GURU K.P. KITTAPPA
- A TREASURE HOUSE OF BHARATANATYAM
(Natya Kala Conference 2000)
by Dr. Sucheta Chapekar

Jan 2001

Dr. Sucheta Chapekar, has been trained in Bharatanatyam by such distinguished gurus like Parvati Kumar and K P Kittappa Pillai under whose guidance, she had the good fortune of learning during 1970 to 1985. She has made a valuable contribution to the Bharatanatyam repertoire through her research and presentation of the Marathi compositions of the Tanjore Maratha rulers. A Master of Fine Arts from Bombay University, Sucheta has been awarded PhD for her thesis on her new creative work Nritya Ganga. A top grade artiste on Indian Television, she's also a visiting professor at the Faculty of Performing Arts at the University of Pune. With her knowledge of painting and sculpture, she has developed her own style of group choreography and runs her own institution Kalavardhini in Pune.
It was November 1st 1999. As I opened the morning papers, my eyes fell on the small news right on the top corner of the front page. It was the news of the sad demise of my Guru Shri. K.P. Kittappa. Something sank deep within my heart. Though I had lost touch with him almost for a decade, I have always had a permanent place of reverence for him in my heart…

During the long period of my training with him, I not only learnt a variety of compositions but also saw him from close quarters, studied him as a person and a Guru, observed his teaching methodology, admired him conducting recitals and also analysed his simple but thought provoking ideas regarding Bharatanatyam music and choreography. Through all this, I have come to realize that Kittappa Sir was indeed a “Vadyaar” in the real sense of the term. To him dance was music -“Total music”. And when it came from him, it was sure to take you within and touch your soul…

I am sure many from this august Sabha who knew him well would reciprocate my thoughts. I am indeed grateful to Krishna Gana Sabha for giving me this prime opportunity to share my thoughts on Kittappa Sir with you. Through this paper I am demonstrating and presenting before you my analysis of Kittappa Sir's work and a few gems from his vast treasure house of rare Bharatanatyam compositions, which I was singularly fortunate to receive.

My first memories of Guru Kittappa date back to sixties when I was still a young student with Guru Parvati Kumar. Kittappa Sir used to come to Masterji's (Guru Parvati Kumar's) house for Talam-s (cymbals). Masterji had experimented with a new alloy for making talam-s of various pitches. Kittappa Sir had an appreciative eye for such things and he always opted for Masterji's talam-s instead of those normally available. My knowledge of Bharatanatyam was really limited at that time but I could observe the eagerness with which Masterji used to ask me to perform the newly choreographed compositions of Serfoji for Kittappa sir. I could also feel the utmost reverence with which Masterji regarded Kittappa Sir. I hardly knew then that this was indeed the Master through whom I was finally to understand the depth of the traditional Bharatanatyam technique and it's nuances.

It was in 1970 that I first went to Kittappa Sir. I wanted him to compose music and choreograph for me the Marathi, Sanskrit and Hindi compositions-Daru-s and Pada-s of King Shaji of Tanjore which I had found in the T.M.S.S.M. Library manuscripts after exhaustive research…..I still clearly remember my first meeting with him in Bombay. His tiny eyes started sparkling as I showed him the various types of Daru-s from King Shahji's prabandha-s, which I had selected, form the manuscripts. It was such a happy surprise to know that he not only had knowledge about the Tanjavur Maratha rulers' contribution to Bharatanatyam but he also held King Shahji and Tulaja in great regard as musicologists. He not only knew the earlier forms of dance compositions but also had the knowledge of some rare raga-s like Padi, Gauri and Revagupti mentioned in King Shahji's compositions. I think myself greatly fortunate that he readily agreed to compose music and choreographed these Daru-s for me. And thus started a very fruitful period of my dance training with Kittappa sir. However, in the beginning there were lots of questions at the back of my mind, whether he would accept to teach me, a Maharashtrian, whether he would have any apprehensions about my earlier training and whether he would find Shahji's Marathi literature worth giving a thought. Besides this, there was the practical problem of verbal communication! He did not know any languages other than Tamil and Telugu and I was not exactly fluent in these. But I need not have worried. There was always a common language between us - the language of love and understanding for Bharatanatyam.

