By S. Jayachandran
The Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI) organised its annual Summer Abhivriddhi Shaala in May this year. The composition chosen for the workshop was the Sankarabharanam pada varnam Saamiki sari evvare, a dance composition of Panchapakesa Nattuvanar. This was an opportunity for ABHAI to commemorate the 125th anniversary of natyacharya T. Kuppiah Pillai (1887-1981). Kuppiah Pillai’s son, Natya Kalanidhi T.K. Kalyanasundaram of Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatanatya Kala Mandir, Mumbai, taught the composition between 6 and 15 May 2013. At the foyer of the Narada Gana Sabha, every morning it was a joyous experience watching, learning and experiencing the pada varnam as it was opened layer by layer by an experienced teacher. The result was sheer magic.
We witnessed the acharya parampara in Kalayanasundaram Pillai over several sessions – humble while speaking on worldly affairs, and detached about mundane matters, and growing larger than life when it came to matters of art. He punctuated the classes every now and then with stories both religious and secular, humorous anecdotes, and most important, drops of nectar of philosophy. Constant encouragement and assurance that the participants were faring well made confidence soar high among the learners, perhaps a teaching technique of a master teacher. By marvelling at the varnam being completed within the stipulated timeframe, he gave the participants a sense of happiness that they were learning a legendary composition in a short time, completely aware that it would take months of continuous practice to master it.
His patience while teaching and his willingness to repeat the same instruction umpteen times was admirable and a lesson to any young teacher. He did the nattuvangam with restraint and control, coupled with excellent rendition of Sankarabharanam. Phrases of rare quality reflecting the mood and content of the sancharis were sung. It showed great emphasis laid on music and highlighted the fact that dance is visual music. We also understood that singing for dance is not an easy matter; it needs separate grooming, receptiveness and sensitivity.
The teermanams were like beautiful flowers strung together, starting from the samam, ending in an eduppu filled with complexities wherever required, as a piece of embellishment, and ending with simple arudis. Complete adavus, insistence on good araimandi, muzhumandi, and angasuddham, and constant instruction that abhinaya should be subtle, suggestive and crisp, reflected the wisdom the acharya has practised and taught. the emphasis on avoiding eye contact with the onlookers, was a revelation – showing a refined and suggestive way of demonstrating the bhava. The high integrity of the natyacharya was evident during the entire duration of training.
Kalyanasundaram is living proof of the reverence the word ‘Swami’ would hold in his world of art and life. His emphasis on the firmness in holding the sikhara hasta and curtailing unwanted emotions, doing the attami while addressing the lord was a demonstration of his life ethics.
The pallavi ‘Saamiki sari evvare’ unfolds with the idea that there is no one equal to the Lord. The Sethupati lords were great patrons of arts and literature who were described as ‘sangeeta vidya sahitya vinodan’. The dance composer had chosen to interpret it to mean that there is no one to equal his musical skills, bravery and knowledge of the sastras.
In the second kandigai of the pallavi which says, “O friend I cannot bear this separation,” the acharya explained in depth and also demonstrated with finesse the abhinaya of a viraha nayika. The gestures were subtle, simple, straightforward and uncluttered as in any dance composition of yore, with emphasis on mukhaja abhinaya.
The highlight came in the anupallavi – first kandigai, ‘Bhoomilo Bhaskarendra Setupati bhoopaludu’ which literally means, on earth Bhaskarendra Sethupati is Bhoopala. The dance composer had taken full advantage of the phrase to show the prowess of Raja Bhaskara Setupati in iyal, isai and natakam. We were taught a sanchari depicting a poet composing in the hall of connoisseurs and being endowed with gifts. While explaining this kai the acharya pointed out many finer points which would have eluded us – the poem sung in praise of the king in the court has to be written facing the king in the tradition of singing aasukavi. The poet nust not bend way down while handing over the manuscript because he and the king are of equal stature in an assembly of learned men. The king, on his part, bends forward and receives the poem with reverence, reads it, worships the lyrics, as it is not just a paean to him but to his entire royal lineage. He places the manuscript aside, honours the poet and bows down to his prowess. This idea was explained in length, an amazingly different understanding of the way in which scholarship was received and acknowledged by royalty in those days.
The natyacharya also explained the respect given to musicians by the kings. This he incorporated into the sancharis. He pointed out that we must show the Maharaja appreciating with royal restraint so as not to disturb the artist, an interesting nuance.
The adavus set for the chittaswaram and the ettugada swaras were so musical. The last ettugada swara or the makuta charanaswara was composed as a beautiful chain of nritta sequences with mei adavus, korvais punctuated with excellent finales.
T.K. Kalyanasundaram was assisted by his wife K. Mythili, a performer of yesteryear and a teacher who also hails from a traditional family of artists. The acharya's granddaughter, Shruti served as a monitor for the class.
The workshop was a progressive step. Young dancers rarely have the opportunity to interact, learn and imbibe from traditional teachers and performers, for their number is fast dwindling. A true gem radiates light and vanquishes darkness – so does the Guru.