Dancer Anuratha Swaminathan creates an Instagram series on hereditary nattuvanars and gurus
It’s an old house in Mel Veedi, Thanjavur. A beautiful pulli kolam is drawn on the steps at the entrance. Inside, several black and white and sepia-tinted photographs of legendary nattuvanars of Bharatanatyam hang from the walls. Korai mats have been laid out on the red-oxide flooring. On a wooden bench in the narrow passage along the muttram (central courtyard) sits K.P.K Chandrasekhar, son of the famed Kittappa Pillai.
“This is the sanctum of dance. This 200-year-old house is where the Thanjavur Quartet brothers—Ponniah, Chinniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu—lived and created the Bharatanatyam repertoire,” says Anuratha Swaminathan, beginning to trace the history of the art form and the family’s lineage. Behind her is a painting of baby Krishna gifted to the family by the Maratha king of Thanjavur.
This entire scenario is an episode from an Instagram series, anchored and curated by Anuratha, a Bharatanatyam dancer, who trained in the Thanjavur sampradayam, under the Malaysia-based Indira Manickam. Daughter-in-law of the well-known natyacharya B. Herambanathan, Anuratha, along with her mridangist husband Swaminathan, has come up with an interesting and insightful series that takes viewers back in time to understand how traditional practitioners taught the dance form and perfected its technique. In the process, she has been reaching out to some veteran dancers and talented disciples of the hereditary gurus, who recall the rigorous training and how their ‘vadyar’ (nattuvanars) or ‘teacher amma’ (female gurus) were unsparing of mistakes and mediocrity. It is fascinating to discover how in that era dancer-gurus from the Isaivellalar community used a certain extraordinary style to groom young disciples in this demanding art form.
Mridangam exponent and nattuvanar T G Bavu Pillai
“My guru would ensure we were in the araimandi position throughout the adavu (footwork) session. She would insist that we tie a cloth belt to reduce stress on the hip and spine. And if we messed up an adavu, the next moment the thattukazhi (small wooden stick used to keep beat) would land near our feet. We were expected to take the art seriously and aim for excellence,” says Usha Balachandran, a disciple of Thanjavur Lakshmikantham Ammal. “Besides the many adavus, she taught us different hand gestures and eye movements to accompany diverse emotions. The aim was to make the entire body as expressive as possible.”
Though these gurus were strict disciplinarians, their disciples say they were also caring and generous. “They were taskmasters only in the class because they taught with purpose — to pass on the rich treasure that they possessed. “The whole world might celebrate Kittappa Pillai as a nattuvanar, but to us he was a loving patriarch,” says Malathi Dominic, one of his earliest students.
The training was systematic, relaxed and focussed on every aspect of natya. The students were not allowed to start dancing from day one. They had to first attentively listen to jatis being uttered by their gurus, then learn to keep beat with their hands, next would be footwork, followed by abhinaya and at the end of it, they would be introduced to compositions of the margam.
“We continued doing the adavus till we could perform them flawlessly, which would not be less than two years. One could get to learn the alarippu only after a three-year training in the basic grammar. So strong was the foundation,” says Nandini Ramani, a well-known proponent of the Balasaraswati style. “Bala did not believe in over-dramatising emotions or glamourising movements. She made a mark with her honest and simple portrayals.”
The gurus did not compromise even when it came to family. Kuttalam M. Selvam says his father Muthuswamy Pillai (a recipient of the French honour, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres) insisted on his rigorous training before allowing him to pick up the cymbals to do nattuvangam. So it was with S. Palaniappan, grandson of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai.
The conversations on the Insta presentation emphasise the timelessness of the traditional patantaram. And create awareness about the influential moments in dance history. They also make one realise how a dancer can develop a distinct approach and prepare the body for greater artistic challenges by gaining expertise in adavus, theermanams, kalapramanam and hand gestures.
“If the series has managed to draw attention, it shows that tradition still holds sway,” says Anuratha. “For me, it has been a fulfilling experience as an artiste. It felt like going through my training all over again while speaking to the dancers, who brought to light the works of some hereditary gurus about whom the world doesn’t know. For instance, Thanjavur Lakshmikantham Ammal and Duraikannu Ammal of Pichaiya Pillai School of Bharatanatyam, the first central government registered dance school in 1952. Veena Bashiniammal, Lakshmikantham’s grandmother, was known for her riveting abhinaya classes.”
Kalapramanam (tempo) is a significant feature of the Thanjavur bani. “And a relaxed kalapramanam lets the dancer bring out the beauty of every adavu and bhava and the changing sensibilities too,” says Anuratha.
Streamed from October 7 to 10, it tracks the journey of B. Herambanathan, whose father was mridangam exponent and nattuvanar T.G. Bavu Pillai, who accompanied stalwart gurus such as Chinniah Nattuvanar, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Pichaiya Pillai, Chockalingam Pillai, Kuppiah Pillai, Ponnaiya Pillai, Kittappa Pillai, Kaamu Kannamal, Pandanallur Jayalakshmi, Rukmini Devi Arundale and Mrinalini Sarabhai. Herambanathan is well-versed in both mridangam and natyam. Besides Bharatanatyam, he has been a musician of the Melattur Bhagavata Mela and was part of the revival of Kaisika Natakam at Thirukurungudi. Along with his two sons, Swaminathan and Hariharan, Herambanathan is continuing the family tradition of the Thanjavur bani. The series can be watched on thanjavurdhrsyakavyakoodam.