For six weeks this summer, I lived and trained at Kerala Kalamandalam Institute for the Arts in Cheruthuruthy, Kerala. Kalamandalam is the premiere institution for instruction in Kerala art forms, namely kathakali, koodiattam (ancient Sanskrit theater), and mohiniattam (also spelled as mohiniyattam). I studied mohiniattam, which is an exclusively female, classical dance tradition.
I set off for Kerala with generous grants from my university to dance, to read, and to write a documentary essay about “the gurukul system, the feminisms of classical dance, and the burden of representation faced by artists in India.” I didn’t know anything about mohiniattam; I suspected that it was quite boring compared to bharatanatyam or odissi. (Secretly, I expected it to be pretty easy as well.) And I didn’t formally investigate the mentioned essay topics, but I kept a journal, and I kept my eyes open. I learned that the traditional gurukul system is nonexistent, that mohiniattam is far more sensual than anything you’ve ever seen on MTV, that someone should be hired to wipe the floor of the Koothambalam, or temple theater, during monsoon season, and that “strike” is perhaps the most distasteful word in the English language. And then some.
July 6, 2005
“I am a writer, not a dancer.” I just keep telling myself that; that’s how traumatic my first day of class was. The five mohiniattam adavus, or steps, I learned were impossible! I just couldn’t get the bends. I sweat so much my skin was slick to the touch. How ironic that this dance is considered easy. (“Mohiniattam,” observed one of Kalamandalam’s administrators, “is lightweight bharatanatyam.”) How wrong that so many of us (me too, until just a few hours ago) think of it as the slow, interminable dance of fat women in mundu saris.
Really, the one hour I spent learning a few steps was so tough that I almost wanted to be hit by a train as I crossed the tracks to come back home to Girija Teacher’s house. What had I imagined? That the dance would be easy to learn? That, as half-a-Keralite, I had mohiniattam in my blood? That I would call forth reserves of grace and stamina from the deep?
Mohiniattam is a beautiful dance: serpentine, sensual, and slow. The dance is primarily religious or devotional; the main emotion expressed by the dancer is love, or shringara, in its many nuanced manifestations. I’ve heard mohiniattam steps compared to the swaying of coconut palms, the undulations of the ocean, the heaving of the elephant’s bosom, or the movement of the rice paddy fields. And it’s true; the dance has the same grace as many fixtures of Kerala’s natural landscape. But it is far from easy, as I was quick to learn! In the words of mohiniattam doyenne, Bharati Shivaji, “Mohiniattam has its own precision in its apparent lack of precision.”
July 10, 2005
I found last night’s mohiniattam performance sort of boring. Isn’t that awful? I’m here to study mohiniattam, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t get into it. It was obviously because of the high abhinaya content, with its complex historical, religious, and mythological subtext. But perhaps what’s wrong with my line of thinking is that I’m only considering the dance in terms of its entertainment potential. I’m thinking about audience reaction and appreciation when I should be reading mohiniattam as a discipline. Just as academic disciplines require education before access, you have to be highly educated, well versed in the discipline of a dance form like mohiniattam.
I wouldn’t expect a non-English speaker to enjoy watching a Shakespeare play, however impressive the costumes and swords. Even we English speakers need to be trained, need to cultivate and tend to the ability to watch and understand, never mind enjoy, Macbeth. Of course, there’s an aesthetic, translatable, instantly gratifying element to the dance as well. But that’s only the surface. Just the beginning.
Every day, I woke up at 5 a.m. to prepare for an exercise class, sadhakam, at 7. I joined the scores of other dance students for an hour of stretches, dance poses, eye movements, and back bends. I attended an adavu, or step, class from 9 to 11 along with all the girls in the eighth grade. Kalamandalam is a secondary school and boarding school for students from 8th-12th grade, as well as for degree and diploma students. At 11 I moved to a different kalari, or dance classroom, for my private lesson with Natya Mohini Natyasree Leelamma, the head mohiniattam teacher at Kalamandalam. It was highly unusual that a student who had come only for a six-week course should be granted lessons with Kalamandalam Leelamma, and I did my best to deserve the privilege of working with her. By the end of the summer, I had learned over a dozen steps as well as one complete padam, a primarily lyrical piece addressed to Lord Krishna.
