Friday Review

That magnificent Migration

It is fitting to celebrate Bharatanatayam as an original product of Madras.  

Madras is 375 old. A young city indeed! Its greatness rests on the contribution to its culture by migrants. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the field of art.

For me, the best is the migration of dance gurus from Thanjavur in the early years of the 20 century. They brought the dance known as ‘Sadir kutcheri’ to a city which was the trade capital of the Colonial era. The formal kutcheri dance transformed into a naughty social event called the ‘Nautch Party.’ Providentially, that had a short history.

The young dance teachers quietly moved from temple towns of the South, and made a clear bid for a lucrative career in Madras. They succeeded, and to that success we owe the present-day art of Bharatanatyam, which has gone as far afield as Beijing and Los Angeles. It could not have reached such prominence without this city giving it the space to grow and flourish.

Madras crafted the future of Bharatanatyam by welcoming the gurus and providing them with eager students. Businessmen, lawyers, film makers, doctors... successful citizens encouraged their daughters to take to the art. They needed some years of convincing, because it was the Madras Legislature that had vehemently banned dance in temples. But change did come.

The most mentioned campaigner for Sadir was E. Krishna Iyer. An advocate and the founder secretary of The Music Academy, Chennai, he invited the star dancers from Thanjavur to perform in Madras. Others followed suit. Krishna Iyer is perhaps responsible for renaming the dance Bharatanatyam (there are many claimants for this christening) and propagating it through his writings in journals and newspapers.

Madras had many sabhas which had a ready audience for classical music. Dance was a new cup of coffee... it took time for audiences to accept and appreciate it. By the 1950s, the conservative society of Madras was fully sold on Bharatanatyam. They could not raise any objections because their own daughters and grand-daughters were learning it.

Skilful gurus

From Thanjavur to George Town came Guru Kandappa Pillai in the early 20 century with a lineage to boast of. He taught Balasaraswathi, an old icon of Madras. My Guru Ellappa Pillai came from Kanchipuram, and honed his skills with Kandappa. His home in Mambalam attracted the likes of Ram Gopal, the internationally famous dancer, and a host of French girls who made Madras their dance-home. He was a skilful teacher and a great singer.

Adyar and Rukmini Devi invited Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai. He made that village famous by settling there. His house was a renowned gurukulam and he was known as ‘Thatha’ to whom his extended family looked up for guidance. He did not make Madras his home but visited the city many times in the 1930s, and sowed the seeds for a modern Gurukulam. That idealistic school started by Rukmini Devi shaped up as Kalakshetra.

Meenakshisundaram Pillai later sent his son and others to make a new beginning for the Pandanallur bani in Egmore.

To see those performances, one had to go to the Museum Theatre where teachers such as Chokkalingam Pillai and later, Subbaraya Pillai showcased their skills. Subbaraya Pillai worked from Purasawalkam where he lived until a decade ago.

Thanjavur was actually the source from where almost all the dance gurus came. They were teachers of the new urban elite of Madras, which included many film stars. Some gurus were more famous because they were in great demand to direct dance scenes in Tamil films.

Such a new phenomenon created ripples in Madras, because the audiences were seeing their favourite songs as visuals for the first time on screen. Kamala, the Travancore sisters and Vyjayanthimala, to name only a few, brought the new-found art of Bharatanatyam to the masses on the silver screen in small, delectable doses.

What also helped in the spread of the popularity of dance was the Freedom Movement. Bharatanatyam dances to patriotic songs became so popular that even convent schools encouraged tiny tots to learn the songs and dances and perform them during school culturals.

The high profile guru of Mylapore was Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai. He was a star among nattuvanars and looked and acted his part to perfection. He taught many students, the foremost being Kumari Kamala. One would see him attired in the zari dhoti, angavastram, silk kurta, diamond kadukkan ear-rings, gold chains with talismans, his forehead smeared with vibhuti and high-lighted by an oval shaped kumkum mark. He commanded not only much respect in Madras, but also an impressive fee for his expertise.

From Kutralam came Ganesan Pillai, who made his own mark here. He was a strict task master. I recall quite vividly him teaching me the famous Khamas pada varnam of the Tanjore Quartet. Madras pundits began to enjoy the music of the Quartet before they could understand the visualisation of such classics as dance. Dhandayudhapani Pillai also made Madras his home and left many in awe not only as a teacher but also as a composer par excellence.

There were others such as Muthuswamy Pillai who came much later into prominence, and proved their worth as able gurus. All the apprentices and musicians who worked with these gurus benefited by their association and eventually became dance gurus in their own right. Among these are Swamimalai Rajaratnam, Radhakrishnan, Kameswaran, K.J. Sarasa, Indra Rajan and many others.

It is fitting to celebrate Bharatanatayam as an original product of Madras. Like Rome and Athens of the classical age, Madras is a significant city-state of the 20 century. A cultural capital, indeed! And this city invented Bharatanatyam.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 6:27:30 AM |

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