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K.J. Sarasa

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K.J. Sarasa

Revered dance guru K.J. Sarasa, who devoted her life to deep engagement with Bharatanatyam, passed away in Chennai on Monday following a brief illness. She was 78. She is survived by her sisters and their families.

A precious torch-bearer of the famed Vazhuvoor bani of Bharatanatyam, Ms. Sarasa has the rare distinction of conducting nearly 1,000 arangetrams (first performance) and 2,000 recitals, including those of celebrated artistes such as Vyjayanthimala Bali, Baby Kamala and the Travancore Sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini. She is also said to be the first female nattuvanar.

A range of pupils, including Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and writer Sivasankari, hail from the ‘Sarasa school’. Noted dancers Rathna Kumar, Urmila Sathyanarayana, dance choreographer Raghuram, K. Shanmugasundaram, are among her disciples who have made a mark in the field. Over the years, many other youngsters were drawn to ‘Sarasalaya’, the dance school Ms. Sarasa set up in 1960.

Her life was marked by simplicity, and her story is one of tremendous hard work, commitment and rare grit during difficult times.

Ms. Sarasa, daughter of nagaswaram artiste Jagadeesan Pillai, spent her early years in Karaikal. Following initial training under Muthukumara Pillai, she went to the great Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai. Later, she moved to Madras to pursue dance under Ramaiah Pillai through the gurukula system for over a decade. Very soon dance became the central, driving force of her life and as she has said in one of her interviews to The Hindu, “I knew nothing else!”.

Fondly referred to as ‘Sarasa teacher’ by her students, she derived great joy from training students, sharing and choreographing. Not that she didn’t consider performing. As a teenager, Ms.Sarasa, like almost all students of dance, was fascinated by the idea of performance. However, her guru had told her ‘You can teach all your life, but not perform’. She was asked to do the nattuvangam. Ms. Sarasa did not regret not having performed. She, in fact, maintained that what her guru had told her was right and worked out well for her. Teaching, she said, helped her take care of her family of four sisters and a mother after their father’s early demise.

She was not only a great artiste, but also a true rasika who simply loved music and dance. She believed that a dancer needed to immerse herself in melody to be able to emote well. Ms. Sarasa’s choreography of Krishna Parijatam, Aditya Hridayam, Silapaddikaram, Kunrakkudi Kuravanji, Desa Bhakti and Kutrala Kuravanji won critical acclaim.

Her contributions won her several honours, including the ‘Kalaimamani’ title, the Swarnakalasam Award at the Kalidasa festival and the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademy Award from the Central Government.

Ms. Sarasa was unaffected by her success. Till her very end, she remained a loving, down-to-earth artiste, who was totally enchanted by dance.

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