news Friday, July 24, 2015 - 05:30


What does a Guru mean? A mentor? A teacher? A guide? A friend? All of these put together? Or someone who is above all these? Nowhere else does one realize the importance of a Guru like it comes forward in the world of traditional art forms. In the world of Indian classical performing arts, more so in music and dance, the Guru holds an exalted status. Someone more than one’s parents, closer than one’s closest friends, revered for their knowledge, loved for their understanding and respected for their wisdom. How important is it to remember your Gurus?

This year, the world of dance lost some iconic Gurus. As we see Guru Purnima, a sacred day to celebrate one’s Guru, it is only proper to remember these Gurus who lit the way for the next generation to take to arts.

Earlier this year the world of Bharatanatyam lost Leela Ramanathan, one of the senior most exponents of the Pandanallur Baani. Leela belonged to an illustrious family from Karnataka. Her grandfather Rajamantra Praveena HV Nanjundiah was the founder-Vice Chancellor of the Mysore University and the Kannada Sahitya Parishat. Her husband Brig K. Ramanathan passed away in a road accident in 1978. In times when it was unknown of girls from ‘good’ families to take to dance, Leela dared to take her training in dance under some of the most legendary Gurus of the 20th century. Kolar Puttappa Pillai, Ram Gopal, Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Muthiah Pillai, Thanjavur Kitappa Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. In those years it was a must for every dancer to learn more than one dance form. If not to perform, it was extremely important to at least gain a good knowledge of the forms. Some of those who trained even became excellent performers in more than one form. Going with the times, Leela trained in Kathakali from the great Chandu Panikar, in Kathak from Gurus Bowri Prasad and Sohanlal and in Orissi from Deba Prasad Das. She joined Ram Gopal’s troupe along with Shevanti and Tara Chaudhri. She toured the world extensively as part of the first cultural delegation set up by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru under the leadership of Mrinalini Sarabhai and later with Ram Gopal.


Leela Ramanathan

She performed, lectured and taught all over India and across North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Australia.  In 1972 she founded the ‘Meenakshi Sundaram Center of Performing Arts’ in Bangalore under the auspices of the East-West Education Trust. She was a prolific writer and researcher in classical Indian dance forms with over 800 articles to her credit and book on the anvil. She served as the President of the Karnataka Nrityakala Parishat and as a member of the Sangeeta Nritya Academy. She was the recipient of numerous awards and in Karnataka. She passed away on March 22 this year. She was 87 years old.

The next Guru who we lost this year was Shyamala Mohanraj. Shyamala was one of the prime disciples of the legendary Thanjavur Balasaraswati. She was an expert in the Thanjavur and Pandanallur Baani of Bharatanatyam. As a specialist in Abhinayam, Shyamala retained the essence of what her Guru taught her. Shyamala was born in 1941 into a family of teachers that had migrated to Sri Lanka. As a child, seeing her interest in dance, her father got her to Madras and put her under the tutelage of Balasaraswati. The training that began then, continued all the way till the Guru’s demise. In addition to dance, Shyamala taught Botany for many years, was an expert in Yoga and studied the Vastu Shastra under the guidance of great Gurus like Ganapathy Sthapathi. Last December music season, we got to get a glimpse of Shyamala’s outstanding Abhinayam in a short performance she gave in a festival curated by Prof Hari Krishnan from Wesleyan University.


Shyamala Mohanraj

On her demise Prof Hari Krishnan said, “Shyamala’s passing is a genuine loss to the world of Bharatanatyam. The last of her kind- an original artist, who so effortlessly excelled in portraying such complex interpretations of text, movement and music.” Even in Chennai, it was a rarity to see Shyamala perform. Shy, reticent and forever smiling, Shyamala was a walking-talking encyclopedia of the Balasaraswati style of dance. She never had any airs about herself and her achievements sat lightly on her shoulders. Shyamala passed away on July 14th this year. She was 74 years old.

A week ago the world of Bharatanatyam lost yet another senior Guru. Mrs Jayalakshmi Alva in Mangalore. Jayalakshmi was born in Kumbakonam in 1933 into a family of artistes. Her sister K V Janaki was a well-known singer and her grandfather was a Yakshagana Guru. She developed a keen interest in dance at a very early age. She became the first student of the legendary Nattuvanar Guru Dandayudhapani Pillai and made her official debut in 1948. She also trained under Gurus Swarna Saraswati and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. Along with her training in Bharatanatyam, she took training in Kathakali from Guru Karunakar Panikar. She set up her own dance school ‘Chitrambalam Dance Center’ in Bombay in 1959. Marriage made her shift from Bombay to Ahmedabad, where she taught Mrinalini Sarabhai’s ‘Darpana Academy’ for a while. One of her star students during that period was the Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer Sonal Mansingh. Later even film actress Waheeda Rehman trained in dance under Jayalakshmi’s mentoring.


Jayalakshmi Alva

Jayalakshmi’s husband Ramakrishna, who was inspired by Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra had ideas to make another such space. They moved to Mangalore. The sudden demise of her husband cut short those ambitious plans and Jayalakshmi decided to spend the rest of her life in Mangalore. She founded the ‘Sridevi Nritya Kendra’ in 1974. From then on, Jayalakshmi’s efforts literally created a ‘Mangalore Gharana’ of Bharatanatyam. She trained scores of students, among who some like Bangalore-based Poornima Gururaj have made a name for themselves as expert dancers and Gurus. Jayalakshmi’s own daughter Aarathi Shetty and granddaughter Saathvika continue her legacy. She passed away on July 22. She was 81 years old.


At a time when it was considered a social taboo for girls from good families to take to dance, these three women dared to break stereotypes. All of them faced tough situations in life and yet decided to spend their lifetime in service of their art. They established institutions and imparted their knowledge to scores of students. Despite the fact that they did not receive any big national awards like the Padma awards from the State, they kept at their work, not discouraged till their dying day.  They silently inspired everyone around them through their work. They were strong women and achievers in their field. One can find a lot of teachers, but finding a Guru is rare. These three women were excellent examples of an ideal Guru for our generation. Their demise is not just a loss for Bharatanatyam but the world of Indian arts. As we look ahead to another Guru Purnima in the coming days, let us remind ourselves the importance of a Guru. If you have a real Guru who can keep you inspired, consider yourself extremely fortunate.

Images courtesy : Veejay Sai, Malavika Harita, Lalita Venkat 

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi)