Tracing Kalyanasundaram’s seven-decade journey as a Bharatanatyam guru

At 90, guru Kalyanasundaram continues to remain one of the most adored teachers. Seven decades ago, he shifted from Thanjavur to Mumbai to popularise Bharatanatyam

At 90, guru Kalyanasundaram continues to remain one of the most adored teachers. Seven decades ago, he shifted from Thanjavur to Mumbai to popularise Bharatanatyam

There’s a gentleness to this legendary nattuvanar that’s hard to miss. Gentleness of thought, word and deed. Whether Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai is reciting a Natesa Kavuthuvam or detailing his blue-blooded ancestry, he is enveloped in an aura of serenity.

At 90, Thiruvidaimarudur Kuppiah Kalyanasundaram can look back on a life well-lived. He was in Chennai recently to preside over ABHAI’s (Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India) 35th anniversary.

His is a life devoted to the classical arts, particularly Bharatanatyam. He was recently honoured with the Akademi Ratna (Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellow award) for 2018, a rare honour that is restricted to 40 living members at a given time. Guru Kalyanasundaram hails from a renowned nattuvanar family in Thiruvidaimarudur, Thanjavur, whose traceable ancestry dates back to the early 1800s when his forefather Veerasamy nattuvanar was appointed asthana vidwan of the royal court of Serfoji Maharaja II.

The family was attached to the Mahalinga Swamy temple, where they were involved in the temple rituals.

“In every generation we had illustrious gurus like Subramanya nattuvanar, Venkatakrishnan nattuvanar and Panchapakesa nattuvanar, an abhinaya expert and author of  Abhinaya Navaneetham,” he says.

The family’s moving to Mumbai was by chance. They had taught the Travancore Sisters, Lalitha, Padmini, Ragini, and after they performed in the erstwhile Bombay, there was a clamour for their teachers there. Some came down South to learn, but this was not enough. In 1945, the family patriarch Kuppiah Pillai sent his daughter and son-in-law, G. Karunambal and A.T. Govindraj Pillai, to Mumbai.

Guru Kalyanasundaram at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Chennai
| Photo Credit: PICHUMANI K

First dance school

Their success led to the family’s migration. Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir, the first Bharatanatyam institution to be set up by the Nattuvanar community, was a resounding success growing to 400 students.

Well-known artistes such as Gopi Krishna, Damayanti Joshi, Roshan Kumari, Waheeda Rahman, Kamini Kaushal Nalini Jayavant, Viji Prakash, Malavika Sarukkai, Lata Pada and Vani Ganapathy have been trained by them.

“Usually nattuvanars do not perform, but they should be able to get up and demonstrate when necessary. I’m told that I started learning at four and had my arangetram in the Kumbeeswaran koil when I was six,” says the guru. Today his granddaughters, Shruti and Sivakami, are first generation dancers in the family, while the sons and uncles continue to teach.

The girls do not have it easy. Sivakami says, “They never have time for us. We learn with other students, and I think they are very strict with us. But sometimes at 11 p.m  thatha says why not we do this, and he will choreograph with us.’

Krishna Iyer’s contribution

Guru Kalyanasundaram credits E. Krishna Iyer for saving Bharatanatyam. A lawyer and activist, Krishna Iyer learnt Sadir, as it was called then, and impersonating women, performed it on stage and in films. He understood its greatness and persuaded those around him to fight for its cause. He along with the Music Academy, powered the change in name to Bharatanatyam and convinced women from privileged class to learn it, to remove the stigma of Sadir.

“Krishna Iyer made it possible for the art to reach everybody. Earlier it was only with the Isai Vellalar community.” He feels that many families attached to various temples in Thiruttani, Pudukottai, Seerkazhi, Chidambaram and others, even in Maharashtra, suffered when Sadirattam was under a cloud.

Much-loved and-revered as a teacher, Guru Kalyanasundaram is particular that anyone who is interested should learn the art. “We teach dance to differently-abled students and to children from underprivileged background for a nominal fee. Every student will do what he/she can, the point being to learn the art.”

According to him, fitness matters more than form. “My father was never happy with the time spent in applying make up. He would say there were dancers like Tiruvarur Gnanathambal, Tiruvalaputtur Kalyaniammal, and Pudukottai Amalu Ammal, who were not attractive, but once they started dancing, they could mesmerise the audience. Make up does not make one a good dancer.”

Guru Kalyanasundaram is passionate about commitment towards the art. “You have to worship the art, you have to be mad about it, only then will you understand its greatness. Bharatanatyam is not for entertainment.” He feels that this art form can never die because of its inherent ‘deivikam’ (divineness).

Adherence to the grammar — straight lines, grace and firmness — and retaining its ways of expression and mudras are a must. He is, however, open to adding to the repertoire, to bring the art form closer to people.

His eyes light up as he recalls some of his cultural ‘adventures’. He has travelled around the world with cultural delegations, presenting local songs for local audiences.

Unique pieces

‘Phool ko thunga’, a famous Nepali song on a lover’s separation pangs; in 2005, as requested by Abdul Kalam, a song on atoms, planets from Subramania Bharati’s ‘Panchali Sabdam’; a Chinese song in China, the list is long. Mahatma Gandhi’s 150 th birth anniversary celebration found Guru Kalyanasundaram using Gandhiji’s favourite bhajans and songs such as Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Majlo amar’. He kept to the tradition of Bharatanatayam, “not breaking it for its own sake, but to grow with it.”

In today’s Bharatanatyam, guru Kalyanasundaram disapproves of long-winded jathis. Having been a mridangist first, he loves interesting calculations, but goes by the rhythm of the song. “Nattuva jathis, short and crisp, sound most musical. You should be able to shut your eyes during a jathi and enjoy the flow of rhythm. No shouting during reciting them. Even when we did not have mikes, we would recite loudly, not shout.”

His advice for artistes: “Earlier nattuvanars used to spend money on sishyas, though they were not zamindars. So it is your  dharma to be loyal to one bani. And when you go up on stage, aim to move the audience, not dazzle them.”

Says Sheila Shriprakash: “He would say that I am the student who made him a successful nattuvanar. He conducted my arangetram when I was six years old. I distinctly remember his teaching of attami, he was very particular about it. He would emphasise the kai-kann-manam principle ( yato hasta statho drishti from the Natyashastra).”

Says Malavika Sarukkai: “I had the good fortune of training and presenting my arangetram (1974) under such an eminent natyacharya. I remember his emphasis on the characteristic features of the Thanjavur bani — clean lines of arm movements, araimandi, strong footwork and overall presence. He taught me an age-appropriate repertoire that I could comprehend. My mother, Saroja Kamakshi, always spoke to me of the great lineage guru Kalyanasundaram represented and learning from him was a continuity of a great tradition.

The Chennai-based reviewer writes on classical dance.

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