Tanjavur Kittappa Pillai’s death anniversary fell on 30th October and brought back memories. I was still a teenager when I attended a performance of Bharatanatyam in Paris. The aesthetic shock I felt at the time was to change the rest of my life. Although unaware of it at the time, I felt what the Indians call ‘rasa’, a rapture felt to the bottom of one’s soul in unison with the dance.
Later, as a physiotherapist, I travelled to India. My first contact with the country left a deep impression. I returned to France but I was determined to learn more about India’s culture and traditions and decided to study Bharatanatyam with dancer Malavika, one of the first French dancers to teach classical Indian dance in Paris. A few years later, I went with my husband to the historical city of Tanjavur. I was looking for an oil lamp, which is traditionally lit on the stage during recitals. The craftsman from whom I bought the lamp gave me the name and address of Guru Kittappa Pillai, a great dance master. I wasted no time and went to meet him. The meeting was magical and decisive.
Dance helped overcome the language barrier. The exchange was fabulous. Still unaware at the time of his fame, I danced before him, singing a capella. Kittappa Pillai sang along while beating the rhythm with a stick, and agreed to teach me. I was probably his last student. I had to return to France for various reasons. Later on, I was awarded a scholarship by the Indian Government and left Paris to dance and study with the dance master until his death. I was fortunate to be able to look after him when he was ill.
I returned to France and established an organisation called ‘Thanjavur Heritage’ in Vienne-en-Arthies, a small town approximately 60 kilometres west of Paris. I am a therapist and apart from teaching dance and yoga, I use dance and yoga breathing exercices in my therapeutic practice.
India is my adopted country and I come back frequently to learn dance from Aruna Subramanyam.
Attendance anuual awards 2013
The Attendance annual awards 2013 were presented on 1st December 2013 to seven eminent personalities in the field of dance.
Guru Jaya Alva (Mangalore) -- Lifetime Achievement Award
Guru Lalita Srinivasan -- Rukmini Devi Significant Contribution Award
Gurus Nirupama-Rajendra -- Dance Couple U.S.K. Rao-Chandrabhaga Devi Award
Dr. Avanthi Meduri -- Mohan Khokar Academic/Overall Excellence Award
Jaychandran Palazhy -- Uday Shankar Award for Choreography
Rahul Acharya -- Ram Gopal Best Male Solo Dancer Award
Violin maestro L. Subramaniam did the honours and educationist Vimala Rangachar felicitated the awardees. Chiranjiv Singh, President Alliance Francaise, delivered the inaugural address. Veteran guru Maya Rao blessed the awardees. Pada pooja for the awardees was performed by debutante dancers.
The award ceremony was complemented by short films and acceptance speeches by the awardees. Madhu Nataraj and Murlimohan Kalva conducted and compered the ceremony.
A paean to Mahishasuramardini
‘Mahishasuramardini’, an audio montage, is a landmark musical feature broadcast on the Kolkata station of All India Radio on Mahalaya morning exactly at 4 am, every year. Mahalaya falls on the new moon day before the commencement of the Dusserah celebrations.
Pankaj Mullick composed the enchanting music for this unique musical feature. It was scripted by Bani Kumar and the narration was by poet Birendra Krishna Bhadra (1905-1991). It comprises recitation of sacred verses and rendition of Bengali devotional and classical songs. In the past, noted musicians like Hemant Kumar and Arti Mukherjee rendered the songs.
‘Mahishasuramardini’ begins with the sound of the sacred conch followed by an invocation rendered in chorus. In this melodious setting, Birendra Bhadra recites verses from ‘Devi Mahatmya’ also known as Chandipaath in Bengal -- telling the story of the descent of Mother Durga to the earth. As the programme proceeds, Pankaj Mullick joins Bhadra and both of them together recite the hymns. Various singers then render devotional songs.
‘Mahishasuramardini’ was first broadcast in 1931. The maiden broadcast was not on Mahaalaya morning though, as it is now, but on Maha Shashti – the sixth day of Dusserah. As pre-recording had not come into vogue, it had to be broadcast live. As a result, the artists had to assemble in the studio in the wee hours of the morning at 2 am -- two hours before the commencement of the programme at 4 am. All the participants would be ready for the recording after a bath and offering pooja.
Listening to ‘Mahishasuramardini’ on the morning of Mahalaya has become an integral part of Durga Pooja festivities in Bengal and elsewhere. It continues to enthrall listeners even today.
Madhav Gudi: the last song
(From the author’s blog Sunshine Anyday, posted on 22 April 2011)
When our landline rings endlessly we know it’s a long distance call. Today morning when it rang while we were breakfasting, we knew it was my mother-in-law from Dharwad. Her calls generally come early morning.
Madhav Gudi has passed away. Check it out on DD Chandan… I’m planning to go to the funeral, she said.
My ma-in-law is 78 and lives all alone in her bungalow-house which hosts namdharaks who visit her regularly. Swananda, the bungalow, is the resting place of Sharakka, her atya and our ajji, much revered as a saintly figure. We remonstrated with her not to visit the bereaved Gudi’s family considering her age, the heat and they being ‘khatta’ Brahmins, as my wife puts it. Brahmins are generally ‘khatta’ or sweet.
I first met Pt. Madhav Gudi, then in his mid-sixties, in his rented house in Ambarnath, where he had moved along with his family from Dharwad to shore up his career as a classical singer in the city of Mumbai. As I introduced myself and elaborated on my connection with Dharwad, Panditji’s eyes lit up, his smile became broader (You are our son-in-law, then, he said) and in came a cup of steaming tea, a plateful of pakoras and Parle G biscuits with the wrapper.
