The legacy of Swamimalai K. Rajarathnam Pillai lives on…

Here is a reproduction of my interview with  Mrs.Jaya Kamala Pandiyan and Ms. Nrithya Pillai, daughter and grand daughter of Guru Swamimalai K. Rajarathnam Pillai for Carnatic Darbar

Guru S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai

Guru S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai

Guru Swamimalai K. Rajarathnam Pillai (1931-1994) needs no introduction to Bharathanatyam rasikas. Doyen among natyacharyas, he was known for his musical talent, brisk jathis, elegant nattuvangam and choreography skills. A recipient of Kalaimamani, Natya Selvam and Sangeetha Kala Sikamani, he was an acclaimed teacher, propagating the Vazhuvoor style of Bharatanatyam. Malavika Sarukkai, Priyadarshini Govind, Srinidhi Chidambaram, Ramya Harishankar, Vidya Subramaniam and Sujatha Srinivasan are among his illustrious students.

“Rajaratham retrospective”, a commemorative dance programme on the occasion of his 77th birth anniversary on July 3, 2007, also brought out a booklet containing a fine compilation of his biographical details, and interesting recollection of memories by his daughter and students . This can be accessed at
Mrs. Jayakamala Pandiyan is his daughter and Ms.Nrithya Pillai his grand daughter. Mrs.Jayakamala Pandiyan resides in Bangalore, where she teaches Bharathanatyam. Nrithya Pillai, her daughter, currently pursues her undergraduate studies in Journalism. She continues her advanced training in Bharathanatyam and also trains a few students. Sangeetha Shyam interacts with them on very many subjects.

What are your early memories of your guru?
Jayakamala Pandiyan: When I was born, my father was an assistant to my grandfather Padmashree Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai and was busy singing and performing nattuvangam for the great dancers like Kamala Lakshman and others. He used to have programmes almost every day. And, he was always on tour and busy with rehearsals. In fact, he used to tell me that he named me Jayakamala as I was born on the day he was away for Kamala Lakshman’s programme.

I am the last child after two sons and I was not very healthy since the childhood. Naturally, he never insisted and forced anything on me. He was also busy and did not have time to spare. Initially, there were no dance classes conducted at our home, as the house was very small. He would leave the home daily in the morning and return only late night. It was my mother who took care of us all and she was really a taskmaster. As a father, I remember him calling me `thangachi’ (younger sister). In our families, elders call daughter as `thangachi’ and son as `thambi’ (younger brother) and not by their names. Later, I asked him not to call me so as I did not like it.

As I was not a physically strong person, falling sick a lot many times, I could not be good in sports and other outside activities. But I was compensating in studies, music, dance, drawing and literary activities. I studied in Children Garden School in Mylapore, where appa was teaching Bharathanatyam for some time. I was given prominence in cultural functions. To out-beat others,I waited for my father to come home late night and made him to teach me. He used to teach me some good songs and steps at 11.00 p.m. in the night. Poor soul, after all the hectic rehearsals elsewhere, he would be exhausted and yet did not complain to teach. However, he would teach only once and go to sleep. Next day when he woke up, he would see me practicing seriously and improving further on that. The first song he taught me was “Jayathi jayathi bharathamatha” in Begada, and I got first prize in the first standard by singing this song. He taught me “Thathodaga thaam Pushpanjali” and I used to dance it with my own singing very often in the school. This late night teaching could not go on for long, as we shifted to our own house at Saligramam, a suburb in Chennai. Since it was far off from Mylapore, most of appa’s time went in traveling.

On the other hand, it was advantageous that he started his own dance school by name Kamala Kala Nilayam in 1970, [which was renamed as Rajarathnalaya Bharatha Kalai Koodam by our grandfather Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai ] where I could learn dance with the group in the formal method. By this time, he was no longer working with my grandfather, but had his own students like Anuradha Jagannathan, Jothi, Banu,Vimala Ramanujam, Ramya Harishankar, Charubala, Jayashree and Rajshree Shankaran whom by themselves started having their concerts and thus he became busy again. At this stage, he was also doing nattuvangam and singing for Kanaka Srinivasan, Vyjayanthimala, Komala Varadhan, [Kamala] Radha and others.

