Gurupaadhaabhyaam – a Tillana in Natabhairavi – S. Jayachandran

Dear BN&WWW readers,

This is the second article by Shri. S. Jayachandran who is a dancer, dance-scholar, and an excellent orator. Read his first article “Is Dance Spiritual?” in case you missed it.  BN&WWW is thankful and honored to Shri. S. Jayachandran for sharing with us his writings.

BN rasikas are familiar with the Natabhairavi tillana from the Kalakshetra staple. Also, many would recollect that this tillana, in praise of Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale, ruffled some feathers. While it was well-known that Rukmini Devi was against performing to any composition that was in praise of a mortal (kings and patrons of the art), she however choreographed this tillana and many of her students have performed it in her presence.

BN students, outside Kalakshetra and learning in the Kalakshetra style/bani may have wondered the contradictory image this tillana presents. Well, there is a logical interpretation to it and hoping that this post will be an eye-opener. 

Gurupaadhaabhyaam – an interpretation of the sahityam of the tillana in Natabhairavi

Image courtesy: Kalakshetra Quarterly Vol 8, Issue 3-4.

Image courtesy: Kalakshetra Quarterly Vol 8, Issue 3-4.

Way back on 6th January 1936, the International Academy of Arts, Adayar was started  by Smt.Rukmini Devi Arundale under the able support of Dr.George Sydney Arundale who was her guide, philosopher and her life partner. The institute was later renamed as Kalakshetra [1] by the great Sanskrit scholar, Pandit S.Subramania Sastri. The term literally means the ‘the sacred abode of Arts’. Kalakshetra as an institute offers kala [2] (Art/knowledge system) to the society. Since any significant offering is considered to be a ‘yagna’ (offering); and the site where the yagna happens becomes the ‘kshetra’ or the sacred abode, International Academy of Arts is rightfully called as ‘Kalakshetra’ because it is the place where the Arts or knowledge system is offered to the young minds and through kala inquiry on the humanity is done and through this process knowledge on reality is acquired mostly from a knowableist point of view. From the words of Smt.Rukmini Devi,

“Kalakshetra is an institution not merely for the development of art. It exists in order that youth may be educated, not to become artists alone, but to have the right attitude to life, the right attitude to art, in order that they may be of great service to our country”

So from the words of Smt.Rukmini Devi it is clear that the aim of her offering is not just to create artistes but to create good human beings and worthy citizens who can offer their service to our country, vis-à-vis the world. For such a yagna to effectively continue certain pratignyas or promises/objects are decided and inculcated as part of the extended work, which would eventually lead to the desired phala (fruit). The pratignyas or the Objectives of Kalakshetra are,

  1. To emphasize the essential Unity of all true Arts
  2. To work for the recognition of the Arts as vital to individual, national, religious and international growth; and
  3. To provide for such activities as may be incidental to the above objects

It becomes quite vital to recollect the fact that Smt.Rukmini Devi was a Theosophist and a close associate of Dr.Annie Besant and was trained and mentored by Dr.Besant in more than one way. The sense of looking at the world with a larger perspective and working for higher causes of the humanity has become part of this invaluable mentoring. The work of any Theosophist in its subtlest sense was focused towards universal brotherhood. The International institute of Arts, Adayar has such a matrix of thought and inspiration behind it and Smt.Rukmini Devi invited many luminaries in the field of dance and music to be part of her mission. Smt. Rukmini Devi says that “my chief ideal is not to have buildings, but work”. The hereditary professional musicians and dancers were enrolled as teachers of Kalakshetra. The institute had the blessing of having the great masters as their illustrious faculty members. They taught and composed music, dance, drama and craft.

As an institution, Kalakshetra has many priced possession of invaluable music and dance compositions. The institute has inherited many music and dance compositions from the traditional musicians, musicologists, vaggekaras, nattuvanars, devadasis, and from Smt.Rukmini Devi, the founder of the institute. Some of them composed certain compositions during the time when they offered services in Kalakshetra during special occasions [3]. There is a musical composition, Devi Vasante, a keertanai in raga vasanta done by the great doyenne Papanasam Sivan [4] in praise of Dr.Annie Besant. The composer heaps encomiums on Dr.Besant’s life, philosophy and the Brahma gnana sabha. There is another keertanai, arumtava munivargal arugone in ragam valaci, taalam aadi composed by Papanasam Sivan. This composition is in praise of Dr.George Sydney Arundale’s life and work. Smt.Rukmini Devi allowed both the keertanai in praise of her mentors to be sung by the staff and students of Kalakshetra.