July 13, 2005
To learn mohiniattam, I must become aware of both my spirituality and my femininity. Not just aware, more like hyper-conscious. My goal as a mohiniattam dancer is to project at once my love of God and my graceful, chaste womanhood. How does this gel with my purported communism, my feminism?
Is it wrong of me to associate the religiosity and femininity of the mohiniattam dancer with sensuality? The dancer sways, exposing her bare torso, glistening with sweat, her eyebrows quivering as she expresses shringara, or love, her lips half open in a smile, beckoning to the audience with her outstretched arms. She is full-figured, draped in cream and gold. You imagine that when she opens her hair out from the bun on the left side of her head, thick black tresses will cascade down her back.
Britney Spears should probably take a cue from Leelamma Teacher. But I digress.
It took me a while to adjust to life in Cheruthuruthy. I lived as a paying guest with the family of a koodiattam teacher, Kalamandalam Girija, since the hostel was closed to foreign students. Initially, I was disappointed; I had wanted to live on campus with the “regular” students so as to have the most authentic experience. But I soon realized that my living situation was ideal. I lived just a five-minute walk from the gates of Kalamandalam and managed to avoid the frequent water shortages, power cuts, resident snakes, and strict curfews faced by the rest of the students.
I couldn’t avoid one thing though, one facet of Kerala life that all the students and teachers have had to get used to: samaram, or strikes. In the six weeks I was there, I was able to attend approximately one month of class. Only one week out of six was a five-day working week. If there wasn’t a bus strike that prevented the teachers from coming to class, then there was an auto strike, or a government strike, or a student strike, or no water on campus, or a statewide holiday to honor the passing of a former chief minister. I was beyond frustrated. How could the students and teachers have such unpredictable schedules? Such lackadaisical attitudes toward class time? Didn’t the term “gurukul” mean that the teachers and students would live together? I was forced to relax and accept the slow pace of life, or otherwise I might have gone crazy. I was made painfully aware of my Americanness, how accustomed I was to a level of managerial competence, too practical and time-oriented and money-minded to adjust easily to the Kerala system of “To have class? Or not to have class? What’s the big deal?”
July 20, 2005
No class today … again! What am I doing here? Just wasting time. Kerala is God’s Own Country, sure. It’s a beautiful state: lush and forgiving, welcoming and enticing. The working class in Kerala has a higher minimum wage than anywhere else in India. The food is sumptuous, the saris beautiful, the populace educated, the political sphere alive and happening. But do not come to Kerala if you expect efficiency. And if you want to attend a month of classes, you’d better plan to stay on for about a year.
July 21, 2005
I am what can only be described as pissed off. Here the English language captures perfectly the way I feel, the resentment I have toward the Kalamandalam administrators and teachers, my almost violent irritation toward the rain. Sadhakam was cut short this morning after about 20 minutes because of the water on the floor of the Koothambalam. Let me get this straight. Every morning Kalamandalam students wake up and assemble in the Koothambalam around 7 o’clock for exercises. This is nothing new. And during monsoon season, rain gets into the temple theater. The floor gets wet. Muddy. Mosquitoes go to town. Why does it not occur to anyone to hire somebody (or ask one of the people already hired to sit at the gate and stare at us as we enter the school, though I’m not sure that’s an official job description) to wipe the floor at 6:30? If not everyday, then how about when it rains?
Tomorrow there is no class all day.
At first I thought that canceling class so frequently seemed antithetical to the project of the gurukul, a pedagogical system in which teacher and student live together and class takes place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Then I realized that the institution is only historically and theoretically a “gurukul.” Most of the Kalamandalam teachers no longer live on campus. But as I interviewed teachers about their understanding of the system, it became evident that many were in fact applying the philosophy of the traditional gurukul to their 21st-century classes. The result, surprisingly, is less class, instead of more.
The gurukul was described to me as a space in which students and teachers live together. The classroom has no definite boundaries. In fact, the classroom as we understand it in the West, as a limited physical space, does not exist. Learning can and does happen at all times, all day, during all activities, during every student-teacher interaction. These interactions are not scripted or regulated; they are not necessarily scheduled or planned, though they might be. The teacher formally “teaches” whenever she desires. When the teacher desires her students to cook and clean, or make preparations for the teacher’s puja or bath, the students obey. Not because they have to, but rather because they want to. Because the teacher is a parent figure, because the relationship is familial. Teachers and students alike are not interested in official class time. Learning happens unconsciously. Neither the student is aware of learning nor is the teacher aware of teaching. The act of living together is the instruction. One enables the other, the two are inextricably linked, and, in some sense, they are the same thing.
