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Kalakshetra Vilasini - 'Shashtyabdapoorthy' in teaching Bharatanatyam
- RLV Suma Raj Menon
Photos courtesy: Suma Raj Menon

May 20, 2022

A large number of Bharatanatyam artistes and teachers in Kerala are grateful to the veteran Bharatanatyam natyacharya Kalakshetra Vilasini who has successfully completed sixty years of her meritorious service in the field of teaching Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam in Kerala. Every artiste and teacher, including this writer, who benefited under her tutelage will also be paying respect to Prof. Joseph Mundassery, the Honourable Minister for Education in the first Kerala Government, for the visionary decision in commencing separate course for Bharatanatyam under the Government Department and to Appan Thampuran, the then Director of Education, for the enthusiastic follow up action in carrying out the decision of the Government. The service story of Vilasini Teacher starts from this point.

Vilasini Teacher
Vilasini Teacher

Born and brought up as the second daughter of N. Krishna Pillai, an officer in the Agricultural Department and his wife Bhavani Pillai of an illustrious middle class family in Thiruvananthapuram, Vilasini had her education up to Matriculation in various places (eleven to be precise) in Tamilnadu (then Madras State) since her father was employed in the Agricultural Department of that state. Her study of Bharatanatyam started at her age of nine in Coimbatore under Pazhaniswamy of Tagore Academy. On transfer to Madurai, the study continued under traditional Gurus Jagadambal, Lakshmy and Bharatham Subramania Iyer.

Her arangetram was arranged in Madurai during 1952. After her arangetram she performed at places like Ooty, Mettur, Bhavani, Salem, Nagercoil, Thiruvananthapuram etc. The performance in Thiruvananthapuram was with a special incident. The sponsors of the program requested for a 'Folk Dance' to be included in the program. Vilasini choreographed a dance item on her own on the basis of a song "Ellarum sollunu...." from Malayalam film 'Neelakuyil' and presented as part of the program. In fact, this 'Folk Dance' was received with thunderous applause while the classical items were received with moderate enthusiasm. After Matriculation, Vilasini joined the Govt. Women's College in Thiruvananthapuram in1955 for the study of Intermediate Course with History and Music as optional subjects. In the college, Vilasini's dance was an inevitable item for any celebration. She participated in the first Kerala University Youth Festival in 1957 winning first prize in the Bharatanatyam competition.

Vilasini Teacher with friends for Onam celebration by Keralite students of Kalakshetra
Vilasini Teacher with friends for Onam celebration by Keralite students of Kalakshetra (1959)

As an immediate outcome from the experience gained at the conduct of State School Youth Festival from 1957 the Government of Kerala decided to provide proper systematic training to girls in the art of Bharatanatyam with a view to helping them become teachers in schools so as to groom students for the Youth Festivals. A separate Diploma course in Bharatanatyam was to be started in the RLV School, Tripunithura. With a view to ensuring the study of the art from a young age the eligibility of admission to the course was fixed as study up to upper primary level. Also a pilot Diversified Course with Bharatanatyam as Part B (optional) under Malayalam was to be started in the Govt. Girls' School, Tripunithura. The veteran E. Krishna Iyer who was mainly responsible for the renaissance in Bharatanatyam was entrusted with the responsibility for preparing the syllabus of the course and also for selecting a proper candidate for appointment to the post of Bharatanatyam instructor to conduct the course. The syllabus for the Diploma Course and for the Diversified Course was prepared. For selecting the candidate, he conducted interview of about 250 applicants. From among the candidates, E. Krishna Iyer selected Vilasini for appointment to the post of Bharatanatyam instructor. Since Krishna Iyer had recommended her for imparting higher training in Bharatanatyam, the Govt. appointed Vilasini as Bharatanatyam instructor in the RLV School during 1958 and deputed her for higher training in Kalakshetra with salary and scholarship.

