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On a breezy day, the sight of the deep blue waters of the Bay of Bengal
rushing towards Tiruvanmiyur Beach in southern Chennai is beautiful. They crash into the golden sand producing frothy white foam. The foam sizzles and hisses loudly. It sings a duet with the roaring sea. There is a certain rhythm to the music. You couldn’t hope to spend the day at a better place.

And yet, there is a place less than a kilometer away that thrills the senses just as much. Kalakshetra—Rukmini Devi Arundale’s dream of a dance school. Within its numerous cottages, students and teachers combine to produce an effervescence and energy that match the rushing force of the deep blue waters. They produce a rhythm that is as perfect as the duet by the sizzling foam and the roaring sea.

Rukmini Devi is no more, but the institution she raised is keen on keeping her alive. The master dancer is missing and yet she lives through the purposeful steps of the students and those who trained here, like Mrinalini Sarabhai, V.P. Dhananjayan, Yamini Krishnamurthi, C.V. Chandrashekar, and Krishnaveni Lakshmanan. There are some dark clouds above, but Kalakshetra is earnest about sustaining the grandeur of its purpose, about sustaining the fundamental principle that brought it to life in the 1930s.

The year was 1926. A 22-year-old Rukmini Devi was touring Australia when she happened to see a dance performance by the inimitable Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. Enchanted by the experience, Rukmini learnt ballet under Pavlova’s soloist, Cleo Nordi. In 1932, she saw a performance of bharata natyam for the first time. It was an electrifying experience. She learnt the Indian dance form as well.

Rukmini’s decision to learn bharata natyam was a courageous one. The Chennai society of her age deemed it a taboo for girls from respectable Brahmin families to even see a performance, forget learning the art and performing it in public. But Rukmini mastered the dance form and even went on to give a public performance in 1935. The reaction to the news that a girl from a respectable family was going to give a public performance was typical of that age—widespread condemnation, even from great thinkers, social reformers, and educationists. But Rukmini persevered and won their acceptance with her performance, mainly because it had no trace of vulgarity to it.

As the applause died down, Rukmini Devi realized that she could help bring about a revival of Indian dances. And that through it, she could help India in its regeneration by helping Indians focus on art and all things sublime, instead of on materialistic pursuits. Out of this realization was born Kalakshetra.

Rukmini Devi set about building her institution. She assembled the very best dancers and musicians of the time in the country. Stalwarts like Kattumannar Muthukumara Pillai, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, S. Sarada, Chockalingam Pillai, Ambu Pannikarl, and Chandu Pannikar for dance, and Papanasam Sivan, Tiger Varadachariar, Budalur Krishnamurti Sastri, M.D. Ramanathan, and Mysore Vasudevachariar for music. And with them, she set about creating dance dramas. She set about touring the country and the world, giving performances and creating awareness about the region’s magnificent heritage. In 1962, she shifted the school to a 100-acre expanse in Tiruvanmiyur, close to the rising waves and sizzling foam.

Today, the quaint thatched cottages she raised in the campus are carrying forward her mission. On their terracotta floors, students sing, play instruments and dance under the gaze of their teachers. The classes are also a preparation for staging the dance dramas that Rukmini Devi and others composed. In one of the cottages, named after kathakali stalwart and former principal Chandu Pannikar, senior post-graduate students are practicing under the sharp eyes of their teacher, Pushpa Shankar. It is August.

Shankar, silver-haired and past 60, is the senior most teacher in the campus. She grew up in Karachi as Pushpa Makhijani, moved to Chennai in 1946. She served under Rukmini Devi for several years. Forced to retire, she now works as a guest teacher, a term she thoroughly detests.

Shankar is a hard taskmaster. It is obvious in the beads of perspiration on the faces of the 20 senior post-graduate students dancing in front of her; this despite a steady breeze blowing through the filigreed windows of the cottage. The beads roll down the face and drop on the shining terracotta floor. Shankar is stoic and unmoved. With a thattukhazhi (a stout, short wooden stick and wooden board) she decides the rhythm of the dance by continually tapping the stick on the board. The students stamp the floor with their feet, matching the resonant sound of the impact of the stick on the board. The effect is rousing.

The time is 10:35 a.m. Shankar asks the students to break into a varnam (a complete dance where every aspect of bharata natyam is represented). Dancing in the front row is Devaguptapu Vamsi Madhavi, 22. She is among the best students in Shankar’s class.

Madhavi dreams of becoming a great dancer. She is in Kalakshetra to get fulfillment. It was at the behest of former Kalakshetra product and stalwart, C.V. Chandrashekar that she joined the institution as an undergraduate student in 1996. She was learning dance in Baroda where Chandrashekar was teaching. “Go join Kalakshetra,” he told her. “You’ll get a firm foundation. You will be thorough with what you have learnt. After that, it’ll be easy for you to grasp anything because they don’t compromise with the style.”

