News & Notes

Sarasa Natya Mala 2022

The 10th edition of the dance festival, ‘Sarasa Natya Mala’, in memory of Bharatanatyam guru K.J. Sarasa, was held on 17 and 18 June 2022 at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. The festival is an annual event organised and produced by Shanmuga Sundaram, a senior disciple.

Sarasa was born into a hereditary family of musicians — her ancestors were court musicians who enjoyed the patronage of Tanjavur royalty. She was a disciple of the iconic Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. As a torchbearer of the Vazhuvoor bani, she became a quintessence dance guru known for encouraging individuality and creativity in her disciples. Many senior dance teachers and performers of today are her disciples. In the autumn of her life, Shanmuga Sundaram would assist his guru on the nattuvangam during performances. He spent most of his days at the Mandaveli home of his guru, and he stayed by her side till she passed on in January 2012. In 2013, Shanmuga organised the Sarasa Natya Mala Festival to pay tribute to his guru. Today, besides the disciples of K.J. Sarasa, the festival features Sarasa Natya Mala 2022 dancers from all over India and the world.

On the evening of 17 June, the festival began with performances by the senior disciples of K.J. Sarasa. Divyatha Arun presented a viruttam Viritta chenchadai aada, followed by Kapali karunai nilavu, a composition of Papanasam Sivan in raga Mohanam. The song describes the presiding deity of Mylapore as Kapali — the handsome, moon-like-faced, charming one who liberally showers compassion upon his devotees. Divyatha did justice to the song with her striking stage presence, and her adavu combinations and subtle abhinaya displayed conviction.

Srekala Bharath, Sailaja, and Urmila Sathyanarayanan presented Nityakalyani (composer: B. Seetharamaiya), a cherished choreography of their guru Sarasa. The verses praise the universal divine mother as Devi, Parvati, Durga, and Tripurasundari—in a varnam format in ashta-ragamalika.

Lavanya Shankar danced Chaliye kunjan mo—a Hindi song in raga Brindavana Saranga composed by Maharaja Swati Tirunal, and the Brindavani tillana of the late vidwan M. Balamuralikrishna. The musical support for all the performances was Meena Loganathan (nattuvangam), Chitrambari Krishnakumar (vocal), Dhanamjayan (mridangam), and flute by Sruthi Sagar.

The award function followed the performances. The chief guest, veteran dancer and guru, Chitra Visweswaran, in her dulcet voice, spoke eloquently of the importance of guru bhakti or the intense relationship between disciple and the guru. Guest of honour, S. Janaki (Editor-in-Chief, Sruti), a ‘summer student’ of K.J. Sarasa, as she calls herself, shared fond memories of her teacher. She remembered Sarasa as a much-loved guru, a fine singer, and a true rasika. Besides the different dance techniques, Sarasa taught her disciples humility and generosity and instilled her students with confidence and the wings to fly into the world, S. Janaki said.

Dancer Ramli Ibrahim has supported the Sarasa Natya Mala festival since its inception and comes from Malaysia for almost every edition. He felicitated Shanmuga Sundaram and presented the recipients of the K.J. Sarasa Memorial Award for 2022 to dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant (for Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi), D.V. Kanakadurga (Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam vocalist) and Kuttalam M. Selvam (son of nattuvanar V.S. Muthuswami Pillai). 

After the award ceremony, dancer Ananda Shankar presented her ekaharya dance production, Tyagaraja Ramayana, a retelling of the Ramayana through the music and vision of Tyagaraja. The narrative begins from Rama’s birth and on to Sita kalyanam, from Bharata’s search for Rama to the final coronation of Sri Rama in Ayodhya. The Tyagaraja kritis are based on the book Sri Tyagaraja Kriti Ramayanam by D. Seshadri. The songs describe the life of Sree Rama and Tyagaraja’s reaction to the various episodes.

