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(Natya Kala Conference 2000)
by Ashish Khokar

Nov 2001

The E Krishna Iyer Medal instituted by Sruti magazine for preservation and propagation of Bharata Natyam was awarded to the veteran Bharata Natyam exponent and guru Smt. M K Saroja on 22 December 2000 (10.30 am) at the Krishna Gana Sabha.

Photo courtesy: The Mohan Khokar Collection

Born 1931 in Madras (Madras Kadarivelu Saroja), she was spotted by vidwan Muthukumaran Pillai of Katttumanar Koil, Chidambaram, when he came to Madras in 1935 looking for students from “good families”. The guru’s eyes fell on the two grand-daughters M K Selvamani and M K Saroja – of Mahalakshmiammal, a patroness of the arts who forthwith engaged the guru to teach them. The guru was new to Madras, had no place to stay, so he moved in with the family in their Georgetown home.

E Krishna Iyer spotted the sisters in 1936 and in 1937 he was instrumental in arranging the arangetram of the elder sister M K Selvamani (who later became a nattuvanar – the first woman to be so and during the bomb-scare days of 1941 taught Baby Kamala Laxman who moved in as their neighbor in Madanapalli).

M K Saroja’s first memories of E Krishna Iyer go back to the mid-thirties when she first saw him as a child of six. “He was full of energy, talking, walking, fighting cases… he would accompany our guru from kutcheri to kutcheri spreading the message of Bharata Natyam. He was like a man possessed”. In 1940, E. Krishna Iyer, impressed with Saroja’s training and art, introduced her to Ram Gopal and the rest is history! Ram Gopal himself engaged the guru to teach in his Bangalore school and his partner, Mrinalini Sarabhai too learnt from him and took him to Ahmedabad.
Photo courtesy: The Mohan Khokar Collection
Impressed with the training of the sisters, whom Rukmini Devi Arundale saw, she engaged their guru to teach at her newly started institution – Kalakshetra. He remained there for 3 years training several. It was after he left for his village that Rukmini Devi asked another giant, guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai to come and he did so for six months before returning home.

M K Saroja never had a formal debut; her solid training was proof enough of her training at the hands of a tough master and her dance - art elicited much response from the critics and connoisseurs of the day, including such stalwarts as G Venkatachalam who wrote in the Sunday Times, 1941 “Baby Saroja is a child of seven but what a marvel she is! She is like a simple phenomenon in nature, which catches your breath and delights your heart…”

Beryl de Zoete, the Dutch travel-writer wrote in The Other Mind: A Study of Dance in South India, 1953 “I remember specially Saroja’s dancing, her faint smile and sudden, darting glances, her delicately defined gestures and the wonderful speed and precision of her difficult poses, which seemed to float in air.. like the movement of a plant which is pliable as well as firm.”

“E Krishna Iyer was very involved with the revival and resurrection of chinnna -mellam or sadir as Bharata Natyam was then known. He lived in a small room, surrounded by books and pamphlets and he often walked miles in order to save bus fare. Although a lawyer by profession, he devoted full time to Bharata Natyam. Without his efforts, our generation can safely say, the fortunes of Bharata Natyam would have been different.”

“He not only got me several programs later but also carried me on his shoulders sometimes after a concert and if he got tired, my mridang-master Dandayudhapani Pillai (yes, the same who went on to teach such stars as Vyjayantimala among others) did so. I was a mere child, indulged by all around – Tatha – more a grandfather than a guru, Ram Gopal, Dandayudhapani and E. Krishna Sir. In retrospect, I wonder if this was some purva-janma karma because our family had no background in dance or the arts except for savoring it. To think Bharata Natyam became my life, thanks to a guru who desired the art be learnt and celebrated in every home, is amazing! Today, when I see Bharata Natyam as an international phenomenon I can’t believe it was merely sixty years ago that people like E. Krishna Iyer sir were trying to re-establish it.”

M K Saroja had an active performing career of sixty unbroken years. She married India’s pioneering dance-historian, scholar and collector, Prof. Mohan Khokar in 1949 and had four children.

Along with dance, she also had a career in Tamil films, teaching dance at Baroda (where they invited E Krishna Iyer for theory) and Calcutta universities, in addition to teaching abroad.

Her art has touched all those who have understood the essence of Bharata Natyam. Books and films on her art have been made, awards given, titles bestowed but she remains basically unaffected by it all and is a devotee of dance.

India Today’s Arts Editor S Kalidas described her in Jan. 1999 as “the unpretentious doyenne of Bharata Natyam” after her farewell performance in Bangalore where her mentor and ‘mother’, the legendary Ram Gopal, was present despite his advanced years.’

In a career spanning sixty years of actual dancing and teaching, Saroja’s art has touched many for its humility and simplicity – as an offering to the gods. Since 1970, she taught devoted seniors like Yamini Krishnamurthy, Indrani – and youngsters like Leela Samson, Rasika Khanna, Arup Ghosh – a few chosen items but her maximum number of students are in France because “Indian students want name and fame quickly! The French are willing to put a minimum of ten years to even reach the arangetram stage. My principal disciple, Vidya, in Paris, has learnt over 80 items in 20 years! And has over 200 students in France! So my gurus’ art continues.” On the eve of her seventieth birthday (April 7, 2001), M K Saroja feels fulfilled and at peace and has publicly stopped performing and teaching. A Bharata Natya bhakta, that’s what she is. “I feel strange, because I am carrying on my frail shoulders the very medal of the man who carried me on his! Honored, because my art helped me receive it, nothing else.”

Son of Mohan Khokar and M K Saroja, Ashish learnt Bharatanatyam and Kathak and has been a dance critic for over a decade.