Journalist Tishani Doshi described the gurukul in a March 2005 article on Kalamandalam published in Outlook Traveler magazine: “Here, life is art, time is tradition, past, present and future coexist, and the body and soul are one. Students eat, sleep, breathe, perspire art …
“There’s no palpable sense of hurry, or of wanting to capture knowledge. This is not the path of the conqueror: it is the patient toiling of the devotee, with both guru and shishya aiming to erase boundaries of time, pushing themselves further and further until they enter the sublime territories of magic.”
I might have concurred, had I only visited the campus for a few hours, observed one or two classes in session, and drawn conclusions from that. But having been a student, I have to say I don’t view the pace and patience quite so euphemistically.
August 4, 2005
It was so awkward talking to Teacher and her poet husband today. I know I broached the subject of the gurukul, but I didn’t expect their almost accusatory condemnation of the “foreign student’s” understanding of the system. I don’t think they were talking about me, but I still felt implicated. They clearly wanted to drive home the point that foreign, particularly Western, students are always fixated on schedules and class times and getting exactly as much class as they’ve signed up for (translation: paid for). It’s an attitudinal difference, they said, an ideological difference. My teacher even said something to the effect of, “Because I wanted to complete a padam for you, we completed it. Otherwise, we could have easily done just a few adavus for over a month.” She looked expectantly at me. Was I supposed to thank her? I could have learned so much more than one short padam in the six weeks I was there.
What I should have said, but didn’t, was that we no longer live in or operate in that sort of gurukul. Therefore, those explanations (and excuses) hold no water. Foreign students come to study at Kalamandalam for short periods of time. We pay a considerable amount for our classes. And we cannot reconcile the teachers’ attitude toward class, the slow, inefficient pace, the seeming disregard for our valuable time and money.
But I didn’t want to be rude. And I didn’t want to be labeled a “foreigner.”
One of the things I set out to investigate during my time at Kalamandalam was what I believed would be the burden of representation felt by dancers and teachers who have to serve as organic models of Kerala’s art, history, and culture. What they present to outsiders is read as authentic, native—or to use an even more loaded word—pure, regardless of quality, technique, or context. How would they teach foreign students, unable to discriminate between “real” mohiniattam and distorted versions of the dance used in advertisements? Would they be resentful of having to share that which they have spent their entire lives mastering, with me, a foreign student, come only for a few weeks, who would doubtless return home and present what she’d learned—with all sorts of mistakes and inadequacies—as authentic?
I still can’t answer that question, but I know that most teachers I encountered (my own and others) were excited at the prospect of meeting and working with an American. Not because they expected me to be a good dancer; not because they anticipated some sort of cross-cultural collaboration. Quite simply, they were hoping that if I enjoyed and appreciated my classes enough, I would arrange programs for them in the States. Or I would present what I’d learned with the purpose of generating interest in mohiniattam that might eventually result in their being invited to dance and teach abroad.
Kalamandalam and its teachers—I am generalizing, of course, and cannot speak for those teachers and former teachers who I have not met—suffer from an apparent lack of marketing savvy. For over two years, the school has not had an official program abroad (although Kalamandalam artists do perform abroad as members of other private groups and institutions). This is not because of lack of interest on the part of NRIs, tourism companies, or foreign dance institutions. We all know how successful bharatanatyam schools, teachers, and programs have been in the Bay Area and countless other regions of the United States. And it is definitely not because the artists of Kalamandalam are reticent to travel abroad (their bags are packed and waiting). Rather, the administrative body of the school does not understand how to generate publicity, how to represent its artists, history, and tradition, and do them justice in our increasingly globalized, competitive world.
So I went to Kalamandalam. I lived there for six weeks and had one of the most physically demanding and intellectually fruitful experiences of my life, as both student and dancer. And I came home, and I wrote about it. And for many of you reading these reflections, this will be your only exposure to Kerala state’s premiere institution for the arts.
If Kalamandalam, the “stalwart cultural institution” described by Doshi, does not take on the responsibility of representing itself abroad—if Kathakali artists and mohiniattam dancers who have been trained in Kerala, who have performed in the Koothambalam, who have participated in the gurukul system, do not themselves present their art to the world—then there are those of us who would attempt to do so with as much love and admiration, yes, but far less authority.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.