This was the period which he took to establish himself on his own. It was also the period when I was very close to him. I still cherish those memories when he used to sing with rare sangathis while travelling from Saligramam to Mylapore. I used to envy people who sat next to him in the bus. After about ten years, he started having a supporting vocalist in his concerts but I would insist that only he should sing some special songs like baro krishnayya, krishna nee begane baro, chinnanchiru kiliye and ragas such as kalyanavasantham, sindhubairavi, karaharapriya, manji [Varugalaamo], devagandhari and suruti.

Nrithya Pillai: I remember thatha (grand father) mostly sitting in the hall on this laid back cane chair and moda (on which we had this kuchi palagai) teaching his students. He was a man filled with music. I remember him singing lullabies in neelambari for me. He used to call me kuttiyamma, and the lullaby used to go this way “ Kuttiyammava yaaradicha”. I never saw any kind of ego or even any kind of awareness that he held possession of so much knowledge. He was very easy to approach. As I was very young then, my memories are restricted.

Did you get to watch his classes closely?

Mrs. Jayakamala and Ms. Nrithya Pillai

Mrs. Jayakamala and Ms. Nrithya Pillai

JK: From the year 1975 onwards, he started getting fame. Students from abroad and other Indian states had started coming, staying and learning from him. From Kerala, many sincere students came. I had the opportunity to see how patiently he taught them. Other than dance, he used to take personal interest to guide them properly for their future. Many Keralites, who came to learn dance for the purpose of entering cinema, got proper guidance from him and went back to their village started teaching this art back home. They were quite successful at this too. He was very much wary of the cine field and, hence, did not want to go for any choreography even when many opportunities knocked his doors, as we were living in the Kollywood area of Saligramam.

How was it to learn from your father?
JK: Until if was eight years of age, my father had time to take me out in the evenings, especially to Vidya Bharathi School where he was teaching Bharathanatyam. I sat for more than three hours to observe and learn. After shifting to Saligramam, seniors like Mrs. Kala Shankar and Mrs. Kamakshi Jayaraman, who were having classes on their own, came to him to learn nattuvangam, teaching techniques and jathis. My mother would not allow me to study if this class was going on. She would push me to this class and my father reluctantly allowed me to sit for this class. But he was surprised to see me pickup the jathis at that early age and this helped me to start teaching the students whenever my father was away for concerts.

Though I was assisting him in teaching and doing nattuvangam since I was 14, I was very much afraid of singing and taking classes when he was present at the class. Once the students leave the class, he would correct me and teach me how to maintain kaala-pramanam and so on. He would never appreciate me on my face, but many a time told his colleagues such as Ms.K.J. Sarasa and others about my potential. She used to tell my mother that he was proud of me as I was good in studies and teaching dance. My father started telling parents that the students would be more comfortable with me to learn as I had more patience than him.

He would take me to music and dance concerts and ask me to put thaala for swaras and jathis. Muthusami Pillai thatha would appreciate me if I put thaala for his jathis without missing. This practice helped appa to compose more jathis with different nadais, for which I was the assistant to continuously follow with thala.

What was his approach to teaching?
JK: He was a man of patience, perseverance and perfection. Many a parent came to him with faith and he strove hard to meet their expectations. There were many instances when the child brought by parent’s compulsion would start loving the art and would not be willing to go home. The famous dancers of today Ms. Vidhya Subramaniam of the U.S. and Priyadharshini Govind have mentioned that they developed interest in dance only due to the excellent teaching methods of my father. I have never seen him scolding any of his students. He would say everything positively. He used phrases like “You can do better if you practice”, “I expect more from you”, “I have broken my head to do this choreography, if you don’t do, my efforts will become waste” to bring out the maximum from his students.

