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My beloved Vadyar Swamimalai K Rajarathnam Pillai
- Sandhya Sree Athmakuri, MI

July 14, 2012

Swamimalai K Rajarathnam Pillai

July 3, 1994 Houston, Texas..."Puthaandu Nalvaazhthukkal, Master!" I shyly greeted Vadyar. It was his birthday (we didn't even know at that time that, that would be his last celebration). He responded by first staring at me in pretended astonishment and then smiling naughtily at our mridangist Nellai Kannan and flautist Tyagarajan. He caught my ear and said, "Dayavu seithu neenga Tamizh la peshaadhingo..." (Please do not speak in Tamil!) While I stood there almost feeling proud of myself for greeting Vadyar in Tamizh, I was at the same time slightly embarrassed as to why everyone in the room were grinning at me. Then Gowri aunty (as I used to affectionately address our singer) told me that I had just wished him Happy New Year instead of Happy Birthday...Pirandha Naal Vaazhthukkal!

Perhaps I was one of his very few Telugu students, and perhaps the only one who had the great fortune of doing gurukulavasam with him. Yes, I was one of the few privileged disciples who travelled all the way from Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, for a period of 10+ years, stayed with Vadyar and was able to observe him up close. I would watch with amusement as he would be deeply engrossed in watching any MGR movie on TV, when he would play with Nrithya (singing 'jannakitta girrakitta" for her), Abhinaya or Rasika and even Aravind...all his favorite grandchildren at that time. I watched in equal amazement as he took classes from 7 am in the morning through the evening, hour after hour, giving individual and absolute attention to each of his senior students. I specially mention this because I have often seen many teachers make their senior students take class for the average students and give their personal and privileged attention only to the good students. But not Vadyar... whatever be the capabilities of the student, he took class for them with the same commitment and passion. Not just classes but the performances of all students, irrespective of their performance caliber were also conducted with the same fervor. That he customized his choreography to match the physique and artistic potential of each of his students, is a known fact in the world of Bharatanatyam.

Sandhya with Vadhyar

Early this year, I had the wonderful opportunity of being a part of the 80th birthday celebrations of Vadyar at Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai. It was a nostalgic reunion for me with the other Rajarathnalaya alumni. As I entered Vadyar's house for rehearsals, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. All his lessons, all his music, all his sollukattu, all his wit, ALL OF VADYAR, began to echo in his house...everything seemed so surreal. I was stepping into his house after almost 15 years. I came to Chennai only to pay my tribute to my great master on the occasion of his 80th birthday celebrations. Maami (Vadyar's wife Nagalakshmi Rajarathnam) hugged me. She hasn't changed at all, nor her cooking. As I was having lunch that Maami prepared, Vadyar's voice seemed to echo in the dining room as he often used to tease me during lunch/dinner time: "Meeru pure vegetarian, memu pure non-vegetarian." "Sandhya Sree ku ooraga kudu, Nagalakshmi, avarku ooraga rasam irindaa porum." ('You are pure vegetarian and I am pure non-vegetarian.' 'Nagalakshmi, give Sandhya Sree pickle. She is happy with pickle and rasam!'). Vadyar would try to talk to me in Telugu and I would respond in Tamil!

Classes with Vadyar were such a humbling experience for me. He was such a great teacher...if I said this, it would be either an understatement or stating the obvious! Each day, morning to late evening, hour by hour as he gave his undivided whole hearted attention to each of his students, I watched him (when I stayed with him in my pursuit to learn), and never did I once see him tired or complaining. Now, as I teach and sometimes feel the fatigue and monotony, I shake myself up as I think of Vadyar's untiring and committed teaching even at that age.

I remember, my mother and I would be so touched and humbled whenever this great man would ask us the meaning for some Telugu songs. No ego issues at all even in front of his students. I have never seen any student be intimidated by him, his presence or his knowledge and mastery on the subject. He would tease me, "Yennamma nee ippidi olliyaa irukka...yeppidi dance aaduve?" (You are so thin, how will you dance?). "Meeru baaga chestharu" (You did very well). I cannot forget his compliment in Telugu after a performance for Indian Fine Arts Society. I was on cloud nine for a long time after that!

When visualizing great people or artistes, especially gurus, one has a certain perspective about their social personality, off-stage and behind the limelight. While I have seen many artistes, performers and gurus maintain a certain image about themselves, Vadyar was one person who was very down to earth off stage too. I was pleasantly shocked and amused to see him play cards with his fellow musicians during train journeys when we travelled for programs. I would watch with the same amusement when he would watch MGR's movies on television or during shopping on our US tour. My parents and I would be flattered when he would ask us to bring 'Banginapally' mangoes or 'Kakinada kaja' or homemade 'Gongura' and mango pickles from Andhra. Often, one encounters gurus with some attitude, arrogance and short temper but I have never seen that aspect of Vadyar. The amount of patience he exhibited with each and every student! There was so much open communication between him and his students, like father and daughters. Even when some of his famous and senior students had to leave him owing to some unfortunate incidents, he never once spoke ill of them. He always appreciated them as artistes. That was his magnanimity.

During some of my classes, when he would give me some rest between lessons, he would be lost in thought. He would share with us about his ideals, principles and thoughts regarding taking fees/Gurudakshina (amongst other things) and how he was uncomfortable about it. He would say that owing to reality of life as an artiste, he had to compromise on those ideals. He shared his conflicts of the head and the heart. I share this as I was touched by his confiding in us during those days, as in a much cherished father daughter moment and also because I am not sure how many of his students are aware of his idealism as a guru, whose bread and butter was teaching dance. I often think about this as I watch the growing commercialism and (excuse my usage) dance mafia.

