Natalie Savelyeva

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma – great disciple of Rukmini Devi, Musician, Vocalist, Composer, and Nattuvanar

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sharma is the Musician, Composer and Nattuvanar. .

Combination of his qualifications is unique. He is a musician of high rank in classical music. He is professional concert vocalist. His singing of Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil sahitya is appreciated as resonant and emotive. He knows everything about Time. He composed innumerable Jatis for .

He is a specialist in the compositions of Sangita Kalanidhi Mysore Vasudevachar and has a vast repertoire of pada varnams, tana varnams, padams and javalis.

He is composer of numerous vocal and dance items, including music for dance dramas of Smt. Rukmini Devi (including Meenakshi Kalyanam, Kurma Avataram, and the famous series of Ramayana). He composed innumerable Sollukattus and Svaras, all of which bear his unique style and touch.

He is highly experienced conductor of dance dramas. For many years he sang and did Nattuvangam for Kalakshetra dance dramas and performances. He admires choreography of Smt. Rukmini Devi and regards her as his Guru.

He is the great Guru of the theory and practice of Nattuvangam. He developed his own system of Abhyasa Tala (basic syllables for students learning Nattuvangam).

He is a full-fledged Carnatic musician, trained in the old school.

Birth

Bhagavatula Sri Sitarama Sarma was born in Kuchipudi village in 1936.

Kuchipudi is a village located in Andhra Pradesh that is considered the birthplace of musical tradition and the Kuchipudi dance form.

He was born into a family of traditional Kuchipudi artists, Josyulu Narayanamurti and Bhagavatulu Yagnayya, both musicians and dancers. He was taught music and dance in the most traditional Gurukula system.

He has participated in dance dramas of outstanding Kuchipudi masters.

According to tradition in Kuchipudi village, dance dramas would be performed from 9pm to 6am without mikes over 3 nights or so. Men used to don the female roles too. People from neighboring villages used to sit through the whole performance.

First steps in dance

Being of seven-year-old Sitaram had anklets tied to his feet at the Ramalingeshwaraswami temple. He fought sleep to dance and sing in all-night shows as Prahlada.

Studying Music

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

He learnt music under Sitarama Anjaneyulu and later under Nethi Sreerama Sarma and T.R.Subramaniam at Vijayawada.

The non-performer father was keen to perpetuate the heritage through his progeny. But the boy was more drawn to vidwan Eleshwarapu Sitarama Anjaneyalu’s classes, learning sarali, janta, dattu, mela sthayi varisai (basic musical exercises), and hour-long nagabandana swaras in different ragas and talas.

Disowned by his father when he ran away to Machilipatnam to pursue his passion, the boy found his guru in Pasumarti Sitarama Sastri.

"God is witness to all my struggles in learning this art", sighs Bhagavatulu Sitarama Sarma. He remembers how he went from one house to another saying, "I’ve come from Kuchipudi village to learn music. Can you feed me once a week?" No one says no. Even cafe owners refuse to accept payment.

Shifting later to Vijayawada, he continued training with Neeti Srirama Sarma.

"Mine is a different method," warned the guru. The first Kanada varnam showed it. It was super slow!

The boy loved the heavy style and was distraught when the guru left town. Soon, dazzled by T.R.Subramaniam’s concert, the boy begged the visiting Vidwan for Vidyadanam.

Four blissful years followed in Madras. The generous Guru, T.R.Subramaniam, provided food, clothing, shelter, and rigorous training for Sitaram Sir. When T.R.Subramaniam moved to Delhi, Sitaram returned to Vijayawada.

"Then I made a big mistake," Sitaram Sir laughs. "Got married!"

Concerts were plentiful, but all unpaid. Survival was on tuitions and singing for eminent Kuchipudi artistes.

Kalakshetra

Destiny took Sitaram to sing for a dance students scholarship test in Madras. Rukmini Devi, a regal presence on the panel, offered him a job for Rs. 156 (rising to Rs.750 after 24 years), to join the Kalakshetra.

