Wisdom from the masters

How often has the criticism been voiced of the Sangeet Natak Akademi's sizable archival documentation material not being made accessible to interested parties? And yet not even a handful from the dancer/scholar tribe was present during the Akademi's special screening at the Sahitya Akademi auditorium of films on late Guru Kittappa Pillai (1913-1999) and Guru Subbaraya Pillai (born in 1916), son of late guru Chokkalingam Pillai, respectively from the time honoured Tanjavur and Pandanallur Bharatanatyam streams.

The nearly hour-long film on Kittappa Pillai compiled by Manna Srinivasan comprised material drawn from several archival documentaries. Fifth generation direct-descendant of the Tanjai Naalvar (Tanjore Quartette), Guru Kittappa Pillai analyses the work of his forefathers in codifying and systematising the grammar of Bharatanatyam, with the unified margam for the concert platform being designed, preserving the classical elements while accommodating the compulsions of engaging public interest for an art form now acquiring a distinctly entertaining aspect, different from its original avatar as one of the shodasha upacharams (16 ritualistic services) offered to the temple Deity. For this critic, what both films clearly underlined was the Bharatanayam/Carnatic music axis with the dance developing as a pure expression of the music. One gauges from the singing by the old masters while teaching, how aligned dance movement is to the music. Even the Tanjore Quartette were gurukul disciples of one of the great Carnatic Trimurtis, Muthuswami Dikshitar.

Kittappa Pillai points out how Bharatanatyam, which existed in scattered items like Geetam, Sooladi, Sabdam and Prabandham got a unified format in the margam designed as performance prescription for the concert platform. He provides special insight into adavus (movement units) and their correlation with rhythm and jati - respective adavus lending themselves best to certain rhythmic gaits. He talks of `Mei adavus' where silently or with rhythmic articulation isolated parts of the body move. In the slow spun vilambit kal Melaprapti presented by one of Kittappa Pillai's senior disciples Vyjayantimala, one perceives a quality of the dance that has disappeared along with the `mei adavu' with the typical shoulder movements.

In the shorter film on Subbaraya Pillai compiled by Lakshmi Viswanathan, the guru explains the family's dance heritage and the marital alliances and connections with the Pandanallur family, the guru himself being a disciple of "Thatha" Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. Dancers are shown being trained in the pillared `Thaazhvaaram' called the Silambu Koodam, in the Guru's ancestral home, with framed photographs hung in a row on the wall.

Subbaraya Pillai explains how the tradition of the Nattuvanar teaching in the seated position evolved. If the guru were himself to dance to demonstrate and teach the disciple, his main energies in maintaining the prescribed dance lines would be at the cost of the undivided attention on how the student was performing. Besides, an aging Nattuvanar's sagging body lines would produce less-than-perfect emulating students. The Guru seated in front shows what exactly is needed from the student in an adavu demonstrating the coordinated head, eye glance, wrist and hand movements. Today the non-performing nattuvanar is rare and the student copying the performer/guru's movements becomes more a clone. In the olden days, each student followed instructions in one's own individual fashion, for there were guidelines but no role model for the micro-elements of a movement.