Image Courtesy: Kalakshetra Archvies (Prof. CV Chandrasekhar is seen on the extreme right)

Image Courtesy: Kalakshetra Archvies (Prof. CV Chandrasekhar is seen on the extreme right)

It was during one of the birthdays of Smt.Rukmini Devi Arundale, that Veenai Sri. Krishnamachariar composed a tillana in ragam natabhairavi, which was offered as an invaluable gift on her birthday. As per the anecdotes documented by periya Sharada teacher it is said that the dance composition for this tillana was taught by Smt.Rukmini Devi to one of her early pupil Anjali Hora for her arangetral [5]. Since then the tillana has become one of the hallmark compositions from the portals of Kalakshetra and has been performed by many staff and students of the institute. The natabhairavi tillana being a priced possession of Kalakshetra, was generally taught to competent students who has the capacity to bequeath the beauty and the preciousness of this music-dance composition.

If one happens to witness a Bharatanatyam kuccheri [6] by one of the alumnus of Kalakshetra it is quite possible that the artiste would end the kuccheri with the tillana in raga natabhairavi.  The text of the tillana is as follows,

Ee vasudhalo Bharata sastramulu
Prabala parachutakai Kalakshetramunu
Ve vegame poonikato sthapinchi palinchu Rukmini Devi
Neevanti karunya sheeluralevaruledanuchu madilona talaci
E vagalanaina na vyatha teerchi manamu kapadutuvani vacchiti

The meaning of the tillana can be understood as – To spread and popularise Bharata sastra on this earth with eagerness and determination Rukmini Devi, you established and nurtured Kalakshetra. I am sure in my mind that it is hard to come by another with compassion like you. Remove my restlessness I come to you for protection and patronage [7].

Generally the program notes would read that, this composition is in ‘praise’ of Smt.Rukmini Devi’s life and contribution and her compassion to start Kalakshetra in order to save the reputation of the down trodden artistes. On the other hand it is opined by the living senior associates of Smt.Rukmini Devi that she was never appreciative of the idea of composing praise poems on mortals, be it kings, patrons, connoisseurs or heroes. She herself has reflected this idea in her writings, interviews and lectures. But at prima facie the situation of the natabhairavi tillana sounds contradictory that one who vetoed the idea of mortal praise has allowed a praise poem to be written on her and allowed that to be offered to her mortal being, that too on her birthday? To top it all, the compeering notes would read that the dance composition was done by Smt.Rukmini Devi, which many modern minds have interpreted that she has composed the tillana in praise of ‘herself’. On a shallow note the keertanai in ragam vasanta, ragam valaci and tillana in ragam natabhairavi can easily be misunderstood to be nara stutis, or poems in praise of mortals.

Are these compositions in praise of the life and contribution of these personalities? At the superficial level, the answer is a deceptive yes. These compositions are seemingly in praise of Dr.Annie Besant, Dr.George Sydney Arundale and Smt.Rukmini Devi Arundale respectively, but little one can understand that it is not in praise of a personality but in praise of their trait of wisdom, the lineage of seekers and the praise endowed to the path of the great teachers, great acharyas, Param Guru and their Guru parampara [8]. Being mentored by Dr.Besant and Dr.Arundale, Smt.Rukmini Devi comes from a lineage of abhyasis(seekers) who offer their respects to source of any knowledge system, even be it from one’s own-self, as it is quite clear that knowledge that springs from oneself does not come from the sthoola sharira, the gross body but emulates itself only from the sukshma sharira, the subtle body. Any true teaching or learning happens only through subtle body but not through the gross-self. Smt.Rukmini Devi composed dance for a text that praises the paada of the acharya parampara, the foot-prints in the path where the lineage of thought and wisdom has left its traces but not ‘herself’ though. She realized that the tillana is Gurupaadaabhya or that which is offered in the sacred feet of the Supreme Guru and his parampara or lineage. At one level it is a very artistic, aesthetically balanced dance composition while in another level it is an offering to the path she has treaded or rather she chose to tread.

