Friday, February 17, 2017

Foto Friday!



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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Visit To Kalakshetra - The Dance/Art School In Chennai!

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Kalakshetra Ganesha under the famous banyan tree!



Dance class under the Banyan tree (Image courtesy: here)

We went on a heritage walk to the Kalakshetra campus on 26th January, '17.  I wanted to go for this walk for a long time and at last I did it! The tour was for just the 7 of us and so we were able to grasp what the guide/ex.student of Kalakshetra, was explaining about the place, with passion!

First she took us to the 'temple', the shade of the famous Banyan tree, which Mrs.Rukmini Arundale had planted long back, around 1936, when she had started the school with one tree, one student and one teacher (this line is famous in the history of the school, it seems!).  Any new programme they planned, was started at this place, under the banyan tree, she said.  The Ganesha vigraha is the only god here, in the campus, she said.

In olden days, dance was practised by a particular lineage of people (Devadasis, means, God's servants). The families pledged their daughters to the temples who danced in front of the god during festivals.  Men in their family taught dance and played music (singing, percussion etc. and never danced). Apoorva said that this changed during the British occupation of India, when the girls were taken for private visits and made to dance in front of rich people.  So, girls from traditional/good families were not allowed to practice this dance form (Sadhir), which had many movements of Shringaara rasa (erotic movements).  Then came Rukmini Devi, who changed everything!

Rukmini Devi Arundale (Picture courtesy: here)

Rukmini Devi Arundale (29 February 1904 – 24 February 1986), was born 
in a Brahmin family in Madurai. Her father Neelakanta Sastri was an engineer with the Public works Department and a scholar, and Seshammal was a music enthusiast. He had transferable job and the family moved frequently. He was introduced to the Theosophical Society in 1901.

After retirement, he moved to Chennai and lived near the headquarters of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, where Rukmini Devi met George Arundale who was a patron of the Society and married him, much to the shock of the then conservative society, they belonged to....Read more here!

Once she had the opportunity to watch a dance form 'sadhir' at the famous Music Academy and got interested in dance.  She learnt dance from Mylapore Gowri Amma and with the help of Krishna Iyer (a lawyer, freedom fighter and art enthusiast), gave a public performance at the 'Diamond jubilee celebration of the Theosophical society'...no looking back later.  With the help of Krishna Iyer, she created a new dance form 'Bharatnaatyam' which didn't incorporate the erotic movements of the 'sadhir' type of dance.  Stories were taken from mythological stories and performed in dance form (dance drama).  Many other instruments like flute and violin were also used alongwith drama settings. Slowly girls from good families started showing interest in this dance form.

Then Arundale and Rukmini decided to start a separate school for dance and in 1936 (Arundale expired in that year itself, later), started this 'Kalakshetra' with the famous line 'one student, one teacher and one tree'! She bought 100 acres of land, piece by piece, from the funds of well wishers, near the beach at Thiruvanmiyur (Chennai, Tamilnadu).  The area was just plain beach except for a small fishermen's hamlet.  She talked to them and bought that land too.  Even now we can see a road going through the Kalakshetra from the beach, in to the city, which was given by her for helping fishermen, as a form of gratitude,  to use it as a short cut.

Slowly, she started getting students and she made the place as 'Gurukul', a residential teaching school.  Small small huts were built as classrooms under the trees which were planted by the students themselves.  Honorary faculty came from all over India to teach dance, music, both vocal and instrumental and slowly a full-fledged art school was born. Many eminent musicians like Mysore Vasudevachaar (famous veena player) and others stayed here and taught the students.  A room with all string instruments, percussion instrument etc. is named after him.  The class rooms are named after the famous teachers who taught here in the early stages of the forming of Kalakshetra.


The Mysore Vasudevachar room.  The veena which is on the top left was used by him and is still in use!

Some 800 trees are there in the campus.  Some trees had fallen during the recent cyclone. We were shown only a small part of the campus.  2 regular schools, hostels, canteen, looms where silk sarees with kalamkari designs are made, are all inside the campus.  One old water body is still there which is made like a pond with steps around.  It is used as amphitheatre and students conduct small musical get togethers here.

The pond where small musical gatherings are conducted by the students. The name of the pond is Padma Pushkarini.  The name Padma came from Padmasini, the first caretaker of the Kalakshetra hostel, some 40 years back, who was very close to Rukmini Devi.
This Vishnu statue is in front of the Instruments room.  A huge tree used to stand as a canopy near this statue, it seems and it is no more there now.  Fell down during the cyclone. Apoorva said that this is a very old Pallava style statue from the collection of Rukmini Devi.  She had collected many unique sculptures and artifacts from all over the world, which are kept in the museum yet to be opened to the public. 

Kooththambalam, under renovation.
The dome of the new auditorium can be seen among the trees.  The right side is covered by huge trees.  We can see the beach on the left side.  No multi storied building is inside, as far as we have seen.  Classes look like small small huts with tiled roofs.  We saw a dance class too with wooden flooring.  Very limited no. of students per teacher, it seems. 3/4 year dance/music courses are there.  Apart from Bharath naatyam, Kathak also is taught here mainly for male students. Only Carnatic music, not Hindustani music is taught.  But Hindustani music concerts are conducted often!

You can see in the above picture, the dream auditorium of Rukmini Devi, which is undergoing some repair work.  We could see only a part of the structure.  Still workers are inside.  The name of the structure is Kooththambalam, means Temple of dance.  The centre stage is built like sanctum sanctorum in temples. But no god's vigraha is kept there! She, Rumini Devi, was particular about not keeping any god's image/vigraha, inside the premises. 

Likewise, we could not take the picture of the current auditorium where music and dance programmes are conducted but you can see it in this link.  It is not a concrete structure but sort of open auditorium. I had attended some good dance/ concerts here.  Some are with tickets and many programmes are open freely for public.

The campus is huge and full of trees.  A pathway is allowed for morning/evening walkers and I and my husband go there for our walks.  Pure, clean air.  Security people can be seen on all sides, so it is very safe for senior citizens to walk.  Since Kalakshetra was taken over by our Central government, security is provided by them.  Now, it is called Kalakshetra Foundation after it became Government property. 


The area is huge but the duration of the walk was just around 80 mts.  Only a partial area was covered.  I read that MS Subbulakshmi's grand piano and Rukmini Devi's small piano are there.  No, we didn't see them.

Ruminidevi was a strict vegetarian and promoted vegetarianism!

One dog was following us near the pond and we saw many of them (a few pups too, which is rare nowadays!) around the campus during this walk and our morning walks.  Rukmini Devi was an animal lover and an animal activist.  Apoorva said that a few dogs come inside the class rooms, sit and watch the music and dance classes.  A student once told her that a dog who was a regular to a music class once left in the middle of the class it seems...she said that maybe the dog didn't like the way Kalyaani raaga was sung on that day!

Kalakshetra allows to conduct Crafts fair often in their ground.  I had taken this picture during an exhibition!
We had a good experience...separate tour is conducted to have a look at the looms, pottery making etc., we were told.  One day I might do that tour too!

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