My tryst with classical dancing in 1950, at the age of six!
- Satish Pillai
June 26, 2019
Over time and with lack of initiative, certain events of the past pass into oblivion and fail to get recorded. I was a Bharatanatyam dancer at the age of eleven, the first male to perform a full-scale Arangetral at Sunderbai Hall in 1956, under the auspices of The Film Journalists' Association, Mumbai. Mr. Burjor Pavri was then the President. The Arangetral was presided over by Sardar K.M. Panikkar, historian, art connoisseur and the then Ambassador to Russia.
I recall there was resistance in some quarters at that time about a male having to perform a dance form conventionally reserved for females. My Guru S.T.V. Murthy who came to Mumbai from Chennai for my Arangetral, was very proud of me and angry about all that controversy. He used to compare himself with the angry guru of Gopikrishna, in the popular dance movie of those days, 'Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje' in which actress Sandhya was cast as the competing dance heroine. But the Film Journalists' Association who supported me was unmoved and went ahead with the show. T.R. Ramachandran, the Hon. Secy. of the Association, was my staunch supporter after he witnessed my full performance at a special preview with full orchestra, organized for him at my residence.
Lakshmi Shankar, Uday Shankar's sister-in-law and a famous ghazal and playback singer of the day, kindly consented to sing the padams for my Arangetral. My elder brother Madhavan did professional make-up for my face and full upper torso and also played the ghatam at the final performance.
There were write-ups in the papers, the Evening News having reported me as a 'boy prodigy.' It is unfortunate that at that time and later too, I failed to realize the value of those write-ups and took little care to preserve them. But fortunately, certain other documents that were available have now been traced to authenticate this event. B.R. Chopra of B.R. Films fame, announced a gold medal in appreciation of my performance at that time and later offered to take me as a child star in his next film after he successfully promoted child star Daisy Irani, in his famous movie, 'Ek hi Raasta.'
My Guru S.T.V. Murthy was a student of Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, and he conducted classes at the Lakshmi Music Academy at Mylapore, Chennai, of which Rukmini Arundale of Kalakshetra was the patron. I was six when I was, with special permission, admitted to the Lakshmi Music Academy -- the only male student in the Academy of nearly 80 students learning music and dance! It was my father (a civil engineer and a serious hobbyist in palmistry) who first recognised my dancing feet and artistic talent. I remember, he once took me to a Bharatanatyam performance by Vyjayantimala in Chennai and I was inspired to no small extent to learn the dance.
Later, in the same year I performed Bharatanatyam, I was invited for a Kathakali performance in Delhi for the 3-day Kerala States Re-organization Day Festival. I had been trained by then for more than two years in Kathakali by Guru Karunakara Pannikar of Rupayatan Dance School, Dadar, Mumbai. I was very keen on Kathakali and I knew I would have excelled in it. Charles Fabri, art critic of The Statesman, commented highly about my hastha lakshanas and footwork in the paper's Delhi edition. But in the days of the past, dance was not a career option though Ram Gopal, an internationally renowned Indian dance choreographer, was keen to take me to the Edinburgh Arts Festival and make me a permanent member of his troupe. He tried assuring my parents in vain of a successful career for me as a dancer.
My last dance performance (Bharatanatyam) was held when I was in the ninth standard, at the age of fourteen in Nashik -- a special program organized in aid of St. Philomena's Convent where I was schooling. Tickets for the show were on sale at select centres. The well-to-do of Nashik patronized the show in large numbers and the concert was a grand commercial success!
Soon, my academic proficiency in school stole priority over my other interests -- dancing, singing, art and craft. Also, my dad's frequent job transfers during my schooling years (Chennai to Mumbai, Nashik, Coimbatore, then back to Mumbai) made it difficult for me to pursue dance under one Guru. Having to stay in a hostel in my last year of school in Mumbai and having to battle one crucial year of lost French in Coimbatore, capped it all and I decided I should concentrate more on studying for a serious career.
I acted in college plays though (far less time-consuming than dance) and won in the inter-collegiate contest in the first year itself. I realized how facial expressions in dance had greatly enhanced my acting ability. But by then, family circumstances left no option for me than to quickly graduate and opt for a job. I soon chose a career in advertising and did well enough to be able to start my own agency nine years later, servicing clients of repute. Though I had given up dancing by then, my interest and keen eye for the art, provide me now with endless joy, appreciating the strengths of professionals on stage today.
