Remembering Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai

Dharni Mathur in performance. Photo: Inni Singh   | Photo Credit: 10dfranjana1

Today it is commonplace to see dancers selecting any musical composition that inspires them and setting it to Bharatanatyam movements and abhinaya. In the early and mid-20th Century, however, this was not the case. Back then the dance form was getting comfortable on the proscenium stage and with its new name – earlier having been known as Sadir or Chinna Melam – the stage repertoire that was largely adhered to included songs intended specially for the dance. Alaripu-s in different rhythm cycles, jatiswarams, shabdams, varnams and tillanas composed by the Tanjore Quartet and padams and javalis associated with great Devadasi artists were the norm. Vazhuvoor B. Ramaiah Pillai is acknowledged as a pioneer who helped broaden the scope of the Bharatanatyam repertoire by composing dance to Carnatic music pieces popularly sung in vocal concerts.

Such thoughts, on the development of Bharatanatyam, from the pre and post- Independence era to today, came to mind as the institute Nrithyaranjani celebrated the birth anniversary of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai over three days this past week. Nrithyaranjani founder Kanaka Srinivasan, who learnt from him since childhood and has been a beacon of his Bharatnatyam approach, known as the Vazhuvoor bani, organised the festival. Six of her senior students performed at the event, held at New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre.

Guru Kanaka made it a point to share with the audience snippets of learning from her guru. These helped shaped the audience’s perception of the presentations, as they had in the past shaped Kanaka’s art.

One of the reasons Ramaiah Pillai was celebrated as a guru was because he had sparkling disciples – among them the legendary Kamala Lakshman, who ruled the stage (and screen) during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But another reason for his success was his wide vision of the medium, his ability to portray complex ideas through minimalist gestures and his ability to adapt songs popular among the classical music loving public to the needs of a Bharatanatyam presentation.

Hearing about his work, one draws the conclusion that his teaching reflected two core understandings. Firstly, that a temple art brought to the stage is both a performance and a devotional offering and secondly that a stage performance is as much visual as aural. Thus, he interspersed his nritta compositions with sparkling jumps and sculpturesque postures. And, in taking up songs that were conventionally part of vocal recitals, such as the kirtanams “Kamalajasya” and “Bhavayami Raghuraman”, he added to the comfort of familiarity the drama of impressive jatis, whose syllables bounced rhythmically off the nattuvanar’s tongue and resounded in the ears of the spectators.

All the pieces performed on the first two days of the festival had been choreographed by Ramaiah Pillai. It was a pleasure to see the young students of Guru Kanaka immersing themselves in the old compositions and bringing what now would be called an old-world charm to the stage.

On day one, Pavithra Selvam and Mallika Mahesh performed duets and solos. The performance opened with the traditional invocation sung by vocalist Sudha Raghuraman, at the end of which the dancers entered to perform their namaskar (bhumi pranam), followed by paying respects to the alter where a portrait of Guru Ramaiah Pillai was set up behind the traditional oil lamp, followed by their homage to their guru and the orchestra. This pattern was followed on all days. It was, explained Guru Kanaka later, the manner in which her guru had taught her to make her first entry. Again, one was reminded of Ramaiah Pillai’s pragmatic approach to performance, giving the dancer a chance to familiarise herself with the entire stage area with simple steps, before starting on the complex portions of the dance.

Pavithra and Mallika performed the traditional varnam “Nadanai azhaittu va sakhiye” dedicated to Lord Muruga. They also danced vintage pieces like “Natanamaadinaar” and a tillana in raga Kanada. When they performed excerpts from “Thiru Kutrala Kuravanji”, in which Pavithra took the role of the lovelorn heroine Vasantavalli and Mallika that of the lively kurathi or soothsayer, one could see them respond to the drama of the situation and, and their abhinaya took on a more spontaneous quality. Both the dancers coordinated well in the recital, negotiating the leaps and turns with zest.

On the second day, Pavithra Chari and Shubhali Mehrotra teamed up for another lively presentation of compositions by Ramaiah Pillai. Among these was the kriti “Saadinchane” in raga Arabhi, one of the kritis of Tyagaraja known as the Pancha Ratnas or ‘five gems’. In this the poet teases, praises and beseeches his lord all at once, recounting Krishna’s games with the gopis and mother Yashoda, and telling of his own devotion to him. The padam “Malai pozhuudinilai” was another example of a beautiful piece picked up by Ramaiah Pillai to set to dance. A song by the poet and novelist Kalki Krishnamurthi, it tells of a maiden who dreams she is accosted by Muruga in her garden. Just as she is about to get over her shyness and respond to him, she wakes up and is deluged with sadness at having ‘woken up’ too early, or should one say, too late! This beautiful piece is reflective of a deep philosophy of the soul’s journey through life.

“Palvadiyum mukham” about Krishna’s beauty, which she sees everywhere, was Shubhali’s solo in raga Nattakurinji. The repertoire included a tillana in raga Kedaram, a Ponnaiah Pillai composition. The second evening ended with a pasuram of Andal, “Vaaranam aiyiram”. This, with Andal’s characteristic side hairdo and garland, and the kurathi costume worn by Mallika on the first day, reminded one that about three or four decades ago, it was the norm to end a Bharatanatyam recital with piece by Andal and one featuring a Kurathi, in the appropriate costume.

On Day three, Dharini Mathur held the stage for the most part, while Shreya Mathur contributed a bhava piece. This third evening was reserved for Guru Kanaka’s own choreographic forays and served to show how she has carried on her guru’s open-minded approach. Dharini’s main piece was the daru varnam, “Maate Malayadhwaja Pandya Sanjaate”! Apart from a command over the nritta portions, Dharini showed involvement in the abhinaya, immersing herself in the story of Manmatha’s annihilation under the furious gaze of Shiva as he tried to shoot his arrow to bring Shiva and Parvati together.

The second portion of the muktai swaram, instead of being set to adavus, showed the Goddess destroying demons and conquering the world, bringing out images of Meenakshi (the daughter of the Pandya king).

Shreya danced the stuti “Omkaraakaarini” of Vidwan M. Balamuralikrishna with containment and dignity. When Dharini came back for the javali “Vani pondu” in raga that depicts the khandita or angry nayika, it was done with a refreshing restraint and subtlety. She closed with the Meera bhajan “Pag ghunguroo bandh” that was composed by Kanaka in a tillana format.

The idea worked well, though one missed the depth of the line “Sahaj mile avinashi re”, which got camouflaged in the final usi adavu.

All the students have imbibed a serene poise that stands them in good stead whether in nritta or in abhinaya.

In an age of self promotion, where an exhibitionist streak seems to run through a large number of classical dancers, this quiet joy was all the more welcome.

Quick costume changes, vibrant colours and aesthetic combinations were another hallmark of the three days.

The orchestra, comprising veterans of the Delhi stage, was in rousing form. Sudha Raghuraman’s inspired singing, Thanjavur Kesavan’s fillers that brought excitement to the pauses, G. Raghuraman’s lilting flute alaps, and Guru Kanaka’s unobtrusive and sur-friendly nattuvangam were a treat to listen to.

The dancers were lucky to have this standard of music.

The nature of this festival reiterated the need for institutions and gurus to invite each other to address their students, so that the experiences of the seniors do not get lost in a fog of half remembered tales left with a handful of nostalgic individuals, as time goes hurtling on.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 12:26:17 AM |

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