K.P. Kittappa Pillai: Scion & Symbol Of A Great Tradition

Bharata Sangita Vidwan, Natya Kalanidhi, Kalaimamani Tanjavur K.P. Kittappa Pillai will be honoured with the title of Isai Perarignar also when he presides over the annual conference of the Tamil Isai Sangam of Madras this month. He is over seventy-two years old. But watch him when he is singing and guiding a disciple in the intricate steps of a Bharatanatyam piece. See his smile and the sway of his body when he is possessed by the laya, the ragaan d the bhava of the particular composition. You will see the marvellous rejuvenation of this doyen of the art and wonder what he owes this transformation. To get to grips with this poser, you must go to Tanjavur, the house that has been lived in by Kittappa Pillai and his ancestors from way back in the early nineteenth century when the latter was taken under the protection of the then Mahratta ruler of Tanjavur. Kittappa's ancestors were four brothers, Chinniah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu who were born between the years 1802 and 1810.

They have joined the immortals under the sobriquet, the Tanjavur Quartet. Their early musical accomplishments and virtuosity under their father Subbaraya Pillai's tutelage brought them Maharaja Tulaja's appreciative notice. He took them under his wing and decided to give them specialised training in music under the great Muthuswamy Dikshitar. After seven years of this training, the brothers were attached to the Maharaja's court and were to be in charge of music and dance training in the Brahadeswara temple in Tanjavur. T h e credit for using this patronage and opportunity for further evolving Bharatanatyam in the form we know today goes to the. Quartet. They did this without violating orthodox concepts or affecting traditional objectives.

30 Dant e enthusiasts of today owe to the brothers not only the balanced progress of the dance recital from melaprapti to tillana through todayamangalam, alarippu, jatiswaram, sabdam, varnam, padam, slokam and javali but also the phenomenal number of musical scores of the highest calibre composed by them for each item. Kittappa Pillai is the oldest member of the family in the direct male line from the Quartet and he is justly proud of his inheritance. It is this pride and his innate devotion to music and dance that, in the presence of a young disciple, lift him out of mundane trials and tribulations and give him youthfulness and cheer of countenance. To Kittappa Pillai musical excellence is an obsession even in the choreography and conduct of a dance. He disapproves of the violence that is done in the course of jati singing to its inherent melody and in his nattuvangam he demonstrates time and again how the laya objectives of the jati-s can be attained without rough play. Bharatanatyam, as he conceives it, lays stress on the appropriateness of physical movement to the emotional atmosphere. No wonder he is highly critical of jati-s improvised by laya experts who have not practised Bharatanatyam themselves. Personal knowledge of the body's limitations is a sine qua non if angasuddham is to be achieved.

In line with the traditional practice of all male members of his family, Kittappa, fa shortened form of his Kaiiiasuaniv full name Krishnamurthi], was put through his paces in music and dance from early childhood and he has nostalgic memories of those days and of the days later when he and his brother K.P. Sivanandam donned dance pyjamas and were taken in hand by grandfather Meenakshisundaram Pillai of Pandanallur. T h e late Sangita Kalanidhi K. Ponniah Pillai, Kittappa Pillai's father, also had similar dance training in his day and was fully competent as a nattuvanar but some prejudice at an early age turned him towards specialisation in music. His dance talents were willingly given when the family needed choreography for new dance innovations but he was never a practising nattuvanar.

This self-imposed ban, following preoccupations in Baroda and the early demise (in 1923) of his father Kannuswamy Pillai, left a gap of several decades in the chain of distinguished dance teachers based in Tanjavur. During this period, however, the unique style of dancing evolved in the family was fostered, enriched and propagated by Kittappa Pillai's maternal grandfather Meenakshisundaram Pillai who also descended from one of the Quartet but on the distaff side. Because the epoch-making urban interest in Bharatanatyam arose in the time when Meenakshisundaram Pillai h< sway and he belonged to Pandanallur, one hears of the Pandanallur style of dancing* According to Kittappa Pillai this is only a change in nomenclature and docs not signify a change of style from the traditional *ftmjavur pattern evolved and practised in the family.

For one thing Meenakshisundaram Pillai was too conservative in his outlook to initiate change and for another his reverence for tradition drove him to Tanjavur for consultation of the family archives in the ancestral home whenever any innovation became necessary due to the march of time. Kittappa Pillai himself is not against innovations — in fact, he considers them inevitable in modern times when the pattern of day to day life is undergoing such phenomenal change. And he believes that South Indian music and dance allow the maximum scope for innovations despite their extremely strict ground rules. He himself has pioneered stage presentation of Sarabendra Bhupala Kuravanji and the Alaya Gitavadyd Nrityanjali (part of temple ritual in propitiation of the Ashta digpalakas) and the setting up of dance formats and varna mettu-s for Ritu Samhara of Kalidasa in the original Sanskrit and for the poetic compositions of the Mahratta ruler Shahaji in his mother tongue. Yet, if Kittappa Pillai has misgivings regarding innovations, they come from his fear that the innovators as teachers do not give their disciples adequate grounding in the basic rules or sufficiently stress the sanctity of tradition.

When the disciples in their turn come to striking out on variations, they start from the guru's innovations before their validity is established. Deviations then are not only quantitative but qualitative as well. Many who know Kittappa Pillai today as the leading exponent and teacher of Bharatanatyam and the scion and symbol of a great arts tradition are perhaps not aware that up to his fortieth year, he had a distinguished career in the musical field and in the cause of Tamil Isai. He gave vocal concerts with his cousin Narayanaswamy and also provided mndangam support to other musicians. He also served as a member of the Experts' Committee of the Madras Music Academy for a number of years. In line with established practice in the family, Kittappa Pillai's musical training had to be initiated under a distinguished guru from outside — a tribute no doubt to the debt which the Quartet owed to Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Kittappa Pillai's guru was Natesa Sastry — Annaswamy Sastry's son and great-grandson of Syama Sastry of the Musical Trinity.

Kittappa Pillai remembers the great regard in which his family and his guru held each other. His family was grateful that a member of such a distinguished parampara as Sastry's could devote time to the young man. Likewise, Natesa Sastry felt proud of the association with a family with roots in the same hoary past. And therefore the relationship between guru and sishya was extremely cordial and Kittappa Pillai never felt fear and awe in august presence. Kittappa Pillai recollects with characteristic humour that his gurukulavasam did not always involve him in the practice of music. There were often days when, as a ten-year-old, he went by appointment to Natesa Sastry's house early in the morning only to be whisked away on an urgent shopping expedition. By the time the purchases had been made and Natesa Sastry had called on and been consulted by friends and admirers on the way, the day was far advanced. By common consent, the music lesson was postponed but not before the guru had given his disciple his fill of the wholesome biscuits manufactured in a factory owned by him! Kittappa Pillai's has been an interesting life.

He has travelled extensively in India and abroad and he has disciples, Indians as well as foreigners who come to him from the USA, Canada and elsewhere on periodical sabbaticals and enrich themselves out of his store of music and dance. He has taught at the Darpana Academy of Arts in Ahmedabad. He is a willing giver and, although his own sons have not taken up the family profession, he has ensured the continuity of the art through disciples in and out of the family circle. This is noteworthy against the background of reluctance in the past to give lessons in nattuvangam outside of the family. For Kittappa Pillai, music and dance are inseparable. H e defines sangitam as 'gita vadya nritta anjali'. He believes there's no dance without music and no real music without the dance of divinity within. And he lives his beliefs.