To my teacher Shyamala, with love
- Ashwini Kaarthikeyan
July 14, 2015
The passing of my dear teacher of classical dance, Shyamala Mohanraj (1941-2015) on July 14, leaves a large vacuum in my being. I met her for the first time two years ago, and it was love at first sight! Her curious, soft eyes and her gentle, kind smile melted all hard edges within. Before I found her, I had been learning with gifted teachers, yet a restlessness burned inside of me.
Then, on the 1st of January 2013, I entered Shyamala Akka's quaint little house with a brass plate laden with fruits, flowers, betel nut leaf, and was initiated as her student. The Pandanallur form of dance that I had devoted many years to, was considerably different in Akka's manner of teaching. There was a palpable softness, grace, and fluidity that lured me in. Though her nature refrained from any impositions upon me, I soon realized that to truly bathe in the essence of her teachings, I had to muster the courage to begin from the beginning. And so my journey resumed from the first lesson of Tatta Adavus.
Apart from being an exponent of dance in T. Balasaraswati tradition, Akka had been a teacher of Botany for many years, an adept yoga practitioner under her fatherís tutelage, as well as an ardent student of Vastu Shastra under Ganapathy Sthapathi. These varied backgrounds greatly influenced and coloured her manner of teaching Bharatanatyam.
During this time, she stayed at the home of a Kathakali maestro from Kerala, and hence got exposed to the classical art forms of Mohiniattam as well as Kathakali. A bright student, she was gifted with the ability to shape-shift herself to any form of dance. Though her primary teacher, Balamma, was a strict disciplinarian, she had a keen eye for a genius in a child, and allowed the flowering of each studentís uniqueness, if another art form complemented the student. So Shyamala Akka enjoyed a privileged relationship with her teacher, Balamma. For Akka, Balamma and her family became everything. She remained eternally grateful to every wakeful moment with Balamma and safeguarded each composition learnt under her with more vigilance and care, than any material comforts or worldly manner of wealth.
I knew I had found my teacher. I danced with her morning and evenings, as much as the universe allowed. What I internalized with Shyamala Akka cannot be counted by the number of compositions I learnt under her guidance, or the number of public performances I gave since, or whether I may pass on her teachings to other students in the garb of a teacher of this classical art form. Shyamala Akka breathed life into my brokenness. Shyamala Akka role-modeled devotion, playfulness, and the joy of dance into me. I know not of my future as she reunites today with our Mother Goddess. I find my tears flowing and ebbing like the tides. I feel her presence, I hear her voice, her laughter, her touch, and sense her blessings pouring out towards me, as I sit stunned inside an unfathomable, dark void.
I pray for you, my dearest Shyamala Akka, as you soar towards Godís light. I pray for your guidance, as I continue on my path as a classical dancer. I love you. My heart brims with gratitude for the gift of knowing you, and learning from you, in this lifetime.
Thank you, Ashwini, for this beautiful tribute. I was visiting Chennai, studying and staying with Shyamala when you were becoming her student. I accompanied her to your land for lunch one day and still remember your drawing of Bala. I miss Shyamala so much, this inspires me to write my memories too.
- Joan Animal Warrior (May 22, 2017)
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