In turn, Budalur Krishnamurti Sastrigal, M.D. Ramanathan and Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma approved of Rukmini Devi’s choice after listening how Sitaram Sir, that time being a young man, sang the Bhairavi varnam in three speeds in misra nadai. "This was no mere technical feat", as Sitaram Sir explains, "as my school maintained the melody, always."

In 1962 Sitaram Sir joined Kalakshetra as Lecturer in Music.

He started from the Ramayana librettos.

In 1962 his debut as Nattuvanar took place. He was in charge for conducting a new production, "Kannappar Kuravanji" (1962). Athai simply gave him the cymbals wielded by Pandanallur Minakshisundaram Pillai. Sitaram Sir remembers that, "My guru believed that only a singer could have perfect tempo control in nattuvangam. Promise you won’t leave me," she said.

The Kalakshetra routine comprised teaching, researching, learning, studying Sanskrit texts, improving Tamil pronunciation and singing for rehearsals.

Sitaram Sir also learnt Bharatanatyam from Chinna Sarada, who addressed him as "Sir", but demanded perfect araimandi nevertheless.

What Sitaram Sir said about difference between Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam:

"The Kuchipudi sollukattu is different from the Bharatanatyam sollukattu. Kuchipudi was essentially a dance drama form and the thillana used to be a part of it, but Vedantam Lakshminarayana Sastry introduced the solo format and women also started performing. Aharya and singing has changed in Kuchipudi. If mistakes are made in Carnatic music, people will spot it immediately, but that is not so in dance."

"Kuchipudi nattuvangam is different from Bharatanatyam nattuvangam. Nowadays just about everyone does nattuvangam without understanding that sollukattus have to go with the talams. You must know the correct calculation. Stick to tradition. Carnatic music has not changed. Kathakali is one tradition that has remained unchanged for the past 50 years. The chutti, the ragas remain the same. Since things are changing every day, we have forgotten what tradition really is!"

He watched Athai choreograph Rukmini Kalyanam, Choodamani Pradanam, Mahapattabhishekam, composed jatis, swaras and music for slokas, sang and conducted dance dramas all over the world.

Sitaram Sir remembers that, "While on tour Athai did narrate fascinating stories about Palghat Ramu Bhagavatar, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer or Tiger Varadachariar, regretting that I hadn’t seen the titans. I’d say Athai, I am content to be with you."

Searching his own way

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

After Rukmini Devi passed away, Sitaram Sir had to resort to private tuitions to make both ends meet.

He knew heartbreak: A daughter died young. The music he composed was attributed to others.

He said, "I don’t know. I blame those who took the credit, not Athai. She made me what I am, she made me compose that music."

Finally, circumstances compelled him to quit Kalakshetra.

It was too late to develop career of concert musician.

Sitaram Sir signs, "Aasaiyellam Niraasaiyaachu"(hopes turned to ashes). He recalls indifferent sabhas and skeptical colleagues.

Despite a primetime concert at the Music Academy, he bore the stamp of nattuvangam. "My guru was sadder than me. He was proud of my grasp of complex pallavis… "

Nevertheless, Sitaram Sir sang on AIR, and won kudos for his vadya vrinda.

In 1985 he founded his own institution, The Kalapeetham School of Dance and Music in India, U.S.A. and Singapore, and has produced accomplished graduates of both music and dance.

He continued teaching, touring, performing and conducting performances, composing music and choreographing dance

He associates himself with Rukmini Devi and Kalakshetra, with those golden years when the great talent of Rukmini Devi brought into life all richness of Kalakshetra dance dramas. He signs with regret, that those golden years are gone. "The problems were trifles compared to the immeasurable artistic gains. Imagine spending 24 years with those extraordinary vidwans! The joy I felt in Kalakshetra is something I won’t know again."