Then, there was the advantage of learning under different teachers at Kalakshetra that appealed to Madhavi. “Having a different teacher for each year of study is good, because each teacher has his or her own key strengths,” she says. “For example, in my second year of undergraduate study, I had Balagopal sir who is an expert on abhinaya (gestures). And now, Pushpa teacher gives more importance to the stamping of the feet, which is a basic and very important step. She gives correction if we don’t lift our leg properly and stamp hard.”

Shankar interrupts the class several times sense but with a shade of a smile. And her words are sharp without sounding like a rebuke. Madhavi and the others love her for her subtlety. They admire her because she is earnest when she cajoles and coaxes them to seek perfection in bhava (expression) and abhinaya. Shankar’s class is physically demanding but worth every minute of it.

Madhavi is serene, focused, and quite tireless in the class. It is usual for students to stop midway through a routine to catch their breath. Madhavi’s classmates do so and so does she, though not as often. Still, she is hard on herself. “I need to build my will-power, because I can’t afford to stop mid-way, especially if I want to be a performer,” she says. “Sometimes you are not well and still you need to continue, because you can’t disappoint the teacher.”

At 11:05 a.m., Shankar relents and asks the students to stop. They gladly comply and sit close to her in a semicircle. Not wanting to waste the time leading to the bell, she sings a composition and, sitting, they respond with abhinaya. The bell rings at 11:15 a.m. to signal the end of the morning section.

Madhavi rushes off home for a shower, change of clothes, and a short rest. Home is in nearby Kasturbha Nagar, about 2 kilometers away. Till her third year, home was the hostel for girls within the campus, where she shared her room with another student. Then, her father, who works for the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), got a transfer from Baroda and settled in Chennai.

That apart, little has changed in Madhavi’s schedule at Kalakshetra since 1996. Every morning, she gets up at 6:30 a.m. to be in time for the first bell at 8:25 a.m. Assembly is at 8:30 a.m.; it has always been at 8:30 a.m. Assembly is under a matronly banyan tree, whose aerial roots have been considerate enough to spread in such a manner as to provide a canopy of sorts. Assembly has always been under the tree since Rukmini Devi’s time. There, the students, numbering about 150, gather together with the director, principal, and the teachers. The principal, A. Janardhanan, leads the prayers, which consist of lines from the Hindu scriptures, the Quran, the Bible, and the Guru Granth Sahib.

Assembly is a solemn affair that lasts 15 minutes. After which the students and faculty silently disperse to the various cottages to begin the day’s lessons.

The destinations within the campus are many. Kalakshetra offers three undergraduate diploma courses—in dance, music, and painting; and it offers postgraduate diploma courses in dance and music. Within music, there are options—vocal, veena, violin, and mridangam. The undergraduate courses are of four years’ duration and the postgraduate courses are of two years’ duration.

The first period is from 8:45 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. Before attending Shankar’s class, Madhavi had dance theory in Ambu Pannikar Cottage, within whispering distance of Chandu Pannikar Cottage. Shankar’s class started at 9:45 a.m. and lasted for an hour and a half. Lunch recess is for a little over two hours. The afternoon classes, broken into four periods, are from 1:30 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. The schedule has been the same, since the time of Rukmini Devi.

Tradition-wise, little has, indeed, changed at Kalakshetra. And Rukmini Devi is revered as ever, in a most obvious manner—her picture hangs in almost every room and in almost every cottage. And yet, Kalakshetra is a different institution from the time of Rukmini Devi. Today, it functions under the auspices of the Central Government. It has a governing board comprising a chairman (R. Venkataraman, former president of India), and governing board members like Pandit Jasraj, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Sonal Mansingh, M. Balamurali Krishna, Vyjayantimala Bali, Ustad Ghulam Dastagir Khan, Padma Subramaniam, and Hariprasad Chaurasia.

The fact that the institution comes under the purview of the Central Government is a cause for much unhappiness among many old-timers. “The Central Government is not qualified to run an art institution,” says one of them. “People who don’t understand art, as Rukmini Devi wanted it presented to the public, were brought into the management. Also, because of Central Government rules, elderly teachers like Sarda Hoffman and Pushpa Shankar had to retire (Pushpa now serves as a guest teacher). This should not apply to an art institution. Sri (Mysore) Vasudevachariar worked till the age of 99 in Kalakshetra, and he worked well, though students had to go to his house to learn. But the point is, those who learnt under him when he was in his late 90s are good vidwans today.”

