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Guru KJ Sarasa
Celebrating the K.J. Sarasa legacy
- Jitendra Krishna
Photos: Chella Vaithiyanathan

February 16, 2018

The 6th edition of the dance festival Sarasa Natya Mala in memory of Guru K.J. Sarasa, was held from February 2 to 5, 2018 at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. This annual festival to celebrate the memory of his guru is organized and produced by Shanmuga Sundaram, disciplined in Bharatanatyam (Gurukulavasam) for many years by K.J. Sarasa.

K.J. Sarasa was from a hereditary family of musicians. Her ancestors were court musicians who enjoyed the patronage of the Thanjavur rulers. She was a disciple of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, and became a popular dance guru and nattuvanar. Sarasa was a teacher known to bring out individuality and creativity in her disciples, and she has been instrumental in training many well-known Bharatanatyam performers and teachers.

The festival was inaugurated by guests of honour, film director Bharathiraja, who recalled his friendship with K.J. Sarasa. Mohiniattam exponent Gopika Varma reminisced about her first days of studying Bharatanatyam under Vazhuvoor Samraj, the son of Nattuvanar Ramaiah Pillai. And she recalled her admiration for K.J. Sarasa as the first lady nattuvanar. Lakshmi Viswanathan praised Shanmuga Sundaram for celebrating the memory of his guru in a very meaningful manner, and carrying on the legacy of K.J. Sarasa, not only in spirit, but most importantly, in carrying out the authentic style of the Vazhuvoor bani. Lakshmi also urged dancers to visit the Veeratteswarar temple in Vazhuvoor, with its one-of-a-kind image of Lord Shiva as Gajasamharamurti.

The recipient of the Guru K.J. Sarasa Award was Rama Swaminathan, a disciple of K.J. Sarasa. Rama is well-versed in the art of nattuvangam and is known for her dedication to Bharatanatyam. From 2001 onwards, she has been associated with Natya Sankalpa, the dance institution of Urmila Sathyanarayanan.

The inauguration day had Shanmuga Sundaram performing the varnam, Swami naan undan adimai, the famous composition in Natakuranji ragam. Shanmugam danced the choreography of his guru beautifully, with the signature K.J. Sarasa style of graceful complete adavus and sculpturesque poses. Shanmugam elaborated on the lyrics with sancharis on Kannappan and Markandeyan, with subtle and clear abhinaya.

Shanmugha Sundaram

Nrithya Pillai

The festival also featured a performance by Nrithya Pillai. Nrithya belongs to a hereditary family of musicians and dancers; her ancestors can be traced back to the royal courts of Thanjavur and Mysore. She dedicated her performance to Madhuranthakam Jagadambal Ammal, Kumbakonam Varalakshmi and Bhanumathi, and all women of the Isai Vellalar Marabu. Nrithya opened her performance with an unusual Jathiswaram in ragam Atana and tala adi from the Vazhuvoor repertory. The jathiswaram had korvais interspersed with jathis, throughout the composition. Nrithya continued with the swarajathi Ma mohalagiri meerudhey set to dance by her grandfather Guru S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai. The dancer conveyed the moham and viraham expressed in the lyrics to great effect. The art of abhinaya is something that comes completely natural to Nrithya. She switches effortlessly to whatever the poetry demands. The elaborations of the pallavi and anupallavi in the swarajathi, was sans the 'storytelling sancharis', but more of impromptu or manodharma, displaying her command over the music and poetry. The swarajathi was followed by the padam Nittiraiyill soppanathil (Pantuvarali) in which Nrithya sang along with the vocalist, as was traditionally done by dancers. The closing composition was the thillana, dheem thana na na dhani in Hamsanandi, a composition of Thanjavur Quartet's Ponnayya Pillai. The performance was musically supported by Jayashri Ramanathan on nattuvangam, Roshini Ganesh and Randhini Arvind on vocal, Guru Bharadwaj on mridangam and violin by Rijesh Gopalakrishnan.

The graceful Leela Samson presented a short but wonderful performance. She danced Kalabhairava ashtakam, Kumarasambhavam, followed by the padam Indendu vaccitivira and she concluded with the ashtapadi Raase Hari miha.

Leela Samson

Radhe Jaggi

Radhe Jaggi is a dancer with a striking stage presence, is graceful and an expressive performer. She is currently being trained by Leela Samson. Radhe opened with the Chidambaram Nataraja pancha bhoota kriti, Anandanatana prakasam of Muthuswami Dikshitar. She continued with the classic varnam E maguva bodhincera in praise of the patron Krishnarajendra, King of Mysore. "Which woman has spoiled your mind?! Why are you so stubborn? My king, you are receptive to romance, I know. I have trust in you; you know what is in my heart. I have become weak out of love for you. How can I endure these feelings I have for you any longer? Won't you even glance at me?!" The choreography of the varnam is taken from the Kalakshetra repertory, and Radhe danced it well. The highlight of the evening was, however, the padam Dari juchu. The abhinaya of a young nayika waiting for her lover was portrayed with confidence by Radhe. The show ended with a thillana of K.N. Dhandayuthapani Pillai in Hamsanandi. The nattuvangam was by dancer Sudarshini, who certainly is one of today's best younger nattuvangam artists. She gives dedicated support that enhances the dance performance. Singing was by Nandini Anand, mridangam by Shivaprasad and flute by Anirudh Bharadwaj.

Aniruddha Knight
The concluding performance of the festival was by dancer and vocalist Aniruddha Knight. The compositions presented were, Alarippu in misra chapu, the exquisite Thanjavur Quartet Sivanandam varnam in Kalyani, Sarasijakshudu nivani cala ivela sami ninnu jera vaccitira na. This varnam is in praise of dakshina dwaraka, Rajagopalaswami. The performance also saw the padam Velavare umai tedi (Bhairavi) by Ghanam Krishna Iyer, Madapayale (Purvikalyani) by Subbarama Iyer and Mukthi allikkum thiru (Senjurutti) by Gopalakrishna Bharathi. Aniruddha danced his margam unhurried, full of grace and conviction. The dance performance was musically supported by Ranjini Menon on nattuvangam, Saraswathy Sankaranarayanan and Usha Shivakumar on vocals, Adyar Gopinath on mridangam, R. Moorthy on flute and M.S. Kannan on violin. It is a special year for Aniruddha Knight with the birth centenary year celebrations of his grandmother, the unforgettable icon of Bharatanatyam, Thanjavur Balasaraswati, starting in the month of May this year.

The Sarasa Natya Mala festival also had performances by Niyati Sriram, Sowmya Govind Naidu, J. Suryanararayana Murthy, Sriya, Uma Nambudripad, Srimathi Venkat and Ganesh Vasudeva.

I have seen many performances conducted by Guru K.J. Sarasa. Especially in the autumn of her life, she was mostly assisted on the nattuvangam by Shanmugam. Through the years, he would spend most of his days at the Mandavelipakkam home of his teacher, and he stayed by her side till the end. K.J. Sarasa would surely be proud to see her most dedicated student Shanmugam, hold an annual festival of dance in such meaningful way. Dancer Meena Logan, the niece and disciple of K.J. Sarasa, certainly needs to be acknowledged for her sincere support to Sarasa Natya Mala right from the inception of the festival in 2013.

The Sarasa Natya Mala festival was a delight to watch, an inclusive festival of dance with space for every style and type of Bharatanatyam. I felt genuine pleasure being an audience member.

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Jitendra Krishna | Sathir Dance Art, Chennai-Amsterdam.