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Seven decades of Bharatanatyam: Guru M K Saroja
- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore
Photos: Courtesy Mohan Khokar Dance Collection

April 23, 2006

Born Madras Kadirvellu Saroja on 7th April 1931, in Madras, Saroja had no dance in her family, until Vidwan Kattumannarkoil Muthukumaran Pillai of Chidambaram, came and stayed in her Georgetown residence to teach the two sisters, Kumari Selvamani (India's first woman nattuvunar) and Kumari Saroja, dance. Mentored by none less than legendary Ram Gopal (1917-2004), Saroja was an accomplished representative of her guru's form by the time she was ten, so much so that Rukmini Devi Arundale was shown her dance and she appointed the guru as the first teacher of Bharatanatyam at her fledgling institution, Kalakshetra. E.Krishna Iyer and Prof. Sambhamoorthy helped promote her career and no less than Dandayudhapani Pillai sang for her. She can be called a pioneer in the resurgence of Bharatanatyam in the forties.

At sixteen, Saroja was one of the top ten dancers of Bharatanatyam in Madras, her contemporaries being Vyjayantimala, Kalanidhi and later, Kamala, who was taught the basics by Saroja's sister Selvamani and whose arangetram was done by Guru Muthukumaran Pillai. A trained student was then given to Ramaiah Pillai to polish. Saroja also acted in three prominent Tamil mythological films: Nalla Thambi, Paithiakaran and Krishna Bhakti. A seven-contract film-offer by the Gemini Studios was not entertained as Saroja married India's top authority on dance, the first male student of Kalakshetra, Prof. Mohan Khokar, himself a product of Uday Shankar.

Saroja had a distinguished career as an artiste. From being a star performer to being a star teacher at newly started M S University in Baroda, where her husband started and headed the first dept. of dance of graduate studies, to later settling in Delhi, where she remained an active performer and teacher to such giants as Yamini Krishnamurthy, Indrani Rahman and youngsters like Kiran Segal, Shobana Radhakrishnan and Shanta, she combined family life with professional. Four sons kept her busy too, one an IAS, one a scientist, third a critic-publisher and fourth a hotelier. Today, she has five grandchildren.

Guru M K Saroja started seriously teaching in mid-seventies, basing herself at Mandapa in Paris and till date has over 200 students, of whom principal ones are Vidya, Vani, Shalini, Jyoti and Shanti. Vidya has further trained Maria Kiran who now continues the guru's art. From Chidambaram to Champs Elysees, the art has travelled and Saroja has been its unpretentious doyenne.

Saroja's bhakti infused Bharatanatyam takes one to times of yore when it was still a temple art. She has shunned publicity and limelight and retained the spirit and substance of the style as taught to her by her guru. In that, she remains his exclusive exponent, although both Ram Gopal and Mrinalini Sarabhai too learnt from the same guru.

Known both for the excellence of her technique and abhinaya, she has been subject of three films and several books. As she turned 75 on 7th April 2006, she can only look back at seven decades of serving Bharatanatyam, as a devotee.

Her biography is being penned by her son, reputed critic, Ashish Mohan Khokar, the publisher and editor of attendance, India’s only year-book on dance.

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