Kittappa Sir was always appreciative of my technical virtuosity and singing ability and encouraged me to sing. When I went to him I had already undergone twelve years of rigorous Bharatanatyam training as well as a couple of years of systematic training in Carnatic Music. But as my father often pointed out, I knew something was lacking in my dance. After going to him I realized that it was the magical touch of his music which I could imbibe only from him. His music and choreography had that oneness of the flower and it's fragrance. It had a kind of chaste beauty, which shall continue to satisfy and inspire me as long as I live.

A few instances are noteworthy from the point of view of providing an insight into Guru Kittappa's way of teaching and his outlook towards dance. During the course of training particularly when I used to leave my small child behind in Pune to go to Bangalore, I used to be very eager and ever prepared to absorb as much knowledge as possible. I was ready to take lessons at any time of any day or whenever Sir used to find it convenient or even if he wanted to teach me the whole day! However he preferred to teach only a small unit in one session. With my experience and long training I used to hardly take any time learning the same. But he would insist that, it was all for the day and I literally used to be in tears.

Years later now, I realize that those compositions have been perfectly inscribed in my memory, so much so that I can recall them at any time and this could only happen because of the long time given to it to assimilate. Due to my earlier training, my adavu-s were technically perfect and Kittappa Sir never gave me any corrections in Nritta. However, at times he used to tell me to relax while executing the adavu. He used to say that the tensions in the backbone not only make the movements rigid and jerky but also puts unnatural strain on it. It is only through his training that I realized that a relaxed demeanor also makes it possible to execute the adavu-s in a leisurely tempo involving a full body swing and curves bringing out the grandeur of Bharatanatyam.

Guru Parvati Kumar had taught us dance notations and whenever Kittappa Sir would give me a lesson, I would immediately write it down. I wonder whether he himself used to teach this to his disciples. However, he admired my ability to write notations quickly and used to encourage me to do it. In fact, if I forgot to do it, he would softly remind me about it. Over the period I reaslied that Kittappa Sir had a special method of composing the teermanam-s. I remember that during one of his master classes, which he was conducting under the auspices of Bhulabhai Memorial Institute in Bombay, I had requested him to teach me only the Chollu kattu-s of the Tirmanam-s. He looked at me with that special mischievous look in his eyes and asked what I wanted to do with it. When I explained that I wanted to find out the principles behind his special way of composing, he smiled with satisfaction and happily laid in front of me his wealth of dance teermanam-s.

I never learnt any abhinaya from Kittappa Sir nor did I ever have the opportunity to see him teaching abhinaya to his other disciples. Of course, he used to explain the word meanings and show different hasta-s for the words. But I felt this sanchari-s came through his musical expression rather than body language. To learn abhinaya from him, one had to have a keen musical ear and a sound knowledge of the technical language of abhinaya One only had to listen to his singing of padam-s like “Sakhi Prana” or “Netra Varen” or a javali like “ittu sahasamullu”, to understand this. The musical variations, which he developed, had a special audiovisual quality, which is very essential in the rendering of a dance composition.

While choreographing Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit compositions of King Shahji, he had asked me to give him a transcript in Telugu (since the Telugu script is phonetic like the Devanagari) and translation in Tamil. At times, he used to ask me to set the words or phrases. He also gave a lot of attention to the meaning and rasa bhava of the lyric while choosing the ragas-s which are similar, whenever they were not mentioned in the body of the text.

For Ragamalika Abhinaya Daru in Hindi, he has purposely chosen raga-s which are similar to the Hindustani raga-s like Bihag, Kapi and Kanada. He also considered fully the rhythmic aspect of words in a lyric. For example a unique piece is found in the manuscript of Shahji's padam-s in which there are only two words in a pallavi “Pahile Krishna”. What follows then is a sequence of four charana-s with ¾ rhyming lines with different akshara-s. Though it was listed as a padam, Kittappa Sir could feel its innate structure as more a kin to the padam-s from Kirtana Parampara and he duly utilized the rhythm and musical notation of nine daru-s and padam-s of King Shahji and I had the honour and privilege to present them before the enlightened audience of the Music Academy, Madras in 1974. This recital was compered by the late Dr. V. Raghavan, an eminent scholar of dance & music. While Kittappa Sir conducted the recital, his foremost disciple Padmalochani, a well-known singer and dancer herself, gave the vocal support.

In the course of my long association with Kittappa sir, though initially it was the Shahji's work which took me to him, I took this golden opportunity to learn many a traditional Jatiswarams, Varnam-s, Padam-s, Javali-s and Tillana-s. Through the study of these I could make the following observations about his methods of composition and choreography.

