In the birth centenary year of Guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai, the Bharatanatyam maestro’s contribution was highlighted at a festival organised by his senior most disciple Padmini Ramachandran in Bengaluru

It was the year 1945 when Anandi, the daughter of Kalki Krishnamurthy, and Radha in their arangetram were dancing to Subramania Bharatiyar’s patriotic song “Aduvome Palli Paduvome” with none other than the legendary M.S.Subbulakshmi providing vocal support and Guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai conducting the recital! Enthusiastic applause rent the air to the line “Sangu konde vettri ooduvome” (Let us blow the bugle of victory), and critics like E. Krishna Iyer and others went to town hailing the arrival of a Bharatanatyam guru far ahead of his times, who realised that success in classical dance lay in reaching out to audiences, through songs/themes close to their heart.

In memory of the guru during his centenary year, Vazhuvoor’s senior-most disciple Padmini Ramachandran, under the aegis of Natya Priya, inaugurated Kasturi Rangamandira, a still under-construction amphitheatre adjoining her home (enabled by enlightened support of bureaucrats providing Karnataka government aid and public contributions), marking a cultural renaissance of sorts for Hoysalanagar, a remote part of Bengaluru where art presence is rarely felt.

Sturdy Dollu Kunita performers in black tasselled skirt, with a tiger skin printed top, one shoulder bare and hair tied in yellow cloth, lustily playing on drums while dancing down the steps to the auditorium space, ushered the start to a varied programme. After the customary Vazhuvoor invocation to Balakurumbikai, Padmini Ramachandran, undaunted by the years, with daughter Kanya, rendered a brief pushpanjali and Kshetrayyapadam.

Fitting in with Vazhuvoor’s advocacy of Tamil varnams, “Nadani azhaittu vaa” in Kamboji was presented by two of Padmini’s senior students Keertana Ravi and Sneha Devanandan, whose dancing reflected the individual personalities — one more articulated in abhinaya expression than the muted other. The nayika’s wonder that the Lord who had experienced love could reconcile to such separation and homage to Subramanya as the giver of the Pranava Mantra were well communicated.

It was the same Kartikeya as the object of love in the other varnam, in Bhairavi, one of the highlights of the evening “Velani Vara Solladi” presented by Lakshmi Gopalaswamy trained under Padmini for quite a few years. Despite a parallel career in films, this dancer’s chaste Bharatanatyam exemplified the grace and impeccable rhythm and lines of the Vazhuvoorbani, highlighted by fine vocal support from Nandkumar and taut nattuvangam by Pulakesi.

Varsha Gopal, disciple of Jaya Kamala Pandyan, in the Todayam and Bhakti segment of Kuravanji gave another very neat performance. “Baro Krishnaiyya” was a typical example of how popular lyrics, pertaining to the Carnatic musical format, were inducted into the dance field by Ramiah Pillai.

Of the many lectures (with speakers taking far beyond the allotted time), Kanaka Srinivasan’s short, written-out introduction was to the point, followed by disciple Uttara Rao presenting Ramiah Pillai’s choreography of “Nadanamadinar” and Kanaka’s own dance composition to Lalgudi Jayaraman’s tillana in raga Maand.

Highlighting aspects of Vazhuvoor’s family legacy and background, Jayanti Ramachandran, disciple of Ramiah Pillai’s son Samraj, relevantly dwelt (though too long) on connections with the temple at Vazhuvoor and its rituals. Chitra Visweswaran’s articulate and poetic lecture-demonstration illustrated the micro elements imparting grace to the Vazhuvoor school, the subtle aesthetics of the angled stance different from the purely frontal treatment in Bharatanatyam, the feline leaps, the gait, the eye glances, the musical cadence of the jatis and the boldness of the guru in trying out new compositions. Her well finished disciple Uma Nambudiripad next presented Lalgudi Jayaraman’s Charukesi varnam, the lyricism of the Vazhuvoor bani very evident in the choreography — rendered to taped music with the voice of late Visweswaran singing. Despite the late hour of the night, the same varnam, to live music, was rendered with gusto by A. Lakshman. Thus, the Nayika in this varnam addressing Krishna, female in one case and a male dancer in another version, served to highlight the dancer as a vehicle of expression rather than as an individual expressing a subjective experience.

One had indeterminate feelings about Kanya Ramachadran’s disciples performing alarippu, the rhythmic structure used to represent peacock, snake, deer, lion and bird. But the attempt proved that Ramiah Pillai’s bold experimenting legacy was very much in vogue.

This critic had similar mixed reactions to Padmini Ramachandran’s effort “Ashta Pushpitam”, portraying the ashtanayikas in a group. With emphasis on the jivatma/ paramatma union, supported by snippets of textual framework of traditional lyrics like “Smarasungaranguni sari evvare”, “Rati Sukhasare”, “Arivenaiyya”, Kshtraiyya’s “Ninnun joodagaligeenee”, “Radhe tawa virahe” with the sakhi trying to unite Radha with Krishna, and several others, the nayika’s categories got smudged, lacking clarity. There seemed an overdose of the Khandita rejection, and the contemporary tone of the finale, exhorting womanhood and her place in life, became an anti-climax. Experimenting with modern poetry, set to score, would perhaps have evoked the contemporary one better.

The non-Vazhuvoor aspects were perhaps to emphasise this performance space as meant for all art. Otherwise, evoking Swami Vivekananda’s 150th anniversary on this occasion with music which lacked sruti alignment seemed out of place. Shanti Menon’s Mohiniattam seeking to establish a connection with Vazhuvoor through grace, bhakti and sringar too, was outside the Vazhuvoor discipline. So was Rukmini Vijayakumar’s Bharatanatyam with geometrically perfect linear dimensions, and a rather crisply articulated style very different from Ramiah Pillai’s lasya aesthetics. Her sanchari of young Krishna subduing Kalinga in an encounter, with a worried Yashoda, did not quite fit into the Kapi “Jagadoddharana” context. With timing boundaries overshot, the second evening’s programme concluding at nearly midnight became an in-house affair.