- By Sanjay Vadapalli
My first glimpse of Master Garu was on 1st Nov 1982, my first day of dance initiation under his tutelage. I was 7-year-old then. He wore a white kurta and pancha, very handsome, the cosmic aura in his eyes, and a divine smile. My parents and grandmom were with me. He guided us into the Puja room. I was amazed to see the room was full of wall mount mirrors. At the center of the room, there is a panchaloha Nataraja decorated with flowers. He made us sit and started the Puja. He lit the sandalwood agarbattis and camphor. The room is filled with a great smell and pure emotions. The way he offered flowers to Nataraja, the way he placed the camphor balls in a geometrical shape and lit them, I was observing his every action with great amusement. After completing the Puja he taught me 3 slokas – First one is on Lord Shiva (Angikam…bhuvanam, Yasya), then Guru Brahma, and finally offerings to Mother Earth (samudra vasane devi). He gently explained to me the meaning of each of the sloka. After the learning, I did padabhivandanam to him and he gave me sweets and a banana. He held my face in both his palms and blessed me. That’s how started my beautiful journey with Master Garu and left great memories for the next 15 years.
Before meeting Master Garu, I learned to dance under another guru for 2 years and it was painful. The learning often resulted in physical punishment and I was confused if physical punishment is an integral part of learning dance. When I started learning under Master Garu, I was very hesitant, thinking he will also punish me if I do any mistakes. Master Garu was a great human being. He was very gentle and caring while teaching dance. He was very patient and encouraging and always excited to teach.
For the next 5 years, my daily routine used to start with my dad waking me up at 430am get me ready and take me to dance class. He used to drop me at Master garu’s place at 530 am. During winter since it's still dark, he used to wait till the doors are opened. The early morning sessions are for Perini students and Master Garu used to teach Ramesh Garu, Venkat Garu, Nagendra garu, and many more students. Me being the youngest used to stand in front and do adavus with them. The training used to be vigorous and Master Garu used to repeat the same adavu until everyone gets it perfect. After this, he used to teach me separately Andhra Natyam. At that age, I never understood the depth of abhinaya or a specific mudra but every word, expression shown by Master Garu had left vivid memories in my mind. To date, some of the mudras, positions I put are exactly the way he taught me. I used to wrap up at 8 am and rush to school.
During weekends or holidays, the routine used to be quite different. I used to spend the entire day at the Dance class. After the morning routine with Perini dancers, Master Garu used to ask me to check with Radhavva, the cook if the breakfast is ready. Then we used to have breakfast together while listening to his culinary skills. He used to elaborately explain to Radhavva how to make Upma / Kichidi and always narrate a story and share his experiences. Simultaneously he used to teach me table manners.
Master Garu has developed health issues during the mid-1980s and as a result, he was on regular medication. So daily after breakfast, my routine was to give him medication and he used to narrate a story about every tablet he used to swallow. He always overcame difficult times with positivity, just by creating a story around it. Hats Off to Master Garu, At 9 am the regular class for Andhra Natyam used to start. This was the time when all senior students of Andhra Natyam used to come for abhyasam and sadhana. Sudha Akka, Vatsalendra (chitti), Kalpana Akka, Padma Akka and many others used to practice and it’s a fantastic experience watching Master Garu teaching abhinaya ….. more than 20 different variations to every word/line. He used to do abhinaya for a Padam / javali or a daruvu from Navajanardhana Parijatam for hours together and during this time all of us, the shishyas used to be in a trance, somewhere in the heaven of abhinaya. The morning class used to end by noon. Now it is time for me to go home. When I approach Master Garu to take his blessings and say bye, he used to ask me if I can stay back. The temptations to hold me back are many, sometimes it’s the special food Radhavva is making, sometimes a great song he is going to teach after the afternoon nap, sometimes take me to a great event lined up in the evening.
Master garu used to have a grand wardrobe. He is fond of white clothes, Kashmiri shawls and perfumes. He has a room full of clothes, shawls, accessories and perfumes. It used to be a great feeling to see his wardrobe. Every shawl has a story, every perfume has a history. When he dresses up, he always appears like Shweta (White) NATARAJA.
Master garu is fond of food. Some of his favourites are garelu (vadas), payasam and pesarattu (pancakes made of green gram) and allam pachadi (ginger chutney). He very much liked the pesarattu made by mom and used to send her requests through me. Another great learning, I had from Master garu is on how to carry yourself in public and in front of great personalities in the art world. He always used to say Saraswati (ART) will be with those who are humble and caring. He used to take me to all events/seminars held in Hyderabad and sometimes other cities. He used to comb my hair and ensure the dressing is perfect. He used to explain how important for an artist to dress properly according to the occasion. He always taught me to be respectful to elders and other artists we meet. Always do a full pranam (touching feet) and take their blessings. The journey back home was always full of learning, correcting my grammar and pronunciation, and usage of the right words while speaking to esteemed guests.
His discipline towards art and dance is amazing. He taught us that after tying the dance bells you are Goddess Saraswati, we cannot be casual, chit chat with people or sit. You need to be pure in your thoughts and very disciplined. He also used to say once you tie dance bells, you don’t do padabhivandanam to anyone except your Guru. Because you are Sarawasti and you do not touch the feet of anyone except GURU. A simple message that GURU is greater than GOD. Wah Master Garu, you are a great soul.
Whenever there is a dance event or program lined up, he used to get excited. The preparations used to be for a long duration. He used to be incredibly detailed in the make-up, dress, and ornaments. He used to spend a lot of time selecting the colors of the dress. He liked Benaras sarees and always encouraged us to get a dress made from Benaras saree. A dance event means hours of rigorous practice, eating healthy food, and taking rest. Always maintain positive spirits. Another great lesson he taught us is the routine to follow the night before the event. Before sleeping take bath, do puja, lit an incense stick, and listen to the songs to be performed the next day. He used to ask us to pray to Lord Nataraja to bestow his blessings. This routine used to be so profound that the songs will get imprinted in our subconscious minds. I continue to do this routine even today.
When I was 16, I had the great opportunity to travel with him to Varanasi for a lecture-demonstration at Benaras Hindu University. This trip has helped me understand Indian culture, values, and philosophy. Master Garu is a great storyteller, when you read his books you will be taken to this dream world of art and dance. His books detail the historic evolution of dance and how various dance traditions have been established. After reading his Pasidi Muvvala Parani, I couldn’t sleep for days as every time I close my eyes the beautiful temple dancers used to appear. His Dakshinatyla Natya Kala Charitra is an encyclopedia of dance forms in Southern India.
Master Garu left great memories in everyone’s life. He is Lord Nataraja to all of us and no one can do abhinaya like him. He recreated great dance forms and left a rich legacy for us to take forward. With his subtle actions and lifestyle, he left great lessons for us to evolve as great human beings. We continue to cherish his memories and take up the great responsibility of handing over his legacy to future generations.