NP: We all remember thatha as a man who never got angry. I was his pet, but then even to his students he would never show anger or disappointment. He was a very patient man. And, he had an openness that you find rarely in teachers. Since was not a performer, he could digest different ways in which students could do the same steps. He was a great Carnatic singer. Yet, he would listen to Ghulam Ali’s Ghazals and make beautiful sangadhis of those numbers. He was a person who was ready for a change.

How was it to learn from your grandfather?
NP: I don’t remember amma or me learning from thatha in a serious teacher- student realationship. We learnt something just by being around him. When I was four, thatha made a recording of pancha nadai on the mridangam. When I, as a toddler, did steps for it, he would run into the kitchen and call ammama, his wife, to come over and watch my antics. He would appreciate me for it. I grew up watching the performances of Malaveeka Sarukkai, Srinidhi Chidambaram, Sujatha Sreenivasan, Priyadharshini Govind and many others when they were learning under thatha. I sang all those songs and danced alongside them in the sabhas while they were dancing on stage. There were times thatha used to make amma put the thalam, while he was choreographing jathis.

I have heard that he altered the choreography to suit his individual students… can you tell us about that?
JK: Students from the U.S., Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Kenya and Canada came to learn from him. They had learnt from other schools and still he could transform them and bring them to his own style without much strain. He would make the class interactive and he preferred individual classes because he choreographed each item according to the capacity of the individual student. Same Annamayya krithi will take different forms when taught for senior dancers like Malavika Sarukkai and other performing dancers of the day. From morning 6 a.m. to night 9 p.m. same Nadhanai azhaithu vaa Kambodhi varnam would be done by different students in different formats. One with flexible limbs would be taught with more mandi adavus; one with more skill in abhinaya would be taught with more sancharis; and one with excellent thaala gnana would be taught with tough jathis with different nadais incorporated.

NP: Yes, we always could see visible differences when he choreographed for different people. He would incorporate more mandi adavus and difficult poses for the students who were better at nritta. He kept in mind the height, the flexibility, strengths and weaknesses of the students before he choreographed. Thatha had this philosophy that “dance offers something for every body”. It is all about emphasizing on one’s strong point and reducing the stress on one’s weak points and finally giving a visually pleasing outcome. If I think about it, thatha’s choreography for Malavika Sarukkai was much more sculpturous compared to the choreoraphy of others. Srinidhi akka’s was more abhinaya-based so on and so forth.

Tell us about your class. How similar and how different are your teaching methods?
JK: I was teaching in my father’s school for more than 15 years under his guidance and supervision. He, as a teacher, would give more freedom for his students to put in their thoughts and creativity into their dance. That was the reason why he could produce maximum number of professional dancers. Likewise, he also gave me freedom to teach in my own way. Whenever there was more than one dancer to be staged, he used to appreciate if I suggest any formation and change of hands etc.

My method is almost similar to his. I don’t try to change much. I have had the opportunity to watch more concerts of other style dancers and this has forced me to adopt certain changes. Still, I guess, I have not deviated from my father’s method. I learnt Bharathanatyam theory from Mrs. Krishnaveni Lakshman and I was fascinated by her way of teaching. I learnt Carnatic music from Dr. S. Ramanathan and all my gurus were known for their excellent teaching. I wish God gives me more energy and patience to learn more and teach more.

It is getting harder by the day to see which parampara a dancer hails from. Dancers seem to borrow the Kalakshetra’s precision, the grace from Vazhuvoor and a few karanas from Bharathanrithyam. What is your take on this blending approach?
JK: If you ask me, I would say all of us hail from Bharathanatyam parampara. My father himself learnt from Vazhuvurar, Tiruvalaputhur Swaminatha Pillai (Mrs. Nirmala Ramachandran’s Guru) and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. Here in Bangalore, many students ask me whether in Vazhuvur style it is compulsory for all the steps to be accompanied by attami (neck movement). I was really surprised. There is no written rule anywhere that this style is like this and the other style is like that. I would welcome this blending approach as long as the final outcome is enjoyable.

