Song of Surrender

Monday, 30 June 2014

Guru Govindraj Pillai Centenary at Shanmukhananda

By Gayathri Sundaresan

Sri Rajarajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir and Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha, both of Mumbai, joined hands to celebrate the birth centenary of Guru AT Govindraj Pillai, the doyen who made bold to leave the comfort of his home town of Ayyampettai in south India to Bombay, a ‘seemaipattanam’ unknown and far away, carrying with him his extensive knowledge of an ancient art and his passion to spread it far and wide.

The function exactly on the 100th birthday of the master- 22 June, 2014 - was very well planned and executed.

The institution’s natya students ranging from toddlers to teens lined the entrance lobby of Shanmukhananda Sabha, a smile on their cheerful faces and palms folded in a namaste. Mangala isai provided by nagaswara vidwan Saktivel and party wafted through the auditorium as the dignitaries and well-wishers took their seats.

The programme began on the dot of 10am with a prayer, followed by a twenty-minute short film on the Life and Achievements of Govindraj Pillai.

Govindraj Pillai was born into a family devoted to music and dance for generations. He learnt Carnatic music from vidwans Veerabhadra Pillai, Markanda Pillai and Venugopal. He gained invaluable knowledge in the technique of Bharata Natyam from the vast treasures of vidwan Kuppiah Pillai’s erudite scholarship. He married his master’s daughter Karunambal, who proved to be a great source of inspiration to him.

Moving to Bombay, he founded a model dance academy in early 1945 to propagate Bharata Natyam in its pristine purity, beauty and vigour. The birth of Sri Rajarajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir fulfilled a long felt need of art lovers for a traditional dance academy in Bombay.

During his forty years of service, Pillai presented innumerable arangetrams and concerts throughout India and abroad. Notable amongst these were acclaimed performances in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Nepal and Australia at the Sydney Festival.

The Tamil Nadu Government conferred the title of Kalaimamani and the award of the Best Bharata Natya Vidwan of 1971.

Unassuming, amiable, gentle Govindraj Pillai was the embodiment of simplicity, devotion and sterling character. The ‘Guru with a Golden Heart’ was instrumental in his brothers in law Guru Mahalingam Pillai and Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai moving to Mumbai. The institution took wings under Mahalingam Pillai and is now under the able directorship of Kalyanasundaram Pillai.

Govindraj Pillai was a consummate musician. He sang and did nattuvangam for many of his shows. The part in the film showing the three gurus on stage together, with young Kalyanasundaram playing the mridangam emphasized how the family unity has been a strong pillar in building this edifice.

Karunambal, who was present on the occasion, had been an equal partner with Govindraj Pillai through his early struggles to find a footing as a Natya Guru in an alien city. Language was a barrier in the early days, with many Gujarati and Hindi speaking students, and communication was through a few basic words and gestures.

Sons, daughters and grandchildren of all these masters have taken to the art form quite naturally and are making a name for themselves in the field, while participating actively in teaching as well.

Dr. R. Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Govt. of India, spoke of the exceptional organising skills Govindraj Pillai must have had in surmounting the hurdles during the early days. For our country to make a mark globally, he said, it is important to restore and preserve the greatness of our cultural and spiritual heritage. Dr. Chidambaram paid rich tributes to the institution and its gurus who were doing just that – promoting one of the most sophisticated art forms of the country, Bharata Natyam.

Pradipta Kumar Bisoi, Chief Post Master General, released a special cover with a special cancellation to commemorate the occasion. In his short speech he said he hoped this would be appreciated by artists as well as philatelists.

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam spoke of her long and close association with the institution’s masters. She said that our prostration was due to these gurus who dared to move out of their homes, taking their art to new shores, and conquered the hearts of the people through their art.

Danseuse Chitra Visweswaran said she had learnt for ten years from TA Rajalakshmi and Marudappa Pillai – younger brother of Kalyanasundaram Pillai - who had made another bold move from Bombay to Calcutta when the Tagore family wanted dance gurus there. Rajalakshmi imparted what she herself had learnt—pure, undiluted and traditional dance—while also inculcating multi-layered discipline in her student. Whenever Chitra performed in Bombay, the family of her guru—Govindraj Pillai, Karunambal Amma and Mahalingam Pillai—were there to bless her before the programme, and to give her constructive corrections after, with the freedom that comes only from personal bonding. Such gurus who show the path become the students’ ‘living gods’, she said.

‘Sruti’ Editor-in-chief V Ramnarayan said that he was bowled over by the old world, charming courtesy that was shown by the Tanjavur parampara here in Mumbai. He recalled the article on Govindraj Pillai written by Dr. Sulochana Rajendran for Sruti thirty years ago. Govindraj Pillai brought his entire illustrious family to Mumbai; they, through their institution, had kept alive the Tanjavur music and dance tradition here. It was indeed commendable that they brought in ‘outsiders’—like NaliniJaywant, Damayanti Joshi, KaminiKaushal and Gopi Krishna—who helped spread the art. He could see no difference between the guru’s family and their students, that the students were in gurukulavasam. He commended the camaraderie among sabhas in Mumbai to sabhas in other cities.

Dr. V. Shankar, President of Shanmukhananda Fine Arts and Sangeetha Sabha, expressed his pleasure in associating with the Kala Mandir in hosting this joyful and nostalgic function. He said Govindraj Pillai’s genius blossomed and came to the fore after his marriage into the illustrious family of Guru Kuppiah Pillai. He was one of the first to institutionalize the teaching of dance. Apart from his excellence in teaching the art, he was also a generous master who took pride in his students going out into the world and opening their own dance schools.

Pillai had stretched himself to celebrate the art, and had been so successful that we remember him today, thirty years after his demise. He (and his family) inherited the art, and they freely gave away what they possessed without commercializing or trivializing the art.

Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai, torch bearer of this great tradition offered the vote of thanks. His leadership in conducting this event was evident at every step. All the members of the family looked up to him as the patriarch who led the way in the warm reception extended to all guests, co-ordination and precision in organising, especially keeping to the specified time.

The nritya arpanam that followed showcased about a hundred students of the institution. It was a great occasion for the youngest students to appear on stage as part of the Sri Rajarajeswari family. A group presentation of Ganesa Stuti, alarippu and a Todi varnam were performed to an original audio recording of Govindraj Pillai.

A scene from the school’s production Vasantavalli was presented next by Vani and Meera Ganapati, senior students of TK Kalyanasundaram, with a live orchestra, the master himself conducting the item. Govindraj Pillai’s favourite Athana tillana was the concluding item.

Everyone was treated to a sumptuous lunch organised in such a way that people did not have to wait much for their turn. On the whole, a richly satisfying event that filled the heart with joy, and the taste buds with flavour.

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