Mangalore is that beautiful, quaint coastal town of Karnataka that, owing to its proximity to Kasargod, Kerala is almost mistaken to be part of Kerala. Returning to it after 32 years, I was pleasantly surprised that while the town showed all excesses of an unplanned urban India, its people retained some of their refinement and genteelness. Epitomising this quality is the Alva family.
Senior Alva being Jayalakshmi, all of 75! Juniormost Alva being Vidhur, a natural on stage. And it is Dr. Arathi Shetty, daughter-dancer of Jayalakshmi amma who is the red thread that holds the family together, with her husband Harish and daughter Saatvika helping admirably. Celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of Guru Jayalakshmi Alva, brought scores of her fans and friends, students and supporters to Mangalore on 17th and 18th Nov. 2008.
At a grand two-day function in the Town Hall, the two-day festival showcased over 3 generations and hundred students of the Alva parampara, some coming as far as from Bombay and Boston; Bangalore and Baroda; Chennai and Calcutta. The Alvas had spent almost two plus decades in Bombay-Ahmedabad region for some years in the sixties and seventies, and she was also a part of the Darpana Academy.
That makes me call Mrinalini amma on her cell and tell her of Alva amma’s celebrations. She exclaims: “Oh, what are you doing in Mangalore?” I tell her the occasion and she says: “Jayami has turned 75? She doesn’t look it! Give her my best wishes.” Seniors from Chennai like Kalakshetra teacher N S Jayalakshmi who had just returned from Germany (and not caring one bit for the jet-lag) made it to Mangalore. The Mehta sisters, all sounding like film stars, turned out nicely with smart hairdos (as only Bombayites are capable of), were there all through, helping, motivating, organising tasks. From Bangalore came Guru Bhanumati, Minal Prabhu (Ponamma, her shadow!, followed to help her teacher), yours truly, Boston-returned dancer Purnima and hubby Gururaj and friend Ravi who did exemplary voluntary work ferrying guests to and fro. In the end, this was a festival made up of genuine people and their love and affection for Guru Jayalakshmi Alva.
Locals were not to be left behind in playing hosts because thanks to Alva amma, many had come from far to their town. Father Denis D’sa, benevolent pastor who duplicates as Mullers Hospital administrator; Dr Mohan Alva of Alva educational institutions, Mudbidri, (looking handsome in his pink shirt!); Prof Kaverippa, V C, Mangalore University (who intercepted his speech with English, making it easy for outsiders to comprehend); Ananthakrishna, Chairman of Karnataka Bank, (elegant and dignified to whom I joked that while the bank maybe Ltd. his support to culture should not be!) main sponsors and Sri Lakshminarayana Asranna, the chief priest of Sri Kshetra Kateel; diamond-earring studded Seth Raghunath (who looked every bit a seth!); an amiable Harikrishna Punarur (who smiled all through the two days) and the ever-busy Sri Pardeep Kumara Kalkurra were among many who helped make the festival a truly memorable event.
Guru Jayalakshmi Alva was vadyar Dandayudhapani Pillai’s first and foremost students when he started teaching Bharatanatyam. He was initially only a singer and owed his exposure and learning to Nawab Rajamanickam. His brother Dakshinamoorthy was a mridangist, who later positioned himself in Delhi as a teacher of dance and taught recent upcoming Delhi stars like Geeta Chandran. For long, this singer Dandayudhapani Pillai, who otherwise stuttered and stammered while speaking ordinarily, was one of Bharatanatyam’s finest teachers and recitors of jatis. He strung together and hammered out jatis that were a delight and old-timers, including teacher N S Jayalakshmi recalled how adroit he was. Vadyar Dandayudhapani Pillai was my mother’s (M K Saroja) singer when he first came to Madras and thatha Muthukumara Pillai helped him find foothold in Madras. He often travelled with thatha and M K Saroja, recalls, sometimes when she was too tired, he carried her on his shoulders after a kutcheri. She was just 9! This was the affection of teachers, singers, nattuvanars, then.
Jayalakshmi Alva amma learnt from Vadyar when he shared a barsati room with my father Mohan Khokar, in Adyar, for four years. Thus, the two devoted-to-dance fiends became friends as often they had very little money between them and somehow managed to survive in the Madras of 1940s. Dandayudhapani Pillai shared lots of confidences with father and what Mohan ji has written and recorded of that period tells many interesting facets of many people. That is fodder for another book!