Awards and distinctions

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

Sitaram Sir receives Tagor Award from Sangeet Natak Academy at function which was conducted at the Madras Music Academy, Chennai on May 2nd, 2012. With Smt. Leela Samson, the chairman of Sangeet Natak Academy.

Shri Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma received Tagor Award, "Music for Dance" from Sangeet Natak Academy on May 2nd, 2012.

The Music Academy is proud to present him the TTK Memorial Award.

He is the Asthana Vidwan of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam and has been recognized by several cultural organizations.

He is an "A" grade musician of AIR-Madras for both light and classical music.

He a Director of Kalapeetam, dance and music institution.

He is also the principal of Sangeetha Gurukulam.

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

Sitaram Sir is felicitated on Silver Jubilee Celebrations of Kala Darsana, the school of Bharatanatyam founded and directed by Jayanthi Subramaniam

Recently, Sitaram Sir received falicitation at the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of Kala Darsana, the school of Bharatanatyam founded and directed by Jayanthi Subramaniam. He was felicitated along with great Gurus, Kalanidhi Narayanan and Adayar Lakshmanan. The president of the Madras Music Academy, N. Murali was the chief guest who facilitated the Gurus.

Compositions

In 1961, he composed and produced a dance drama entitled "The Song of Harvest" for the summer drama festival in New Delhi.

While being at Kalakshetra, he composed ballets in Tamil and Sanskrit for Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale: Meenakshi Kalyanam (Tamil), Ajamailopakyanam and Kurmavataram (Sanskrit).

He has also produced musical operas for All India Radio (AIR).

His compositions, like "Thiruneelakanta Nayanar," have been produced as dance dramas in South Africa by Mrs. Bhama Mahalingam (an alumnus of Kalakshetra), and "Bhagavad Gita" in California by Mini Janislawski (disciple of Smt. Balasaraswati).

He composed and choreographed "RITU," which was presented by Kalapeetham students at I.T.I. Madras.

He participated and worked in Paris with the world famous ballet choreographer and producer, Maurice Bejant, in connection with the festival of the 200th year anniversary of the French Revolution (1989).

Sitarama Sarma holds a diploma in Nattuvangam and is a specialist in the compositions of Mysore Vasudevachar. He has a vast repertoire of pada varnams, tana varnams, padams and javalis.

He has set to music many verses including those of the Tamil poets, Subramania Bharati, Kamban and Kalidasa.

Products

There is one DVD product, comprising some video documentation of Sir’s unforgettable lessons - Nattuvangam The Cadence & Conduct 2 DVD Pack (produced by Kalakriya, http://www.kalakriya.com/). It is wonderful video, unfortunately, Sir speak Tamil only (through his English is just perfect, in speech and in music).

Disciples

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

The great bulk of information about Sitaram Sir is available in form of numerous references of his former and current students. All of them mention his name with great affection and pride. Sitaram Sir never published his reminiscences or memoirs. He speaks about his Guru, Rukmini Devi Arundale, always in present tense. She is alive and present in every minute of his life.

He often speaks of his students, past and present. Listening to his stories is a great pleasure for mind and feeling heart. Listening to his histories we, his students, got to know much more about him as a person, about his views and attitudes. We also got inspired by watching this great life, supported by other great lives and supporting so many other minor lives as well!

The famous student of Sitaram Sir is T.M. Krishna, the renown Carnatic vocalist. He is beloved child of Carnatic music and the most precious gem in Sitaram Sir’s long line of disciples. Sitaram Sir always speaks of him with great concern and (!) respect. I think, inborn artistic vision and great respect to talent, as a God’s gift, especially the gift in music, makes Sir to give not only warm attention, but deep and sincere care and respect to talent and gifts of his students. We all felt this attitude of him. He notices where the student is quick, where the student is slow. As if he can see inside the mind or heart. Somehow the atmosphere round him makes you do well, as if his only presence awakes seeds of talent hidden inside, in some dark and dusty corner, forlorn and unattended.

