Sarasa Natya Mala 2015
- Lalitha Venkat
Photos: Chella

February 25, 2015

Sarasa Natya Mala was originally started by Guru KJ Sarasa and went on for a few years till ill health forced her to discontinue the annual fest. To continue her dream project, her disciple Shanmugha Sundaram took on the task of reviving the fest after his guru's demise and this year is the third edition. Sarasa had also felt that while dancers were getting recognition, the accompanying artistes were a neglected lot. In keeping with her wishes, the KJ Sarasa Memorial Award was given to dance vocalist Girija Ramaswamy by chief guest, music maestro Gangai Amaran on Feb 20, the opening day of the festival. In her acceptance speech, Girija spoke of how on her death bed, Sarasa had asked her to promise to continue singing for Sarasalaya students and Girija has remained true to her word.

Shanmugha Sundaram, Meena Logan, Girija Ramaswamy, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Gangai Amaran, Seetha Ratnakar

Lakshmi Vishwanathan compared Sarasa to a rare hibiscus in the garden of her guru Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, who had identified her talent for teaching from a young age. Sarasa could even train tiny tots, having the knack of making them understand the nuances of this complex dance form. A woman of style, she could sing beautifully too and her disciples and their disciples carry on the undiluted technique imparted by her. The best tribute one can pay a guru is by maintaining fidelity to the tradition and Lakshmi commended Shanmugha Sundaram, himself a Tamil scholar, for holding the baton of Sarasalaya.

Seetha Ratnakar, sister of Rathna Kumar, the first student of KJ Sarasa, admired Sarasa for allowing them to watch programs of other artistes. Sarasa was so broad minded, she brought in Gowri Ammal to teach Rathna abhinaya and even allowed her students to learn other dance forms. She never thought that would distract the student from learning Bharatanatyam. Most of Sarasa's students are now top class artistes and they in turn are training their students into fine artistes.

After the glowing tributes to Guru Sarasa, the evening commenced with Pushpanjali by 3 tiny tots of Sarasalaya followed by a passable solo Varana mukha vaa (Hamsadhwani, rupakam) by Mathangi Ravishankar. Shankara sri giri was presented by 5 senior students of varying skills, one ready to faint with the stress of being up there on stage! In his usual elegant manner Shanmugham paid his tribute with Madurai N Krishnan's varnam Engum niraindha param poruley (Pantuvarali) choreographed by his guru but the fatigue of running around as organizer of the festival showed up now and then. Meena Logan on nattuvangam, Girija Ramaswamy on vocal, Dhananjayan on mridangam and MS Kannan on violin provided accompaniment.

Shanmugha Sundaram


The finale of evening one was a riveting performance by 73 year old veteran Rhadha (representing the Vazhuvoor bani) accompanied by the same orchestra with Jayashree Ramanathan on nattuvangam. She presented a margam of almost 2 hours including todayamangalam, an item in praise of Vinayaka, a viruttam on Chidambara Nataraja, varnam Karunai seidhidal aagaatha of Papanasam Sivan in Shankarabharanam, padam Netrandhi nerathile, a javali samyamidhe ra ra in Behag, thillana of Mysore Vasudevacharya in Sri ragam, concluding with sloka from Siva Puranam. Age in no way diminished the dexterity or fluidity of her movements. Her firm footsteps, perfectly held sculpturesque poses, perfectly finished hand movements, araimandi and muzhumandi were a delight to watch. The ease with which Rhadha lifted her leg, slid to the floor, stretched her legs, arched her back, twisted her body along with a few jumps thrown in spoke for the agility of the artiste who continues to follow a strict regimen for fitness. Also notable was the comfortable pace of the recital compared to the frenzy of present day performances. However, the change in costume after the varnam causing a delay of 15 minutes could have been avoided, though the orchestra kept us entertained. Avid rasikas were still watching in rapt attention as the program ended around 10pm, very late by Chennai standards, and gave Rhadha a standing ovation.

The reason for KP Rakesh performing on the second evening was that KJ Sarasa had seen him rehearse and then perform with Shanmugham shortly after which she passed away. She had been very impressed with Rakesh's humility and his wonderful araimandi! The varnam Rakesh chose was Mohamana taught to him by Guru Shyamala Mohanraj, a prime disciple of T Balasaraswati. Instead of walking backwards to the rear of the stage with just a slight slant to the body, it was interesting to see him make a series of half turns. Though it's a nayika oriented item, Rakesh showed restraint and poise through the piece. For some reason, Murali Parthasarathy chose to sing the padam Ninnu chooda in Punnagavarali in extra slow tempo almost putting us to sleep and poor Rakesh who learnt this item from Bragha Bessell, had to keep raising his eyebrows to keep awake too! Maintaining a good energy level throughout, he concluded with a vibrant thillana composed by Dandayudhapani Pillai in Ragamalika. Rakesh has evolved into a dignified and confident dancer, and is definitely a nartaka to watch out for. Gireesh on nattuvangam, Karthikeyan Ramanathan on mridangam and Ananthanarayanan on his melodious veena provided able support.