NP: I don’t know about thatha or amma on what they think or thought, but I definitely have a different opinion. I don’t give as much importance to style and bhani as some others do. I think everyone has an individual style. One must do what they are best at. I don’t believe in competitions, in saying who is doing better abhinaya or better nritta. I think a dancer’s space has become restricted. We have every one emphasizing on aramandi, footwork, this and that. In the process, one forgets about the soul element. I see many a performance, where the dancers are trained full on, but they lack something. So, when you go back home and think about what you saw, you don’t really remember. I also see some perfect in all aspects, but they create a memory for you to take home. I think it is this that matters.

One more thing is that I feel that dance is a sensuous art form. Do what you may; it is an art where you show your body and form. When some people try to make it clinical it loses its charm. So, I think when you are aware of your body and you know your assets and you know to carry a message to the audience, you are deemed to be a good dancer. It doesn’t really matter which bhani you belong to. In fact, I feel miserable when I see people discussing dancers and calling them as good or bad, or saying someone is unto no good or some one is just great when things are all adjudged based on some very critical standards.

How has guru-shishya relationship changed with years in your view?
NP: I think there is a drastic change in the guru-shishya relationship. If I expected the same kind of respect that thatha’s students offered him, I would be disappointed. But respect in today’s scenario has changed. My students are my friends too. They are my young friends. They are more open in discussing stuff both on dance and beyond. In fact, amma keeps telling me to maintain some kind of professional behavior with my students. But then, I like to have a fun-filled class, which is joyous for both me and the youngsters. Amma follows a more rigid attitude.

JK: During the olden days, i.e. my grandfather’s period, I heard that students had bhaya-bhakthi (bayam – fear, bhakthi- devotion) towards their teachers. In fact, my father never talked to his guru face to face because of that baya bhakthi. In my father’s period, there was bhakthi only. Now, there is neither bhayam nor bhakthi, only friendly relationship. It is good. I feel that respect towards guru and the art is to be insisted, because it is the respect given for the knowledge and experience. To a certain extent, we should follow our tradition. Otherwise, we will forget our roots.

Tell us about others in your family who share a similar interest in the Arts.

JK: Both my brothers were very good singers. My father never encouraged us to come into this field, as he found it very difficult to come up in this field. He was prejudiced, I think, because of his bitter experiences. Later when we were settled with good jobs, he felt the vacuum and he brought my aunt’s grand son i.e. his sister’s daughter’s son Swamimalai Suresh and taught him nattuvangam. He grew in our family as my younger brother and now he is doing his best following my father’s tradition. My daughter Nrithya Pillai is very much interested in this art. My father used to be enthralled by her dancing and singing when she was young. There were times he would call us all from the kitchen and all over the house, for us to see her dancing. She has been awarded a scholarship in dance by her school Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan and has participated in all my group performances in Chennai, Chidambaram, Sirkazhi, Devakottai and other places. She has also given solo performances in Bangalore and Chennai. She writes to news papers and web portals about dance concerts. She has taken up the family tradition of taking dance classes and wishes to do more in this field. Also, my brother’s daughter Madhumitha and my son Arvind are good at singing. I am sure, in the years to come, they will all show more interest in this art form to keep up my father’s name.

What is your advice to upcoming dancers and students?
JK: In today’s world, the very word “advice” is not liked by the youngsters and, therefore, has no relevance. The following are my observations and suggestions for them. Upcoming dancers and students are very talented and capable of catching up things faster. In the process, they should not forget hard work and patience. These two qualities play a major role in bringing out excellence in any art form.

Contact email:

Mrs. Jayakamala Pandiyan:

Ms. Nrithya Pillai-

One response to “The legacy of Swamimalai K. Rajarathnam Pillai lives on…

    I have become an avid reader of ur blog!!!!!!!. A very interesting article ,and a very true and new perspective towards dance teaching methodolgy .


    Thanks Suhasini. I am trying!!!

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