Nattuvanaars: Traditional Teachers of Bharatha Natyam

by Subhashini Pathmanathan

Swamimalai Rajarathinam Pillai.photo: The Hindu Archives

Nattuvanaars were the real mentors of Bharatha Natyam. But unfortunately the present generation Bharatha Natyam students have lost the opportunity to learn Bharatha Natyam under them. They were the masters in their field.

They not only taught dance to the students but they also imparted and developed the overall self confidence of their students. The rapport between the guru and the shisyas were very smooth.

They were very firm and strict with the students during the time of their coaching. They were strict disciplinarians and guardians of their own chosen art field. Their imparting method was totally based on individual coaching. They didn’t show much interest to take group classes. These traditional gurus cultivated deep involvement and dedication among their students.

Lack of theoretical knowledge in the dance field was the main drawback among the students, who learnt dancing under these traditional Gurus. They only paid attention to develop the practical side of the dance.

Early masters made sure they taught this art in its purest form

Community structure

The Nattuvanar community belongs to the IsaiVellalar caste, who were the mentors of the art. The Devadasis are the female members of this community and Nattuvanars are the male members of this community. Earlier the members of the community were serving at the temples, by preserving and protecting various temple art forms.

The Nattuvanar taught Sathir dances to their female members of their society (devadasis). The male members of the Nattuvanar community are still the Thavil players (drum players), and the Nathaswara players. They are still serving at the temples, as the temple musicians for the Nithya (daily) and Nimithya (occasional festivals) Kiriyas of the temples.

Here we have to remember that Bharatha Natyam evolved out of temple rituals. These traditional Gurus’ only aim was to train the students or to coach the students as outstanding and excellent dancers.These Gurus never adopted any commercial tactics to pick up or to develop their profession.

They always built-up their reputation steadily through their productions. They never went behind the cheap publicity. Their life style was simple and throughout the life they dedicated their whole life for the betterment of music and dance.

Vazhuvoor RamiahPillai

Many of the present dance Gurus learnt dancing mainly in different institutions or studied under different Gurus who had already been trained in dance by institutions. That’s why at present the Bharatha Natyam world has changed into a mechanical dance form. Lack of grace and lack of high degree of facial expressions are the common features of the present Bharatha Natyam. Unfortunately majority of the present generation audience and the art lovers have lost the opportunity to view the pure typical classical Bharatha Natya programmes.

Traditional teachers

The experience of learning dancing at the institution level is entirely different from the experience of learning dancing under the traditional Gurus directly. Under the traditional Gurus one imbibed the art and the shishyas learned the art throughout under the able guidance of one and the same Guru. These traditional gurus gave rigid training in dancing by moulding their students to dance perfectly in the concerts. The dancers trained by the traditional Gurus danced with full essence of aesthetic values and creativity. The students were encouraged to dance and used their full self-creativity and they were also encouraged to use the expressions of their own to the maximum extent.

Learning dancing at an institution provides an opportunity for one to learn the dance under a systematic manner to a selective, fixed and defined syllabus within a certain limited time framework. Anyhow the students are supposed to study dance at the institutions under different teachers, in different stages and in different years. Individual talents are not much recognized at these institutions.

Under the well defined syllabus the attention at the institutions are paid, both to the practical and the theoretical aspects of the art. After the completion of the course, degrees or diplomas are awarded to the students. Sometimes this attitude might emasculate the art and on the other hand it might also encourage the craze for certificates among the student community.

Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai et Muthukumara Pillai. Photo : Mohan Khokar.

The Nattuvanars like Meenakshi SunderamPillai, Ella Pillai, Thandayutha PaniPillai were some of the outstanding Gurus of the Pandanallur School. And Vazhuvoor RamiahPillai, and S. K Rajaratnam Pillai were some of the outstanding gurus of the Vazhuvoor School. Teaching dancing in the society added a status and respect for the traditional Nattuvanars. Earlier many local and foreign students took up residence at the Nattuvanar homes to learn the art.

This was the main cause for the growth of Guru Shisyaparamparai (generation) in the dance world. The tradition of those who reside at the residence of the guru by serving the guru and studying is known as Guru Kula method.