Teacher, as she was affectionately called, taught us to dance with our eyes. The Vazhuvur style has graceful movements, torso bends and friezes, and Teacher embellished them with appropriate eye movements to add drama. She was also very particular about posture and araimandi. Sometimes exasperated, she would get up and demonstrate the ‘Natyaramba’ position where the arms are stretched out sideways to shoulder height, straight back, chin up, eyes looking straight ahead;
that eloquent image will be etched forever in every student’s memory. This meticulousness must have spawned the famed ‘Sarasalaya araimandi!’
Teacher’s ways of dealing with students was a study in psychology. Seetha Ratnakar, recalls Teacher’s tact while correcting a student; she would couch the mistake in wry humour. “She never made you feel small,” she points out tearfully, “whatever the mistake. Once when I was criticised by V.A.K. Ranga Rao in the Indian Express for the Asai Mugam kriti, Teacher comforted me saying, “That song is meant for dancers my age. I forgot that you are only 13 years old and taught it
to you. Its my mistake Ma.”
Classes were often rollicking when Teacher was in her element mimicking others or re-telling stories in her pungently humorous way. There were also times when she seemed angry or frustrated with the world, and those times we were careful not to cross her in any way. There was a world within, in that dance
class, and whatever the mood, we knew that we were always welcome and
Rathna, with the confidence of a 60-year association behind her, says, “Teacher was the quintessential Guru who taught with love. She was also a woman of integrity. Once after she had accepted (to do nattuvangam) my performance, someone else asked her for the same date. She refused, even at the cost of losing the student.”
Guru Sarasa was a generous teacher. Shanmuga Sundaram, who was with her for the past 18 years and has seen both her robust and tired days, says, “She loved an interested student and she loved to teach. Any piece that you wanted to learn, she was willing to teach. She would say that everyone has talent and it is up to us to train a child according to his or her ability. She would personally conduct the class even if the student is a small child.”
Kavitha Ramu adds, “Teacher was so committed and sincere, she never discriminated between her students.” That she has produced so many star soloists is proof of her generosity. It would be no exaggeration to say that most well-known
dancers today have been trained in Sarasalaya. Teacher’s generosity was not merely in the number of compositions she taught, but in her ability to give her students the wings to fly. She did not believe in spoon feeding.” Echoing the thought, Nagapriya says, “Teacher did not believe in creating clones. As many dancers as there are that many versions of the same piece exist. She gave you the idea and made you think.”
Bhargavi recalls Teacher’s willingness to accommodate everyone’s schedule and how she has had rehearsals at 5.15 a.m. and at 9.50 p.m., even within the past decade! Guru Sarasa was open to watching and learning from other dancers and urged her students to do so. Bhargavi speaks of the time when Teacher took some of them to watch Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam without the formality of waiting to be invited, so that they could learn.
Many of her students who have taken to teaching such as Nagapriya, Rathna, Sailaja and A. Lakshmanaswamy echo the same thoughts that they unconsciously emulate Teacher while teaching! They try to follow Teacher’s way - tailor each composition to suit the student, while giving them the freedom to express themselves in their own way.
Guru Sarasa was more than a teacher to most of her diciples. While Rama, daughter of mridangam vidwan, Vazhuvur V.P. Ramadass, Swarnamalya, Rathna and others call her a mother, Shanmuga Sundaram who came as a shy boy from Namakkal 18 years ago, says Teacher was everything to him. She encouraged
him to conduct recitals (nattuvangam) and talk on stage, things he declares he could never have done on his own. She even attended his programme two months ago at the Mylapore Fine Arts in a wheelchair.
Teacher recently told him, ‘I have taught you a lot. Keep it and build on it. I know you will do well.’
Noted writer Sivasankari who was her second student speaks of Teacher’s values (panbu). “I have always been addressed informally by my nickname. Suddenly about 15 years ago, Teacher started using my formal name and being respectful. When I questioned her, she said, ‘That’s how it must be, you have become a famous person now!’”
Born in 1934, Karaikkal Jagadeesan Sarasa, was drawn to Bharatanatyam after watching ‘Baby’ Kamala. She learnt dance from the legendary Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai for a year before joining the doyen Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai. She came to Madras with ‘Appa,’ learnt nattuvangam on his advice, and became the first female nattuvanar in a male-dominated world. At 18, she took on four-year old Rathna, and invited ‘Appa’ for the arangetram barely three years later!
Guru Sarasa was a woman of true grit. Her father died young and she took on the mantle of looking after her mother and three sisters. By 20, she had set up her own establishment in Abhiramapuram and had brought her family to live with her. This arrangement was to remain until the end.
Memories abound in that spacious hall in Mandavelli. Since the 1980s when it was built, its doors have always been open to students and colleagues alike. Yes, Teacher taught Bharatanatyam there, but she also taught by example, courage, willpower, hard-work, humility and generosity.
How can we forget Teacher’s favourites - ‘Jhem Jhem tanana’ of Dr. Balamurali Krishna, Pushpanjali in Arabhi raga, Nityakalyani ragamalika kriti by Seetharama Iyer, ‘Mathe Malayadwaja’ Khamas varnam, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Thanjavur Sivanandam’s Anandabhairavi padavarnam ‘Sakhiye inda velayil,’ and many, many more...
Guru Sarasa leaves two sisters - Seetha and Sushila - and two nieces, Meena and Raji and their offspring. She also leaves behind a legacy that will live forever. There will be a memorial meeting for Guru K.J. Sarasa on January 9, at 9.30 a.m. For details please contact Shanmuga Sundaram (98400 97270).