He gives great knowledge, but besides of that he gives confidence. Good confidence to do something different, something which you would never dare to do. Something important, which gives you right to sit beside this great Guru.

Reminiscences of Sitaram Sir about T.M. Krishna

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

As Sitaram Sir recollects, "When I taught his mother, (T.M.) Krishna could barely talk, but would sit with a stick on his lap - his tambura! I took him on tours. In Paris I nursed him through measles. His father was irked by the child’s playfulness. I told him that one day Krishna would become a leading vidwan. I didn’t get to be a concert musician, but my child is singing good, Sampradaya music. I’m content."

"I taught him the alankaram-s in different ragas. I taught him lessons in the old format, including what is known as "Nagabandha swaram". He sang clearly in five-and-half kattai. I was happy teaching him," Sarma recalls.

"Seriousness comes only after a certain level, but right from the beginning I knew that this boy had asadhya gnanam. He could easily translate into swara any note or phrase I sang. His cousins, girls who had also started learning from me, soon discontinued their lessons as they were unable to match his level."

"Krishna’s first concert was in 1988 at the Spirit of Youth series at the Music Academy. I was hesitant to let him perform, but agreed on the insistence of T.T. Vasu. This concert during Navaratri turned out to be his arangetram, where he impressed one and all with a very fine performance. Krishna was a picture of confidence, he had no stage fear whatsoever. He was adjudged the best performer that year and he received the award from sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. Following this he was placed in the noon slot at the Academy during the December season that year."

"There were comments that it was rather early to make him perform. But I was quite clear about allowing him to sing. I knew he would gain experience and maturity steadily; I did not expect him to sing a ragam-tanam-pallavi straightaway. I prepared his song list taking into consideration the sequence of songs, the sequence of raga-s so that they did not clash, the variety of tala-s, the balance of chauka and madhyama kala-s, etc. He always took my blessings before every concert and asked for my opinion afterwards. My first response would be an encouraging "Well done". Later we would go into the details and work out the areas where he had to improve."

"Krishna has the gift of vaak suddhi - clarity of diction. I have taught him the meaning of every song, be it Sanskrit or Telugu, so that he can render it with greater understanding. To all that I knew, I added my own creativity and taught him to the best of my ability. I advised him to have utmost respect for our sampradayam. He listened to senior vidwans like T.V. Sankaranarayanan and T.N. Seshagopalan."

"At one stage I felt Krishna should approach a senior vidwan like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer to learn more kriti-s by the likes of of Dikshitar and Swati Tirunal. It was an amazing coincidence that Semmangudi was the chief guest at Krishna’s concert organized by Hamsadhwani in 1999. Highly impressed by Krishna’s skill, Semmangudi himself offered to guide Krishna. When Krishna’s parents consulted me, I agreed wholeheartedly. Semmangudi also appreciated the training I had given Krishna until then."

"Krishna decided to get married at a very young age. His future was still ahead; he still had to make his mark in the Carnatic field and reach the level of the great masters. Would all my dreams and aspirations for him come to naught? I worried as a father would for his son that his vidya would go waste. Krishna’s single-minded determination is well known. So I told myself: why should I have negative fears? Maybe his music will blossom after marriage. Krishna always listened to me implicitly on musical matters. I did not question him on this life decision, which he alone could make."

"I can now say emphatically that his music improved tremendously after marriage. After seeing this positive effect, I was greatly relieved. A sense of peace descended on me. I felt that even if I were to die then, Krishna and his music would live on to glory. Now when the world praises him, I shed tears of joy. I am happy that he involves himself in many more music-related activities like research. "He is my greatest asset. Even now, after attaining a star status, he informs me of all his engagements and seeks my blessings. He organized a grand event to celebrate my completion of 50 years in the music field. He was upset when I was given the TTK Award and not the Sangita Kalacharya award of the Music Academy. But I take it that this award is in recognition of my services to the TTK family!"

Sitaram Sir about S Sarada Teacher

Bhagavatula Sitarama Sarma

Kalakshetra, Rukmini Devi Athai and Sarada teacher are inseparable from my life. I feel very honored to write about Sarada teacher, whom we affectionately called Peria Sarada. My first encounter with her is an unforgettable incident. I did not know then that it was going to be a turning point in my life for the next 24 years. It was June 26, 1962, the reopening day of Kalakshetra after summer holidays. I was present along with Athai who had just appointed me as a teacher in Kalakshetra.

In a gathering of great stalwarts in music like M D Ramanathan, Boodalur Krishnamoorthy Sastrigal, Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma and Sarada teacher, at the mirror cottage (Kannaadi Kottai), Athai introduced me to Sarada teacher and then unexpectedly, Athai asked me to sing and I did so. Impressed by my singing, Sarada teacher conveyed her appreciation to me. Through my association with her for about a quarter of a century, I came to realize that behind her simple and unassuming appearance, innocence and humility, she is a great scholar in Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, with an abundant knowledge of music, dance and the fine arts.

Sarada teacher was a perfect complement to Athai in creating and establishing the great art institution Kalakshetra. Her enthusiastic support made me spend 24 years of my life in Kalakshetra. Her simplicity and open mindedness made it easy for us to approach her with any doubt at any time, And she cleared that immediately without any hesitation. Many times I have given vocal accompaniment in her classes and every time, I felt it was different from the earlier one and had new information. Take for example a single sentence in a song where Lord Krishna is sitting on a tree with the cloths of the Gopikas as they bathe in the pool or river. She would quote a lot of examples for more then five minutes, and at the end of it, we would be amazed at what we had learnt within that short duration.

Many great dancers and musicians from Kalakshetra are spread around the world, and many of them were created under the able teachings and guidance of Sarada teacher. She always made an impact on those she came into contact with. Whether it was a beginner or a vidwan in music and dance, she would always treat everybody alike.

I have composed the music for some of the dance dramas of Kalakshetra life Kannapar Kuravanji, Rukmini Kalyanam, Sabari Moksham, Choodamani Pradanam, and so on. These would not have been created at all without the contributions of Sarada teacher. She was ever eager and energetic in delving deep into the spiritual and metaphorical values of all the productions.

Her knowledge about Natya Sastra is incomparable. Through her vast reading, she brought to light, many hitherto unknown mudras in dance. Those have been followed by students and professionals of Kalakshetra with great admiration. She also taught jathis and Nattuvangam and I used to wonder at the depth of her knowledge in any subject she dealt with. I am indebted to her for the high standard of the Nattuvangam courses that I conduct now.

She not only taught arts and its nuances, but also religious and cultural values to the students and teachers as well. i know all the slokas and ways of doing different poojas because of what Sarada teacher taught me. When teaching slokas, she was meticulous in explaining the meaning and how the words had to be pronounced, nothing short of perfection would satisfy her.

Sarada teacher was very fruitful to art and could not tolerate any blemish in it. At times, she never hesitated to point out things even to Athai when it was necessary. She is also a great critic. With pen and notebook in hand, she would sit quietly in a corner and observe the program. Athai treasured her views greatly and would pass on her comments to the concerned artists immediately. This proved to be of immeasurable help for all of us to improve and become renowned artists in this world.

I hail from a Telugu family, born and brought up in Andhra Pradesh at the Kuchipudi village. I did not know Tamil language or any other language for that matter but I composed many songs in Tamil, Bengali and Sanskrit also, Because of the inspiration given by Sarada teacher for one’s self development. She taught us nor to give much importance to money or hardship if one desires to achieve something in life. In the 24 years of my life in Kalakshetra, there was not a single day i felt tired of lethargic.

My whole attitude towards life, the importance of values attached to each deed you do, has been groomed under Rukmini Devi Athai and Sarada teacher. I am really grateful to God for having known such great souls. Sarada teacher has been my friend, philosopher and guide till date.

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