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Bharatanatyam’s Pandanallur link

Meenakshisundaram Pillai is credited with having re-imaged the margam for the modern stage

As part of its celebrating 75 years of Independence, Kalakshetra Foundation has named an avenue in its campus after Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, the revered guru who made the temple town of Pandanallur synonymous with Bharatanatyam. Meenakshisundaram Pillai (1869-1954) was a simple man who came to Madras at the invitation of E. Krishna Iyer, founder-secretary of the Music Academy. In the early 1930s, he created history by conducting the dance recital of two young girls, Rajalakshmi and Jeevarathnam, known as the Tiruvalapputhur Kalyani daughters.

Young Jeevaratnamala, Bharatanatyam dancer with T.K. Swaminatha Pillai and Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai. | Photo Credit: Photo: LAKSHMI VISWANATHAN

He did not know that in the audience was seated the 30-year-old theosophist Rukmini Devi, who was mesmerised by the performance. To realise her dream of becoming a dancer, she approached him to teach her and it was then that she sowed the seeds for Kalakshetra.

Meenakshisundaram Pillai belonged to the lineage of the Thanjai Nalvar or Thanjavur Quartet, who were patronised by the Maratha kings of Thanjavur. Such an illustrious ancestry brought with it expertise not only in dance but also in music. Besides singing, Meenakshisundaram could play the veena, mridangam, and other instruments. He had a flair for languages and was fluent in Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu and Malayalam. He also had deep knowledge of the Natya Shastra. He had mastered nattuvangam under Mahadeva Nattuvanar II, the son of Sivanandam, the most prolific composer of the Thanjavur Quartet.

Master of his craft and a composer too, Meenakshisundaram Pillai was guru to several well-known court dancers. He made the transition from temple and royal palace to the modern stage with his extraordinary artistic abilities and vision. A colossus of the 20th century world of dance, he left his stamp on every aspect of the art.

Among those who honed their skills under him were Pandanallur Chockalingam and Subbaraya Pillai, Muthiah, Gopalakrishnan and Swaminathan Pillai, also from Pandanallur, Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai and Karaikkal Dandayudhapani Pillai. The repertoire he inherited from his ancestors and popularised was enriched by his own compositions. To this day, these formidable pada varnams, jathiswarams, thillanas, and padams are the treasures of Bharatanatyam. Meenakshisundaram Pillai, in fact, is believed to have re-imaged the Bharatanatyam margam for the modern stage.

His talent lay especially in composing intricate nritta with adavu patterns in various talas to enhance the beauty of the old varnams. They have stood the test of time and continue to define what can be best described as the ‘classic’ repertoire.

Rukmini Devi with the guru. | Photo Credit: Photo: Lakshmi Viswanathan

Meenakshisundaram Pillai, popularly known as thatha, generously shared the subtlest and most profound nuances of a complex art with innumerable students who were drawn to him. But city life was not for him. His heart was in his home, with his extended family. He conducted his gurukulam from his house close to the Pasupatheeswara Shiva temple in Pandanallur.

His students such as Rukmini Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Ram Gopal, Shanta Rao, and, more importantly, Jayalakshmi of an earlier era, carried the Pandanallur flag to the international stage.

Strength and clarity of line, combining grace with precise footwork and movement, and musicality were the hallmarks of his distinct style. He brought the essence of a great tradition to Kalakshetra, where he stayed for a while and taught. The tree of knowledge that he planted was nurtured with love and reverence by Rukmini Devi.

The writer is a veteran Bharatanatyam artiste.

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