Natya Kala Samrat, Kalaimamani Guru Vazhuvoor R Samraj Pillai

(Sitting): Ramiah Pillai, wife Gnanasoundaram (Standing): Samraj, Gurunathan

Ramiah Pillai virtually retired from full-time teaching and conducting in the early 1960’s and, from about 1965 onwards, his son Samraj has been occupying the gaddi. Pillai has, however, not completely withdrawn ; he has stayed on as an emeritus professor, giving guidance and suggestions, questioning his successor if he felt a change or innovation introduced by the latter strained the bani, and in general making the benefit of his experience available.

Samraj inherited the gaddi when he was hardly 25 years old. He is a vigorous 48 now — with a couple of decades of front-line experience behind him. He has already prepared a successor in Palaniappan, his son of 23 years. The youngster presently assists him in teaching and has started conducting recitals. He will take full-charge one day — and continue the tradition.

Change goes with continuity. Tradition, in order to survive, must make room for the creativity of its new handlers and also respond to the dynamics of changing environment in order to retain its relevance. The trick, for its custodians, is to accomodate the changes while yet protecting the central core of the tradition. Samraj, too, has introduced some changes and innovations. He feels they are for the better, although not everyone may agree with this self-assessment.

Guru Vazhuvoor R Samraj

Samraj is, of course, quite proud of his inheritance. The Vazhuvoor bani, he says, is a vibrant synthesis of ‘attam’ (natya) and abhinaya, “unlike the Pandanallur style which emphasizes the former and the Kanchipuram tradition which lays stress on the latter.” We ask : Isn’t it true, however, that very few dancers are good in both aspects? Can little girls and teenagers, who are hardly able to understand the deeper meaning of the lyrics of dance compositions, especially those that deal with sringara, be expected to do abhinaya well?  He agrees that there is a problem but says that even youngsters innocent of understanding can be taught to do abhinaya adequately. It depends on the effectiveness of teaching, he adds. However, he admits in the end, that the youngsters cannot be expected to reveal the maturity of dancers who have the capacity truly to understand the lyrics.

Samraj prides himself on his ability to teach effectively without having to give a demonstration except rarely. There was an occasion in London, he recalls, when he showed how he did this and there was much appreciation. In his view, an instructor should be able to give a dance student verbal instructions in a way the latter understands them and then, as the student tries to follow, make necessary corrections. Judging by what we see on stage where many performers seek to project one bhava or another but not seldom end up offering a caricature of it, we speculate aloud if students shouldn’t be using mirrors for learning and correcting mistakes. Samraj smiles and then explains the comment to Ramiah Pillai who hadn’t heard it properly. Ramiah Pillai also smiles.

We ask whether Samraj has not stepped up the speed of adavujati-s? There are critics who feel this has gone too far, so that many dancers find it difficult to project the Vazhuvoor bani’s grace while executing them. Samraj explains that what he has done is to choreograph new jati korvai-s which, while yet retaining the kalapramanam or tempo of the earlier jati-s, require changes in the adavu-s. The net result is an impression of increased speed. There is more viruviruppu, but not greater speed. He rejects the implication of the criticism cited earlier and asserts that performers can be trained to execute these adavujati-s effectively.

Dance students today are like glowing embers which can be fanned to flame quickly, he continues. They are quick on the uptake. Implicitly he rejects the frequently-voiced criticism that gurus today rush their students to make their formal debuts—or allow themselves to be persuaded to agree to premature debuts—by saying that, whereas it used to take four or five years in the old days to take a student from the basics to the arangetram stage, it now took only about two years. Apparently the average student is that smart. “Of course,” adds he, “there are never-do-well students too.” The significance of what he asserts is all the more noteworthy considering that the typical dance student today is able to devote only one hour a day to taking lessons and practising under the guru’s guidance. And that too not everyday of the week. Perhaps the better dancers did work more assiduously and practised for several hours a day. Students were forced to do so by great nattuvanars in the old days. Whether a student turns out to be a really accomplished dancer depends not only on her learning capacity and dedication but also on the guru, Samraj continues. Every guru must be getting good, bad and indifferent students but only some gurus succeed in producing outstanding performers, while others chum out mediocrities. A note of regret creeps into his voice as he says this. While only a small percentage of learners can be expected to be classy, he observes, It is a pity that many who show great potential drop out along the way, for one reason or other.

He asserts that the situation is made worse by ‘body-snatchers’, gurus who entice good students away from a competent master by offering all kinds of inducements. Many promising students have ended up in blind alleys by succumbing to such blandishments, he adds. He also voices regret at the practice of various dancers of enlisting the services of ad hoc conductors for their recitals. There are more thattuvanars— those who just keep time—than nattuvanars today, he says. “Since these conductors have not been involved in training the students, they are not involved in the recital, can’t really be,” he explains. “So, they just keep time mechanically. They are no better than machines that play tapes back because, if there is a lack of synchronization between jati recitation and the performance of the dancer, it is the dancer who has to adjust. Or else, they will have to start the sequence all over again. In these circumstances, it is the mridangam player to whom a dancer looks for guidance. The mridanga vidwans are good although I can’t say they are equal to those of the past who showed greater finesse in playing the drum for the dance.