Smt.Rukmini Devi allowed praise poems to be sung on Dr.Besant not from the point of view of a mortal teacher. To Smt.Rukmini Devi, Dr.Besant represents the path of the great acharyas who walked on this earth. Smt.Rukmini Devi  was little bothered to offer praises on the gross body of Dr.Besant but she was more bothered about, the subtle body which has assumed the mortal form of her mentor who disseminated commentaries on Upanishad, Gita, Brahma Sutra and many more sacred texts of the country. There is no genesis and annihilation for the subtle body. It has no source and end, neither in space nor in time. One moves and dances through the subtle body only. So if someone offers respects to the acharyas they accept it with humility, because they are well aware of the fact that the praise is not to them but to the lineage of the parampara and the collective motive which the parampara has on the earth to spread the word of wisdom and help the humanity to unravel the secretive nature of universal truth.

According to the western beliefs, wisdom is like a tree with branches of various streams of knowledge sprouting from the main trunk of the universal tree. Interestingly, according to Indian belief system, the cosmos is an inverted asvatta tree [9], with roots ever expanding in the space while its branches grow within the surface of the earth and manifest as living and non-living beings. As in any other tree the roots are not visible. The roots are buried within the space and time, but ever expanding in its contour. The visible part of the tree is the trunk and super structure which are its branches. The flora and fauna in the world are part of this cosmic representation where the aerial roots from the branches of this cosmic asvatta tree grow vertically towards the space as streaks of wisdom and knowledge. The branches and life on it is collectively called as vasudha. As we know all the branches comes from the same parent tree, it is said that the all the branches belong to the same family which is said in Upanishad as ‘vasudeiva kutumbakam’. It is quite befitting to symbolize knowledge system with an ever expanding Banyan tree. The physical banyan tree is rightly the causal symbol for the same subtle thought. The banyan tree has become more or less synonymous with Kalakshetra.

When the composer says ‘ee vasudhalo’ it means that, in this earth, branch, or stream of thought, in order to the save the shrouded branch called bharata shastra, which is hidden beneath many other branches of study, O the gardener, the tender of the tree of Knowledge, please render your support for this branch of knowledge to grow. This could only be possible for a person of your caliber and compassion. Please give a new leash of life for the birds and beings perched on this branch and save us from the onslaught of ruins. It is quite interesting that Sri Krishnamachriar is addressing this concern to a gardener, to a protector, to a mother equipped with tools of goodness, polity and aesthetics with her. She is a person bestowed with goodness as a trait, logic behind her educational planning and aesthetics as her mode of execution. One observes that the gist of the pratignya of the yagna mentioned earlier which is called as the ‘Objects of Kalakshetra’ is condensed into the carana sahityam of this tillana. The text more or less reflects the idea behind the yagna, the kshetra and the pratignya in its entirety.

To people like Dr.Annie Besant and Smt.Rukmini Devi life on earth are roots growing towards the sky. The roots grow in search of space and time and finally want to merge with the spacio-temporal expanses of the cosmos. They believed in creating ambiance for the work they do. For Smt.Rukmini Devi and the team of founders of the institute, establishing a center of knowledge dissemination is not just an activity of establishing a school. The founders were gardeners of new ideas both in physical and subtle sense. The distinction is subtle but very objective, very definitive.  Even given a barren piece of land close to the ocean, the early associates of Kalakshetra who gave their life and spirit to the institute has converted the land into a man-made forest filled with a mystical ambiance where nature becomes an apparent teacher, a very obvious instructor. To her, developing nature is a true gift to the masters. Being friendly to the flora and fauna is a true tribute to the knowledge system of this country. The staapana (establishment) of Kalakshetra is not just the staapana of the institute but also being courteous enough to nature around us.

This is the kind of knowledge system to which Smt.Rukmini Devi was trying pay her ode to. The idea being that whatever sanctified space which is created under the branches of the banyan tree has to expand to every corner of the world to re-establish universal brotherhood. The tillana in natabhairavi on a physical level may refer to an educational institute where dance, music and visual arts are taught but in its core idea it reflects to all activity of humanitarian value, as the founder says that her interest lies in not just creating artistes but good citizens of the country vis-à-vis the world. The composition is an ode to the sacred paada of the Guru parampara in the bharata varsha. The tillana in natabhairavi composed by Veena Krishnamachariar is a priceless gem offered as Gurupaadhaabhya in its sense and stands as a testimony for a true and a timeless prayer of any genuine seeker in past, present and future.


