K.J. Sarasa passed away on 2 January 2012 at Chennai after a brief illness. She was 77.
It was the sound of the tattukazhi on the palakai – the stick onthe block of wood – that drewme to my neighbour’s house everyday. A young woman, dark skinnedand beautiful, with large expressiveeyes, sat cross-legged on the ground,hitting the stick, singing strangemelodies and uttering mesmerisingsyllables that fascinated me to such anextent that I came home and repeatedthem, all the time imitating the teacher.Noticing my keen interest, my motherinvited Teacher (K.J. Sarasa) homeand requested her to take me underher wing. I was four years old when Istarted learning with her. She was stillworking for natyacharya VazhuvoorRamaiah Pillai, her mentor andsurrogate father (she had lost her ownwhen very young), but was willing tobranch out on her own if given thechance. With my mother’s blessing,I became Sarasa’s very first studentto be completely trained under her.
My arangetram was the first she conducted as a nattuvanar in her own right. The first person she wanted me to honour, on stage, was Vazhuvoorar, who graciously attended and stayed through the whole programme, speaking very highly of the newly formed guru-sishya duo. It was one of the greatest blessings of my life. Teacher was a magnanimous person. When she was sick or could not accompany me to a particular programme, she never made my mother cancel the show, but instead, requested S.K. Rajaratnam Pillai, Kameswaran, or Radhakrishnan to fill in. It was wonderful to see the understanding between these ‘guru K.J. Sarasa, guru extraordinaire Rathna Papa Kumar bandhu-s’. Similarly, she would often take me and some of her other students to Vazhuvoorar’s house, to have ‘Master classes’ with him, telling us that he was the master teacher and the greatest of them all. On one such occasion, I learned the navarasa from the great maestro – a most unforgettable experience. It was her guru bhakti that taught us to have the same respect for our guru too.
Another example of her kindness was the way she took my sister Seetha Ratnakar under her fold. Seetha had started with Kuchipudi under Vempati Chinna Satyam, whereas I had continued with my Bharatanatyam while venturing into Kuchipudi. Though Seetha was thirteen when she started training with Teacher, she was never made to feel inferior to me in age or experience, and Teacher always taught her dances she could handle without difficulty. Teacher encouraged her with kindness and words of praise. Teacher was an amazing singer, and Seetha and I had the great good fortune of having her sing as well as do nattuvangam for us for many years before her throat problems forced her to seek outside help with the singing. In Andhra Pradesh, in cities such as Kakinada, Eluru, Vijayawada and Visakhapatnam, which boasted of elite classical-artloving audiences, Teacher was a big hit with her melodious singing, and the sabha officials there never failed to ask her to sing either Sakhi prana in Jhinjhoti or Chinnanchiru kiliye in ragamalika (which she sang in Adi tala, and in different raga-s from the more popular version) as a musical interlude. And she always obliged. I often teased Teacher by claiming these cities were inviting me only to hear her sing. Now that I am a teacher myself, and somewhat of a singer (thanks to my mother Anasuya Devi and my aunt Seetha Devi, both professional singers), I have realised
what an arduous task it is to sing and do nattuvangam simultaneously, without losing a beat or missing a line! Train journeys with Teacher were a riot. There was never a dull moment in her company. The compartment would be constantly filled with laughter or music, as we sat singing songs together or playing cards. My mother and aunt looked upon Teacher as a younger sister, and my mother would order three identical sarees for them to wear to various performances. In fact, so much did my parents respect and trust Teacher that I was allowed to spend weekends with her, when she lovingly asked her mother and sisters to make things I enjoyed eating. She would give me many extra hours of coaching, and after lunch we would play the card game, ‘Literature’. The evening was spent on the verandah indulging in Teacher’s favourite pastime, singing songs. What an idyllic life it was! K.J. Sarasa was the quintessential guru – strict but kind and understanding, knowledgeable, traditional but not suffocatingly conservative, openminded and inclusive, funny, dignified. She was keen to train her students well, in the proper manner, into polished dancers. When I look around and see the number of outstanding solo dancers she has ‘created’, my heart swells with pride. If a teacher’s success can be measured by the number of excellent students she produces, then, Sarasa Teacher was very successful indeed. And it is not as if these students have a factory-made stamp on them. Each of her disciples has been groomed into an individualistic dancer with her own special qualities.
That was Teacher’s greatness. She recognised each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses, and worked on mitigating the weaknesses and enhancing the strengths. If a student was not capable of emoting too well, she cleverly selected items that had a predominance of nritta. For those that she considered quick learners, she picked complex dances and made them rise to the challenges that she set forth, eliciting the best out of them. She would ask me to choreograph dances to lyrics that she provided, and then give me guidelines as to how to choreograph them in the best way to bring out the meaning fully and correctly. She inspired all her students, to grow as dancers, not merely from the outside, but from within. Yesterday I sat in my studio, looking at a photograph of Sarasa Teacher with me, her sishya, standing behind her and my student from Houston, Swathi, her sishya’s sishya, sitting at her feet. Teacher had that benevolent smile that always lit her face every time I visited her. That is how I will forever remember her – with a welcoming smile on her face. I remember calling Teacher and seeking her blessings when I founded my dance institute in Houston, the Anjali Center for Performing Arts, in 1975, and her wishing me good luck on the phone, telling me that I will be very successful in my artistic endeavour.
The photograph that hangs prominently in the front room is of me with Teacher, taken for my arangetram brochure in 1956. My biggest regret is that for the first time in all the 36 years I have been away from India I missed seeing Teacher on my last annual visit home. She was in the hospital when I arrived in India and never came home. But Teacher will live forever in my heart, in my mind, and in my daily interactions with my students and their parents, for I have tried my best to emulate her in the way I conduct myself, as teacher and as human being. She taught me to be not only a good dancer, but also a good teacher, with sincerity, diligence, honesty and integrity.
(The author is a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi exponent, and Founder-Director, Anjali Center for Performing Arts, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.)