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by Sapna Rangaswamy, Baroda

Jun 2001

When I met Radhika Pillai, and her father, a Tamil writer at Radhika's Baroda residence, her narration of an almost fairytale kind of story transported me to a remote village in Tamilnadu. Several hundred years back...

The village is Tiruvalaputtur and the place we are talking about is the local temple of Ratnagireeswaran. Kalyani was the main dancer, a Devadasi of the temple."She had been provided with a separate house to stay in, near the temple. She used to dance at every important function at the temple....", Mr Nathan told me while remembering his grandmother Kalyani.

I asked him how he felt to be known as a devadasi's grandson. "We are all very proud of her. She was a devadasi, that means a person dedicated to God. In those days only accomplished persons would get the honour to become a devadasi. Either that person had to be a good musician or dancer, or should have belonged to a family of devadasis."

Kalyani was an accomplished dancer. She would take up any challenge. Once, when many dancers including Kalyani were present in his court, Raja Pandidurai Thevar inquired whether any of them could dance to his Chakravakam Jatiswaram. Everyone except Kalyani expressed inability since it would take at least a month's practice. Kalyani leant it on the same day and performed it before the Raja on the next day. Naturally she received fabulous presents for this accomplishment.

Meenakshisundaram Pillai was a part of the same group as Kalyani. Since he was constantly in her company and they had mutual admiration, they became intimate and he took her as his second wife. Kalyani had two daughters- Rajalakshmi and Jeevaratnam. It is generally believed that Jeevaratnam was born out of their liaison. Meenakshisundaram started to train both Jeevaratnam and Rajalakshmi when they were quite young.

The first ever dance recital to be arranged by The Music Academy or any other institution of renown in Chennai was given by the two sisters--Jeevaratnam and Rajalakshmi, now known as the "Kalyani daughters".

Kumari Radhika Pillai, great granddaughter of Kalyani runs the Kalyani Natyalaya at Baroda. Surprisingly Baroda has not taken proper notice of Radhika. She hails from a traditional dancers' family. Talking about her great grandmother, Radhika says, "In those days my great grandmother was highly respected, a scholarly person.... she had a special place in the temple...she was the closest to God. During those times when a devadasi died, her body used to be carried in a procession in front of the temple and stopped at the temple. The priest would perform ceremonies and the temple would provide sandalwood to cremate her body..."

Radhika has been trained by her aunt Jeevaratnam (daughter of Rajalakshmi,who now stays at Kumbakonam) and Tanjore M. Arunachalam Pillai. . She has completed her Master of Performing Arts (Bharatanatyam) from M.S.University at Baroda. She has specialised in Nattuvangam. Today she runs at Baroda, the Kalyani Natyalaya, in memory of her late great grandmother.

Talking about the famous Chakravakam Jatiswaram which Kalyani performed before the Raja, Radhika says, "I have learnt that Jatiswaram from my aunt Jeevaratnam, and would like to teach this to some special student who has the dedication and the patience to learn it...."

Any takers for this arduous exercise...?

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