Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai says even a lifetime of hard work doesn’t ensure mastery over the art form of Bharatanatya
To any serious student of Bharatanatyam, his name is synonymous with lilting compositions of padams and tillanas. Going by his greatness, one would envisage a well-built, austere dance guru, but what you find is the inconspicuous, unassuming person who wears a sweet smile lighting his eyes. It is the great Kalyanasundaram Pillai of Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir.
Even before we warm up to a conversation, it’s breakfast time and he makes sure that you eat. His warmth and hospitality is endearing. The guru is a thoroughly educated dance maestro whose entire being pulsates with rhythm and sollukattu. For a man of his stature, he is too simple to be true.
The Mumbai-based dance institution is a brand name in quality and tradition. But when and how did it open in the western part of India? “My father Bharata vidwan Supriya Pillai was requested by many south Indians to start a dance school in Mumbai. Under his guidance, my sister’s husband Govindaraja Pillai founded Rajarajeshwari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir in 1947. It was nurtured by my elder brother T.K. Mahalingam Pillai. Very soon I joined the institution too. We belong to a community (Isai Vellalar) that teaches dance more than perform. Hence, by profession, we are nattuvanars rather than performing artistes though in my case, I’m both. On the demise of my brother-in-law, my sister Karunambal became the principal of the institution and the children of the family are into teaching dance as well. They form the present generation gurus,” he explains mildly. An ace guru and a world class dance institute which has churned celebrities, there is nothing that need to be asked, except, “Do you encourage dance as a stepping stone to films and TV reality shows which are now ruling the roost?” Pat comes the answer, “Although a number of our pupils have made it big through films right from Kamini Kaushal to Nalini Jayawanth, Sandhya Rajaram, Gopikrishna, and others like Vani Ganapathy have walked the ramp in fashion contests, I for one, am not favourably disposed to such an idea. Here we are, gurus, sweating it out to teach them through the years and shape them into dancers of repute. But when they use this training to enter films or modelling it hurts. There are some who voice their goals in learning dance at the very beginning. I totally discourage them from learning such a difficult art form if their motives are something else. To me it is a holy art that requires years of practice to master and the payback is in the form of atma trupti (fulfilment of the soul ),” his tone is suffused with reverence.
Compliment him on his excellent choreography with its intricate ‘pancha nadai teermanam’ and his superb tillana compositions and he waves it aside proclaiming with utter humility, “yellam periawalz potta picchai’ (we are living off the charity of our elders) .” A life wedded to dance, with a family also dedicated to dance, you cannot ask for more from this torch-bearer of tradition!