Ananda Shankar, who has widely performed her critically acclaimed ekaharya, says: “Every time I perform this work, I am energised and animated by the eternal story of Sri Rama and timeless poetry and music of Tyagaraja.” Music (recorded) was by V. Renukaprasad (nattuvangam), S. Venumadhav (vocal), T.P. Balasubramanian (mridangam), K. Saikumar (violin), and Uma Venkateshwarulu (flute).

The second day was an all-male dance affair — Nartaka Natyam — a concept by Shanmuga Sundaram.

Shanmuga Sundaram opened the evening with a mallari in tisra Triputa (choreography: Chitra Visweswaran), followed by the popular varnam Innum en manam composed by maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman. After the initial padartha, Shanmuga elaborated on the poetry of the pallavi and anupallavi with his expressive yet subtle abhinaya. He closed his performance with the kriti, Satre vilagi irum (Poorvikalyani). Vocalist Girija Ramaswami, Sukanya Ravindhar (nattuvangam); M. Dhanamjayan (mridangam); M.S. Kannan (violin), and R. Thyagarajan (flute) beautifully provided the live music. Shanmuga Sundaram is currently under the mentorship of guru Chitra Visweswaran.

Seasoned dancer A. Lakshmanaswamy performed a Siva stuti in raga-tala-malika. His disciple Sudharama Vaithiyanathan (nattuvangam); M. Dhanamjayan (mridangam); M.S. Kannan (violin); and R. Thyagarajan (flute) comprised the live orchestra.

Nartaka Natyam concluded with the performances of three icons of Indian classical dance, V.P. Dhananjayan, Ramli Ibrahim, and Prof. A. Janardhanan.

Veteran Guru V.P. Dhananjayan held the audience spellbound with two abhinaya compositions, Oru neramenkilum, extolling Lord Guruvayoorappa (raga Dwijavanti) and Senjilavanan (Tamil padam). The orchestra had guru Shanta Dhananjayan (nattuvangam), Vijeesh (vocal), and the previously mentioned accompanying artists.

The world-renowned Ramli Ibrahim presented an Odissi performance comprising the invocatory mangalacharan, Ganga Taranga (guru Debaprasad Das). The poetry describes Lord Siva as the One from whose matted locks flows the celestial river Ganga. The following items were—sabda derived from the Ravana stotra; and Sabha Pranam, salutations to the audience.

Ramli concluded with the popular Priye charusheeley from the Geeta Govinda (dance composed by guru Gajendra Kumar Panda). Krishna appeases a sulking Radha: “If you speak, moonlight gleaming on your teeth dispels the dreaded darkness of fear. Let your moon face lure my nightbird eyes to taste nectar from your quivering lips! You are my ornament, my jewel in the sea of existence!”

Prof. A. Janardhanan presented the ashtanayakan Viragatuyar nathan (Abheri). The padam effectively depicted a nayaka suffering the pangs of separation, requesting the moon to help find his beloved. The song is a composition of K. Nirmala Nagarajan (Kalakshetra). Both the dancers used recorded music.

Although all the five disciples of K.J. Sarasa, who performed on the two days of this festival, are dance teachers and choreographers in their own right now for many decades and have trained numerous disciples and presented original choreographic works, the aesthetic sensibilities instilled by their guru K.J. Sarasa are still firm in place. It reflects in the powerful yet graceful poses typical in Sarasamma’s choreography, the (untampered with) jati teermanams, the subtle but clear abhinaya, especially in sancharis, and the choice of repertoire.

Guru Sarasa would have also been proud to see her most dedicated student, Shanmuga Sundaram, hold an annual festival of dance in such a meaningful way. Meena Loganathan (the niece and disciple of K.J. Sarasa) has supported the festival since its inception in 2013, travelling from Austin (USA) every year. Shanmuga Sundaram is currently editing his book and video documentary on guru K.J. Sarasa for publication in 2023.


(Bharatanatyam artist and research historian)