An ode to guru Dhandayuthapani Pillai

On Dhandayuthapani Pillai’s birth centenary, remembering the doyen whose compositions have enriched the Bharatanatyam repertoire

The day I first met guru Dhandayuthapani Pillai remains etched in my memory. I was six years old. My parents had been wanting me to train under him. And when they succeeded, they thought I was blessed to be his disciple.

When I walked into his school, Natya Kalalayam, I was ushered in by Natanam sir and a few dance teachers. Then came vathiyar (his disciples referred to him as that), dressed immaculately. He had the undeniable aura of a celebrated guru. From day one, I hero-worshipped him. I cherished every moment learning from him and always tried to earn his appreciation.

He would always be walking around class, overseeing our practice or rehearsal.

To me, Natya Kalalayam was a second home. The green uniform, the evening classes, the Sunday morning theory session, it was all an integral part of my growing up years. The place was always buzzing with activity and vathiyar was constantly surrounded by dancers, musicians and disciples. Apart from his exemplary teaching, he had an excellent full bench orchestra. Yogam Santhanam, Abirami Rajan and Suryakala on the vocals, Karaikudi Krishnamurthy on the mridangam, Rao on the flute, Rammurthy on the harmonium, and Venkatraman on the violin. Apart from this large team of musicians, the inimitable M. L. Vasanthakumari would visit often, especially during his famous composing sessions.

Guru Dhandayuthapani Pillai was extremely gifted; he could compose and choreograph spontaneously. These sessions would go on for hours with poets like Puthaneri Subramaniam also joining in.

Vathiyar’s compositions of jathiswarams, varnams, thillanas, padams, keerthanams and dasavataram have added immensely to the Bharatanatayam repertoire, and are still popular. I particularly wish to mention his Abhogi varnam, ‘Annaiyai Maraven Adi’, that he created for his young students. It is about the invaluable role parents play in the life of a child. The beautiful keerthanam ‘Navarasa Nilaiye’ highlights the nine rasas through the story of the Ramayana. The padam ‘Ulagam pugazhum’ describes the glory of Bharatanatyam. The Sodasha alarippu describes in detail the temple upacharas — there cannot be a Bharatanatyam dancer today who has not performed his compositions.

Vyjayanthimala Bali as Andal | Photo Credit: R Ragu

He was known also for his dance dramas such as ‘Chitrambala Kuravanji’ (also published as a book), ‘Krishna Tulabaram’, ‘Sri Andal’, ‘Padmavathy Srinivasa Kalyanam’ and ‘Sivagamiyin Sabatham’.

As a little girl, I was overwhelmed by the galaxy of dancers who were part of the institution. There were all the wonderful senior dancers like Usha Srinivasan, Sheela Pathy, Uma Anand, Chamundeshwari and Srividya. Then there were the legendary Vyjayanthimala and Padma Subrahmanyam and popular actor-dancers Latha, Manjula and Jayalalitha, to name a few. I attended the arangetram of actor Latha at the Music Academy in the presence of the late Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, who was himself an admirer of vathiyar. While the arangetram itself was a fine experience, the rehearsals leading up to it were very solemn affairs, as thoroughly executed as the main event. What you gain by being witness to such activities is crucial in the grooming of an artiste.

Urmila Sathyanarayanan 

Vathiyar spoke with a slight stammer, but could sing for hours and recite jatis effortlessly. He composed his own jatis, which were unique in more ways than one, particularly the dhalangu jatis, which involve only utplavana. There was one which had only the theermanam adavu in both ascending and descending order. It was a treat to watch him open the varnam with his trikala jatis. One of his jatis called ‘poses’ is a dancer’s delight. In it, the dancer maintains karvai with just the mild sound of the salangai, but the effect on stage is mesmerising.

He loved to dress well, travelled in a chauffeur-driven Ambassador car, was a foodie and a dog-lover. He passed away after a programme at his favourite R.R. Sabha. He was looking forward to the release of his book of compositions, Aadal Isai Amudam, which he had put together with great passion and dedication. The book was released after his death but without the fanfare that usually marked events organised by him. In the 53 years that he lived, guru Dhandayuthapani Pillai contributed enormously to the field of Bharatanatyam.

I had my arangetram a year after his death, but even today, introducing myself as his disciple gives me great pride, joy and gratitude.

The writer is a well-known Bharatanatyam dancer.

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