Why the master gurus are so important?

In shows by disciples of leading Bharatanatyam artistes of today, have you noticed how everyone on stage seems to have been cast in the same mould? Each physical movement, gait and glance, is a perfect copy of the teacher’s style Dr.Padma Subrahmanyam’s disciples are reprints of the original, Alarmel Valli’s students reproduce her light-on-the-toes leaps, Sudharani Ragtupati’s pupils strike sculpturesque poses, Chitra Visweshwaran’s sishyas are able to replicate the attamis of their instructors and Lakshmi Viswanathan nods her head to the music during abhinaya the followers do the same moments as guru.

Why has the individuality of the past given way to the similarity?

The teaching methodology developed over centuries by certain families in Tamil Nādu. The present-day Bharatanatyam was practised by members of a particular community to sharpen their skills in Nattuvangam. The nattuvanars are trained in dance. The community of dancers and dance gurus was nurtured by multi-level patronage. We hear of the appointment of the Vazhuvoor nattuvanas a thousand years ago to teach the Chola princess Kuntavai.

The three main schools of nattuvangam were in the villages of Pandanallur, Vazhuvoor and in the Thanjavur town.

During the British rule, sadir has been looked down upon as immoral and bawdy. They suddenly lost their livelihood. They fell on evil days. But a woman like Rukumini Devi was pride in Indian culture, were inspired to take up sadir renamed it Bharathanatyam and stages it in a different context and milieu. But the nattuvanars were found in great demand. Twice a week the nattuvanar would arrive on a bullock cart for a whole day’s teaching. By this pack up their cymbals and desert a growing institution like Rukumini Devi’s Kalakshetra. Chockalingam Pillai was ready to face the struggles of starting his own class.

“This art is just emerging out of decadence. Let us keep it dignified,” was the refrain of Chockalingam Pillai.

Nattuvangam demanded a training from childhood, the greatest strength of the nattuvanars was their exposure to the best music of their days. Ramiah Pillai’s-veena, nagaswaram and mridangam vidwans. Govindaraja Pillai of the Rajarajeswari school- Vocalist, mridangam and nagaswaram player. Muthuswami Pillai of Mylapore could surprise you with a padam where the raga evoked the bhava. Kittappa Pillai sing thr rare jatiswaram in Chakravakam.

These survivors of the old tradition today, some of them in unknown villages and towns. They are but shadows of the master gurus who vanished with the ethos of their lost world….

Padma Subrahmanyam's
Alarmel Valli's
Sudharani Ragtupati's
Chitra Visweshwaran's
Lakshmi Viswanathan
Rukumini Devi
Chockalingam Pillai
Ramiah Pillai's
Govindaraja Pillai
Muthuswami Pillai
Kittappa Pillai