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KJ Sarasa: The first light that led me to the Attic
- Swarnamalya Ganesh, Chennai

January 5, 2012

I vividly remember the day a rickshaw pulled in front of Rani Annadurai Street. My mother and I were walking into the big house. Being a student of Kutralam Ganesan Pillai herself, my mother had very specific choices of whom I should train under and in what sampradayam. I was barely 3 years old. Sarasa ma was warm and welcoming to my mother as they already knew each other and was only too glad to take me in. Unlike a few other gurus in the city who had advised my mother to wait until I was 7 years old, Sarasa ma readily agreed to take me in. She said if a child has the potential, let us catch her young.

My house was a few streets away and I used to be dropped at class every day. All I remember of the first few years was sitting on her lap watching all the senior girls dance. She would take classes for hours, tirelessly. She would sing so melodiously and expect the students sitting around, to sing as well.

My salangai poojai was a grand affair. She had trained a mere 8 year old for a two hour debut. Gowri akka (the singer), Ramdas anna (the mridangist, the great Thanjavur Ramdas) would be at all rehearsals from day one. I remember even having regular classes to their music. Such was the musical atmosphere that I got training in.

There was never a time or a strict fee structure. Sarasalaya was a home. I would reach there after school and spend all evening learning, teaching, singing and dancing. No one would be asked to leave after their class. Knowledge was free flowing. It was up to the dancer to grab as much as she wanted or could.

My arangetram was a huge story. Sarasa ma told me she had invested great dreams and faith in me and hence was inviting the who's who of the dance world for my arangetram. I was so nervous and didn't want to disappoint her. She specially composed the Bharathiyar song "ninaye rathi endru ninaikiren adi" along with the Basant Bahar tillana for me. I was thrilled and even today at Sarasalaya, Basant Bahar tillana is known as the piece done for me, by teacher! Every program was a learning curve with her. She never taught us abhinaya by giving us specific gestures. In her teaching, there was so much freedom that even in class we were encouraged to improvise, interpret. If ten girls were dancing at the same time, teacher expected ten different versions of the same piece. On stage if we improvised, she would admire the effort and move along with us.

As a dance teacher and researcher, today when I look back, I am amazed at how effortlessly she blended the gurukula system of imparting knowledge with modernity. She never sat us down to teach the values and ethics behind sampradaya. In fact, Sarasa ma in many ways stands as the melting pot of old world gurus blending into the cosmopolitan, English speaking dance teachers of Madras. However, the learning atmosphere she provided instilled a great sense of understanding in me for music, dance and their rich traditions. Over the years, she was always proud of the fact that I sing too. She would always make me sing for others in class as they rehearsed. I have spent several days over the many years I have learnt with her in class, not only dancing and singing, but also picking out her silk saree, ironing it, helping her pick her jewellery for her evening's concert. All through such times she would talk nine to the dozen, about Ramaiah vadyar's classes, music of Bala ma, music nuances in Tanjore Quartette, to Madras dance politics and Madhuri Dixit's dance. She had a gift of the gab. Her humor was subtle and very well known.

Being a non-performing guru, I have never seen Sarasa ma dance much. Even in class she would rarely get up to demonstrate. But the few occasions she has, those are etched in my memory. On an April afternoon several years ago, she suddenly, very instinctively got up to demonstrate a line from a padam. As the afternoon sun streamed into the hall, her diamond nose-stud (the only ornament she wore on her person that day) shining away, she sang and did abhinaya for the lines "Rama rama prana sakhi..." I think that day changed my life. As a young teenager, I decided that day that I wanted to become a dancer just like her. And I wanted to wear a nose-ring, just like her too!

Over the years, she has inspired me to become what I have. All my research and dancing and teaching I owe to her. In 2005, when I did a production based on Silappadikaram, I requested her to do a guest appearance as Madhavi's dance guru for me. She was so thrilled. She decked herself up. Puff-sleeved blouse and saree, maatal, odiyaanam, vanki, bullakku et al, and came to the studios. When I played the music, she asked me to teach her what I needed her to do. I was stunned, but she insisted that I direct her and pushed me to do so. That to me is the greatest day of my life.

Vijayadasami at Sarasalaya is like New Year for me. I begin my dancing year on that day by seeking her blessings and dancing to her music and singing, sitting at her feet. It recharges my artistic batteries to run for the whole year, with her blessings and guidance. This year too was very memorable. Unlike other years when we wouldn't have much time to perform several pieces, she asked me to dance an alarippu, jatiswaram, vrttam and a pada varnam. It was as if she knew that this was going to be the last Dasami she would be taking class for me. All my students have the greatest fortune of taking her blessings too. I took them all one day to her. We danced at Sarasalaya koodam. She individually blessed all of them. Both natya and sangeeta shala students of Ranga Mandira respect and looked up to Sarasa ma and we lovingly follow the sampradaya she has imparted to me.

