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Heartfelt tribute to Guru Narmada
- Lalitha Venkat
Photos: Shandilya Srivatsa

September 27, 2017

Guru Narmada, a disciple of Tanjavur KP Kittappa Pillai, was a much sought after Bharatanatyam guru and mentor, who turned out many a talented pupil with her meticulous training. She passed away at the young age of 65 (Sept 22, 1942 - March 30, 2007). Three of her prime disciples - Soundarya Srivatsa, Satyanarayana Raju and P Praveen Kumar - eminent solo artistes and teachers in their own right, decided to celebrate her birthday with 'Legacy: A tribute to Guru Narmada' by presenting her special choreographies on September 22, 2017 at JSS Auditorium, Bangalore. The idea was to showcase the program in a unique way, by performing all items together as a team, to make it more impactful. In this way, they could reach out to the audience, the parampara that was transferred to them by their guru from her guru. "Performing together brings back the wonderful and sweet memories of Narmada aunty's dance classes and our learning from her. It rejuvenates the bonding and the camaraderie among the three of us," say the artistes.

The dancers chose to present Brahma Sandhi Kauthuvam, Jathiswaram medley, a Tanjavur Quartet varnam and Thillana medley. Guru Narmada's forte was nritta, hence the evening's presentation focused more on nritta aspect than abhinaya. "The reason why we chose these items is because they are very close to our heart. Narmada aunty didn't make any changes in the compositions or items which she learnt from her guru KP Kittappa Pillai. She transferred the essence of each item to her students; in the same way, we have retained the originality of these choreographic works. As performers, we feel these items are very beautifully choreographed and very challenging too. There is a flow and divinity. She gave all her students a very strong foundation in nritta and groomed each one in their own way which has helped us to develop our own individuality as dancers."

Brahma Sandhi Kauthuvam is one of the Navasandhi Kauthuvams which is very popular in the Tanjavur Quartet repertoire, popularized by Guru Kittappa Pillai. It speaks of Brahma and his creations. Sathyanarayana Raju and Praveen Kumar in turquoise green costume made a pleasant foil to Soundarya's beige and dark pink costume. From the moment they entered the stage, they left the audience starry eyed with their mesmerizing display of brilliant nritta seasoned with snatches of abhinaya, impeccable technique and boundless energy.

The reason for choosing to perform a medley of jathiswarams is because Guru Narmada was known especially for her choreographies of jathiswarams, varnams and thillanas. She choreographed many beautiful jathiswarams which were very popular in Bangalore at one time. So the dancers chose three jathiswarams and strung them together. Most charming was the way the dancers linked their hands together and pranced onto the stage, an effective way to distinguish between segments, also denoting the common thread that binds them. The demanding footwork executed with vigour and authority left the audience enthralled, a jump by Sathyanarayana Raju making them go wild with delight!

The popular varnam "Saami ninne kori" in Ashtaragamalika composed by the Tanjavur Quartet is about a nayika's love and devotion for Lord Brihadeeswara of Tanjavur. "Our version is very different. Kittappa Pillai has taught this varnam to many other dancers, but the version he taught Guru Narmada is very different. Usually the varnam will have 4 teermanams in the first half and one in the second half. But in this version, there are 5 teermanams in the first half and 3 in the second half, which is very rare." Beautifully composed to suit the presentation by three dancers, the artistes electrified the rasikas with their skills and agility performing to the exacting rhythms and variety of jathis. The item also gave scope for brief glimpses of abhinaya in short solo sessions interspersed with the sparkling nritta, the entries and exits smooth and aesthetic.

Medley of Thillanas gave a glimpse into the various thillanas Guru Narmada has choreographed. It was integrated beautifully with much joy in the performance and the artistry of the dancers came to the fore, the challenging footwork, their splendid chemistry delighting the rasikas. As the dancers sank dramatically to their knees, arms held aloft facing the backdrop in obeisance, a beautiful portrait of Guru Narmada came down along with a shower of rose petals, a very poignant moment for all gathered, and a stunned audience broke into rapturous applause. Shakuntala Prabhat (nattuvangam), Raghuram (vocal), Harsha Samaga (mridangam), Karthik Sathavalli (flute) were equally stellar in their accompaniment. It was indeed a beautiful way to celebrate the 75th birthday of their dear Guru Narmada. There was such a feel good atmosphere that the overflowing hall of rasikas just did not have the heart to leave. Lights by TM Nagaraj and crisp compering by Shadakshari in Kannada, held the evening together and added to the appeal.

Special invitees spoke briefly of their association with Guru Narmada. Guru Lalitha Srinivasan confessed to being spellbound by the performance that proved beyond a doubt, what a guru Narmada was and what a legacy she has left behind in her students. Narmada was a mentor, a friend, who was humorous in her speech and attitude, who treated her students well in class. While she herself belonged to the Mysore style, she had occasion to learn 3 varnams from Narmada that enriched her. Guru B Bhanumati admired the strength of the items. "A guru needs good shishyas to take her work forward and Narmada was lucky to have such wonderful shishyas. I learnt 3 items from her. For these, she did nattuvangam for me at Hampi. Though she laid focus on nritta, she was so good in abhinaya but did not have the patience to impart it and let the students give their own interpretation! She gave freely of her art and that's how art spreads." Senior disciple Savitri Ramaiah recalled how after 14 students offered a Manjiranjali tribute to Narmada in 2006, critic Chandrashekar commented that they seemed to be having fun on stage!

