Sarasa Natya Mala
Photos: Chella

March 10, 2013

The students of Sarasalaya presented Sarasa Natya Mala on Feb 7 and 8 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai, in memory of their beloved Guru KJ Sarasa who passed away on January 2, 2012. The Guests of Honour, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Sudharani Raghupathy and Chitra Visweswaran, gave an auspicious start to the program by lighting the lamp.

Shanmuga Sundaram, a committed disciple of Karaikal Jagadeesan Sarasa, who is now running her school, helped to coordinate this event put very well together along with other students of Sarasalaya to celebrate Sarasa Teacher’s life and achievements. She guided her sishyas not only through natyam, but also in life whenever they sought her guidance. Born on 10th March 1934, this amazing woman lived a full busy life. She had the distinction of being one of the first and most successful women nattuvanars of the traditional community in modern times. This famous natyacharya who initially sang for dance and soon took to nattuvangam, carried aloft the flag of the Vazhuvoor tradition of Bharatanatyam most impressively for more than five decades. She has a host of talented and well known disciples who are continuing the tradition in different parts of India and abroad. It is quite amazing how Sarasa, a single young woman established a name for herself in Madras in the 1960s and emerged as a highly respected natyacharya on the strength of her art.

Sarasa’s style is marked by grace, ornamentation, sculpturesque poses, sparkling glances, and the charm of the Vazhuvoor style. Her emphasis was on encouraging individuality and creativity within the confines of tradition, and not on imparting an assembly-line uniformity and rigidity in her disciples. She learnt dance from the legendary Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai for a year before joining the doyen Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai. She came to Madras with ‘Appa’ as she called him, learnt nattuvangam on his advice, and became the most popular female nattuvanar in modern times in a male-dominated world.

Incidentally, Sarasa was first a singer with Guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai before she turned nattuvanar. At 18, she took on four-year old Rathna Papa, and invited ‘Appa’ for the arangetram barely three years later! Rathna Papa, Sarasa Teacher’s first disciple says that Teacher’s music was highly regarded in Andhra Pradesh, especially her “Sakhi Prana” (Chenchuruti) and “Chinnanchiru Kiliye” that she sang in adi tala, so much so that Rathna was invited to perform there so they could hear Teacher sing!

KJ Sarasa started Sarasalaya in 1960 in Chennai. Since then she shaped so many star soloists. Sarasa Teacher has the rare distinction of conducting nearly 1,000 arangetrams (first performance) and 2,000 recitals, including those of celebrated artistes such as Vyjayanthimala Bali, Baby Kamala and the Travancore Sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini. A range of pupils, including Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha and writer Sivasankari, hail from the ‘Sarasa  school.’ She gave her students the confidence and the wings to fly and her disciples have gone out into the world and made a name for themselves. She excelled in choreographing nritta and abhinaya to suit individual students.

Sarasa was a woman of true grit. Her father died young and she took on the mantle of looking after her mother and three sisters. By 20, she had set up her own establishment in Abhiramapuram (Chennai) and had brought her family to live with her. She took good care of her close and extended family till the very end. Memories abound in that spacious hall in Mandaveli. Since the 1980s when it was built, its doors have always been open to students and colleagues alike. At Sarasalaya, Sarasa Teacher taught Bharatanatyam, but she taught much more by example. She taught courage, will power, hard work, humility and generosity.

She was not only a great artiste, but also a true rasika who simply loved music and dance. She believed that a dancer needed to immerse herself in melody to be able to emote well. Sarasa's choreography of Krishna Parijatam, Aditya Hridayam, Silapaddikaram, Kunrakkudi Kuravanji, Desa Bhakti and Kutrala Kuravanji won her critical acclaim.  Her contributions won her several honours, including the ‘Kalaimamani’ title, the Swarnakalasam Award at the Kalidasa festival and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from the Central Government. Sarasa Teacher’s ultimate goal was to give the audience an enjoyable experience. She has left behind a legacy that will live forever.

Sarasa Natya Mala commenced with a lovely offering of Pushpanjali by seven little students of Sarasalaya featuring Sree Shivani (granddaughter of Sarasa Teacher and daughter of Rajalakshmi Venkatprabhu), Varshini, Harini, Sweta, Samyukta, Advika, and Arshita. The orchestra for this evening featured Meena Loganathan, disciple and niece of Sarasa Teacher (nattuvangam), Girija Ramaswamy (vocal), Dhananjayan (mridangam), M.S. Kannan (violin), Sruthi Sagar (flute). Following this, four senior star students of Guru Sarasa namely, Sailaja, Srekala Bharath, A. Lakshman, and Urmila Sathyanarayanan presented their solo offerings as part of Sarasa Natya Mala.