Being the head of a large matrilineal family, she was a very strong woman, determined and strong willed. I have never seen her break down. At the same time, she was also like a child. Loved to try out new kinds of food. She loved cinema and Madhuri Dixit's dance. She also used to do great impressions of others and would make us all laugh in class. She was kind hearted and a lover of great music. Sarasa ma loved sankarabharanam. I made it a point to sing at least one sankarabharanam kriti, padam, pada varnam or at least a vrttam to her every time I met her in the last year.

I have so much more to say but can't put down over 2 decades of very eventful years here at once. I feel it is only divine ordain that I had the opportunity to learn from such a great guru. She was a pioneer and a leader, not only to women nattuvanar lineage but to the gender at large. I would like to believe that I have imbibed in me not only dance, music and teaching from her but also her strong personality and ability to face challenges and emerge a winner.

On January 2, 2012, my guru, my guiding light, my mentor, Sarasa ma attained the lotus feet of the Lord. I was there all day with her, hoping she would wake up and call me "Swarna...inga vaa paa." She didn't. It seems she has fulfilled all that she was born to do. She has been a good daughter, and a great sister who took care of the entire family. She was a student par excellence, a shadow like follower of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, a very devoted mother to her sister's daughters. But above all of, she was the greatest teacher. She imparted dance, music and values to her disciples as if it were the very air we breathe. I will always miss you, my dear Sarasa ma, Sarasa teacher. I know that you will always look upon me with affection and protective motherly care and bless me, like you always have.

As I bid her good bye at 5pm, I came back home and I danced for her while her soul was leaving her mortal coil. For a guru who had lived all her life for music and dance what else could I do? At that time, as I was overwhelmed, words just poured in my mind and I composed a song on her and sang it.

My tribute to her
Describing her dark-hued (syamale) but very charming loving eyes (sarasija lochani), the one who always has a smile (hasite) and who resides in my heart (hrdaya nivasini). You are a giver of happiness to all, all the time (sadaananda kaarini), you are the embodiment of sangeeta, music and dance (sangeeta kalaa samkshobini), you adopted all your disciples as your own children (sakala siksaa sveeharini), you have the untraceable divine lineage (niradhaara vamsini), you are pure and righteous (nirmala satya hamsini). You are the consort of Sri Paramesvara (Parameswara nari), you are the torch bearer of the divine art of dance (pavitra nartaka kalaa vihari), you are a divinity in mortal form who resides in the lotus of my heart (paramapurusha padmasri), you are hailed by the whole world, my mother! (dharani prasidha maa janani).

Incidentally, Sarasa amma was very desirous of getting a Padmasri award. She aspired for it for years. Of course, she deserved much more. But this was the least and she aspired no more. This country missed the opportunity to bestow upon her that honour till the very end. Her students are her wealth, her awards. I, hereby through this kriti bestow upon the greatest Guru in the world of arts, my mother, my mentor, the Padmasri. She is a Padmasri, for she resides in the inner most lotus of my heart, forever.

Swarnamalya Ganesh is a Bharatanatyam dancer. She runs Ranga Mandira school of performing arts in Chennai.


So amazing.....!
- Anonymous
(Jan 11, 2012)

Dear Swarnamalya,
I am touched by the way you have penned your experiences with Sarasa amma. All I can say is you have been very fortunate to be trained by her. Am sure her blessings would continue to flow into all the dancers. This is a great loss to the field of dance.

India has failed in honoring some of the best people who deserved Padma awards and amma is the foremost of them. She has crossed all those levels of receiving any awards and as you rightly mentioned, the real 'padma' award for her is her disciples.
Good luck to you and all lucky students of amma.
- Vasanth Kiran
(Jan 19, 2012)

Dear Swarnamalya,
I was one of the students in sarasalaya and did my salangai pooja and arangetram under Sarasamma. This was way back in 1977. I stopped dancing soon after that and never looked back. I read your article on her and it brought tears to my eyes as Sarasamma could always make an individual feel that she was the best student in her class. As my Arangetram was nearing, my parents used to feel that I had to practice a lot and so had to be fed well. Sarasamma would reassure them and tell that she would feed me in her house. I used to feel so honoured sitting next to her and eating the same food. The classes she took for me after that would only be for me. I regret now that not once after 1977 did I look her up as emotionally our family too was coping up with my father's death. She was, is and will be a person close to our heart and synonymous with dance. May her soul rest in peace!
Thank you.
Asha Menon, Doha, Qatar
(Nov 4, 2012)

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