Teacher to the core

Thanjavur B. Herambanathan. Photo: R.M. Rajarathinam  

Rhythm runs in his blood as he belongs to Thanjavur, a place that resonates with it. B. Herambanathan, senior most nattuvanar of the Thanjavur tradition is seated on a bamboo mat wielding the thattukkazhi and reciting sollu softly as this writer peeps in. Spotting an intruder he does not get irritated but says, “Do you want to listen to it? It is all based on mathematics. One can go on for hours.” He smiles and gets ready for a quick conversation before leaving for the evening kutcheri.

Herambanathan is the son of T.G. Bhavu Pillai, a Bharatanatyam teacher, mridangam vidwan and Bhagavata Mela drama teacher. His association with the Thanjavur Quartet goes back several decades. His father was the disciple of Kittappa Pillai’s grandfather who belonged to the Thanjavur Quartet family. Trained by T.M. Arunachalam Pillai and K.P. Kittappa Pillai, he began his choreographic career in 1967. “Initially, I would accompany the dancer as a mridangam vidwan for the arangetrams conducted by my father. It was in 1970 that I conducted my first arangetram in the presence of Kittappa Pillai as the chief guest,” he reminisces.

From 1973 onwards, Herambanathan worked along with Kittappa Pillai and his father as a choreographer. In 1989, he established the Thanjavur Bavu Pillai School of Bharatanatyam in Thanjavur in memory of his father.

“A lot has changed since…,” his voice trails off before picking up the thread. “Those days, essentially it was the gurukulam system and the nattuvangam tradition was taken forward more as part of the lineage. Students spent a lot of time with the teacher. Learning was more by listening and observing. Besides the nattuvanar was the teacher himself who had the knowledge of the other allied arts. Today, nattuvangam has become a separate profession and many teachers hire nattuvanars for their students arangetram,” he says.

Since 1986, he has been travelling abroad and training students in Bharatanatyam. What does this Thanjavur nattuvanar think about other Banis or styles that have evolved over the years? He frowns a little and then answers, “There was no fuss or competition between banis in those days. All of us formed a fraternity and we would discuss jathis and calculations, if we met even at a tea shop or a wedding; if we happened to visit a programme and wanted to share our observations, we would do so without reservations. It was the spirit of art that ruled, not ego.”

After a pause, Herambanathan continues: “Besides, the concept of bani has become quite confused. For example, Kalakshetra is an institution, not a bani. Rukmini Devi learnt dance from Pandanallur Meenakshi. Many of the teachers recruited then were from Kerala. My father has also performed as a mridangam vidwan in Kalakshetra. Then how did Kalakshetra become an independent style?”

With the efforts of Anita Ratnam, ‘Kaisika Natakam’ has seen a revival where the natyacharya leads the troupe. Commenting on contemporary Bharatanatyam choreography, Herambanathan explains, “Nowadays, speed has influenced choreographic works. It is a general notion that fast-paced rhythms are more difficult or complex, which is untrue. Sustaining the sthayi bhava in the vilambit laya is more difficult and demands high technical skill.

Herambanathan is the recipient of the Kalaimamani in 1996 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2013. “Awards are a kind of recognition. But the joy is momentary. It feels good when one receives it but after sometime it just decorates the shelf. What gives joy is creating art and passing it on to the students. What gives happiness is when my senior students visit and we talk of old times over crisp vada and coffee. The world for a guru revolves round the students.” The teacher wipes a teardrop, which sums up his outlook.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 2:09:11 AM |

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