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A missing link to past and present
Tribute to a centenarian: Periya Sarada of Kalakshetra
- The Dhananjayans

August 20, 2015

Sarada Teacher

(This is a slightly modified version of the article originally featured in 'Nirmalam: The Genius of S Sarada' published by Anita Ratnam for Arangham Trust in 2005)

As children we always wondered about this wonderful lady genius. All those who were interested in delving deep into the subject of music and naatya dreamt of scaling her heights, an impossible task indeed. Periya Sarada teacher's presence in the Kalakshetra campus was a great boon and inspiration to everyone, irrespective of whether they were teachers or students. Any subject, anytime and anywhere - a person of her scholarship was available in Kalakshetra to us students and she liberally shared her knowledge with others.

Periya Sarada was one of those great souls who have sacrificed their lives for the development of Kalakshetra, with total commitment from the inception. We used to wonder how Rukmini Devi managed to produce her monumental dance drama productions in the languages she did not know. Whether it was Telugu, Tamizh, Malayalam or Samskritam, only Sarada Teacher could convincingly explain the deeper meanings of the words to match the creativity of Athai - the other genius. Only Sarada Teacher could convincingly interpret Athai's compositions and attribute a deeper meaning to her choreography.

Unaware of the meaning of an unknown language, Athai would sometimes create something unusual by intuition, and Sarada Teacher would be right there to admire and justify the creativity with her scholarship. There were occasions when Athai would shut her off, almost in a humiliating way, in front of all of us, but this gracious lady would utter no word of reproach or despair. As students, we used to feel embarrassed at such moments, at the unfair accusations, but Sarada Teacher - the embodiment of humility - swallowed such behaviour of Athai without saying a word.

Periya Sarada was the most pleasant and approachable teacher, who maintained an unbiased attitude towards all students. She spared no occasion to compliment us - her students - whenever we excelled in something particular. For us, Sarada Teacher's words of wisdom mattered more than anyone else's and we always looked forward to her comments and corrections. She would never hurt us in the slightest.

Her greatest virtue was to address each person according to their age, calibre and scholarship and to make each one understand the subject, as they should. To children, she could communicate the highest philosophy through her little stories and anecdotes and as they grew she would change the texture with deeper sensitivity. Before Athai would start composing with us, Sarada Teacher would see to it that we were thorough with the meanings of the songs in different languages. Along with our Samskritam gurus Adinarayana Sarma and Venkatachala Sastri, Sarada Teacher would explain in great detail the characters in a dance drama to us. Their description of each character helped us to live the parts as close to the poets' imaginations as possible.

We all know how much she has sacrificed for Kalakshetra without expecting anything in return. Even the meagre salary or pocket money that she was supposed to get from the institution went straight into scholarship funds for the maintenance of poor students. She would have never thought that one day she would retire from Kalakshetra and become a non-entity there having assimilated her life with the institution. All of us - her early students - felt miserable when she had to leave because the Kalakshetra administration was handed over to the Government of India. It was a great loss to the new generation of students in Kalakshetra.

The greatness and generosity of Sarada Teacher remained intact and in fact even after her leaving Kalakshetra, she welcomed and helped the knowledge seekers from Kalakshetra without a trace of ill feeling. Kalakshetra's loss was a gain for several artistes outside, who grabbed the opportunity of interacting with Sarada Teacher in the Theosophical Society campus.

Having been a close confidante of Rukmini Devi for decades, Sarada maami (as we call her) selflessly served the vision of her mission with the steadfast mind of a 'Sthitapragna' described in the Bhagavad Gita. Many a wrath fell on Sarada maami when she also became one of the signatories to the infamous case against the new Kalakshetra Foundation. Athai, ill-advised by her close coterie, took a U turn in her attitude towards Sarada maami. But this did not deter Sarada maami's expression of total dedication and devotion toward the mission dear to Athai.

When Sarada maami was compelled to retire from Kalakshetra penniless, with no retirement benefits whatsoever, it was G. Sundari who took the responsibility of looking after this great scholar of rare merit and maintained her with utmost affection and care. Hats off to Sundari Teacher for her unselfish humanitarian service. But for Sundari Teacher, we cannot imagine what would have befallen Sarada Teacher who had been a strong supporting pillar of the monumental Kalakshetra institution. The meaning of Theosophy and universal brotherhood could be very well realized through this living example of a lady theosophist G. Sundari.

The Dhananjayans with Sarada Teacher and G. Sundari

Even at a ripe age, Sarada Teacher, with all her physical disability, answered questions accurately. Her students felt proud and privileged to have been under such an erudite scholar and more than that a human par excellence, sympathetic towards life around her, whether human or animals. Sarada Teacher would be turning 100 this year if she had lived.

It is very unfortunate that Kalakshetra could not replace a person of Sarada Teacher's caliber till date and that missing link remains blank in every student who passes out from the institution. We were fortunate indeed to imbibe great knowledge from Sarada Teacher, who was unceremoniously retired after government takeover of the institution and we feel sorry for the generations after her period.

Shanta Dhananjayan adds:
As everyone knows, Periya Sarada teacher was a fountain of knowledge. She not only gave such crucial support to all of Rukmini Devi's productions, but also meticulously taught all of us, her students, in making the nuances of the songs, literature and the various shades of meanings, clear. Thereby, our interpretations of the dances could become more meaningful. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Samskritam sloka classes she conducted with such involvement, so that we gave the right shade of intonation and pronunciation of the words.

Her knowledge in music, dance and literature were deep and her commitment to our tradition and heritage was stupendous. I deem it a great blessing to have studied under this great lady, a great ocean of knowledge. Sarada maami, as she was popularly addressed by people around her, was a stickler for perfection. She also took great care individually, with each one of us, to coach us in our weaker aspects in the interpretation of the songs. She would often say, "Come to my room after your classes. I will explain in detail." So we had extra hours of classes with Periya Sarada teacher off and on. When we came up to her expectations, we could see the joy in her face and appreciation would pour out without any reservations.

I remember once she personally appreciated my performance of the Dharu (a tillana-like composition) in 'Seeta-Swayamvaram' in Bombay, proclaiming it loudly in front of all others. In the same vein she would also get very upset if we did not put our heart and soul into our performance. She was a true 'Guru' in every sense of the word. There were many good teachers who imparted their knowledge to us but there was only one Periya Sarada teacher who imparted that knowledge with such completeness.

The Dhananjayans, directors of Bharata Kalanjali in Chennai, are prime disciples of Periya Sarada.


I had the unique privilege of accompanying my Guru Adyar K. Lakshman on several occasions to Peria Sarada Teacher's house in the Theosophical Society when she was bedridden. She used to call for Sir and when we went there she would make him sit by her side and ask him to sing all her favourite compositions..And silently tears would flow down her cheeks..she would get so emotional on just hearing the songs...I deem it a great good fortune to have been in the presence of someone as great as Sarada Teacher...Truly great souls indeed...
- Roja Kannan (Sept 1, 2015)

Thanks for this lovely post. My 6 years in Kalakshetra were blessed by the benign presence of Peria Sharada Teacher. I remember her sitting me down to explain the poetry and the context, for every small or large role I have had the privilege to perform as a student at Kalakshetra. Her warm praise, "Romba nanna abhinayam panne" when as a sakhi in a small role I caught her attention, still makes me smile with pride! Such selfless Gurus, come once in a millennium. It was indeed my blessing, to be her student
- Ananda Shankar Jayant, Kalakshetra student (1973-79)
(Aug 21, 2015)

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