By Veejay Sai
Carnatic vocalist Radha Viswanathan effortlessly recollects each and every detail about her guru Natyacharya Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai as if it happened last week, even though she stopped dancing more than half a century ago.
It may be fair to say that Ramiah Pillai found fertile ground in his first students Radha and Anandhi to finetune his teaching methods and technique. The guru wouldn’t have been a guru if he didn’t get a first student to teach. With Radha and Anandhi, he was able to prove his prowess as a guru. By the time Baby Kamala and others followed, Ramiah Pillai had his technique strongly established, thanks to the many untiring hours he spent grooming his first students.
During the last December season, the Natya Kala Conference held at Krishna Gana Sabha celebrated the bicentenary of Tanjavur Vadivelu without displaying his portrait on the stage. Musicologist B.M. Sundaram pointed that out at the opening of his speech. The other event the conference celebrated was the centenary of natyacharya Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. A whole host of Vazhuvoor school alumni gathered for the event. But once again the Natyacharya’s first and foremost students, Radha Viswanathan and Anandhi’s names were left unmentioned and almost overlooked in the proceedings.
Radha lives a peaceful retired life with her younger son Shrinivasan at Bangalore. For her, the memory of her guru lives on. Her right hand that kept the talam in countless MS concerts is now struck by paralysis, but a couple of years ago, she did abhinaya for Kalki’s ‘Malai pozhudhinile’ sitting in a wheelchair, at the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana. Tears are unavoidable as you watch her performance on a Youtube video posted by her son. Every time she hears an old tune, her face glows with a smile.
In an interview with Veejay Sai, Radha Viswanathan fondly remembers her guru during his centenary.
The first contact with the guru
I was six years old when Appa (T Sadasivam) came to me and said I must learn dance. He said I must start learning from guru Ramiah Pillai of Mayavaram. My guru came home and fixed a date and time from when he would come and teach me bharatanatyam.
First he started with footwork. This went on for many days, almost a month. He insisted on perfect footwork and we came to hand gesturing much later. After three to four years, my cousin Anandhi joined as his second student and our classes became more regular. After almost six months of basic footwork he began working with us on an alarippu, just as in music, the first six to eight months we learnt was the sarali and janta varisais. The next lessons in dance were sabdams. It wasn’t before a whole year that we reached the stage of a varnam.
We had classes on alternate days and this went on for many years. Amma (MS) came and observed. She never taught dance but asked us to follow whatever Vazhuvooraar taught us in our lessons. After he left I would continue my practice for a long time. If you don’t practise music for a day or two you can manage, but with dance, you have to practise everyday. That is what we did.
Our arangetram was organized by Appa at Mylapore on 13 April, the Tamil new year’s day.
I was 13. Anandhi and I alternated in the evening. One of us opened with alarippu and the other did jatiswaram. We performed sabdam and varnam the same way. For abhinaya, I did a line and she did another and in the tillana we did that once again. Together we performed ‘Natanam aadinar’, ‘Aduvome pallu paduvome’, ‘Malaipozhudinile’ and other pieces. For ‘Taye Yasoda’ we received two rounds of applause.
The Vazhuvoor teaching bani
Basically he was a very nice person. He wasn’t one of those gurus who would scold or beat. He was always very encouraging. Also he didn’t dance himself so he was a real guru in the original sense. The student didn’t have to compete with him, unlike these days!
At the age of twenty two, I decided to give up dance. From the time I was four, I had been singing with my mother. I was singing, dancing, acting in films and attending school as well. This got very hectic and I took a strong decision to stick to my singing. I told Vazhuvooraar and he gracefully accepted my decision. By then he also became busy as a teacher of several other students.
Balasaraswati was staying four houses away from ours. She was great friends with my mother and others in the family. Once I requested her to teach me and she took time out from her already busy schedule and taught me a Surdas bhajan ‘Poochat Shyam kaun tum gori’, which I danced later in Calcutta. It was a new experience for me to do bharatanatyam to a Surdas bhajan. Bala was a tough taskmaster and her style was not just different but also very difficult for me. But in the end she was very happy with the outcome.
MS and her role
Amma used to dance for ‘Taye Yasoda’. Those photos of her dancing appeared in Kalki magazine’s Deepavali issue. I think she learnt it from my guru. She also learnt songs from him which she popularized. For all abhinaya pieces Amma sang.
Moral support from the guru
We made arrangements for him and he came to Delhi when I danced before Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Later he also attended when I performed at the Bangalore town hall, Bombay and several other places. We performed in places in Tamil Nadu like Mayavaram and Coimbatore and at some weddings. Even when we were shooting in films, he made sure he was present in the shooting. He personally corrected hand positions and gestures and sometimes even walked into the set.