Dance, India, Real People, Teachers »
March 28, 2012 | 6 Comments | Betsy Woodman
“Write about something different next week,” my sister Lee suggested. Okay, I won’t write about Mr. Patch this time, although I haven’t abandoned him. Here’s another elderly Indian gentleman—and teacher—who was hiding in my files:
On the back of this photo, I had written “Guru Pillai,” and the names of the four students, including me, far right. I didn’t date the picture, but the year was 1959.
These days, if you know just a little about someone, you can often get a lot more from the Internet. Surely I could find out about a Mr. Pillai who taught Bharatnatyam dance at Triveni Kala Sangam, then a modest enterprise, now a major art institute in New Delhi.
A Mr. Pillai? Turns out there have been many, many dance gurus named Pillai, some very celebrated. I found lots of photos on Google images, but none that looked just like my guru.
I do remember him as a teacher, though. He’d be sitting cross-legged on the floor of the classroom when we arrived, a shawl wrapped around his shoulders. We greeted him with the proper respect: stamped our feet twice, circled wide with our arms, touched the floor in front of him, and put out hands together in a namasté.
Guru Pillai’s first language was probably Malayalam, and the only language we really shared with him was dance. He demonstrated with his hands what our feet were supposed to do. When we messed up (which was often), he grimaced and shook his finger at us. When our knee bends weren’t deep enough, he implored, “sitting, ma, sitting!”
He provided the musical accompaniment for the lesson by chanting traditional syllables, beating rhythms on a wooden block with a stick, and tapping his finger cymbals. He taught us Alarippu, the traditional welcome to a Bharatnatyam concert, and a Thillana, another staple of the classical repertoire.
Then came time for us to perform for our doting moms and the other ladies of the American Women’s Club.
Our guru accompanied us, and I don’t know if he was happy with our performance. He looks a little melancholy in the photo, don’t you think? I hope he wasn’t too distressed. No matter what, though, with his spotless white tunic and lungi and stately demeanor, he added dignity to the occasion—and he stood by his students, a teacher first and last.