He now reverts to the subject of Jati-s. “The jati-s of the Vazhuvoor school are very intricate,” he says, explaining that this has always been that way. “While the nattuvanars of other schools”—he in fact says there are really only two bani-s, those of Vazhuvoor and Pandanallur—”recite the jati-s samam to samam, we recite them from samam to edam. Try asking others to do this. Why, even those who sit in front rows at our performances and try keeping count give up after a while. In 1983, I think that was the year. I conducted a recital of Jayanthi Rajagopal at the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore, here in Madras. Haridwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel provided rhythm accompaniment on the tavil. I’ve a video recording of it. It shows how the hands of even knowledgeable persons in the audience froze in midair as they found it difficult to keep track of the tala structure.” Quite intricate this, it seems, though apparently it doesn’t affect the dance itself.

We ask : What are his contributions to the Vazhuvoor tradition? He now lists them. The first of course is the choreographing of new adavujati-s which give the impression of speeding up the dance. This must be an improvement in as much as an old criticism has been that while the Vazhuvoor nattuvanars recited fast jati-s, the dancers didn’t execute them syllable for syllable, with the result there was an apparent discrepancy between the tempos maintained by the two. What else? Sanchari-s, yes. He has pioneered the practice of interspercing discrete stories in the sanchari-s. he claims. “In Papanasam Sivan’s Enna tavam seidanai, the line ‘kaiyil yendi, seeratti, palooti, talatta, enna tavam seidanai‘ — what good deeds did I do to deserve to take [Krishna] in my hands and fondle him, feed him milk and lull him to sleep—offers an opportunity to choreograph a sanchari of this type. I introduced an upakatha — a side story — of Krishna’s leelas or exploits. Did anyone else do this before me? I don’t think so. Anyhow, when I presented this sanchari some 15 or 16 years ago, many said it should’t be done. There was opposition to it. Now, of course, everybody does this kind of thing.”

“Tyagaraja’s Sadhinchane is another song to which this type of sanchari has been composed,” he adds. “For the line ‘Devaki Vasudeva kula‘. By the way, there were objections to this too, for using a kriti for a dance. My point, however, is that it is all right to take up this kriti, or any other for that matter, for a dance so long as the nattuvanar and the dancer execute it with bhakti. You know, MS [Subbulakshmi] saw this item performed some three or four years ago and later told us that she was struck with wonder by it.” Samraj now tells us about the dances he has choreographed for the compositions of Oothakadu Venkatasubba Iyer and Periasami Thooran. “It was I who first choreographed the dance for Oothukadu’s Ananda Natana Ganapati bhavaye” he informs.

As we understand it, he does most or all of the teaching. But his more famous father was given all the credit by the students (presumably for selfish reasons) and he, the son, is treated like he is only a ghost. Father, Son and the Ghost — that’s the way it was, though it is no longer so. “It’s human nature, I suppose,” he sighs.

Remembering a question we had asked about his attitude to disciples giving their own ideas on how a dance may be executed, he now talks about it using an incident involving Chitra as an illustration. “It was when I was teaching her Nee inda mayam I was showing her what to do to depict Krishna making a hole in the milk pitcher hanging above. She said she had an idea how to do it. Demonstrating it, she made believe she was picking up a heavy object from the floor, with great effort, and was hurling it at the pitcher. I told her that won’t do, that what was needed to make a little hole in the pitcher was just a little stone. She went up to my father and complained . . . . My point is, I do welcome suggestions from my students but I can’t accept them if they are not right. After all, the guru is responsible for what his disciple does on stage.”

We return to the subject of his accomplishments again. “Oh. yes”, he remembers suddenly. “I can take credit for teaching different disciples to interpret the same compositions in different ways. My father didn’t do it, I started doing this. This is not a case merely of making allowances for the different endowments of different students. What I have sought to do was deliberately to show how a single composition can be interpreted in many different ways. I think the results have been very satisfactory.” We suggest it should be very interesting to view, in one go, the different interpretations projected on a video screen.

“I am happy to have many of my father’s disciples and my own keeping the Vazhuvoor bani upfront.” he says. We ask him about his disciples— those who explicitly acknowledged him as the master. Can he name those who have come up well? He hesitates a bit and then mentions Jayanthi Rajagopal, Jayanthasri Rajaram, Radha Venkatraman. Sathya and Sobhana Jaisingh (who is in London.!) They too carry the flag for the Vazhuvoor tradition, as do—as did — his father’s famous disciples.

Guru Vazhuvoor R. Samraj worked with his father and trained several students in this discipline. After the demise of Guru Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, the mantle fell on Guru Samraj and he continued the task with the dedication his father was known for. Brochures and invitations of Arangetrams of the Vazhuvoor School of Art that functions at Mylapore, shows the firm adherence to and respect for the traditional format of Bharatanatyam, which is still maintained at this academy of dance. Guru Samraj taught with devotion and ambition and fostered the ideals and values cherished by his father-teacher, Guru Ramaiah Pillai. In keeping with the practice of giving the students freedom to think and improvise, Guru Samraj encouraged his students to work with zeal.

Guru Vazhuvoor R Samraj

Gifted with a rich, resonant voice, Samraj wielded the cymbals with a sparkle and added the typical Vazhuvoor touch to his recitation of the Jatis. Guru Samraj choreographed several dance-ballets including Alli Tirumanam, Kumaresar Kuravanji, Kutrala Kuravanji and Oliyin Nizhal, on themes from Hinduism, Christianity and those based on patriotism.

Guru Samraj continued the annual Vazhuvoorar festival, where several of his father’s and his own students from India and abroad were featured, with a view to upholding the dance heritage and creating a platform for many talented young dancers. Through these festivals, Guru Samraj, recipient of the titles, Natya Kala Samrat and Kalaimamani, revealed his generosity and silently carried on his mission, which was to keep the Vazhuvoor flag flying.

Excerpts from Sruti Magazine (1986) and The Hindu (2004).