The leaves overhead hold the dewy promise of a new day. Birds fly low as the rhythm of the teacher’s thattukuzhi and manai and the accompanying lyrics float through empty green spaces. Feet tapping on a wooden floor, the clinking of the salangai in time with the beat, the overarching but quiet authority of the sruti box, suddenly end with the teacher gently chiding a student for her rigid posture and asking another to glide his hands in time.
We don’t realize we are swaying to the taalam ourselves, letting the beauty of this place overwhelm us. Our eyes flutter close as we sink further into the bench, away from the sound and smog of a city that seems far away. Here, untouched, untroubled, the simplicity and completeness can be fascinating. And while the music lasts, this is paradise.
Kalakshetra – one woman’s vision to celebrate the divinity of dance. Translated as the “abode of dance”, Kalakshetra was established in January 1936 by Rukmini Devi Arundale. While the institution today offers glimpses of different dance, music and visual art systems, its singular focus has always been Bharatanatyam, and Rukmini Devi’s style has been the guiding vision of how the dance is taught to its students.
Until she arrived on the scene, Bharatanatyam was a dance form largely confined to temple performances by the devadasi community. Some believe Rukmini Devi saved a tradition that was fading into oblivion along with the devadasi practice; others say the dance would have survived even without her well-intentioned contributions. But what remains is history. By then trained in Russian ballet and inspired to learn from her native culture, Rukmini Devi took the dance from inside the temple chambers, sanitised and stripped it of all aspirations to the sringara or erotic, and launched it, not unopposed, to the public space as a divine art - where it has budded, bloomed and thrived ever since.
Her transformation of Bharatnatyam wasn’t, however, restricted to the much-debated issue of sringara; the dance owes its renewed appeal to smaller improvements – the stage arrangements she envisaged, the seating of musicians and their instruments, the placing of the lamp – and the larger revamp – the predominance of bhakti, the specially-designed, hand-stitched costumes for dancers and exquisite temple jewellery, all of which are ubiquitous in Bharatnatyam today.
Kalakshetra is testimony to Rukmini Devi’s vision for Bharatnatyam, which still instructs students in the Pandanallur style that she adapted. The 75-year old institution also teaches “Carnatic vocal and instrumental music (essential to the practice of the dance), the visual arts, traditional crafts and textile design, textual heritage, aesthetics, history and philosophy.”
It’s the morning of Vijayadashami – and the Vidyarambham puja is in progress; the ritual opening class dedicated to Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Learning. The students are back after a short term break and today’s special morning prayer is in the enclosed atrium, not in the tapovan (banyan tree) which is the heart of the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, in this 100-acre seaside campus of the Kalakshetra Foundation. Students and a few eager parents sit on straw mats, legs crossed beneath them, listening to the priest chant prayers and make offerings to the presiding deity. They fold their hands in front of the holy fire, the air redolent of incense and Sanskrit slokas. The puja is followed by Christian and Muslim prayers, and verses from Buddhist and Sikh scriptures. A multi-faith prayer composed by Dr. Annie Besant, which speaks of the universality of the spiritual quest, brings the morning’s rites to a close.
Teachers then step forward for the ritual lessons – initiating students into Sanskrit, Tamil and classical music. The expectancy in the air is palpable; a new period of learning lies ahead, where past mistakes can be corrected and the art can be perfected. Happy greetings of ‘Hari Om’ are traded back and forth; students touch their teachers’ feet; the gurukulam is throbbing with life again.
Evidently, the institution remains rooted in its cultural inheritance, disregarding the demands modernity can make on tradition, or the compulsion to trade in the old for an often unrecognizable new. Change is not anathema here - Kalakshetra has defied stagnation, especially under its current director Leela Samson, herself a student of Rukmini Devi – but its essence hasn’t been lost in the years that have passed in between.
“Even the trees and creepers here have something to say to you…it’s the magic that Rukmini Devi and others created that lives on.”
Sheejith Krishna should know. He joined Kalakshetra in 1989, when he was 18 years old, and continued with the institution till 2010, as a student, guest performer and teacher. The nurturing of the new campus (it moved from its former premises in the Theosophical Society in Adyar to its present lush location in Tiruvanmiyur in 1962) was facilitated by teachers and students of the time. “Rukmini Devi had an eye for detail – in dance, music, colours, textures, stage arrangement, seating of musicians, aesthetics,” he elaborates. The perfection is hard to miss.
In later years, students have added their own embellishments to Kalakshetra’s beauty. Sheejith, for instance, remembers digging the pond near the banyan tree, which has since been redecorated, with stone structures now circling it.
He credits the creation of Kalakshetra as much to Rukmini Devi as to the hosts of talented musicians and dancers who lent their knowledge of art to the first students and to the many able managers who administrated - Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Mysore Vasudevacharya, Tiger Varadachariar, Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, Mylapore Gowri Amma, and Sankara Menon. In more recent times, Kalakshetra has claimed new frontiers under its alumni and renowned Bharatnatyam exponents like Sarada Hofffman, Padmasani, Jayalakshmi, Janardhanan, Kunhiraman, Adyar Lakshmanan, and of course, Leela Samson.
The Kalakshetra Foundation, besides the College of Fine Arts, now comprises The Besant Theosophical High School, The Besant Arundale Senior Secondary School, A Craft Education and Research Centre including a Weaving Department, the Kalamkari Natural-Dye Printing & Painting unit, and the Visual Arts Center. It has two performance spaces - the Bharata Kalakshetra Auditorium (Koothambalam) and the Rukmini Arangam - four libraries, the Rukmini Devi Museum, hostels, staff quarters and guest houses.
The Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts offers a four-year Undergraduate Diploma in Bharatnatyam, and a two-year Post-Graduate Diploma, besides part-time dance courses for children. Kalakshetra has an ever-increasing repertoire of performances, many of them from the days of Rukmini Devi. While the highlight of the academic year is the annual December Festival, students can be invited to perform off-campus.
Fifty-eight years after its inception, in January 1994, the Government of India recognized the Kalakshetra Foundation as an Institution of National Importance. And rightly so.
Over the years, Kalakshetra’s fame has spread across the globe, establishing itself in the tradition of Indian classical dance and as a pioneer in dance-drama innovation. Students initiated into dance of any form and style flock to the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, eager to hone skills in the disciplined environment of this traditional gurukulam.
A first-year student from Ljubljana, Slovenia is one such seeker. Her Bharatnatyam training began in Europe and her search for its purest form led her to Kalakshetra. Despite an eight-year background in Bharatnatyam, she still feels like a beginner, thanks to “the perfection that the Kalakshetra style demands”. Her repertoire of styles are interesting for their variety – Oriental dance, Arabic folk, Kathak, Spanish Flamenco, and Contemporary Dance among others. But she sees herself imbibing these styles into her greatest love, Bharatnatyam.
Kalakshetra is, to many people, the beginning of the search for perfection, of purity and beauty in art. It is a rite of passage into a world shorn of everyday’s pretences, and into the abhinaya of the stage. When the lamp is lit, the lights turned on, and the music begins, only the stage exists, and the story that needs to be told.
But above all, Kalakshetra is art’s search for its true exponent. As Rukmini Devi said, "When I think about the events that led to the formation of Kalakshetra, I am more and more convinced that there is a divine destiny which shapes our lives. Many people have said many things about my being a pioneer. I can only say that I did not consciously go after the dance. It was the dance that found me."
- Tanya Thomas