KP Rakesh

Gayathri Sritharan

Gayathri Sritharan's performance can at best be described as mediocre. After pushpanjali, this lass from Switzerland presented Kanchadalayadakshi Kamakshi of Muthuswami Dikshitar, Dandayudhapani Pillai's varnam Samiyai azhaithodi vaa choreographed by Leela Samson, javali Nee maatale mayanura choreographed by KJ Sarasa. She seemed to be tired by the time she concluded with the Brindavanasaranga thillana choreographed by Adyar Lakshman. Gayatri needs to get fit and in shape. The orchestra with her mother / guru Krishnabhavani Sritharan on nattuvangam, Preeti Mahesh on vocal, Nagarajan on mridangam and Atul Kumar on flute clearly overshadowed the dancer.

The finale of evening two saw a dramatic entry on stage of an absolutely trim and gorgeous Lakshmi Vishwanathan (representing the Thanjavur bani) wearing a salmon pink full sari costume with gold border, minimal jewellery and her hair hanging loose from the top bun. There was never a dull moment as Lakshmi took us through a gamut of emotions in adoration of the lord of dance, bliss of love, wailing in rejection and playing cupid to a friend. With Shankara sri giri, Paluku tenela talli of Annamacharya, Payyada of Kshetrayya, Adi neepai marulu of Dharmapuri Subbarayar and a concluding Ardhanariswara slokam in Sanskrit, Lakshmi had the audience wrapped in the magic of her abhinaya and the vivacity of her presentation. Through her recital, Lakshmi exuded joy and exhilaration in her dancing. The music ensemble had Bama Visweswaran on vocal, Sudarshini on nattuvangam, Sreelakshmi Venkatramani on violin and Mayavaram Shankar on mridangam.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan

Sudharma Vaithiyanathan

The final evening started with the enchanting performance of KJ Sarasa's grand disciple Sudharma Vaithiyanathan, disciple of A. Lakshmanaswamy wielding the cymbals. Vocalist Sharanya Krishnan, mridangist Nellai D Kannan and violinist Eswar Ramakrishnan accompanied with much enjoyment as Sudharma sailed with ease through Dandayudhapani Pillai's varnam Samiyai vara cholladi, padam Thottu thottu pesa varaan and Kadanakuthoohala thillana composed by Dr. Balamuralikrishna. Training under the eagle eyes of a taskmaster like A. Lakshman, Sudharma has blossomed into a fine artiste with her neat movements, a super araimandi, and good abhinaya skills. Her sincerity and dedication to her art and guru was evident from start to finish.

Senior disciple of SK Rajaratnam Pillai and KJ Sarasa, Lavanya Ananth “dedicated every item” she presented in memory of her guru. Taking a few minutes to share memories, Lavanya said her Guru Sarasa under whom she trained for 15 years, disliked monotony in any form. Sarasa encouraged her disciples to choreograph, invoking the joy of creativity in them and that was why she was presenting her own choreographies in tribute. Starting with verses from the Narayaneeyam describing the beauty of Lord Vishnu from head to toe, Lavanya next presented a Ponniah Pillai composition Manavi chekonarada in Shankarabharanam on Lord Brihadeeswara. From depicting shringara bhakti, Lavanya transformed into a doting mother in Jagadodharana. The thillana of Subramanya Bharati in Kalyana Vasanta ragam was a composition of Rajaratnam Pillai. There was no unnecessary freezing into poses and no melodrama; it was a nice heartfelt performance in her guru's memory. Lavanya was supported by Neela Sukanya on nattuvangam, Murali Parthasarathy on vocal, MS Sukhi on mridangam and Kalaiarasan on violin.

Lavanya Ananth

Indira Rajan

The finale of the festival started on an emotional note with 76 year old Guru Indira Rajan (representing Kutralam Ganeshan bani) recalling with tear filled eyes, her close knit family ties with paternal uncle Dandayudhapani Pillai and ‘athai' KJ Sarasa, who had navarasa in her speech and could blow away anyone's blues with her bubbly laughter and cheer. Indira Rajan presented Kalai nirai Ganapathy composed by Ramalinga Swamigal, a padam Edhukkithanai modi composed by Marimuthu Pillai, Adhuvum solluvaal, a favorite of KJ Sarasa who used to herself dance the item, javali Saramaina in Behag, rounding off with the Ramayana story in Dandayudhapani Pillai's Navarasa nilaye naatiya kalaye. It was an entertaining evening and rather different to have the dancer addressing the lines to members in the audience directly! Two men who got scolded, chided and scoffed at through her dance were Guru CV Chandrasekhar on the left side of the hall and my husband on the right side! When asked about this style of presentation, she is reported to have said that this was how they used to perform years ago! In the last item, she took a rose from the feet of the Nataraja idol on stage and used its petals to draw the lakshman rekha. She once again grabbed a whole lot of flowers from Nataraja and used the petals as offering to welcome back Rama to Ayodhya! Not only did Indira Rajan sing all through her recital, she kept throwing instructions at the singer every now and then in a distracting manner. As it was, the poor vocalist Prema Rao had difficulty in reaching the high notes and this did not help but she held her own! Dhanasundari on nattuvangam frowned throughout hoping she would be left alone and veteran CK Vijayaraghavan on violin and Mayavaram Vishwanathan on mridangam remained unruffled through all these distractions. Indira Rajan's abhinaya was undoubtedly effective but refraining from distracting behavior would have lent more elegance and seriousness to the presentation.

Our congratulations and best wishes to Shanmugha Sundaram for taking on the responsibility of carrying forward his guru's dreams. California based Meena Logan, the niece of KJ Sarasa, has been his staunch supporter through the 3 editions of the festival. One only wishes that this habit of preceding a name with titles every time an artiste name is mentioned is done away with.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of