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Madras 375

August 8, 2014

Madras is three hundred and seventy five years old. That is, since it was founded by the colonial regime. It existed much, much before, as a series of important historical spots. To name a few - Mylapore, Triplicane, Tiruvanmiyur, Tiruvottiyur, and many more. All these were visited by saints and had temples even before the saints came to visit in the 8th century! So, following that ancient tradition, modern Madras has always attracted the best of the best. And when it comes to dance... what a history!

I do not want to go into the Devadasi heritage of George Town. That was before my time. My research about those dancers is in my book. But I have seen and been impressed by dancers and Gurus from childhood. I was born and brought up in Santhome, which is a niche on the edge of Mylapore. In fact it is believed that the Kapaliswara temple stood in Santhome by the seashore before it was razed and rebuilt a few furlongs towards the interior.

Kumari Kamala

Rukmini Devi
So, here I am a Mylaporean, looking back at my encounters with the world of dance in Madras. I have recounted my meetings with Mylapore Gowri Ammal in my book WOMEN OF PRIDE. She was a dancer and teacher too, known for her old world abhinayam. The star Guru of my childhood was Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai. If you google, you will read what I wrote in The Hindu a few years ago about this majestic nattuvanar. When the curtains rose at Kumari Kamala's recitals, one would see Ramiah Pillai ready to take charge with the "talams" held in his hands adorned with a golden Toda (royal bracelet), his voice ringing authoritatively through the mike. He had style, he had presence and he taught a repertoire which had a stamp of beauty and grace...the Vazhuvur bani.

Ramiah Pillai

Many flocked to learn from him. I was put under his disciple Kausalya for my arangetram aged seven! She continues her teaching today! Kamala the star pupil of Ramiah Pillai reigned long in Madras. She danced in films too and thus many who had never seen Bharatanatyam came to know this art. The other dancer who made Madras her home and is celebrating her 80th birthday this August is Vyjayanthimala Bali. She too danced in films and popularized the art. She is a superb classical dancer, and musician. She also did Madras proud by getting elected to parliament twice from South Madras.


The legendary Balasaraswathi made Madras her home. A great artist, she went from a tentative beginning in Kanchipuram to international fame, doing her heritage proud. And then, Rukmini Devi, born in Madurai, but truly a Madras icon. What a story her life was... I wish a great English film maker would make a movie about her life and times! I have seen her dance when I was a kid... Remember her magnetic stage presence, in a fabulous costume. She had style in whatever she did, said, and wrote.

Rajaratnam Pillai

Madras dance gurus are all worth mentioning with due reverence. In Egmore, Chokkalingam Pillai and later Subbaraya Pillai kept the Pandanallur flag flying high. In Mylapore, after Ramiah Pillai laid the foundation, others followed... Muthuswamy Pillai and the next generation... Rajaratnam and the remarkable K.J. Sarasa. Then there was the unsung genius Dandayudhapani Pillai, whose compositions are danced widely today. Kutralam Ganesan Pillai too made a mark. Of course we have the first firebrand lady nattuvanar, Indra Rajan. Although Kandappa was before my time, I had the pleasure of learning from Guru Ellappa, who learnt some of the nuances of the Tanjore style from him. Ellappa's name became international because he had many foreign students. For me, he was a guide for the classic Tanjore style which I enjoy performing.

Indra Rajan

Muthuswamy Pillai

Making Madras his home, Vempatti Chinna Satyam became famous, and carved a niche for a re- invented Kuchipudi, as solo dance and as a dance drama genre. Learning the classic repertoire from him was for me a lively experience.

The last fifty years of Madras has produced many dance stars....all well known to my readers. This city is the dance capital of India ... I think. My way of celebrating DANCE in MADRAS 375 is to raise a toast to all... past, present and future gurus, the dancing stars and... the truly appreciative audience.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a prime disciple of Guru Kanjeevaram Elappa Pillai, is an exponent of the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. She is also a trained vocalist. She is the author of several acclaimed books: Bharatanatyam - the Tamil Heritage, Kunjamma - Ode to a Nightingale, Kapaleeswara Temple, Women of Pride -The Devadasi Heritage. Her film 'The Poetry of Dance' was commissioned by the Festival of India. The Mamallapuram Dance Festival started in 1991 was Lakshmi's brainchild. She has served on several arts committees. She has served as Vice President of Music Academy (Chennai) and is a member of South Zone Cultural Centre.

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