We tell you 10 things you need to know about Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir, the oldest and one of the most renowned bharatanatyam schools in Mumbai.
It is the oldest bharatanatyam institution in Mumbai.
In 1942-43, Mahalingam Pillai came from Thiruvidaimarudur, a village in Tamil Nadu, to Mumbai for a nattuvangam (conduct a bharatanatyam recital) of a performance by the Travancore Sisters Lalita, Padmini and Ragini, who were trained by Mahalingam Pillai’s father Kuppiah. The show’s success prompted GV Ramani, director of Darshana Arts Academy in the city, to approach the senior Pillai for training. Ramani learned the basics in Tamil Nadu and then requested the family to come to Mumbai for further lessons. So in 1945, Kuppiah Pillai sent his son-in-law Govindraj and his daughter Karunambal, who set up Sri Rajarajeswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir. Five years later, Govindraj Pillai’s brothers-in-law, Mahalingam, Maruthuppa and Kalyanasundaram, would join him.
Dancing is in the genes.
Before moving to Mumbai, Kuppiah Pillai was in charge of the dance rituals at Sri Mahalingaswamy temple in Thiruvidaimarudur and his ancestors were patronised by Maratha rulers such as Serfoji II. The vibrant artistic atmosphere in the household has ensured that the seventh generation of the family continues to add to the legacy. Viswanath, son of Mahalingam, Vasant Kumar, son of Govindraj, and Harikrishna along with his father Kalyanasundaram are the current crop of teachers. “Instead of nursery rhymes, we grew up learning jatis,” said Harikrishna.
They prefer to be on the sidelines than take centre stage.
So far, the family members have always been nattuvanars, dance gurus who recite the compositions and guide the instrumentalists during a show. The family continues to groom talent. No one has chosen to be a professional performer. “It is a sacrifice,” said Harikrishna Pillai, the youngest teacher. “It’s not about achievement, it’s about contribution.” But it appears that the family is ready to buck the trend as Kalyanasundaram Pillai noted that his “granddaughters wanted to dance”.
The first student was a non-Tamilian.
You’d think that a family of nattuvanars from Tamil Nadu would begin their careers with pupils from the city’s Tamilian population. But it was the renowned kathak dancer Damayanti Joshi who would distinguish herself as their first student. While today the Tamilians dominate the classrooms, the institute has students from almost every community including Maharashtrian, Bengali, Sindhi, Parsi and Gujarati. Among the institute’s alumni are Vani Ganpathy and Malavika Sarrukai, two of India’s leading soloists.
It teaches the Thanjavur school of bharatanatyam.
The Thanjavur style is known for playing with the geometry of the movements, and improvising with rhythmic patterns. Said Kalyanasundaram Pillai, “It’s both powerful and graceful.” While the school teaches the Thanjavur style, it also reveres prominent gurus of other styles such as Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Chokalingam Pillai of the Pandanallur style and Ramaiah Pillai of Vazhuvoor style whose photographs hang on the walls of the institute’s home in Matunga (E).
One of its prized possessions is a lotus-wheeled hand-drawn chart.
In the 1970s, Kuppiah Pillai created a “Kamala Chakram” that depicts 108 talas of Carnatic music with their names, symbols, structure and beats. Hung on the walls in the Matunga studio, it is a handy guide for students of both music and dance.
It is glad to have tolerant neighbours.
The institute’s main headquarters is a ground floor apartment in a residential building in Matunga (E). In 66 years, no one has complained about the sound of ghungroos and music reverberating from the classes which run from morning to late evening. “We have been very lucky to have cooperative neighbours who value culture,” said Harikrishna.
One of the key events on its calendar is Dusshera.
The institute has been celebrating the festival marking the victory of Rama over Ravana for over six decades now. Students from all five centres converge in their traditional finery to make brief presentations. It is preceded by a prayer to goddess Saraswati, lord Natraja and past gurus.
A tree stands tall in its campus.
Just as the massive banyan tree at Chennai’s Kalakshetra campus is part of dance lore, Mumbai’s Rajarajeswari too has a rain tree that has been integral to its history. The tree has over the years spread its branches reaching into the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Home for Children across the road. Incidentally, Rajarajeswari also held classes at the children’s home in the 1960s.
They celebrated the eightieth birthday of Kalyanasundaram Pillai with one of their best students.
The senior-most guru got a huge bash. Pillai’s senior student Viji, who heads the Shakti School of Bharatanatyam in Los Angeles, was the nattuvanar for her daughter Mythili’s performance. Mythili spent her vacations at the institute training under Kalyanasundaram Pillai.
Visit www.bharathanatyam.com for more details.
By Suhani Singh on February 17 2012 5.11pm
Photos by Parikshit Rao