M.K. Saroja’s petite frame and unassuming personality strike you as you walk into her Palavakkam, Chennai home. A diva who danced in almost every corner of India decades ago, the face of Lux soap who forayed into cinema in the 1940s, M.K. Saroja possesses none of the flamboyant qualities attached to glamour and fame. What shines forth as she tries to recollect the past and answer questions is her dedication and surrender to her guru Kattumannarkoil Muthukumara Pillai and her ishta devata Krishna. It is not passive faith that has brought her name and fame. Her meticulous documentation of the temples she has visited and her collection of programme cards of every performance from the 1930s are astounding. Photographs of her dancing at every stage have been preserved carefully. Saroja’s art shaped her personality and life. The contentment and fulfilment of her dancing years are visible in her frail frame.
How did you meet Guru Muthukumara Pillai and how did the meeting change your life?
Usually a student goes in search of a guru but in my case I was blessed that my guru came to me. Muthukumara Pillai had come to Madras from Chidambaram to teach Bharatanatyam and had no place to stay. My grandmother Mahalakshmi Ammal was interested in the arts and often contributed to organise kutcheris. So she readily agreed when friend E. Krishna Iyer requested her if the nattuvanar could stay in our house. And when he further suggested that vidwan Muthukumara Pillai teach us, my grandmother was happy and did not even consult my parents about this decision! From that day, I can say I belonged to my Guru.
What were the classes like?
I was very young when I started learning Bharatanatyam from guru Muthukumara Pillai whom we called Thatha. My sister and I used to wake up early in the morning for our classes. I did not know anything then. I was only five or six years old and just followed what we were told to do. We began with the basic adavus like teiya tei, followed by nattadavus like tei hath tei hi. I learnt the adavus very quickly and started performing after one year.
Thatha would get up and demonstrate all the adavus. He was very fit for his age; he was like a yogi. He sat on the ground as he taught abhinaya and I still remember all the emotions flitting across his face. What a personality! I am sure as children all we wanted to do was play, but he made dance so interesting for us that we loved it. He never scolded us, though he was a taskmaster. Can you believe that I did not even have an arangetram? My guru felt that I did not need one. “Why have an arangetram when you are already dancing on so many stages?” he asked.
He was truly a ‘mahaan’. I say this because not only did he take a vow of celibacy but was totally dedicated to his art form. He did not care for money and did not take a penny for teaching us. Even when I was earning well, he refused to take any money from me. That kind of simplicity and dedication are a thing of the past.
Did classical dance take you to many places?
Travelling with Ram Gopal’s troupe took me to many places — Calcutta, Lahore and Rangoon, to name a few. Of course travelling was not as comfortable as it is today. We travelled for two or three days to get to a place, sometimes sitting on wooden planks. I performed extensively as a member of the troupe, but I was more interested in being a solo dancer as Thatha was grooming me.
What were the venues and what was your repertoire?
I danced at R.R. Sabha in Mylapore, at the age of eight, performing traditional pieces like alarippu, jatiswaram and sabdam. We never danced in temples, but performed at weddings and festival celebrations. In Lahore, where I went as part of Ram Gopal’s troupe, we presented group performances for weddings. Calcutta used to host dance festivals then and we were invited to perform.
Many of my performances were for weddings, family functions and festivals, and usually went on for three hours with two intervals. (Saroja’s son Ashish Khokar, brings in three big albums and shows us programme announcements from the 1930s which have been carefully preserved.) Between 1940 and 1945, apart from solo programmes I also performed in variety entertainment programmes in which a number of dancers participated. There were items like Kite, The Boatman and the Song, Flower Gathering, Snake Charmer, Moonlight Serenade and Krishna and the Gopis. Sometimes there were seventeen items in all! My regular Bharatanatyam repertoire included alarippu, jatiswaram and varnam before the intermission after which I performed a number of padams, javalis, keeratanams, bhajan and tillana. Natanamadinar, Kaalai tooki, Mathura nagarilo and Taye Yasoda were popular items.
Abroad, I danced in huge churches and in public halls. In Nepal, I danced in the palace with Birju Maharaj.
Did you perform only items taught by your guru or did you start composing on your own?
For a long time I performed only his items. By the time I was sixteen, I was composing my own items which my guru saw and appreciated. Though I had learnt a margam or two from my guru, over the years I built up a repertoire of over 80 items, some of which I performed or taught to my students. My first work was Navagraha which was premiered in Avignon. I received a grant from the Department of Culture in 1976 to create a production Saptha Thandavam directed by Nataraj-Shakuntala, a famous dancing duo in Madras. In the 1980s I had another grant from the Ministry with which I produced Koothum Kuzhalum on medieval Tamil mystic poets.
How were performances organised abroad those days? Did you have to apply for selection to festivals?
My first tour was to Europe and I was invited by Ram Gopal. The second trip was in 1974 to Holland, Italy and the U.K. We were cheated by the family friend who organised the tour and we ended up paying him ` 2000! All the trips were organised by personal connections and students. Being a vegetarian getting used to cold weather was not easy. Our embassies were not of much help, I guess it is the same these days. Artists need to have the right connections and influence to be selected through those channels.
Was your husband involved in your dancing career?
My husband Mohan Khokar’s position and status in the performing arts field were of no help to me! You would think it would have brought dance opportunities to me on a golden platter. It probably did more harm than good! (Laughs) My husband would not hear of his wife getting special treatment and opportunities because of his post. So I continued to perform a few times in a year – at functions and shows arranged at Ashoka Hotel for the guests and the public. Memorable were the performances at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where I met many dignitaries like Kurt Waldheim, the UN Secretary General. Once the Saudi king presented us artists with a pouch of gold coins which, not surprisingly, my husband instructed be returned to the authorities! Neither my guru nor my family members were interested in amassing wealth not meant for them! Though I lost my guru in 1960, not a day goes by when I do not think of him and his blessings.
Did several foreign students learn from you?
Yes, I had many foreign students, especially French dancers who were serious students of Bharatanatyam. My very first student Luicia Maloney-Willard was an American, who learnt and performed in the 1970s. The foreign students were happy to just acquire or imbibe the art form. In fact though I received many prestigious awards they are nothing compared to my happiness from teaching students who became family. Many of my students from France and Italy adopted Indian names. (M.K. Saroja mentioned Vidya – one of her main French disciples – at many points in the conversation.)
Any memories of performance you would like to share with our readers?
In December 1998, I brought the curtains down on my performance career with a show in Bangalore in which I danced Bharatanatyam with two great artists Kelucharan Mohapatra (Odissi) and Vedantam Satyanarayana (Kuchipudi). We got a standing ovation. It was doubly memorable because Ram Gopal in whose troupe I danced as a girl, was present that evening for my final stage performance. Within two years, the two pillars in my life – husband Mohan Khokar and Meera Seshadri who composed most of the music for my dance – passed away.
What is your approach to art and to life?
There is beauty and divinity in art, beauty and bhavam in everything, even in the basic teiya tei adavu. I learnt everything to the level I had to. (She answers with a twinkle in her eye). I learnt enough music to understand my dance. Even in learning there has to be a balance. If we try to be expert in everything, we will end up mastering nothing. I pursued my art with dedication and reverence, without letting it consume me.
(Anjana Anand is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)