A fine scholar and sensitive artist, Sarada was an indispensable part of Kalakshetra.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the anthology 'Nirmalam' recognise her achievements.

"You compose this scene or let me do it. Don't tell me what to do!" Rukmini Devi's imperious voice admonishes S. Sarada (1915-2009), whose encyclopaedic learning in Sanskrit always provided support for her creative choreography. Sarada has been insisting that in a crucial finale of the Ramayana, the God of fire should not touch Sita while restoring her to Rama. Meek as she was, Sarada could be a lion in matters of auchitya (appropriateness).

Rukmini Devi did comply with the suggestion. After all, hadn't Sarada helped her overcome her revulsion for the scene explaining that this was not a man rejecting a woman, but the jivatma cleansing itself to merge with the paramatma?

Rukmini Devi treasured Sarada's expertise as much as Sarada adored Rukmini Devi's creativity. With Adinarayana Sarma and Venkatachala Sastri and Sarada provided irreproachable authenticity for the Kalakshetra productions. In addition to her extensive knowledge of kavyas and alamkarasastra, she had a sensitive grasp of the practical aspects of Bharatanatyam. A fine scholar, she was a true sahrdaya. Her in-depth vidya (knowledge) was equalled only by her innate vinaya (humility).

Entry into Kalakshetra

An old timer recorded how a timid Sarada came to Kalakshetra at age 24, clad in the traditional nine yards. She was raised by her Theosophist grandfather Subrahmanya Sastri of Thanjavur, in a world of Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti, Kuvalayanandam, Yogavaashishtham and Bhagavad Gita. She learnt violin and veena from her mother.

All cocooning was over when her grandfather joined the Theosophical Society's Adyar Library in 1937. Sarada found herself in a multilingual, cosmopolitan, spiritually oriented, culturally renascent community. It was sheer enchantment to see Rukmini Devi in the play 'Bhishma', "her long and profuse natural hair let loose and falling almost to her knees, swaying rhythmically in an abstract creative form of dance."

Asked to attend rehearsals at Kalakshetra, 'Periya' Sarada spontaneously devised a notation for the dance she saw. Sometimes she sang for Rukmini Devi's recitals. She compiled a syllabus and taught theory, sang tirelessly for students' classes, monitored rehearsals. When guru Chockalingam Pillai left in 1943, Sarada learnt nattuvangam and helped to conduct recitals, a quiet revolution in itself.

She recorded with amusement, "There were press write ups not only about performances but the nattuvangam too!" She explained the meaning of the verses to many vidwans including Tiger Varadachariar when they composed music for the dance, and notated them on the spot.

Working partnership

She became indispensable, the ultimate arbiter in all matters of text and tradition. Work was an opportunity to serve others, to promote spirituality through ethics and aesthetics. When Rukmini Devi pioneered a new dance drama genre starting with 'Kutrala Kuravanji', Sarada edited the texts for choreography, alone, or collaboratively. She edited the compositions of Nilakanta Sivan, Veena Krishnamachariar and Papanasam Sivan for publication as also Sanskrit texts such as 'Sangeeta Ratnakara.'

Sarada performed a unique role as Rukmini Devi choreographed. She could sing, explain literal and inner meanings of the lyric, make suggestions, or come up with alternative lines. She also 'computerised' the music and dance with swara-tala-adavu-mudra markings in her notebook. Sarada could get on with the crustiest of musicians, who co-operated smilingly with the unassuming scholar and explained intricacies to her as to no one else. She got on well with sticklers such as Asan Chandu Panikker, made visiting experts such as Melattur's Balu Bhagavatar feel at home.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the anthology 'Nirmalam' recognise her achievements. Her students remember her as a friend who made learning a joyful process.

Recalls dance artist Ambika Buch, "She was ready for us even at 6.45 a.m. classes, with neat diagrams of talas or melaraga charts handwritten on the blackboard." She narrated the entire scene and story to every participant in the dance drama. "Even if we were just whisking fans, she ensured we knew just what Viswamitra was saying to Dasaratha, to react aptly in the background."

This writer was a young student in Kalakshetra when she was shooed away from the classroom window by Rukmini Devi who was choreographing "Gita Govindam." Later Sarada teacher obtained 'official' permission for her to watch, and narrated the "story" {ndash} sringara intact but not overt. She also taught every ashtapadi to the child, exclaiming over the rasa in the raga complementing the poetic mood.

Today it is amazing to realise that so profound a scholar was so accessible to all the youngsters in Kalakshetra, enriching them for life. Sadly, Sarada left Kalakshetra as part of a breakaway group, but students continued to visit and be enriched by her. Dance guru A. Janardhanan recalls how beautifully Sarada Teacher explained "Sakuntalam" and "Buddhavataram" to him, inspiring him with her feeling and imagination." "Once I forgot my dialogue of Dushyanta. I couldn't hear Sarada teacher prompting from the wings. But seeing Rukmini Devi shaking her in frustration scared me into remembering!"

Janardhanan was among the mourners paying their last respects to Sarada with senior disciples N.S. Jayalakshmi, Pushpa Shankar, Rama Ravi and Balagopal. Present day teachers and students were there too, reciting slokas and songs to the drone of the rain. Sumitra Gautam's Dakshinamurti slokam was reminiscent of Sarada's own recitations of it as her grandfather's favourite. Satyajit, son of old alumni Dhananjayan and Shanta, arranged the discarded footwear in neat rows outside, in the spirit that pervades Kalakshetra even today.

Staunch friend and associate G. Sundari who cared for Sarada through the ailing years chanted the uplifting "Purnamadah purnamidam" verse and said that she died peacefully, quietly. What better tribute to a woman who sought the infinite in art, as in everyday life?

Keywords: SaradaKalakshetra