One day, when Kamal Haasan was about 14, Natarajan said he’d run out of things to teach. He said it was time for an arangetram. The event occurred at Rasika Ranjani Sabha, and it was attended by the poet and writer Soundara Kailasam, Tamil Arasu Kazhagam founder Ma Po Sivagnanam and T.K. Shanmugam. Given Kamal Haasan’s religious views today (rather, the lack of them), I asked him if he offered the customary prayer to the stage. He said he did. He wasn’t a rationalist then. He used to pray for two hours daily, from the time he was seven. He was one of the few kids who could recite the Manisha Panchakam of Adi Shankara. In the late 1960s, if you walked by Eldams Road at 6.30 in the morning, you could have heard his voice.
After the arangetram, Kamal wanted to learn more, and as Natarajan knew of Kamal’s earlier interest in Kuchipudi, he brought in Guru Nataraja Ramakrishna, who later served as chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi. Then, when these teachers and their students were invited by the Maharashtra police to perform in a series of shows across the State, they decided that some Kathak was needed in the mix – a Kathak instructor named Kulkarni was brought in from Kolhapur.
So, at one point, there were three teachers in that Eldams Road home – much to the consternation of Kamal’s sister, who worried that this mix of styles would amount to Oriental Dancing – training dancers from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., every day. Kamal would dance for some six to seven hours, every day.
Kamal Haasan said, “This was a vibrant school. It was not classy like Kalakshetra. I wish we could have had all that, but this is what we could afford.”
The troupe completed rehearsals and went to Maharashtra. They performed about 30 shows, staying in police colonies and touring in a police bus. During the show at Sholapur, there was an accident. An oil lamp was removed from the stage, and a little slick of oil was left behind. Kamal had to do “this slightly acrobatic peacock dance,” which involved splits.
Kamal Haasan said wryly, “It was about a hunter and a peacock and the peacock died that day.” It was a trabecular fracture of the left patella, and it left him limping. But according to the contract, he had to be on stage, so the last few days, he played the chenda.
When he returned home, Kamal was told he couldn’t dance anymore. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have much of an education. Just to tease his mother, who was complaining about his not doing anything, he worked as a barber for a week in Ambuli Saloon in front of his house. (This part doesn’t just sound like a screenplay. Many years later, this is what his character would end up doing in ‘Varumayin Niram Sivappu’.) They wouldn’t let him cut hair, but shaving was okay. Kamal Haasan said, “Even today, all my moustaches, including the one for ‘Virumaandi’, were shaved by me.”
Eventually, Kamal landed a small assignment. The Christian Arts and Communications Centre, just across his house, wanted someone to help with the choreography for a dance drama that would disperse the word of Christ through Bharatanatyam. There, Kamal met K. Thangappan, a student of Jaishankar Master, the choreographer of ‘Chandralekha’. His assistant – Sundaram, Prabhu Dheva’s father – had left to pursue an independent career, so he was looking for a replacement.
“I thought I’d made it,” Kamal Haasan said. “I was in films.” But he wasn’t interested in acting – only dancing. And as Thangappan had trained under Guru Gopinath, the famous Kathakali exponent, another style found its way into Kamal’s repertoire. (It was a small world. Kamal, as a child actor, had worked with Guru Gopinath’s daughter in the Malayalam film ‘Kannum Karalum’.)
Kamal Haasan spoke of the dance sequence in ‘Nizhal Nijamaagiradhu’, where his character slips into the heroine’s class (she’s a dance teacher) and proceeds to give an impromptu performance that leaves her stunned. “The reason that dance was so masculine was because of Thangappan master’s training, because of the Kathakali style.”