I am now a Consultant in Publicity and Promotion with other pursuits of poetry-writing, painting, photography and training students in Public Speaking. Though I was drawn into so many other fields owing to my multiple interests and skills, dance has undoubtedly remained my single great influence in life, enriching all my other activities in ways both too intense and too subtle to explain!
Namaste Satish ji,
Many thanks for sharing this masterpiece of information. I never knew this hidden talent of yours. It is a great feat in more ways than one--being the first male to storm into girls' citadel, at such a young age of eleven, not only Bharatanatyam but also Kathakali.
We are fortunate to be associated with such an accomplished person like you who has been our well-wisher for decades and on whom we can always count for help and suggestions.
Wish you good health and continued success.
R.K.Sehgal (Aug 6, 2019)
Having lived in the U.S. for twenty-eight years after marriage, I can say with confidence that if one has the TALENT and TRAINING in Indian music or dance, it is certainly possible to make it one's professional career in this country or anywhere else in the world. There are lucrative opportunities galore all over for performing and teaching. If Satish was able enough to receive so many offers for a great life ahead at such a young age, his choices should have been unbiasedly assessed, for he was too young to do it on his own!
Times have changed! Satish's story brings back great memories of the past glory ... wish the right choice were made on his behalf. His Bharatnatyam recital in Nashik, when he was in the ninth standard, was Nashik's first exposure to this classical dance form. I shared the stage with him for the last "Kurathi" item. It was a great news making event in Nashik with many senior military and civilian personnel attending the function.
Fortunately, opportunities apart, attitudes have changed today. Given the talent, dance has become a respectable career one can choose and be rewarded for it...so, in a way, so to say, lesser slips between the cup and the lip!
- Nirmala Kartha (Sister of Satish C. Pillai), July 22, 2019
As Satish's eldest brother, I am indeed happy and grateful to narthaki.com for helping him document some of the early events of his life -- those that involved so many great personalities of that era.
His article gives the reader a glimpse of the state of affairs of that period. My father was a very enterprising young civil engineer in the Rangoon Municipal Corporation and an eminent palmist, (awarded the title of Prof. KARA), who returned to India as a refugee during the 2nd World War and had to restart life from scratch. It was one of his extremely close friends, Uday Shankar (who introduced Indian dance to the western world), that inspired him to encourage at least one of his children to become another Uday Shankar! In spite of his financial handicaps after having to return to this country as a refugee, he invested his wife's inheritance from her family into providing dance tuitions, costumes and musicians to promote Satish. It was no ordinary decision if he sought for his son, training from such eminent Gurus as Kalamandalam's Karunakara Panikar (popularly known as 'Panchali Panikar'), the first Kathakali guru in Mumbai and teacher of other eminent dancer/gurus such as Guru Raghavan Nair, Kanak Rele and Sharmila Tagore!
I recall the admiration and encouragement that Sardar Dr.K.M.Panikar showered on Satish, when he attended the Kerala States Reorganisation Celebration Programme in Delhi, where Satish performed the roles of KRISHNA and BHIMA in Kathakali, sharing the stage with maestros of the stature of Gopinath and Thangamani! He remarked that such a high level of proficiency, just two years after he had presided over Satish's Arangetral in Bharatanatyam at Mumbai, would not have been possible but for Satish’s extraordinary talent and the rigorous training that his Guru would have given him. While awarding gold medals to Gopinath and Satish on the last day of the programme, Sardar Panikar remarked, “If Gopinath can be compared to the glory of the setting sun, then Satish can be compared to the glory of the rising sun!”
If our father did not let Satish pursue the offers that came his way with his meteoric rise, it is clear that father just could not handle the risks that these opportunities brought with them. That was but natural when one considers his state of mind at that juncture in his life. He spared no pains to ensure that his children embarked on a career with a STEADY INCOME.
The lessons we can take from all this is that simultaneous to having dreams and ambitions and working to achieve them, one should develop the attitude of risk-taking. One more thanks to NARTHAKI for bringing home the story of opportunities found and lost!
Satish has been very successful in his other pursuits throughout his life. BUT having read his article and realised that dancing was his passion, it is not difficult to understand how easy it is to miss out on one's dreams and desires!
- Dr (Prof) P.K.M.Pillai (email@example.com)
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