Vilasini Teacher with her dancers, Rukmini Devi
With her dancers, seated is Rukmini Devi at Kerala Fine Arts (1982)

Vilasini Teacher Doing nattuvangam
Doing nattuvangam (2002)

In Kalakshetra, Vilasini was trained in Bharatanatyam under Rukmini Devi, Sharada Hoffman, Thankamani, Adyar Lakshman, Pushpa Shankar, N.S. Jayalakshmi and Kamala Rani. Her tutelage in Carnatic music was under veterans like M.D. Ramanathan, Thurayur Rajagopala Sharma, Mani Krishnaswamy, D. Pasupathy and Rajaram. Eminent Bharatanatyam artistes Dhananjayan, Shantha, C.K. Balagopal, Krishnaveni, Savithri, Krishnamurthy etc. were senior colleagues and Prof. A. Janardhanan (Later Principal of Kalakshetra) was her classmate. Vilasini Teacher remembers with gratitude that veteran Krishna Iyer visited Kalakshetra to assess the progress of Vilasini's study. In appreciation of her dedication to Bharatanatyam, Rukmini Devi graciously included Vilasini in the team of performers of Kalakshetra from her second year of study, probably invoking jealousy among students senior to her. The memorable performance was her part in 'Shyama' (with Pushpa Shankar and C.K. Balagopal in lead roles) choreographed by Rukmini Devi for poet Tagore's centenary celebration. It was again Rukmini Devi who examined Vilasini in 1962 for her Diploma after higher training. Rukmini Devi blessed her with a suggestion to bring up a new Kalakshetra in Kerala. Thus, Vilasini had the unique privilege of getting blessed by two stalwarts, E. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi, who together had paved the way for the renaissance in Bharatanatyam. Vilasini Teacher had always upheld the blessings in high esteem.

Vilasini Teacher With Shantha Dhananjayan
With Shantha Dhananjayan (2011)

From 1962 to 1995, Vilasini Teacher had trained students for the Diploma Course and for the Diversified Course. The Post Diploma Course in Bharatanatyam was started in 1964. The syllabus for the Post Diploma Course was prepared with the guidelines from E. Krishna Iyer. She was a judge for the Bharatanatyam competitions in the State Youth Festivals from 1964 to 1972. In 1972 the Govt. granted permission to Vilasini for conducting Bharatanatyam classes in Kerala Fine Arts Society. Also she started grooming students for the Youth Festivals. There are nearly a thousand disciples trained by Vilasini Teacher around the world. Also there are a number of young artistes including her two daughters who fared well in the state and University Youth Festivals. There are a few artistes who succeeded on the silver screen and mini-screen as well.

Even though she had stopped performing once she started teaching (with allegiance to the instruction from the Government) the performances arranged with her disciples on stage had definitely created a new awareness in the field of Bharatanatyam in Kerala. It is to be mentioned that it was her disciple who started performing solo Bharatanatyam recital in Kerala during 1975. Vilasini Teacher has choreographed nearly three hundred items in the recital format as well as in the thematic (dance drama) format. Special mention should be made of the dance program with the Gitanjali verses presented in the Kerala Fine Arts Society. The mega show of thematic presentation 'Gowrishankaram' conducted during January 2015 in Durbar Hall ground, Ernakulam, with the participation of 757 artistes to commemorate the 75th birthday of Vilasini Teacher is another landmark.

Vilasini Teacher -Noopura memento
'Noopura' memento presented by minister E. Chandrasekharan Nair, looking on is poet O.N.V. Kurup

The flow of young aspirant artistes to the seats of learning in Chennai is possibly motivated from the general awareness created by Vilasini Teacher and her disciples. The Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy honoured Vilasini Teacher with the Award for Dance in 1995. She has been honoured with titles of Natyacharya, Natyaratna etc. In 2022, Vilasini Teacher completed sixty years in her profession of teaching Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam. The art lovers of Kerala recognize the epoch making service rendered by Vilasini Teacher and endearingly call her "Kalakshetra Vilasini Teacher". We pray for her continued involvement in the propagation of the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam.

Suma Raj Menon
Suma Raj Menon is a disciple of Vilasini Teacher. She has obtained her RLV Diploma in Bharatanatyam in 1988 and after a break of 22 years, she re-started her training in Bharatanatyam under Vilasini Teacher from 2010. She has been undergoing tutelage in Mohiniattam under Sreedevi Rajan and Kathakali under Evoor Rajendran Pillai. She has her own institute Nrithapriya School of Dance in Ponekkara, Ernakulam.

A well deserving tribute to a pioneer who inculcated a good standard of naatyam in Kerala. Kudos to Vilasini.
- VP Dhananjayan (May 20, 2022)

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