The principal, Janardhanan, shares the same sentiments. Janardhanan, who is the son of Chandu Pannikar, says: “Kalakshetra had a gurukula system. Everybody was approachable. People freely gave of their time. That system cannot be implemented now because the government has stepped in. Kalakshetra is a government institution, partially, so there are certain rules and regulations. The rule that after 60 an artiste will have to be retired is the most dangerous and most painful. My father and other artistes served the institution even when they were over 80. My father used to say that he was learning even till the age of 70. So, there was no age for learning or for serving. That was the time of Amma (Rukmini Devi). She did not bother about age.”

The dark clouds do not distract Madhavi, though. Focused as ever, she returns after lunch and heads for the theater within the campus. Afternoons in the final year of postgraduate study for Madhavi are invariably at the theater. During her undergraduate days, afternoon classes meant more dance sessions, like the one she had under Pushpa Shankar in the late morning. But sometime in her second year, Madhavi was slotted into one of the dance dramas, in the best traditions of Kalakshetra of giving exposure to students. Madhavi was given a minor role—of fanning the king—in the dance drama, Bhakti Manjari. “It starts off with that,” she says. “Students then go on to do the main role.” Once she reached the fourth year of undergraduate study, she became a regular performer in dance drama presentations by Kalakshetra. Madhavi relishes the challenge of performing at the theater. She views it as a significant step forward in her career.

Madhavi, who is from Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, started learning kuchipudi from the age of 7 under her teacher, Chidambaradeeshitulugaru. She spent eight years learning the dance, after which her father was transferred to Baroda. The family relocated with him. There, Madhavi could not find a good kuchipudi teacher and, hence, started learning bharata natyam. The next move was to Kalakshetra, which she got into after she passed the entrance test. “I was asked to sing and then I was asked to dance,” she says, recollecting the interview. “They tested me more for aptitude than for anything else.”

Everything was smooth in Kalakshetra for Madhavi until one day in her second year she suffered a back injury. The doctor examining her diagnosed it as a slipped disc and advised her to give up dance. An adamant Madhavi sought a second opinion. The second doctor recommended yoga, mainly Sarvanga-asana; she took up his advice, practiced yoga and soon was able to resume her dancing classes.

If the back injury was a painful experience, getting a chance to perform in a major role in a dance drama was a pleasant one. The role came her way in her first year of postgraduate study when Kalakshetra staged the famous Rukmini Devi composition,Rukmini Kalyanam (1964). Madhavi played the role of Rukmini. “It was a very good experience,” she says. “Doing one of the main roles gives you a sense of responsibility, because the whole play depends upon Rukmini. You have got a major part of performing all alone on the stage. So, if you need to make the audience get into the story, you have to give out your best.”

Dance dramas demand a lot of energy and concentration from Kalakshetra students. They learn how to occupy the stage, they also learn about discipline in coordinating with others. “Performing in a dance drama gives you a lot of presentation skills as well as encouragement,” says Madhavi.

The theater in the afternoon is a variety of sounds as Madhavi walks through one of the western doorways. A violinist is tuning his instrument, a vocalist is asking a technician to adjust the volume. He intermittently breaks into a note to test the audio quality. Madhavi’s classmates, sitting right beneath the stage, fill the brief intervals of silence with their murmurs.

The gathering of the dance students and the musicians is for a rehearsal session of poet Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhavam. Rukmini Devi turned the poetical composition into a dance drama in 1947. Kalakshetra’s first principal, Tiger Varadachariar, composed the music for the drama. The play was last staged 15 years ago, about the time when Rukmini Devi passed away. Madhavi and her classmates will be reviving it soon. Madhavi will be playing the role of a divine damsel.

The students have been rehearsing for the dance drama for more than a month. There is no place for error. That’s the reason why the principal himself walks in to supervise the rehearsals. A graceful and outstanding kathakali dancer in his youth, Janardhanan is noted for his ability to grasp the subtleties of bhava. Dressed in a flowing white shirt and loin cloth, Janardhanan is prepared for a long session.

Janardhanan takes pride in the fact that he danced and worked under Rukmini Devi. He is keen on making the revival of Kumarasambhavam into a success. “We are trying to revive it without changing anything, even a step,” he says. “We have to be very careful and conscious about it. We should not commit a mistake. Amma (Rukmini Devi) has produced it. It is very rich, very beautiful. The story and the music are excellent and the dance composition is far, far perfect.”

The rehearsal begins. The vocalist’s voice is resonant, melodious. Madhavi and the other dancers enter the stage and become lost to the world.

The vast, high-ceilinged hall is empty. It is as beautiful as a Rukmini Devi dance composition; and so is the exterior. Based on the model of a Kuttambalam (Kerala dance theater), the Kalakshetra theater looks as solid as a fortress; and yet it is graceful and hospitable.

It will greet dance enthusiasts when they converge on the campus to see the vintage dance drama. Rukmini Devi’s dream is as alive as the waves that leap on the golden sands of Tiruvanmiyur.