It’s a magic of small towns—everyone seems to know the other. As if it’s a big family. You’re either related or the other was your neighbour, or your aunt went to the same school or as in Dharwad where music binds all. You are either sishyas of the same guru or your grandfather was one who either tutored Bhimsen Joshi or reprimanded Mallikarjun Mansur for his doleful singing.
When the write-up on him appeared in one of Times of India’s suburban supplements, Panditji called me to say thanks in his Marathi-accented Hindi. We would chat often on phone and he would regularly invite me to his concerts, which were very few. I enjoyed his concerts and he reminded me of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, in his mannerisms and his way of singing. Pt Madhav Gudi was the foremost sishya of Pt. Joshi and lived with him for over two decades. In fact, Pt. Gudi regularly visited Pt. Joshi’s residence in Pune to tutor the latter’s son, Srinivas, on the kirana gharana style of singing.
Name and fame evaded Pt. Gudi. He hardly received invitations for concerts from the big Mumbai organizers defeating his purpose of being close to the city. Undeterred his daughter, Gayatri, an up-and-coming classical singer took the matter in her hands and organized a concert at Mumbai’s Rang Bhavan. It was a disaster. For unaware of the exercise of organising a concert in a city like Mumbai which included inserting ads in the media, sending invitations to music critics, courting the photographers and so on, Gayatri had failed miserably. More, the concert was her individual effort and lacked the blessings of a sponsor–a must for events like this.
I was there to listen to Pt. Gudi’s soulful rendition of bhajans having heard them on a cassette—a present from him on our first meeting. I had never heard bhajans of such calibre; you could feel the words.
Most of his life Panditji lived in penury despite being the foremost sishya of an illustrious guru. Agreed, success doesn’t come to all, but can fate be so cruel. Maybe his bhajans were entreaties to the Lord to make life little better. Connoisseurs blamed his lack of popularity for being a clone. Those who had heard him, of whom there were not many, came to his concerts for the bhajans.
Two hours since the scheduled time for the concert to begin we had only ten persons in the audience which included Panditji’s family members and friends. Gayatri was disheartened, she almost cried. I consoled her assuring her, ‘The time will come.’ Gudi came on stage, apologised and left.
After staying at Ambarnath for nearly two years Gudi returned to Dharwad, dejected but hoping that one day his daughter, Gayatri and son, Prasanna would achieve the fame and name that always eluded him.
I don’t know if any recording of Pt. Gudi exists other than the AIR Music fest recordings. Despite being a veteran he performed for the festival. I still have the cassette of his bhajans which Gayatri had recorded but will have to find a player for the same.
(Reproduced with permission from the author).
A meeting with some dancers of the diaspora
I spent a nice evening with some of the renowned dancers of the San Jose, CA area sometime last year, where we discussed interesting issues pertaining to the dance scene there. I met Mythili Kumar and her daughter Rasika, Indumathy Ganesh and her daughter Akshaya, Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, Vidya Subramaniam, Jayanthi Sridharan, and Radhika Shankar who shared their observations and experiences over crunchy, hot pizzas.
Mythili (director of Abhinaya Dance Company), Indumathy (Nrithyollasa Dance Academy), Vidya, and Nirupama (Sankalpa Dance Foundation) narrated how they spend as much time on logistics of a production as they do on choreographing and directing it. This came as a surprise to me as it was quite contrary to the notions we have of dancers in the diaspora. Wherever I travelled in the United States, I found dancers stating in public that it was not so easy to produce and mount a dance production – be it solo or group. Government grants are usually given for specific projects, and the dancers, by and large, have to raise their own resources. As a result, dancers have to combine the roles of artist and art administrator and learn to manage behind-the-scenes logistics including renting of performance venues, conducting publicity and PR for specific productions, and dedicating time for fundraising. Pretty similar to what we find in India! Most often, revenues from ticket sales are insufficient to cover all performance costs.
When I asked them about the reception in the US to a traditional Bharatanatyam margam, the dancers said it was a challenge to adhere to margam-based solo performances as the audience did not respond favourably to watching the same local dancer perform repeatedly. Moreover, grants are given more frequently for group productions which also draw a considerable audience.
Mythili, Indumathy, Vidya and Nirupama have all choreographed and presented many group productions over the three decades of their residency in the US, roping in many of their own students to perform in these works. Vidya Subramaniam, who has been performing in India and the US, said that of late her focus has been more on her own solo performances and works.
Before the meeting, I watched a rehearsal session of Mythili’s production titled Gandhi, a video presentation of Rasika and Akshaya’s duet, and a classroom session of Indumathy. All these gave me an insight into the dedication and commitment which these dancers have brought to their work and chosen paths.
Do dancers in the US feel that Bharatanatyam is an important means to keep in touch with their roots and to propagate Indian culture in the US? Yes, they all chime in one voice. Many Indian parents in the US want their children to learn Bharatanatyam and perform. Mythili Kumar and Indumathy have conducted more than 100 arangetrams each and have also trained and shaped their own daughters to blossom into fine dancers. But how many in the next generation will take up dance as a full-time career remains to be seen.
The other issues which the dancers raised pertained to the Indian scene, such as the impact of NRI presence, paid programmes, awards and recognitions, and the challenges faced in getting performance opportunities in major arts festivals in India.
At the end of the day, however, I was left with a happy feeling after watching the creative energies of these dancers, their positive approach to their artistic lives, and their attempts to find unity in diversity, which is indeed the underlying current of our various artistic pursuits.