Birth Centenary of K. P. Kittappa Pillai

Thanjavur K. P. Kittappa Pillai was born in May 5th 1913, marking 2013 as his Birth Centenary. He was named “Sabapathi” by his parents, most probably in honor of his great-grandfather (from his father’s side) Sabapathi Nattuvanaar; the latter was “Tanjore Quartette” Sivanandam’s son. Sabapathi’s nickname was Kittappa, and got more popular. B M Sundaram in his biography notes that some mistook Kittappa as a shortened version for Krishnamurthy Pillai! [1]

It is a fact that K. P. Kittappa Pillai was actually trained as a vocalist and not as a nattuvanaar, initially. While he is a direct descendant of the Tanjore Quartette, who were disciples of Muthuswamy Dikshitar, he learnt from Syama Sastri’s grandson, Natesa Sastri. Although he was trained in mridangam, nattuvangam and singing, he was known as a vocalist in his earlier days and he concentrated on his singing. His gave vocal concerts with his cousin, Narayanaswamy and became quite popular as the “Singing Twins” (பாட்டு இரட்டையர்). After the untimely death of his cousin Narayanaswamy and in the same year, his father Sangita Kalanidhi T K Ponnaiah Pillai, in 1945 he stopped giving kutcheris. It was at a later point of time, he took up nattuvangam again and trained a galaxy of dancers and dance gurus. [1]

Myth to to corrected: Many confuse T K Ponnaiah Pillai with the Ponnaiah of the Tanjore Quartette brothers, although they are related! 

As B M Sundaram notes, many considered him as the next Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai aka “Thatha” (தாத்தா) and I think it would be an understatement to say that he left a great impact in Bharatanatyam. Thus, it is fitting that a postal cover on him was released early last month, on his birth date,  in Thanjavur in a grand ceremony with many gurus in attendance.

Image courtesy:

Image courtesy: Rainbow Stamp Club

Some news coverage of the event can be read here, here and here. Read the moving tribute to him by dancer Narthaki Natraj, here.

Speaking of tradition Kittappa Pillai had said [5]

The classical arts are based on two things: the shastras (texts) and the sampradayam(tradition), Without being kept alive by sampradayam the shastras are not of much use. It is sampradayam which recreates and breathes life into the knowledge of the shastras generation after generation.

How True!

Talking about master gurus, Gowri Ramnarayan says [6]

The greatest strength of the nattuvanars was their exposure to the best music of their day, especially the mellow nagaswaram….And if you had heard Kittappa Pillai sing the rare jatiswaram in Chakravakam for Sucheta Chapekar, you knew half her battle was won with his rendering of it.

Apart from heading the music and dance departments at Annamalai University and Tamil University, Thanjavur, he has authored the following books (I might have missed other publications!): [7]

  1. Adi Bharata Kala Manjari. ed. K.P. Kittappa and K.P. Sivanandam. Madras: Natyalaya, 1964.
  2. The Dance Compositions of the Tanjore Quartet. ed. K.P. Kittappa and K.P. Sivanandam. Ahmedabad: Darpana Publications, 1961.
  3. Nattiyap Pattisai: Tancai Sarapendhira Bhupala Kuravanji. ed. K.P. Kittappâ and Nana Kulentiran. Tanjavur: Tamil Palakalaikkalakam, 1994
  4. Tanjai Nalvarin Nartiya Icai ed. K.P. Kittappa Pillai and Nandini Ramani. Chennai: The Music Academy, 1999.
  5. Tanjai Peruvutayan Pericai. ed. K.P. Kittappa. 1940.
  6. Bharata Isaiyum Tanjai nalvarum. ed. K. P. Kittappa. Dept. of Music. Tamil University. 1993.
  7. Ponnayya Mani Malai, ed. K. P. Kittappa and K. P. Sivanandam. Chidambaram: Published by S. Ratnaswamy Chettiar. 1992.
  8. Javalis of Sri Chinnayya. ed. K. P. Kittappa. Bangalore. Ponnayya Natyasala. 1979 

As mentioned above, K P Kittappa Pillai was a direct descendant of the Tanjore Quartette, and his family had privileges in the Thanjavur Brihadeeshwara Temple. Dance scholar Davesh Soneji mentions that [7] (Hat Tip: Minai)

To this day, male members of K.P. Kittappa’s family must be present to play the cymbals (talam) during the Arudra festival (Tiruvaatirai in December-January) as the image of Nataraja is taken on procession.

An anecdote recounted by his disciple Srividya Natarajan gives a glimpse of his character [8]  (Hat Tip: Minai)

About eight years ago, his students spent the night around a radio set, waiting for the announcement of the names of those aboard the Kanishka from Canada that had crashed into the sea, because we knew he had been booked on that flight. It turned out that the mridangam vidwan had got lost on his way to the airport at the Canada end; Kittappa ruled out the idea of travelling without him, because it was discourteous (“we went as a group, we must come back as a group”) and because the mridangist was particularly incapable of coping on his own with the protocols of international travel. At the expense of convenience, time and money, Kittappa’s troupe had been rebooked on the next flight. [Hyperlink added by me]

A true artist, who will remain in the hearts of his disciples for a long time!


  1. Pg 117 from Marapu Vali Bharata Peraasangal by B M Sundaram, Meyyappan Tamilayvakam, 2002
  7. Performing Satyabhāmā : text, context, memory and mimesis in Telugu-speaking South India, Davesh Soneji, 2004
  8. Another Stage in the Life of the Nation: Sadir, Bharatanatyam, Feminist Theory, Srividya Natarajan, 1997
  9. Development of sadir in the court of Raja Serfoji-II (1798-1832) of Tanjore, Radhika V.S, 1996.

One response to “Birth Centenary of K. P. Kittappa Pillai

  1. Hello. Surely, you mean the Tanjore Quartet. 🙂

    Oops! Mea Culpa. Thanks for pointing it out. Made the corrections 🙂

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