They are a highly revered couple in the art fraternity across the country and Mumbai in particular. Their dedication to the Indian classical dance style of Bharatanatyam and the passion they exhibit in training aspiring classical dancers is commendable. Pandit Guru Venugopal Pillai and his wife Guru Jayshree Pillai, through their dance institute ‘Tanjavur Nrityashala’ have been providing dance education to young students and training them into professional artists. The couple has been an address for the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam in Mumbai.
Pandit Venugopal J Pillai was born on December 14, 1940. He hails from a family of artist-musicians. He is the grandson of a senior dancer in the court of the royal family of Thanjavur. For Guru Venugopal, the development of being a dancer traces back to its origin that they had in the family. “Our family tradition was so rich and full of artists,” says Guru Venugopal. His father was a violinist who also played other instruments including veena, harmonium and jal tarang. His father played a crucial part in composing music for the Marathi Nirupan of Saroj Ji Raje and also choreographed to the music. Guru Venugopal Pillai’s grandmother, Kanti amma needs a special mention. “Kanthi amma along with my father moulded us into artists,” he says. His uncle Kubernath Tanjorkar is also an artist and played a pivotal role in helping Guru Venugopal to understand performing arts. Kanthimatti Amma was a court dancer and his father and uncle were court musicians. All of them moved to Mumbai after 1947. Because of such great artistic lineage, the tradition of art, culture and everything associated with performing arts grew richly in the family.
Born on June 14, 1947, Guru Jayashree, initially, started learning Kathak from Guru Rohini Wagle for 2 years. Then she learned folk dance from Guru Purav. He introduced her to the late Guru Acharya Parvati Kumar, and it became the beginning of her journey into the glorious world of Bharatanatyam.
Even Guru Venugopal trained under the tutelage of Guru Parvati Kumar. At his uncle’s suggestion, Venugopal approached Acharya Parvati Kumar for instruction in Bharatanatyam. During his studies with Acharya Parvati Kumar, Venugopal Pillai took part in many dance dramas including Discovery of India, presented by the Indian National Theatre and based on Jawaharlal’s Nehru’s book by the same name.
“I believe our gurus have imparted knowledge to us in every tiny way. They have played a significant part in making us into artists. Our first teacher was our grandmother who has crafted us from the beginning and made us the individuals and artists that we are today. And Guru Parvathi Kumar, who has been a soul maker for both of us,” says the couple.
Guru Parvati Kumar’s rich knowledge, his expertise and his perfect skills have been imparted into them, and the couple constantly endeavours to take their guru’s tradition forward to the future generations. The same tradition of imparting the age-old knowledge is followed by their academy students who have been making it available to all.
The Bharatanatyam dance style practised by the dancing couple is known as the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. “This style incorporates the use of Karnas, the rich traditions of the Natya Shastra, the longstanding knowledge of our gurus, perfecting the adavus and uniquely using music,” they say. The couple believes dance as a tradition will have value only if it is continued and pursued by future generations. Their daughters Dhwani and Shruti are closely associated with taking this style forward. Even the senior students, who have trained under the tutelage of Guru Venugopal and Guru Jayashree Pillai with dedication, have been imparting the same to their students in their respective academies.
The couple opines that in the current times, Bharatanatyam has become an interwoven strand in the cultural fabric of the country. “Through dance, you can emote and express yourself which is a much needed human outlet. It is also a great form of exercise. In current times people have been realising the moral values that a classical art can impart,” they explain. With time, people have even realised the spiritual significance of Bharatanatyam. In a nutshell, dance has become a therapy for many people. “It helps us understand our roots and remain strong to it,” they add.
Finding inspiration is an essential part to boost creativity. For Guru Venugopal and Guru Jayashree Pillai, their teacher, Guru Parvati Kumar is a source of inspiration. His ability to go into the depth of everything and cover the minutest of details has been a constant source of motivation for them to know more, teach more and impart more. “We would also like to mention that we like the dance to be available and to be understood by the common public,” they say. The audience i.e., the common man is also a source of inspiration for them, as the couple try to take the original Shastra and put it in a way understood and related to, by all.
Apart from the dance, the artistic couple is passionate about reading about Indian culture and tradition. Music is always a source of therapy for them. Both of them also like drawing and solving puzzles. The couple has a simple daily routine. It includes morning Puja rituals, conducting classes, reading and spending time with family.
“We would like to ensure that we continue our contribution in every small way to the dance field. Thus in the coming years, we expect to be enthusiastic, creative and contribute in imparting maximum knowledge to the maximum number of people,” the couple aspire.
Talking of challenges, usually, many things which include minute details of music knowledge could challenge and it is known that most of the dance compositions are Nayika based. However, for them the most challenging aspect was composing the entire Nirupan on Meghdoot – Nayak based, a male-dominated dance composition.
The couple has seen life for a long time and does not like to speak about anyone particular moment as their best. “We believe that every moment is our best and beautiful if we are presently involved at the moment. Life is short so make every moment your best moment,” they suggest.
Speaking on the highly contested topic of fusion, the couple believes that change is inevitable. “Experiments and fusion are moments of creativity and innovation. If without disturbing the authenticity one can maintain the dance form, such kinds of changes are welcome and needed,” they approve.