Vadyar's wife Nagalakshmi, Vadhyar, Sandhya, Guru Padma, Sandhya's mother Indira Devi

Vadyar was very homely, a simple and affectionate human being. From what I saw during my gurukulavasam, he was also a caring father and grandfather who always made time for his family despite his hectic class schedule. Knowing the hardships he went through in this field, Vadyar told us that he didn't encourage his children to enter the field of art and he made sure that they were all highly educated so they would have a bright future. However, it is heartening to know that now his daughter Jayakamala Pandian (Kamalakka) and her daughter Nrithya Pillai (Vadyar's granddaughter) are trying their best to continue the Rajarathnam legacy. When Kamalakka went to reside in the US during the late 80's or so, I recall how worried Vadyar was for her, as a protective father.

Vadhyar conducting Sandhya's program in Vizag

Vadyar was such an open-minded guru and I am very grateful to god for placing me under his wing. A few years (I think about 5 years later) after I was with Vadyar, when I joined Kuchipudi classes at Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam's dance school, he was not upset but happy for me. Likewise, I should mention here that Vempati master also was equally happy that I was the disciple of Rajarathnam Pillai. That way, I was blessed to have the support and encouragement of two great gurus, or should I say two godfathers!

Speaking of gurus, my first guru was Padma of the Rani-Padma duo (who were themselves popular disciples of Vazhuvur Ramaiah Pillai). Incidentally, they were the friends and colleagues of Vadyar and Maami. It was a great moment in my life when Vadyar and Maami came to know that I was Padma's student and likewise Padma-ji was pleasantly surprised that I was pursuing advanced training under their colleague, a talented young man in those days who used to sing for their performances with Guru Ramaiah Pillai. Here, I would like to express my thanks to Guru Chitra Visweswaran who introduced me to Vadyar (she being very busy then could not take me in as her student) in the early 80's, when I was looking for a senior guru to pursue advanced training in Bharatanatyam.

I fondly remember the childlike happiness that Vadyar experienced when maestro Nedunuri Krishnamurthy presided over one of my performances in Visakhapatnam. Nedunuri embraced Vadyar and could not stop praising him for, of course, his brilliant nattuvangam and melodious singing. For my family and me and the connoisseurs present it was a golden moment captured in history as two stalwarts in their respective fields, embraced each other, and complimented each other with their mutual respect and admiration. I basked in joy, and was greatly humbled one more time as I watched my guru with pride and admiration. I am not sure if anybody else knew about this, but Vadyar often expressed (to my mother and me) his desire to give a full fledged vocal kutcheri. Touched by this simple wish, my mother tried to organize a vocal kutcheri of Vadyar the next day after my performance in Visakhapatnam, but owing to another dance performance commitment, he had to return to Chennai. What a loss for the Vizag audiences and music lovers!

The reunion I mentioned above and preparations for the celebration in Narada Gana Sabha was a very nostalgic experience...I was meeting some of my dance colleagues, Nirupama Vaidyanathan, Priyadarsini Govind, Ramya Ramnarayan, Ramya Harishanker, Srinidhi Chidambaram, Vidhya Subramaniam after our 1994 tour of the US and couple of other performances in Chennai around 1995-1996. These 15+ years have seen each of us establish ourselves as performers, choreographers, teachers in our own right and this day we had gathered to present Vadyar's special choreographies. It was a challenge because Vadyar had taught each one of us, his choreographies with variations and improvisations and now we had to present our solo choreography as a group performance and that too without him directing us. I mention this because we are solo dancers for the most part and it was going to be hard to be in sync, mentally and dance-wise too. Further, it is not that we had the luxury of time. Each of us was busy juggling so many things and yet had to make the commitment to meet and practice. We were like the fingers in a palm...all very different yet when the palm closes to make a fist, the fingers were what held the fist.

We were like a flower garden... so many different flowers, but only when the flowers blossom together, the garden looks beautiful. We were diverse in physique, mind and dance but united in soul. We, the disciples of our beloved, one and only Vadyar, Guru Swamimalai K Rajarathnam Pillai.

A few months after Vadyar had passed away, I happened to meet Ganesh Easwaran, who was one of the few male students of Vadyar. My eyes filled with tears when Ganesh told me that upon returning from the US tour in 1994, Vadyar had gone out of his way to recommend me for performances at Music Academy, Krishna Gana Sabha and other elite sabhas of Chennai. They did not materialize owing to Vadyar's untimely demise but I didn't care about those performances or attaining stardom. I cared that without my even asking, Rajarathnam Master had such a high opimion of my dance prowess that he went out of his way for me, a small being in front of his great mastery.

I felt very orphaned with Vadyar's untimely demise. I still feel orphaned. Time may have healed but we will and are still missing you, Vadyar. The void left by you in the field of music and dance cannot be fulfilled... EVER.

Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi artiste Sandhya Sree Athmakuri is the Founder and Director of Natya Dharmi, Foundation for Performing Arts, in Rochester Hills, MI. This is an extract from her article on Vadyar published in the SRUTI magazine.

So well written, Sandhya, and that too fully from the heart! I had the good fortune of learning under Vadyaar but only for a short period of 6-8 months. I was also struck by his simplicity, sincerity, affection and his great musical voice and choreography. It affected me deeply to hear of his sudden demise. He brought back a deep interest in dance within me which was sadly fading away before I started learning from him. I am ever grateful to him for that.
- Chandrika Chandran (Aug 24, 2016)

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