Home » How Hema Malini struck the balance between Bharatanatyam and Bollywood

How Hema Malini struck the balance between Bharatanatyam and Bollywood

by Joe Bourn

Kittappa Pillai’s star disciple Hema Malini recalls what made him one of the most sought-after gurus

Kittappa Pillai’s star disciple Hema Malini recalls what made him one of the most sought-after gurus

As tourists exit the Thanjavur palace complex in the evening, and an invisible koel climbs through the trees, cars pull up to the Sangeetha Mahal, carrying young passengers dressed in traditional Bharatanatyam attire.

They alight in a scented cloud, the rustle of their silks mingling with the sting of salangaiand to worship their gurus before proceeding behind the scenes.

The hall is gearing up for the 16th tribute program to nattuvanar KP Kittappa Pillai (1913-1999), scion of the Thanjavur Quartet (Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu) and an acclaimed maestro of the Bharatanatyammars’.

Organized every year by Kittappa Natyalaya, run by the virtuoso’s youngest son KPK Chandrasekaran, the program showcases the talent of students of the Thanjavur-based academy and is attended by distinguished senior students of the guru.

Tribute to the Guru

Hema Malini greets a young dance student. Also featured are Prince Babaji Rajah Bhonsle and Tiruvarur District Collector Gayathri Krishnan | Photo: M. Srinath

The guest of honor this year was actor and politician Hema Malini, 74, who was Kittappa’s student in the 1960s and 70s. Upon her arrival, souvenir photo hunters gather as some dance students rush to touch her feet. But the “dream girl” politely keeps them at bay, her demeanor acknowledging that the star of the evening is her late teacher.

“Guruji was a very sweet and friendly person, even though I was afraid of him at first,” she says, sitting on a plastic chair in the back row. “He came into my life when I was 16 and he had just started acting in Hindi films. I saw him on stage doing the nattuvangam for Vyjayanthimalaji at a dance program in Madras, and I was so impressed that I wanted to learn only from him.”

Having learned dance from the age of six and became a performer at the age of eight, Hema Malini’s interest in learning Bharatanatyam from one of its most eminent teachers was driven by a desire to excel in the art form.

“My guru from Delhi was Sikkal Ramaswami Pillai. I also learned from Indira from Kalakshetra. Although there were other exponents in Madras, I really wanted to learn from the same guru who had taught Vyjayanthimala. So my father arranged a meeting and Guruji started teaching me.”

Hema Malini recalls her long relationship with Kittappa Pillai

Hema Malini recalls her long relationship with Kittappa Pillai | Photo: M. Srinath

Recalling Kittappa’s orchestration skills, he says that the simplest of his jathis would look spectacular when performed on stage. “I learned beautiful and rare pieces like ‘Navasandhi’, ‘Suladi’ and many varnams. I may not remember some of it today, but I am sure if I see Guruji, it will all come back to me and I will start dancing,” she says with a smile.

Kittappa Pillai began training Hema Malini in Bharatanatyam just as her career as a Bollywood darling was taking off after her 1968 film debut Sapnon ka Saudagar opposite Raj Kapoor. “I was born in Ammankudi near Tiruchi and was taken to Delhi when I was three months old. From there, my family moved to Madras, and then, when I started acting in Hindi films, to Mumbai. Guruji used to come to Bombay regularly to teach me.’

Juggler with dance and movies

Their relationship lasted for a decade when Hema Malini ruled the screens with multiple outings as the crazy heroine in films like Johnny Mera Naam, Seeta Aur Geeta and Sholay.

It was difficult to balance both films and dance practice, she admits. “I would be overwhelmed, because I would shoot until the afternoon for movies and then give a dance performance in the evening. But I kept learning from guruji, so much so that when I didn’t have time to rehearse at home, I would take him on outdoor shoots,” he says.

This was also the time when he was learning Kuchipudi from Vempati Chinna Satyam and Mohiniattam from Natanam Gopalakrishnan.

“Once, I did all three dance styles in one program, and all three gurus were on stage,” he recalls.

