From an infant dream of dancer Rukmini Devi to becoming India’s finest dance academy, Kalakshetra, Chennai, continues to preserve its tradition and glory across decades. BY SNEHA DEY
A ten-minute auto-rickshaw ride from Taramani, through the narrow, congested lanes of Thiruvanmiyur, leads me to south India’s oldest and most celebrated dance institution—Kalakshetra. At 7.30 in the morning, the lush green campus sways with free-spirited boys and kohl-eyed girls and women dressed in single broad-border bright cotton saris.
I learn from one of them that they are heading towards the iconic 80-year-old Banyan Tree for their mandatory Morning Prayer— a tradition that has been followed religiously ever since the inception of Kalakshetra in the year 1936. A brainchild of Rukmini Devi Arundale, a revivalist in the Indian classical dance form of Bharatnatyam, Kalakshetra over the decades has been a melting pot of fine arts and culture.
Right after the Morning Prayer, under the banyan tree, Priyadarshini Govind, the Director of Kalakshetra, narrates the story of the academy, which, as she mentions, has also been symbolic of India’s freedom struggle. “Kalakshetra is so much more than an institution; it’s an experience in so many ways. And more than that, Kalakshetra, is the dream of a young Madurai Brahmin girl [Arundale] to spread Bharatnatyam amongst various strata of the country”, says Govind.
The remarkable journey started after the success of Arundale’s first Bharatnatyam performance at the Theosophical Society in Adyar that pushed her step ahead in nurturing her dream. Largely, her efforts was to revive Bharatnatyam from the Pandanallur to Kalakshetra style, which eliminated more the practice of what is more popularly known as Recakas, exhibiting uninhibited throw of limbs and movements of hip, neck, lips and chest to evoke erotic elements in the dance form.
Committing to her endeavoring venture, the founding members, comprising Arundale, her husband George Arundale and their associates from the Theosophical Society established Kalakshetra—the name which was suggested by Pandit S. Subramania Sastri, a Sanskrit scholar.
“Do you know what Kalakshetra means though?” asks Govind. I reluctantly shake my head for her to continue, “a holy place of arts or in Rukmini Devi’s words, ‘with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism.’”
As I walk down the muddy, leaf-strewn path, with lustrous manmade wilderness on my right, I come across the Instruments Cottage, a tiny one-room bungalow that houses musical instruments ranging from veenas, tampuras, tablas and pianos. However, what stand out are M.S.Subbulakshmi’s grand piano and Arundale’s small piano.
The walk from Instruments Cottage to the next stop is a long one; however the combined melody of ghungroos and the Tritaal notes of the tabla streaming out of classroom windows make it less tiresome and all the more worthwhile. “Rukimini Devi used to personally teach the students when she started the academy. She refined Bharatnatyam so much that one could see a sort of systematic methodology in the dance-form. She was the reason why a theoretical syllabus was first established for dancers,” says A. Jayaraman, faculty-member at Kalakshetra and my new guide.
A stone-sculpture of Lord Vishnu from Arundale’s personal collection stands under a tree while a bust of Rabindranath Tagore occupies the center-piece at the entrance of the L-shaped performance space—the Tagore Hall. History has it that when Tagore spent his eight-month stint at the academy teaching English language, Arundale approached him with her idea of Kalakshetra. Not only was Tagore impressed but he did everything to support Arundale to materialise her dreams to reality. “Thus, the hall stands in the memory of Tagore and also represents the first structure to be built in the campus,” adds Jayaraman.
Kalakshetra, as an institution and as an individual’s dream has seen its own share of ups and downs. The academy did not always stand strong on the sands of Thiruvanmiyur. In fact, Kalakshetra shared its campus with the Theosophical Society during its initial three decades. Testing times came when Arundale decided to relocate the campus and she and her associates had to take up the task of finding funds and energy to rebuild Kalakshetra again in the 1960s. Despite the struggle, what lies today is a 100-acre new campus of admirable beauty that reflects Arundale’s dedication and hard work which she had put 45 years ago.
My next stop is the Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium. “Rukmini Devi always dreamt of building an auditorium for dance and music that would shape her choreographies and adds on to the aestheticism of the art,” says Jayaraman. Arundale’s dream was realized in 1985 when the auditorium was inaugurated.
Leaving the auditorium behind, as Jayaraman and I walk down around the bends in the road, passing the faculty cottages and the hostels that are lined up on either sides, she asks, “You know Kalakshetra is not just about the auditorium and the halls and the museums. Do you know what it is really about?”
“It’s about her alumni and her dancers; people who are born out of Kalakshetra, people who made Kalakshetra what it is today,” she smiles.
History of Kalakshetra Foundation. Video: Shruthi Nandagopal
There are innumerous eminent names that are associated with the academy. From Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Arundale’s first teacher to Muthukumara Pillai, Chokkalingam Pillai and Karaikkal Saradambal Ammal were the first of teachers who taught at Kalakshetra. Renowned Kathakali dancer, Ambu Pannikar had spent the last six years of his life in the campus teaching Arundale Kathakali movements and set choreographies which reflected largely in Arundale’s creations.
Amongst the musicians, Tiger Varadachariar became the Principal of Kalakshetra in 1944. Noted violinist, Subramani Aiyar and musician T.K. Ramaswami Aiyengar taught music courses at Kalakshetra for several years.
In the words of Jayaraman, the alumni of Kalakshetra are what really define the institution year after year. Some of the noteworthy names that have revived the arts and culture industry in their own ways are Radha Burnier, Sarada Hoffman, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Sanjukta Panigrahi, C.V. Chandrasekhar, Ambika Buch, Yamini Krishnamoorthy, Leela Samson, Devoleena Bhattacharjee and Amala Akkineni.
A walk and a chat of over six minutes finally takes me to my last stop at Kalakshetra-The Padma Pushkarini, an amphitheatre constructed around a lily pond. “The pond of Padma Pushkarini is an effort of Kalakshetra to preserve the natural resources and to maintain the balance of nature,” says Jayaraman.
After three hours into the history and life of Kalakshetra, I exit the academy with anecdotes and memories of a lifetime. Kalakshetra was recognised by the Government of India as an institute of national importance in 1993 and ever since then has given financial support to the college.
A peek into the past. Kalakshetra Foundation archives.