For the first time, guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai helmed a workshop for students from other schools.

His eyes light up when he smiles, palms together in perfect Anjali hasta. You notice his straight shoulders and hands positioned perfectly in front of his chest. At once, you understand why Guru Thanjavur K. Kalyanasundaram Pillai is considered a great teacher, a nattuvanar of great repute and a seeker of perfection. For somebody who is 80, his agility and enthusiasm can put a 40-year-old to shame.

In Chennai to helm a Bharatanatyam 15-day workshop organised by ABHAI for senior and not-so-senior dancers and teachers, the dance guru is happy to share thoughts and memories and offer a glimpse of his matchless abhinaya oeuvre. Perhaps one of the last few surviving traditionalists in the field of Bharatanatyam, Guru Kalyanasundaram is keeping the hoary Thanjavur tradition, perhaps the oldest Bharatanatyam bani, alive with his dedication and determination.

“This is the first time I have actually conducted a workshop for dancers from other schools,” he says by way of an opening comment. “So far, I have conducted only for my students, both in India and abroad. So, I have to admit, it was a new experience.” The guru chose a rare padavarnam in Sankarabharanam for this workshop. He explains. “The Telugu padavarnam is a traditional piece which must be more than 200 years old and has been passed on through generations. Its authorship is anonymous, but the piece extols the virtues of a king named Bhaskarendra Sethupathi.”

Subtle abhinaya

Even as he talks, the guru uses his hands and eyes to depict the beauty of the king, his generosity, his love for the arts and his devotion to Lord Rama… the minimal, subtle abhinaya and suggestive adavus leave you awestruck. How can so little convey so much? Guru Kalyanasundaram smiles. “You see, Bharatanaytam is meant to suggest, just hint. You need not use elaborate movements, grand gestures or obvious emotional expositions to convey something. Just the lift of an eyebrow, tap of the hand and small beckoning movement is enough.” He demonstrates a short description with grace and ease and you are left asking for more.

Having never taught students from other banis, what was this experience like? The octogenarian guru pauses and then replies, “It was interesting to see how the dance form has evolved. The participants were eager and willing, and that is the most important aspect of any learning process. My job was to explain why a mudra was meant to be done in a particular way and suggest simple tips. My advice to young dancers today is this: practise and be regular, and more important, understand and respect the art.” He adds, “Parents too have a great part to play. Just like it takes 16 years for a child to reach college, it takes years for a student to hone the skills and perfect the art. Give the child time to absorb and imbibe. That’s the way this art should be learnt.” Sage counsel, this!

Naturally. For, here’s a man who hails from the tradition of the great Panchapakesa Nattuvanar, and can trace his lineage to the royal courts of Baroda, Mysore and Ramanathapuram. He honed his skills under the strict and watchful eyes of his father T.P. Kuppiah Pillai and brother Mahalingam Pillai. Meanwhile, brother-in-law A.T. Govindaraja Pillai and sister Karunambal were pillars of strength. Since the age of four, when he had his arangetram at the Kumbeswarar temple in Kumbakonam, it has been only Bharatanatyam and nothing else that consumed Kalyanasundaram.

Why were there no stage performances? He explains, “Traditionally, men were only nattuvanars, and never performed on stage, only at temples and that too on special occasions. In fact, when they taught, stalwarts such as Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Chockalingam Pillai and P. Kittappa Pillai, never took the stage. In fact, they never even got up and showed a step or a mudra.”

Of course, there were a couple of exceptions. “When the Gujarat Sangeet Natak Akademi honoured me, I performed a short Krishna Karnamrutha sloka, on the persistent requests of Pt. Birju Maharaj, who is a dear friend,” recalls the doyen.

The guru’s life revolves round Bharatanatyam and his Mumbai-based Sri Raja Rajeswari Bharatanatya Kala Mandir. For six decades, the dance school has been teaching Bharatanatyam to aspirants north of the Vindhyas. Today, Gen Next comprising his children and grandchildren, is fully involved in the running of the school. With scores of students in India and abroad taking forward the glorious Thanjavur tradition, Kalyanasundaram is a happy man.