CHENNAI: The curtain closes, ending an epoch with the demise of one of the earliest names in the field of Bharatanatyam: MK Saroja. The last living doyen of this dance genre, in its pristine and original form, breathed her last on Monday in the serene precincts of her home.
Madras Kadiravel Saroja was born on April 7, 1931, into a wealthy family, which was into textile exports. Dance chose her as Vidwan Muthukumaran Pillai of Kattumannar Koil (south-west of Chidambaram) made his way to the big city of Madras in the 1930s to impart his hereditary art of Bharatanatyam to girls from established families.
He was hosted by Saroja’s family in their mansion in lieu of which he taught the art form to Saroja and her elder sister Selvamani at the behest of their art-loving grandmother Meenakshiammal. The two sisters, groomed by in-house guru, soon became names to reckon with. While Selvamani was the first female nattuvanar who trained later day doyens like Kamala Lakshmanan, Saroja became the guru’s exclusive disciple who travelled with him as he was sought after by high-end dance families like Ramgopal, Mrinalini Sarabhai and even Rukmini Arundale, though they also learnt from other gurus. Saroja imbibed the purity of the form with unflagging focus and dedication from one single guru who remained with her till his end. To her, he was a father figure, mentor and next to God.
Her journey of 90 plus years is the journey of the Bharatanatyam form itself. From a neglected art to a happening one; from bullock cart commuting to jet air travel; from notoriety and disrepute to sacred art. So did Saroja from being baby dancer in Ramgopal’s troupe to featuring in films to performing and teaching abroad. Her life was pan Indian: born and brought up in Chennai, married to illustrious dance academician Punjabi Mohan Khokar, settled for work in Baroda, lived in Delhi (1965-1985), taught in Paris and retired to her home in Chennai. She shared the stage with all the stalwarts of dance for decades.
M can stand for a devoted mother she was to her four sons and scores of foreign students from France and parts of Europe. She was K for karuna, full of compassion towards all. She was one of the rare gems of dance who balanced a healthy family with an equally brilliant dance career. Her husband was a constant source of encouragement to her. So were her sons, her “pillars of strength,” she would often say, with a smile. Seeing her own picture at the entrance of Kalakshetra along with those of Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kelucharna Mohapatra and Birju Maharaj, she did a namaskar not realising the honour she has been bestowed at the institution where she was not an alumni. Her contribution to dance won her many laurels. She was honoured with Padma Shri in the year 2011.