Unique style

“Kittappa Pillai’s sollukattu The performance (vocal percussion) was so fast that the mridangam players found it difficult to keep up,” says Hema Malini. “But it would still be the most comfortable pace for the artist. That was his special ability.”

And she was not over her love for film star Dharmendra, who would eventually marry her. “When our love was developing, Guruji was there watching,” she says, blushing. “He never played Cupid, but if I asked to be let off a little early from dance practice so I could meet Dharamji, he would agree.” The macho hero and the dancer were fat friends, he adds.

“I always saw them trying to talk, mostly with gestures, because Dharamji didn’t know Tamil and Guruji never learned Hindi,” he laughs.

Despite extensive training, Hema Malini never got to show much of her Bharatanatyam skills in films. “Dancing in movies and classical dance are two different art forms. One is a mix of styles, the other is formal and has rigid rules. Unlike Vyjayanthimala, I could not use my Bharatanatyam skills in the songs because the films had changed over the years. Until I got my big break, heroines had to portray the strong modern woman,” she says.

As a classical dancer, she never agrees to do a “film dance” on stage. “I chose dance ballets that give more scope to add stories from the epics and combine different dance styles to engage the audience.”

Hema Malini tried to learn a varnam online from Chandrasekaran, during the lockdown. “It was easy to catch, but to practice and see the end result, you have to dance in front of the guru. I am happy to see young dancers across India carrying forward the legacy of the Bharatanatyam gurus,” he says.

As the evening’s program begins, Hema Malini turns her attention to performances, heartfelt tributes to her revered guru.

In his steps

The annual KP Kittappa Pillai dance tribute is the best way to honor the legacy of the nattuvangam maestro, says his son and program organizer KPK Chandrasekaran, who represents the eighth generation of the family.

Born into the famous ‘Thanjavur Quartet’ clan in 1913, Kittappa Pillai was an accomplished singer, composer and of course, nattuvanar.

“One may be surprised to hear that appa came late to Bharatanatyam. After training under his maternal grandfather, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, and then under his father Ponniah Pillai, he was a vocal artist with his cousin Narayanasamy, son of Pichhai Nattuvanar,” says Chandrasekaran.

When Narayanasamy died, Kittappa, then in his 30s, asked Padmanabha Iyer in Bengaluru to perform nattuvangam for his daughter Padmalochini Nagarajan. “She was appa’s first student.”

The Padmalochini school meant a shift to Bengaluru from Thanjavur, where Kittappa resided with his family in a heritage house gifted by Thulaji Bhonsle II. Chandrasekaran continues to live here.

“Appa’s maternal uncle, Pantanalur Muthiah Pillai, his son Gopalakrishnan and my father rented a house in Sankarapuram, Bangalore and used to visit students’ homes for lessons. Appa spent 35 years in Bengaluru, and from there his circle of disciples grew to places like Chennai and Mumbai,” he says.

Kittappa’s Bharatanatyam students span generations and come from all walks of life. “Apart from actors like Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini, he has taught Sudharani Raghupathy, Narthaki Nataraj and Malathi Dominic. Some would come just to learn a varnam. His expertise in vocal performance has helped him develop music suitable for the dance scene.” Kittappa popularized rare works like ‘Sarabhendra Bhoopala Kuravanji’, ‘Navasanthi Kavuthuvam’, ‘Suladi’ and ‘Prabhandam’. “He was an intuitive teacher. Each course will vary according to the student’s abilities.”

Chandrasekaran, the youngest of the maestro’s eight children, works as a dance teacher in a government school in Tiruvarur and has kept the legacy alive through the Kittappa Natyalaya in Thanjavur.

Kittappa’s granddaughters Charumathi, Jayashree and Subhashree are learning Bharatanatyam, while grandson Sabapathy has taken training in mridangam and nattuvangam. Kavish’s great grandson Dinesh is learning the violin. “We must work to pass on this knowledge. Appa was active till his last day. He died at the age of 87 in 1999,” says Chandrasekaran.

Related Videos

Leave a Comment