At Kalakshetra, sculptors from a village in Puri have shaped sandstone into magical forms to adorn the Koothambalam that is being renovated.
In a secluded glade in Kalakshetra, a group of artisans from Orissa is oblivious of everything but the gentle music of chisel on stone. The sandstone lends itself to intricate sculpture, seen in a variety of forms in the exquisite temples of the State from ancient times. The famed temple of the Sun God mounted on His magnificent chariot at Konark , the Jagannath temple in Puri, the Lingaraj and the Mukteswara temples in Bhubaneshwar…
The forefathers of these artisans helped raise these grand structures, patiently scooping out the malleable rose coloured stone and fashioning pillars, forms, images.
Around the sculptors in the campus stand horses with their front hoofs raised trying to fly to the heavens while holding them aloft are bejewelled dancers; cherubic elephants that seem calmly content with their strength and prowess; Dwarapalakas with one foot upraised, weapons resting in their hands ready to meet any contingency with a serene smile and intricately carved wheels of the Sun God's chariot reminiscent of those found at the Sun Temple.
The sculptors, around a dozen, headed by master sculptor Bhagban Subbudhi are soon to return to their villages in Orissa, happy to have fulfilled their commission. They have been called here to execute these sculptures to adorn the Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium - the Koothambalam - that is being renovated.
The Koothambalam, inspired by the traditional auditorium in the temples of Kerala, was inaugurated in 1985. It was planned and executed by Rukmini Devi Arundale, the institution's renowned founder to fulfil her vision of the ideal space for performance. The auditorium was designed so as to “bring the devotional spirit of Bharatanatyam to the stage … as dance was so closely interlinked with religion.”
Architect Appukuttan Nair translated this vision imbuing it with his own creativity and enabling the beauty of Nature in the verdant campus to become part of the theatre experience.
“All these sculptures had previously been made in cement owing perhaps to shortage of funds. We wanted to do them in stone,” says S. Jayachandran of Kalakshetra, while theatre manager Jyothi Menon adds that the aesthetic and philosophical aspect of the original have been retained while state-of-the-art equipment is being added.
National award winner Master craftsman Subuddhi, says, “We are from Naikpatna village in Puri district. It is near Raghurajpur which the Indian Government has declared a crafts village.”
Subuddhi comes from a family of hereditary sculptors. “My father makes the wooden sculptures of Lord Jagannath, Goddess Subhadra and Lord Balarama for the Lord Jagannath Rath yatra at Puri – as his forefathers did.” Subbudhi who honed his skills at the training institute in Bhubaneshwar for two years is an expert in both wood and stone carving.
“I have 20 years of experience and exhibit my work at all the major crafts bazaars such as Shilparam in Hyderabad, Dilli Haat, the Surajkund mela and at CCI's craft bazaars. I won the national award when I was 17,” he states. “I love working at the Kalakshetra. I have learnt a lot about it and about Rukmini Devi. They came to know of me through CCI and sthapati Umapathy Acharya. All the craftsmen here are from my village. Four or five of them have learnt the craft from me while six are from the training institute in Bhubaneshwar. Orissa sandstone is soft but the work is not easy; it is hard to beat it with the chisel.”
Subbudhi talks of his conceptualisation of the dancer who holds the horse aloft. “The horse is soaring skywards and to me the dancer is Rukmini Devi who wanted her students to soar high in their endeavour. We have worked for four months, night and day, on these sculptures and we feel very fulfilled,” he says.
His group members concur. Sudarshan Maharana, whose father is a blacksmith, fashioned and sharpened the chisels every day. Sculptor Chitrasen Maharana sums up the feelings of his group when he says, “ We loved doing this work. I'm so happy that we are able to leave the stamp of Orissa in this wonderful campus. We would like to come back and see how the sculptures look when they are placed in the renovated Koothambalam.”
On Rukmini Devi's vision
Leela Samson Director of Kalakshetra answers queries about Rukmini Devi's vision for the Koothambalam, why Orissa craftsmen were engaged and not those from Mamallapuram , and her response to the sculptures: “I suppose Rukmini Devi's vision for the Koothambalam was that it should be used as the perfect space for Indian art to be showcased.
“The renovation was undertaken as it (Koothambalam) had started showing signs of deterioration - leaking and inadequate technical facilities besides being hot and dusty.
“Orissa stone craftsmen were engaged as the original drawings had the Oriya carvings and the stone being softer allows for carving more detail.
“The original designs were provided for them which were then redrawn with more detail by the sthapati. I'm delighted with their work - they were the best. The sculptures will be placed around the Koothambalam at the designated places according to the drawings and the vaastu.”