I thus went to these celebrations with lots of humility and wonder, as if reconstructing the past with some key players still present like Alva amma and I was richly rewarded!
First, the guru herself: Serene, calm, deep and sincere. She effuses motherly care and concern. Guru Alva at 75 does not look her age, despite many hardships she must have encountered in her lifetime, especially after losing her beloved husband Ramakrishna Alva, early on. To bring up children, on fee from dance earnings, is never an easy task and that too in harsh climes of metro Mumbai or big cities. Her sufferings are her own; she shows no trace of it on her face, only a genuine warm, open smile. The smile and face says it all: welcome! Her spiritual personality is for all to see.
No wonder dancers came from all cities and from all walks of life. Those who had once learnt from her; those who were just her neighbours; those who just cared for her dance; those who partnered her early on; those whose lives ran parallel to hers. That they came from far and near showed their love for her. This was a genuine gathering, not some high flying state-sponsored dance festival, where lakhs are wasted in meaningless expense and only bureaucrats and politicians have a nice time.
A booklet – Jaya Bharatha Jaya - on the guru’s life and times was released and a film on her shown with messages from a few key associates like Vyjayantimala, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam, Guru M K Saroja, C V Chandrasekhar was screened. Commentary by Purnima Gururaj, despite occasional American accent twangs, was well constructed and compered. Purnima seems eager to learn and help, having been away to Boston from Bangalore.
The festival itself was supported by Karnataka Bank Ltd, BSNL, Indian oil Corp, Karanataka Culture Dept and the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Sitting in Delhi, does the Akademi realise these genuine gurus have not been awarded? That, no Padma award has come their way because no one took up their case/name? Is it not the duty of the Akademi to make a list and award those like Jaya amma who have spent 75 years devoted to dance? Just granting a festival of this scale, a little grant, enough? These grants are all tax-payers money anyway! What has the Secretary or Chairman or the governing board of the Akademi done to help such a guru or dance great who has given her life to serving dance?
The highlight of the two-day event, were performances by many students and on the concluding day, the Panchakanya ballet. In the past, many dancers have undertaken this theme which in modern parlance borders on early strains of feminism. Rita Devi undertook it in Orissi and donned all five roles (bit of an overkill); Sonal Mansingh, a student of Alva amma also had attempted this theme with modest results. Thus, this version, where five dancers portrayed the pancha kanyas proved different as they were all of different age groups and experience levels. They had a single rehearsal a night before the event as they all lived in different cities (Alva amma from Mangalore; N S Jayalaskhmi maa from Chennai; Guru Bhanumati, Minal Prabhu and Purnima Gururaj from Bangalore) and thus one could see the spirit of camaraderie and mutual respect.
herself donned the role of Sita and admirably showed why she was a genuine,
great artiste. Even at this age, her positions were clear and her face
expressing a thousand emotions. It was a historic moment to see her perform
and to see over two days, how a tradition passed down many generations.
Guru N S Jayalakshmi undertook Mandodri and she too became a reference
point for historical record. She was unhappy she had not performed to the
best of her ability, no wonder why she is a perfectionist of a teacher!
Guru Bhanumati as Draupadi showcased abundant abhinaya ability and the
neat nritta looked effortless despite the girth. Minal Prabhu, dancing
after many years, showed why a dancer cannot afford to leave dancing professionally
for years and then return to stage even if the spirit was willing and Purnima
Gururaj was engaging in her cameos. The production was far too long (especially
coming after many speeches and ceremonies) and needs severe editing if
it were to be performed again on a professional stage or festival. It will
serve the memory of veterans more if only they were centre-stage and not
be saddled by youngsters showing off their exquisite costumes or stances.
Music was of high order although the main male vocalist faltered often.
There was no sweetness in his voice and the pitch/scale of the woman singer
was far too at variance making melody difficult to meet. Flute and mridangam
was of high merit. Arathi Shetty conducted not only the performances but
the entire two day event with much help from volunteers, sons and daughters
and husband, all of whom were the epitome of good hosting. This is one
festival from which one returned with heavy eyes and a full heart.
Mangalam it was in Mangalore!
Ashish Mohan Khokar, a qualified dance historian and a reputed author-critic-editor and publisher, occasionally takes time off to travel to places and festivals one routinely may not attend and comes up happy with past memories relived through current times. His interactions and observations, always subtle and humorous, show him as a keen observer of human beings who love dance. His dance travels will become a book of dance stories, some day. For his complete bio-data and book listings see www.dancerachivesofindia.com and www.attendance-india.com.