1. Guru Kittappa's choreography of adavu-s is always in the Madhya laya. Sometimes he combined it with the chollu-s in drut. His chollu-s form a beautiful dialogue with the adavu patterns. His teermanam-s, particularly in varnam, are never too long except the first Trikala Teermanam. It seems quite correct to me not to include the long drawn patterns of teermanam-s in varnam or swara jati-s since (though Varnam does strike equal stress on nritta and abhinaya), it is the emotional aspect or the portrayal of the Virahotkanthita which should be dominant. The long teermanam-s in between the four lines of the varnam, which are most appropriate for doing the sanchar-s only break the mood and the theme of the varnam, rather than showing the demarcations between the lines and forming a kind of a visual relief.

2. He gave a lot of importance to the plain rendering of notes. He did not advocate unnecessary Bhruga-s or the twisting of words in singing his Sangati-s in Varnam-s and Padam-s gave utmost importance to words and emotional content. Once while commenting on my choreography of a Marathi varnam of King Serfoji in Adi Tala, he pointed to me that the important word and the musical stress fell on the 4th matra. So he advised me to end my Arudi on the 4th matra instead of the usual 5th matra. According to the Shastra, Arudi should normally end after the first laghu in the given tala.

But according to Kittappa, in the Abhinaya composition, the impact of the words is more important even if it means that you have to take a little liberty with the norms of the shastra! With the same principle he also took liberty while doing sangati-s for a padam in a particular raga, to use the swara-s, or a swara sanchari which normally may not appear in the usual exposition of the raga but seems to effectively embellish the content of sahitya. His musical renderings for dance may sound a little too simple if you happen to listen to them separately. However, in combination with choreography, his music takes on quite another hue. In short, his was an audiovisual music.

3. His dance philosophy music came first. He saw the visuals along with the music. So, whenever he choreographed a pattern into a musical structure, it blended perfectly into it.

4. He used to express his philosophy of Bharatanatyam choreography in just a few words, “Dance should be beautiful to see AND to listen.” The impact of the beauty which his choreography creates is heartwarming and full of transcendental peace and tranquility, an impact, which takes one within and makes one more introspective and aware of the oneself.

It was only due to my training with him that I realized that the real grandeur and beauty of Bharatanatyam technique comes out only in slow “Kalapramanam”. During the long period of our association, he conducted my performance on several occasions. I shall never forget the kind of leisure and freedom one felt whiled dancing when he wielded the cymbals. I particularly cherish two recitals - One in the big temple at Tanjavur where I danced ‘Samini' - Khamas Varnam on Lord Brihadishwara and Kittappa Sir himself sang along with Muthaiyya Sir…. The other recital was at the Tata Theatre, N.C.P.A. Mumbai, when Kittappa Sir sang the concluding Shloka-Navarasa Shloka in his sweet high pitched voice, the sound recording of which is one of my prized possessions.

He talked little but gave much. I am proud to be his Shishya, and happy that I am able to analyse his work, perform it myself and pass it on to my daughter and my students. For me he lives on forever in the core of my heart and my work.
Sucheta Chapekar has closely observed, analysed and imbibed the principles, which she found in Kitappa sir's work. In her lec / dem, she talked in detail about what she regards are the canons in Kittappa sir's approach and knowledge of Bharatanatyam.

1) His teaching methodology
2) His music which became abhinaya for a dancer, his unique Tirmanam-s which had a special audio visual quality.
3) His choreography and stress on “Madhya laya” for Bharatanatyam
4) His thought behind composing music for dance.
5) His philosophy of what Bharatanatyam is and should be.

During the course of her Lec-dem Dr. Sucheta demonstrated the excerpts from following. (She was joined by her dancer-daughter Arundhati in some of the demonstrations)
1) Mangala Pade composed by Kittappa Sir
2) King Shahji's Abhinaya Daru-music and choreography Guru Kittappa
3) A Teermanam of Pipilika Yati choreographed by Guru Kittappa
4) A padam sung by Guru Kittappa.
5) Marathi padam Pahile Krishna composed by Guru Kittappa.
6) Jakkini Daru of King Shahji composed and choreographed by Guru Kittappa.
7) Nava Rasa Shloka sung by Guru Kittappa.
8) Mangalam sung by Guru Kittappa.