The arts have a role beyond the arc lights. Anjana Rajan meets classical artistes who don’t live in ivory towers
They prefer kurta-pyjama to jeans and T-shirts and handlooms made by unknown weavers to reputed fashion brands. Adept at English and other European languages, they insist on lining their eyes with kohl like village damsels. Ragas waft from their car stereos, though they may be on first name terms with star directors and actors of Bollywood. There is something about India’s classical artists…those Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi dancers, those Hindustani ustads and Carnatic vidwans. Planets in their own orbit, they represent India’s culture, yet seem to miss its contemporary essence.
What can such beings know of real life? But while some musicians and dancers might well fit the above stereotype, there are others who try to put into practice the theory that the arts are for everyone and have benefits to offer in every situation.
A holistic school
One of those who stepped out of the ‘ivory tower’ is renowned Kathak exponent Vaswati Misra. A disciple of Pandit Birju Maharaj, Vaswati made a name for herself as a virtuoso soloist as well as duet partner with her husband, Krishna Mohan Misra, son of the legendary Pandit Shambhu Maharaj. Vaswati tasted success at the national and international level. In the 1980s and ’90s, hers was a name commonly featured in festivals of classical dance. Under the umbrella of her organisation Dhwani she taught students and created a repertory. And then in 2003, she added a very different kind of venue to her itinerary by founding Dhwani Zaroorat, a holistic school for children of Delhi slums.
“We had academics and performing arts, yoga, everything. I believe everyone should be touched by the arts in some way. They give you a feeling of sampoornta (wholeness). Even if you have nothing (materially), you still experience a certain samriddhi (wealth). I think this is particularly a need of the children of urban slums.”
Vaswati points out that children of economically deprived families living in cities are relentlessly exposed to the kind of grandeur and contrasts in wealth levels that perhaps rural children do not face so bluntly. Therefore the need to offer such children opportunities to learn the classical arts is greater. “When you can be totally immersed in an art, there is no match to this experience. And we experienced this at our school,” says Vaswati.
Dhwani Zaroorat ran for 10 years on personal funds, but it had to be closed down at the end of the last academic session because they “were running up just too many debts,” says Vaswati, adding she sank her income from performances and repertory work into it. “We had 14 teachers — seven for academic subjects and seven for performing arts. We had about 100 children coming regularly. We just didn’t have the capacity beyond this.”
There are still two rooms on rent in Khanpur, South Delhi, where the school’s materials are stored. Otherwise the school changed address every year. Part of the expense was in transporting the children to the different locations. The plan of the school was to follow the CBSE syllabus till class V and get the children to complete class X through the National Institute of Open Schooling. Some did achieve this in the decade that the school ran. Now the students are settled in other schools, says Vaswati. “We did keep a check on that. They naturally had no problem getting admission because they studied with us. When they joined us, students from higher classes would opt to attend a lower class on their own, realising their understanding was not enough.”
Vaswati says sadly, “We wanted to provide a hostel facility once the children crossed class IV, but gradually we curtailed all our wishes. I don’t want to ask anyone for funds anymore.”
She may sound crushed, but Vaswati is also firm in the belief that the school will reopen in the not too distant future.
Music: a waste?
We catch up with noted instrumentalist Rajeev Janardan on the slopes of Himachal Pradesh where he is preparing children at the monastery of Tai Situpa for a performance. “I come every month for 10 days. The children here are already into the kind of discipline that is disappearing in cities, so although it was initially difficult to work here, it is all bliss now,” notes Rajeev. “I have trained a teacher who carries on the training in my absence.” Teaching eight children of whom two are learning the Rudra veena, he says he is ordering four new small Rudra veenas and is hopeful such efforts will contribute towards keeping the instrument and its makers from fading away.
Meanwhile, in Delhi, Rajeev has been conducting weekend classes in the slums of Kusumpur Pahari in South Delhi for the past few years. Of these, one student has shown so much interest that he is trying to groom him more thoroughly.
“When we do this kind of work we put in our own money and the family feels it is a waste,” he says. On the other hand, families of students — whether well off or poor — feel music is a waste as an insecure career. Rajeev puts it bluntly. “No one thinks of all round development of the personality. And when things go wrong they blame society.”