Tapasya Kala Sampradaya

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year

Tapasya was set up in 1997 under the guidance of Guru Kittappa Pillai to research, teach and perform the Isai Vellalar tradition of Bharatha Natyam. The Tapasya team consists of artistes from the hereditary families or persons who have trained extensively with them. The effort at Tapasya is to promote research and preserve with the help of resource persons who have devoted their lives to the cause of serious art, music, dance, literature, the true cultural and spiritual traditions of the nation.

The Isai Vellalar community has been traditionally associated with dance and temple rituals in South India and its few surviving members are the only remaining exponents of the dance. This grant supported video and audio documentation of the oral and performative elements of sadir, the precursor of today’s Bharatanatyam, locating it within the context of the lifestyles, pedagogy, and beliefs of the Isai Vellalar community.

Tapasya’s purpose in undertaking this project was two-fold. On the one hand, it felt that by focussing attention on a community that has to this day remained associated with a marginalised dance tradition, the project would serve to correct a historical imbalance. On the other, it pointed out that ‘a living sampradayam or tradition is preserved by the devadasi community and forms the core of the ‘reformed’ dance.’

Indu Varma, Srividya Natarajan and Vidya Sankaranarayanan, disciples of Guru Kittappa Pillai and the three individuals associated with the project, identified five traditions and have documented a range of compositions that were traditionally performed in temple and court precincts – both the process of composing such pieces and teaching them to students. But the project was not limited to the documentation of a dance repertoire. It devoted equal attention to the ‘lifestyles, teaching techniques, beliefs and practices, and the social and cultural affiliations of the traditional exponents of what is now called Bharatnatyam.’

Tapasya’s approach to the subject involves both a different perspective and alternative research tools. They were primarily interested in the isai vellalar pedagogy and aesthetics in the larger context of this community’s lifestyles and its religious and artistic values, and they felt that the visual medium is best suited to capture this.

Tapasya made a video documentation in collaboration with prominent cinematographer and filmmaker R.V. Ramani and Jaleel. All three researchers have trained in dance under Guru Kittappa Pillai and Srividya has done a fascinating doctoral thesis on sadir and its transformation into Bharatnatyam in the context of post-modern feminist theory.

Tapasya, as part of this project, interviewed prominent representatives of the Isai Vellalar community like Smt. Thilagam, representative of the Thiruvarur tradition, Smt. Kamalambal, dancer in the Brihadeesvara temple in Tanjavur, and Smt. Lakshmi Knight, niece of the legendary Balasaraswati. The seminar, ‘From the Cosmic to the Cosmetic’, was organized to conclude the project.