T.A. Rajalakshmi – a tribute to ‘Rajappa’

The word devadasi brings to the mind’s eye the romantic image of a courtesan, a court/temple dancer, a person who is a mystery and therefore ignites the curiosity of the world, one who exists in the realms of fantasy. T.A.  Rajalakshmi or Rajappa as she was fondly called, was all this and more.  I wish to pay tribute to this special person who was also dear to me as she was my guru who taught me more than just the art that she so graciously adorned.

I have with me a hand-written note in which she has recounted the circumstances of her birth, upbringing, her art which was her passion and enduring legacy. I am quoting an extract from this note, translated from the original Tamil, to give an insight to her early life.

“I was born in the year 1917 in the village of Tiruvidaimarudur, and started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of eight. After training for four years, I gave my first performance at the age of twelve and continued performing till the age of 37. During this period I must have performed in over 1500 programmes – temple festivals in villages, and at weddings of prominent personalities. I was a regular performer at Chettinad, Kandanur, Villiapatti, Tiruvidaimarudur Mahalingaswamy temple, and the Brihadheeswarar temple in Tanjavur.  I have danced at the Tanjavur Big Temple in my guru’s production, Kutrala Kuravanji in the role of sakhi for two years and as Mohini for eight years. I have danced at the Tanjore palace as a court dancer for ten years continuously. 

I have danced in the presence of the Maharaja of Poona twice and have given more than 25 performances in Bombay. My last show on stage was at Coonoor, after which my guru went to Bombay and settled there permanently. I too migrated to Calcutta after that. I had over two hundred disciples and have conducted twenty arangetrams during the course of my teaching at Calcutta. 

I was regularly invited as a judge at the Academy of Music and Dance at Calcutta during dance competitions. My career that began at the age of eight went on till I was 71, a period of sixty-three years. It was my guru’s wish that I should serve the art till my last breath, which I hope I am able to fulfil. 

My guru, Kalaimamani T.P. Kuppiah Pillai, was a person steeped in tradition and belonged to the Tanjavur district. Ours was the Tanjavur style. Guru Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a famous exponent of the Pandanallur style of dance was a close friend of my guru. During all my learning and performing years, it was my guru who performed nattuvangam for me. After he left for Bombay I stopped giving performances.