Sailaja (the Founder - Director of Sailasudha) went to Guru Sarasa when she was five years old and was under Teacher’s tutelage for more than 18 years. Sarasamma would make her dance with juniors and seniors. About Teacher’s teaching method Sailaja says, “Today I realise what an awesome way it was to learn dancing. It initiated creativity and confidence and firmness in individual style and stamina. Unforgettable are the anecdotes narrated while learning the sanchari-s in a varnam or a padam, her mimicry of various artists and her humorous outbursts. Of course, there were the dreaded moments when I had to do the trikala jati-s repeatedly – at least half a dozen times. But Sarasa Teacher was a very caring person and would point out the mistakes in a very gentle manner making sure no student would feel hurt.”

Sailaja began her concert with a traditional Chokkanathar Kauthuvam in praise of Lord Chokkesa, in Ragamalika set to Misra Chapu talam. This was followed by Aadiya paadhattai, a song in praise of the cosmic dancer Lord Nataraja in ragam Pantuvarali set to adi talam. The devotee yearns to have a darshan of the dancing lord and surrenders himself. Sailaja learnt these items almost 20 years ago and presented them as a homage to her guru.

Srekala Bharath joined Sarasa Teacher in 1969. Having been associated for 30 years with her guru, Srekala is full of respectful admiration for her Teacher and her peerless choreography. In October 2009, when Srekala celebrated the 10th year of her dance school Thejas and the 40th year of her own dancing career, Sarasa Teacher was very sick, but took the trouble to come to the auditorium to bless her student. Srekala cherishes this and deems it a great blessing. From among Teacher’s many lovely choreographies, Srekala presented a crisp version of a varnam on Sri Andal that Teacher specially composed for her in January 1996.

Noted scholar the late TS Parthasarathy had compiled the lyrics from Sri Andal’s verses which were set to music by violinist KT Sivaganesh in Malayamarutam ragam and adi talam. By a happy coincidence vocalist Chitrambari and mridangist Dhananjayan who accompanied Srekala on 14th January 1996 accompanied her at this recital too! Shanmugha Sundaram did the nattuvangam and MS Kannan played the violin.

A. Lakshman came under Sarasa Teacher’s tutelage in 1985. Lakshman says, “I think of her not only as a teacher but as a mother because she often took care of me.  Sarasa Teacher was very generous but equally exacting while teaching the fundamentals of adavus and abhinaya.  She used to do hilarious imitations and crack jokes in class but was very particular about posture, natyarambham and araimandi. Sarasa Teacher encouraged promising students to teach and assist with choreography. She asked me to take classes not only in Chennai but also in other places like Coimbatore to gain experience. Teacher would allow nice movements to be incorporated into her style. What made Sarasa Teacher an exceptional choreographer was her shrewd sense of music and aesthetics coupled with a flair for innovation.”

Lakshman presented Navarasa Nilaye, a composition of Sarasa Teacher’s famous cousin natyacharya KN  Dhandayudapani Pillai, set to Ragamalika and adi talam. This unique piece beautifully describes episodes from the Ramayana that elicit each of the nine rasas.  For example, there is humour in Rama’s easy killing of the horrible and arrogant Tataka. Rama is astonished when Ahalya transforms from a stone into a woman, and Rama’s valour is displayed in his battle with Ravana. Navarasa Nilaye was one of Sarasa Teacher’s favorite songs which she specially taught to A. Lakshman.

After initial training under Guru KN Dandayudhapani Pillai, Urmila Sathyanarayanan was later groomed from the age of 15 for over 18 years, by Guru K.J. Sarasa. Urmila established her dance school Natya Sankalpaa in April 1996. The institution celebrated its 10th anniversary in the presence of K.J. Sarasa and Leela Samson. Urmila has kept the Sarasalaya flag flying high for decades.

Urmila presented two items. Kanchadalaayatakshi Kamakshi , a composition of Muthuswami Dikshitar in Kamalamanohari ragam and adi talam, describes the immense beauty, glory and compassion of Goddess Kamakshi. This was one of Sarasa Teacher’s favourites which Urmila performed several times when she was younger. Urmila presented this keertanam after 27 years. This was followed by Née maatalu maayanura, a Javali composed by Pattabhiramayya in Poorvikalyani ragam and adi talam in which Urmila  portrayed a saucy samanya woman who questions her Lord (a customer, in this case) about his numerous unfulfilled promises. This was taught to her by Sarasa Teacher, and Urmila has performed it in international venues.

An on the spot decision to present a tillana resulted in all four dancers performing Sarasa Teacher’s favourite Kathanakutoohalam Tillana composed by maestro Balamuralikrishna.

The second evening featured delightful solo recitals by Shanmuga Sundaram, Kavitha Ramu, Bhargavi Gopalan, Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh and Lavanya Shankar. All the dancers came together for a joyful thillana.  The Guests of Honor were Guru C V Chandrasekhar, Leela Samson and cine dance director S Raghuram who shared their memories of Guru KJ Sarasa. It was heartwarming to see the full hall on both days and was indeed a celebration to the genius of KJ Sarasa. Her niece and disciple Meena Loganathan, who runs the Pushpanjali School of Dance at Sunnyvale, USA, visited Chennai specially to be a part of the celebrations. 

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