Responses to 
Vidwan Guru Muthukumaran Pillai: Stalwart and saint of Bharatanatyam   
Sept 1, 2009  

My good friend Ashish Mohan Khokar's write-up on Kattumannarkoil Muthukumaran Pillai is quite interesting revealing many facets of the artiste's life. The bani of Kattumannarkoil style is also described well. I understand that he did not approve of the commonly-followed saushtava sthanaka with a slight forward bent of the torso. He wanted the dancer to stand erect. I have heard that if a student did not follow this stance 'thatha' would strike his or her back with the tattukkazhi to make it straight! Ashish may be able to throw some light on the veracity of this statement. 
- A Seshan, Mumbai
Sept 5, 2009 

Sri Seshan's story seems interesting and part of "urban legends" that so pervade reconstruction of histories (of gurus and dance legends). While both the guru's senior most disciples (Ram Gopal and Rukmini Devi Arundale) are not around to verify, I checked again with my mother, Guru MK Saroja, Tatha's prime disciple, and she was appalled by even the idea of the guru beating anyone with the tattukkazhi for not   maintaining the desired postures for correct lines and deliveries. She felt such stories may garnish dance tales but at times also tarnish facts. History is made of either recorded evidence or literary or archaeological or numismatic sources. In case of recent dance history, it is easy to mix names and places and stories and facts. Iím glad narthaki is visited by all ages and a senior like Sri Seshan reads my column and reverts with interesting points. Many thanks for your sharing. Discussion, after all, is the basis of our democracy! 
- Ashish Mohan Khokar 
Sept 6, 2009 

I thank Ashish for taking time off his busy schedule to verify the statement made by me. Documentation of facts about artistes was neglected for a long time in our country leading to the generation of gossips and unverified incidents in their lives. Dance historians like Ashish, magazines like Sruti and websites like,,,, etc., help in rectifying the situation. I also did not believe in the story about thatha knowing the kindly image that he projected. 

I would only like to bother Ashish to confirm that the Kattumannarkoil bani believes in keeping the torso in an erect position in soushtava sthanaka and not bent, as is observed in some dancers of other schools. Also does it discourage side-glance (Saachi Drushti), as stated by one dancer in a TV interview a few years ago?  

What impressed me in the pictures of the late maestro was his wiry physical frame. He must have led a disciplined life and done yogic exercises to maintain the body in such a strong condition. It recalled to my mind the image of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, the Olympian of Odissi. I attended his performance at the Shanmukhananda Sabha in Mumbai a few years ago when he was in his late seventies. Besides his well-acknowledged artistry his strong physical presence was felt by the audience. In particular, I was amazed by the ease with which he could get off from a seated position like dancers young enough to be his granddaughters without placing his palms on the floor for support. This is something I cannot do although younger than him! It is time dancers of both genders learn the importance of keeping the body continuously in a trim condition for a long and successful innings in their professional career. Now they have role models in C V Chandrasekhar and Alarmel Valli. 
- A Seshan
Sept 6, 2009 

Sri Seshan is very kind and correct in his observations. Yes, the great guru Thatha kept a healthy body in which resided a very creative, healthy mind. This is also partly because of his spiritual regimen and observance of brahmacharya vrata (celibacy) from as early an age as 27 and which, he maintained till his end at 86 years of age. He ate frugally, walked miles and did japa-puja for nearly 4 hours from 3am to 7am. He kept this regimen right till his end years. And photos just cannot lie (though in this digitalised age they can be altered!) but the great guru's frame was taut and tight. Mrinalini amma has said in a recorded interview to me, that she could, as a youngster, swing by his outstretched arms, so strong was he! His model should certainly inspire modern day gurus, teachers and dancers and Seshan-ji is right that very few like the great Kelubabu, Chandra sir and Valli-ma follow that regimen and it shows! In their art, body and dance.

As to two technical points, the guru is on record (in Mohan Khokar's booklet published in 1964 by SNA), that the guru did not see dance in compartments and thus while the torso was erect to maintain correctness of thigh muscles he did not curtail the usage of Sacchi Drishti where warranted. It should not look un-natural or un-pleasing was his mool-mantra. Most of his principal disciples do follow yatho hasta tatho drishti principle. Any film on them proves that. (The bent torso version according to available direct sources is the easy way out! Try it! By doing so, while the body weight is distributed and stress reduced from spine, it also leads to less flexion of upper legs. Iíve done and seen it practically when I learnt from my guru Swarna Saraswati and her student Shanta Raghvan at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Delhi). I think, the guru was more keen in Bharatanatyam as a whole, and saw it truly as a flowing river and not a pool or pond. Unlike some later generations (of gurus and dancers), who spoke more of "created banis" to perhaps look different or score trivial points over whose guru was better or greater than theirs, Thatha and his ilk just carried on with their mission of promotion of the form, rather than worry about what they created, banis or otherwise. For him and his generation of gurus, who had to reinstate and revive the art and teach it to urban students, the art form was more important than even themselves. Art is greater than all of us. And real gurus always teach that. I wish I had met the guru myself and learnt more about Sri Seshan's questions directly from the Master, but I was just born in 1960 when the great guru passed away the same year. 
- Ashish Mohan Khokar
Sept 7, 2009 

Thank you once again, Ashish, for the wealth of information you have provided on the late maestro and his bani that is not easily available elsewhere. Thanks also to for providing a forum to share such ideas.
- A Seshan