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Pandanallur C Subbaraya Pilai - Dec 7, 1914 - May 12, 2008
- Arul Francis

May 27, 2008

Pandanallur C. Subbaraya Pilai, one of the towering figures in the field of classical Bharatanatyam, passed away on May 12, 2008. He was one of the greatest and most authentic "nattuvanars" in the full sense of the term.

He lived out his role as a Guru with great dignity and restraint. He consistently refused to cave in to the swings of fashion. Although he turned out some of the leading dancers, he himself maintained a low profile and was averse to celebrity seeking of any kind. He was a staunch traditionalist and would not dabble in fads or fashions, and although immensely gifted as a choreographer, he always worked within a very narrow range of possibilities that he had inherited and would not change any of what he called the "hands" or abhinaya for his great pieces.

In every step or choice he made throughout his life and career, he was a model of integrity, both artistic and personal. He faced many choices that tested his integrity - such as pressure to change his pieces to suit the whims of an employer early in his youth, and in his mid-life, pressure from a major patron who was also one of his stars, to be the "local" nattuvanar while another nattuvanar was used for tours abroad. In all these cases, he had the backbone and resolve to stick to his principles and walk away from a situation, which would compromise his dignity and self-respect as a Guru.

Loyalty meant everything to him. He was fiercely loyal to the memory of his forefathers and was determined to preserve and protect their heritage. Thus, he never got into the fray of "contemporary choreography" - such as dance dramas or group shows or anything of that sort - but always held himself apart from such things and stuck to the material that he had inherited. He was also very loyal to his students and he expected the same in return. For example, students from the past whose prospects of a career were dim, he would lavish time and teaching on them. However, stars or famous people who had broken away and gone to other nattuvanars or teachers, he would politely but firmly end the professional relationship irrevocably.

He himself was born into a family of leading nattuvanars, one might almost say, the "First Family" of nattuvanars, with his apprenticeship being at the hands of legendary Meenakshisundaram Pillai. Despite all this pedigree, he was a man of great humanity and broad-mindedness. During the eleven years in which I spent the winter months in his house as his disciple, I noticed that within his classroom everyone was treated the same, rich or poor, regardless of caste or creed, the same rules applied to all.

Master wore his greatness very lightly - he never made any fuss or put on any airs or sought out any celebrity. Perhaps because he was born to it, and raised surrounded by some of the finest quality of dance, he just took it for granted and for him it was something natural, in his blood. His approach to his art was direct, simple, straight to the point and very matter of fact.