[1] kala (skt. Arts or knowledge system), kshetra (skt. sacred abode)

[2] The term kala can also refer to knowledge system. The term causatikala or 64 kala not necessarily refers to 64 arts but it can be better understood if one can translate it as 64 streams of knowledge system.

[3] The kritis such as Sri Harivallabhe in raagam suddhadhanyasi, Devi  Rame in vasanta, Devi kamalaalaye in raagam garudadwani, Sri mahalakshmi in raagam paras, Varalakshmi in raagam gowrimanohari are composed  by the doyenne Mysore Vasudevachar (1865-1961) during one of the navaratri celebrations at Kalakshetra. The information regarding the compositions were given by Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma, a senior classical vocalist, composer, musician and a nattuvanar who served Kalakshetra for 24 years during Smt.Rukmini Devi’s life time.

[4] Sangita Kalanidhi Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973) served as a the Principal of Kalakshetra. He has also composed music for Kalakshetra dance dramas such as Kannappar Kuravanji, Andal Caritram, Krishnamari Kuravanji etc.

[5] In the contemporary context the term ‘arangetral’ refers to a maiden performance of a dance pupil presented formally by the dance teacher. For more detailed account on the term in the early tamil culture refer arangetru kadai of cilappadikaram by Ilangovadigal. The term also has a ritualistic context attached to it in the families of traditional practitioners of dance, music, drama, story-telling, theatre and other performing arts. From the context of Kalakshetra arangetral also refers to graduation from the studies,

[6] Kuccheri as a term is said to have its origin in Marati and in general the term is used to refer to any form of spectacle or presentation, which involves dance, music, theatre, rhetoric etc.

[7] Kalakshetra Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 3-4. Pg. 96.

[8] The word parampara in Sanskrit refers to lineage, tradition, descendant etc. In tamil the term paran refers to the oldest traceable male in the lineage and the term paraa or parai refers to the consort of paran. So the lineage from paran and paraa/parai vis-à-vis the oldest traceable couple of the lineage is called as paramparai (tam.). For this reason Lord Shiva is called as aadiparan(tam.) or the primeval paran and his consort is called as paraashakti or the paraa who is manifested as Shakti.

[9] Uurdhva-muulam adhah-saakham asvattam praahur avyayam | chandamsi yasya parnaani yas tam veda sa veda-vit || – Srimad Bhagavadgita, Chapter 15, Text 1. It is said that there is an imperishable banyan tree that has its roots upwards and its branches down and whose leaves are the Vedic hymns. One who knows this tree is the knower of Vedas.

About S. Jayachandran:

Shri. S. Jayachandran

Shri. S. Jayachandran

Jayachandran underwent his initial training of Bharatanatyam under Smt.Meera Narayanan and Sri.Gopinathan. Later his dancing skills were honed by Smt.Leela Samson, Prof.C.V.Chandrashekar and Smt.Jaya Chandrashekar and Smt.Bragha Bessell. Jayachandran is a Engineering graduate, majored in Electronics and Communication. He also did his Diploma is Saiva Siddhanta and under graduation in History, Masters in History  and Heritage Management and Masters in Indian philosophy. He has done considerable amount of research on the Saivaite sthalam Tiruvarur and has presented several papers on the same. Few of his papers were ‘Tiruvarur sthalam as interpreted in Smt.Rukmini Devi’s choreographic works’, ‘Brahmotsavam of Tiruvarur’, ‘Feminine Narrative – Devi – Core and Concept’, ‘Manmata – as interpreted in mythology, philosophy and art’ and ‘Significance of temple in the society – past and present’, ‘Drushti – a traditional perspective of a stapathi’, ‘Sri Nataraja in South Indian worship and literature’, ‘Iconogrpahy as an input to dance’, ‘Male dancing tradition in India’. His paper ‘Tiruvarur sthalam as interpreted in Smt.Rukmini Devi’s choreographic works’ has won him the best lecture-demonstration award from the Music Academy for the December Music Season 2008. His paper on ‘Architecture and Choreography – a comparative analysis’ has been featured in the web–site He has presented a lecture on ‘Natanam aadinar – When light moves’ as a part of Natyakala Conference, December 2012.

He is also a Bharatanatyam artiste who has done many solo shows to his credit. He has been helping various dancers with his technical, artistic and philosophical inputs whenever required. Jayachandran continues to research, write papers, teach and lecture on subjects of his interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s