Zealous guardian of a tradition

HERE IS a quiet, reserved man, one who is proud of his heritage, and one who is comfortable with it. There is dignity and serene contentment about him that perhaps stem from the satisfaction of having dedicated his life to preserving intact a precious family tradition. For art represents something sacred to him. This luminary is C. Subbaraya Pillai, oldest living Natyacharya, and grandson of the legendary Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai.

A descendant of the Thanjavur Quartet, Subbaraya Pillai was born in 1914 to Chockalingam Pillai and Chengammal, and is possibly the last of this illustrious lineage. Trained from the age of five by his grandfather, he reminisces about his childhood: the sound of music echoing through the house all day, the practice of teaching music before dance...the never-ending dance classes, assisting in the dance recitals of celebrities like Ram Gopal, Indrani Rahman, Pandanallur Jayalakshmi, Rukmani Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, and later Nirmala Ramachandran.

The tutelage under his grandfather continued until he was 28 when he moved to Chennai with his father to assist him at Kalakshetra, and later at the Indian Institute of Fine Arts, Egmore.

Together they groomed eminent dancers like Alarmel Valli and Meenakshi Chittaranjan among others. Says Valli who joined the Egmore class, ``In an old corporation school with a railway track close by... with leaking roofs, sooty atmosphere... these masters still created a temple of art." With the support of Sarangapani Iyengar, they pioneered the concept of the 10-day Natyakala Conference in December 1947, where demonstrations in the morning and performances in the evening were conducted with many outstation artistes participating. Subsequently, Subbaraya Pillai headed the Lalitha Subramaniam Natya Palli for many years and now conducts classes in Purasawalkam in his terraced house.

Revered for his gentle ways, his students speak of him with great affection. Valli put it succinctly, ``After him, there would be no more gurus, only dance teachers." Besides total dedication, vadyar was also known for his generosity of spirit. His students affirm the fact that though he did the choreography, they were free to develop their individuality. He would often say, ``I have given you the foundation, now build on it."

Master is a stickler for principles. He will not consent to an arangetram unless he is himself convinced and will teach according to aptitude irrespective of whether the student has the makings of a famous dancer or not. Arul Francis, disciple from California who is training in Nattuvangam says, ``He simply does not take any short cuts. It's the dance that comes first, not the dancer." He values loyalty: he will not teach other's students and once a sudent quits, he/she cannot come back to him. These traits at once endeared and distanced him from others.

The Pandanallur style practised by his forefathers was characterised by short, crisp jathis and subtle abhinaya. It is generally agreed that the maestro has rounded the edges and added fluidity to the style. A constant exploration of beauty in movement remains his passion. But the principle of tight control was emphasised for bhava. Sancharis were allowed but only to the point, without elaboration. Chittaranjan tries to explain this, ``Abhinaya was so subtle, maybe assuming an intelligent audience or maybe the masters did not want to hinder the acceptance of dance by taking liberties."

Some may argue that his repertoire is limited. But Chittaranjan sees a different aspect here: ``Master was a stickler for tradition; he would teach only old items, predominantly those of the Thanjavur Quartet. But every item was novel because of the varied choreography. It would never look the same."

Arul Francis, only one to have learnt in a gurukulam arrangement, speaks of Master's passion for choreography: ``When I see him stop a dancer and re-choreograph a unique combination just for her, I feel I'm watching some great genius like Mozart or Shakespeare."

Unfortunately Subbaraya Pillai does not believe in documentation. Nonchalantly he says, ``It's all in the mind." And what about preserving traditions? ``Through my disciples and my grand daughter," he smugly replies. Francis is keen to protect this heritage. ``I made a decision, as a dance teacher, to never choreograph on my own because I want Master's choreography to live on in the future. Bharatanatyam is still an oral tradition where a piece of art, a work lives only by being passed on." That apart, he has a keen supporter in his grand daughter, Vanitha, 18, who shares her grandfather's enthusiasm for music and dance.

Many awards have been conferred on this living legend. Some of them are the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Kalaimamani title bestowed by the Iyal Isai Nataka Manram, both in 1979, the Music Academy's Natyacharya Award in 1995, and Nritta Peranayar title from Chidambaram Natyanjali soon after. What about the number of students he has taught? Or the number of arangetrams conducted? His memory is hazy. ``The only thing I remember clearly is dance," he replies apologetically.

While bemoaning the decline of items like Alarippu and Jatiswaram, he stresses afresh the importance of music in dance. Adavus must be set to music first, he insists. And continues. Dance is one; the style differs only due to different creative minds.

He finishes rehearsing a Saveri jathiswaram with a student, and remarks, ``Did you see how the movements flow with the music? Talam is important, but music is the sole inspiration for choreography... My grandfather used to compose while singing." Subbaraya Pillai's strength and control of rhythm belies his age, the only concession being the chair he uses. He reportedly had come to teach after an eye surgery with an eye patch for he does not know any other way of life.

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