A Sense of Family: Tracing my guru’s family tradition of Tanjavur
For Indians, often one’s family lineage is important information and often a topic of long discussion when introducing oneself. “She is the daughter of so-and-so of such-and-such place. You must have heard of her grandmother. She was the this-or-that there.” For artists, our guru’s lineage becomes a second family tree to trace. With that in mind, I trace my artistic lineage to a particular family of devadasis of the Brihadishwara temple in Tanjavur.
My guru, Pt Venugopal Pillai, is the grandson of devadasi Kantimati amma, a dancer at the Brihadishwara temple in Tanjavur. Tracing his family history proves to be just one interesting tale of how Bharata Natyam traveled far north from its birthplace and firmly established itself there through generations of artists. This is a family whose roots has been traced back 36 generations to the big temple at Tanjavur.
Kantimati amma was sent to Baroda with other dancers and musicians as part of the dowry of the princess of Tanjavur when she was betrothed to the Prince of Baroda in the early 1900’s. There is some rare, albeit fuzzy footage of two Bharata Natyam dancers accompanied by court musicians who play the harmonium, Talam and Muttu (a small mridangam)—instruments that were traditionally used in Sadir.
These artists adapted to their surroundings and created an environment where they could still carry out their tradition without their familiar instruments. Hence, Venugopal’s father, Janardhan Tanjorekar, grew up playing violin in the Baroda court, along with his brother, Kubernath. Their father, Kantimati’s husband, was Appaswamy, a virtuosic nattuvanar who can also be seen in this early footage.
The late Kubernath had been influenced by Hindustani music and studied with the likes of Ustad Faiyyaz Khan, who was also a court musician of Gaekwad. He eventually joined the Dance Dept at MS University in Baroda and was one of the first composers to choreograph Bharata Natyam pieces in Hindi to Hindustani ragas. He also retuned some traditional compositions to his keen aesthetic. Today, his son, Ramesh and his wife Leela still head up an important establishment, Tanjore Dance, Music, and Art Research Center at Baroda. Their two sons, Raju and Ashish, along with their wives, all teach Bharata Natyam at the Center and continue to research and document their roots to Tanjavur.
But the establishment of the Tanjavur tradition in far flung states does not end there. Janardhan moved to Mumbai and began teaching and playing violin for dance. During their tenure in Baroda, the family had changed their last name from the traditional Pillai to Tanjorkar to better align with local names. Janardhan had three sons and five daughters; Venugopal, Kalavati, Dayanand, Manimekalai, Jyoti, Shekhar, Anusuya, and Vidya. Of the eight siblings, the three sons carry on the dance and music tradition.
The oldest son, and my guru, Venugopal, studied with his grandmother, Kantiamma when he was 8 years old. He completed an entire course along with theory of shlokas from her. At that time, it was his father’s insistence that propelled him. When they moved to Mumbai, he again started from the beginning at age fifteen with Subbulaxmi, a teacher in the Malad area of Mumbai. Again, he did not take an interest in dance and was keen on studying radio engineering.
It was during this period that Janardhan became familiar with the work of many of Mumbai’s dancers and musicians since he played for many of them. He particularly was impressed with one Parvati Kumar, who showed a sense of grace in his technique as well as a deep understanding of theoretical knowledge. After a chance meeting with him in 1960, at the age of 20, Venugopal began studying professionally with Parvati Kumar. His father had said there was no one else he would leave him with to do in-depth study.
Parvati Kumar, himself had studied with Chandrashekhar Pillai, who was Venugopal’s mother’s brother. Chandrashekhar was the Bharata Natyam teacher at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mumbai, where Parvati Kumar had attended classes. It is ironic that the dance came full circle from Venugopal’s family to Parvati Kumar, an outsider, and then back to Venugopal. In fact, because of this, Parvati Kumar never charged him fees for his classes during his training.
Today, some members of the next generation of the Pillai/Tanjorkar family are still carrying on their legacy. Here is an update.
Venugopal and Jayshree (also a disciple of Parvati Kumar) have two daughter, Shrruti, a chartered accountant, and Dhwaani, a graphic designer, both continue to dance and teach Bharata Natyam in Mumbai. Both are married and have one son each.
Dayanand has a thriving dance school in Mumbai. His two daughters, Mamta and Lavanya are both flight attendants.
Shekhar took after his father as a violist and is a busy performer and accompanist. He teaches violin and music in Mumbai. His daughter, Madhu, is a homeopathic doctor in the UK and also plays and teaches violin there.
Anusuya’s son, Phoenix Ramdas began as a mridangist and then took to the violin as well. He was taken under the wing of L. Subramaniam for three years. Now he has become a soloist and collaborator who can be seen playing with the likes of Louis Banks.
I feel honored to be a part of this rich family history in some small way and enjoy tracing its lineage. When I perform a movement or piece of choreography, I envision a petite dancer decked in silk and jewels, performing in the dim lamp light of the inner sanctum of the Tanjavur temple. It invokes a deep feeling of familiarity and a sense of family belonging to this great tradition.