The dancers give a glimpse into their grooming under their guru and how they are carrying forward her legacy.

Soundarya Srivatsa:

Soundarya Srivatsa
I started to learn under guru Narmada from 1980 and was with her till 2007 for 27 years.... It's really a long journey. I would like to share a few experiences with my dear guru. She has given all her students a very strong foundation in nritta....very particular about aramandi, geometry lines and perfection. Her method of teaching abhinaya was more a home work to the students. She would ask us to find the meaning, fix the hands for the sahitya and also make us work on sanchari bhavas. I think this made us very strong and helped us to choreograph our own things during our learning days. Her class would commence at 7.30am and would go on till 10. She would begin with adavus and go up to thillana. She would sweat us out and fill us with lot of energy and an awesome feeling of dancing for nearly two and half hours. She would conduct classes with utmost patience.

I performed my arangetram on 6th July 1989. I did 9 items and she chose a taana varnam which I had to do for 40 minutes. She knew very well how a student could carry herself on stage and accordingly chose items for them. Narmada aunty's one more amazing ability was she would never have a script in front of her when she would do nattuvangam for her students. She had an amazing memory power. And the arangetrams of her students would be really unique. She would always have a complete set of new Margam for each of her students who wanted to do their arangetram. She was very quick in thinking and choreographing without spending too much time. Her jathis choreography would be very unique and there is always a flow in the adavu pattern in her choreography.

Being her senior student I have tried to impart most of these things when I'm teaching my students. She has given liberty to each of her student to grow and execute in their way and develop their own style. That's why today Narmada aunty's students have become soloists and each have their own way of presenting themselves on stage. As a responsible student I truly try to stick to her method of teaching and without going out of our tradition, try to perform as well as teach this wonderful art form to the next generation.

Sathyanarayana Raju:
My Guru Narmada (Naru aunty) groomed me into whatever I am today. She's the one guru who never said no to anything you asked her to teach. She was a really cool person who happily shared her knowledge with her students, even teaching us whatever we wanted to learn. I can't forget one single moment of the time I spent with her. She had a terrific sense of humour. She used to make everyone laugh and at the same time made them cry when doing rigorous practice for arangetram! She took her own time to accept me as a serious student. After I did my Natya Sandhya solo performance, she supported and encouraged me in every step of my journey. I always used to look forward to my dance class. I had almost left dance when I saw my seniors dancing in her class. Because every one of them was excellent, I thought it would be better to quit dance and take up some job!

I escorted her to Delhi to receive her SNA award. We stayed with her senior most student Savithri Ramaiah. We also took her to Haridwar. It was one of the most memorable10 days and I will never forget them, for she suddenly passed away shortly after that. Today, if I'm earning my bread and butter through dance, it is only because of her. Gurus of that generation are like gods. They really gave their lives to art. After my first guru Subhadra, I went straight to Naru aunty and my life got on track. I use to share everything with her, even my personal problems. Many times I have stayed back in her house and left next morning. She always appreciated my dress sense. After every performance of mine today, I really miss Naru aunty and my parents.

Whatever I learnt from my guru, I impart the same to my students. I don't dare to change any of her compositions and I advise my students to be likewise. There is a joy in her choreography from beginning to end.

Sathyanarayana Raju

Praveen Kumar

Praveen Kumar:
Learning with Naru aunty was always a joy. For me going to her class was like a great entertainment, a picnic. Her class was filled with fun; we all used to dance for hours together, there was no time limit for class. She would start at 7.30am and the class would go on till 11 or 11.30am, so anybody could come and join anytime. But I was generally there from beginning to end maybe because I stayed on the parallel street to her house! So we would walk together in the morning and then head back to our respective homes.

Her teachings were very traditional, yet she would go with the flow of the current scenario. Many times during the performances or just before we started the performance she would kind of gauge the audience and the ambience and would suddenly change the composition or would ask us to cut one dance. Whenever I do my own choreography, I always remember the thought process of my gurus Narmada and CV Chandrasekhar. Keeping her thought process in mind is of importance to me. When I teach my students, I follow the teaching style of Guru Narmada, the same structure. For me, it is not just teaching, it is the evolving of what I learnt from her. I never change the jathis or adavus of her choreography. They have a flow and that will be affected if I tamper with that. I inculcate the same to my students.

She had a great sense of humour. Personally she had a rough life, but professionally she was at her peak. Now when I see some hurdles in life (personally), I do think of her and wonder how she went through all those difficult times. She would make fun of her own difficult times and move on with life. She had a lot of inner strength. She always made sure that any student who came to her would be a part of her house. When I say 'house,' it means the bond among people. We knew all her brothers, sisters, their family, their grand children. So for us, dance class was like a big extended family. Even today I am in touch with many of her family members.

Guru Narmada continues to live in the hearts of her disciples.

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of