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Guardian of Pandanallur tradition

Subbaraya Pillai

THE MAN cannot hear unless you shout into his ear. His limbs don't always obey him. But the eyes are bright, the voice is strong, and his memory good enough to unroll graphic pictures of the past. At 90, Subbaraya Pillai, the last of the grand traditional dance teachers, is still an upright guardian of his Pandanallur heritage, enriched and refined by his gurus, grandfather Minakshisundaram Pillai (1869-1954), and father Chokkalingam Pillai (1893-1968). Subbaraya Pillai has trained over 150 students in the art. He stopped teaching a year ago when he found he could no longer sit on the floor to wield the tattukazhi. Reviving visibly as he relives the old days he chuckles, ``I felt I couldn't get up at all today. But now I don't know where all the dizziness has gone.''

``Nobody can teach like thatha (grandfather),'' he begins. ``He never let you alone, every minute was a class. You even slept near him, ready to massage his feet or head, and did exactly what he told you to do. No writing down on notebook or paper. Every single thing had to be carried in our heads. He didn't actually make us dance. We were instructed to teach, not perform. However, if thatha was not around we young boys would jump up and join the women dancers as they practised adavu or varnam.'' Young Subbarayan's day began at 4 a.m. with akarasadhakam, vocal exercises in music. Morning brought the apprentice nattuvanar to the main hall (silambu koodam), its floor uneven due to the constant stamping of feet by generations of dancers in morning practice. Among them Pandanallur Jayalakshmi stood out for her finished nritta, and exquisite abhinaya. ``There was no one in my village who could not dance or sing. Everyone made a living out of dance and music.'' The entire village reverberated with raga and tala, cymbals and ankle bells. In those days a nattuvanar had to be an institution himself. He had to teach, conduct recitals, sing, compose music and sollukattu (mnemonics), as also choreograph dance. Languages were part of the course.

The twentieth century brought revolutionary changes in the world of arts. Dance was lit by gas lanterns instead of the old oil-dipped (iluppennai) flares. Electricity brought new concepts of lighting. To Pandanallur came students from a different class, and from places faraway — Ramgopal, Shanta Rao, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Indrani Rehman... Keeping the beat faultlessly in the class, young Subbarayan watched his gurus teach them all with the same unyielding sternness. Entranced by the dance form, and by the limpid beauty of the Pandanallur style, Rukmini Devi invited the natyacharyas to her newfound school in Adyar, opening a new chapter in the history of the art form. ``Though she started late, no one could fault Rukmini Devi's performance, or her sense of tala. I have sung for her, she was very fond of me.'' Skipping the old controversy over the nattuvanars leaving Kalakshetra, Pillai talks about the early struggles to establish their own Indian Institute of Fine Arts in a corporation school beside the Egmore railway tracks. Father and son made a good team. Chokkalingam Pillai was a tartar, intolerant of the slightest sign of inattention. Subbaraya Pillai was mild, gentle, sugarcoating the rigorous methods. I taught according to the capacity of the student. I did my best to bring out their best.'' A proud memory is of his tight-lipped father's praise. Chokkalingam Pillai told his student K.R Geetha, ``Even if you forget what I have taught you, don't forget this tillana. My son has composed it so well.'' After his father's death, Subbaraya Pillai continued to teach at his own school in Kilpauk.

Clean lines, crisp jatis and classic understatement are features of the Pandanallur style. But what makes it distinct? ``We dont compose adavu sequences with merely the tala in mind and fit them into the varnam or tillana. We are always guided by the music. In choreography, only the swaras can stimulate the imagination.'' Not a surprising answer for the inheritor of the Thanjavur Quartet's compositions through ancestor Kumaraswami nattuvanar, trained by a descendant of the four brothers.

What about the view that the Pandanallur style shortcharges abhinaya? ``If they mean exaggerated miming, yes, it is true. No drama in our school. We go in for the subtle and the stylised.'' Here Alarmel Valli, disciple of both father and son, interposes to add, ``Though Chokkalingam Pillai often told us not to dance like a jadam (zombie), I suspect that the masters had to shed much of the full blooded quality of the repertoire to be accepted by the `respectable' Mylapore matrons. I sensed that when they described Pandanallur Jayalakshmi's abhinaya, for padams like `Velavare."'

What about the `brittle' nature of its nritta? Valli explains again, ``I watched Chokkalingam Pillai evolving a style blending the immaculate lines of the Pandanallur sampradaya with more lyricism, urging us ``tuvalaya pidi'' (keep it fluid). He had an image for it too— the feather-tipped whistle. When you blew on the whistle, the feather unfurled itself in a straight line, but with infinite grace.''

Finally, what does the master think of the contemporary dance scene? ``I don't want to talk about others. As far as I am concerned I have always followed my father and grandfather. I am not better than them. But I won't settle for anything less than what they lived by and practised all their lives.''

Gone are the days when the Indian classical dancer had one major guru to monitor her progress - and performance - through out her career. Today's milieu is not conducive to such long associations between teacher and student. More over, maintaining the bani, the stylistics of the school, becomes difficult, if not impossible, in the world of experiments, fusions and innovations. Old boundaries get blurred and lost in cross-pollinations.

Bharatanatyam artiste Alarmel Valli has been fortunate in having the Pandanallur doyen Subbaraya Pillai as her guru along with his own father Chokkalingam Pillai. He conducted her recitals for over 15 years. No diehard guru, Subbaraya Pillai trained her very early to choreograph on her own. He even brought his cousin Kittappa Pillai of the Thanjavur school to explain some intricacies. Such inspiring guidance has given her the foundation to be creative without forsaking tradition.

Her training in padam and javali from T. Mukta, the gifted exponent of the Dhanammal school, has been a stimulating source for abhinaya, even when she branched off into choreographing ancient Tamil Sangam poetry.

``Muktamma made me feel the possibilities of sanchari bhava in a profound way. Her singing brought out the waves and rhythms of emotions in the music.''


Subbaraya Pillai (90) and T. Mukta (88) are the last of the titans in their respective schools. Their grand family traditions were preserved and transmitted orally through the generations. Their internationally acclaimed disciple, dancer Alarmel Valli, pays her homage to these maestros on October 4, at Sivakami Pethachi Auditorium, Luz Church Road, Mylapore, 6 p.m. Felicitations will be followed by the vocal concert of Sanjay Subramaniam.


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