V.P. Dhananjayan on his youth in the sprawling Theosophical Society campus, learning dance from legendary gurus and the joys of discovering Kalidasa's genius

Two wide-eyed boys from Payyanur, Kerala, arrive at Central Station, Madras, and take a jutka to Adyar, on a beach road almost touching the waves. As they cross the old Adyar bridge their escort points to the Theosophical Society's river-fringed campus. “Your quarters.” The boys see an imposing mansion, but trotting on hill station-cool Besant Avenue through paddy fields, (now Karpagam Gardens and Padmanabha Nagar), the jutka halts before a thatched hut.

That is how (C.K.) Balagopal and I landed up at the Kalakshetra hostel in 1953. The institution was then located in the midst of the sprawling Theosophical Society's palm, casuarina, tamarind, mango and sapota groves. We followed the eminent Kathakali Ashaan, Chandu Panicker, to Athai's (Rukmini Devi's) home behind the beautiful Headquarters Hall with its carvings of elephant heads. Athai was patting her calf when she saw Ashaan trailed by two scrawny striplings in blue knickers. She exclaimed, “Viswamitra with Rama and Lakshmana!”

Ashaan asked Shantha, a Malayali child in the hostel, to help us newcomers from Kerala. She was to become my partner and look after me all my life!

Tranquil campus

Silence on the campus made birdcalls and music audible everywhere. Senior disciple D. Pasupati sang as he walked. Veteran Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer reclined on his tinnai, veena across chest, one leg crossed over the other, vetrilai potti for pillow, a red towel identifying him as “Sivappu Thatha”… His post-lunch veena practice signalled our noon classes. Our 4 a.m. rehearsal was held in the Mirror Cottage flanking his house. His betel leaf pestle tapped out the beats as we danced, correcting when we went astray!

I had the mixed blessing of playing Mysore Vasudevachar's tambura with gold-embossed Saraswati and matchless resonance at his late night classes, and getting slapped when any disciple made a mistake! Can't complain. I learnt great songs and pallavis by listening. And the thrill of being recognised — as the boy who played the tambura when she learnt ‘Brochevarevarura' from Vasudevachar — by M.S. Subbulakshmi when she performed in our village!

Adyar was so remote in the 1950s nothing but Durga Hotel and Maduram Store. Even for vetrilai or sathukudi (two for one anna), we had to take a 15-minute walk to Mylapore. Only when we crossed the Adyar bridge did we hear vehicle horns.

But the world came to us! Celebrity visitors included kings, princes, statesmen, scientists, artists such as Martha Graham, spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama. Adyar's unique sannidhyam had vidwan M.D. Ramanathan coining “Adayaar adayaadaar udayaar adayaar” (Those who didn't make it to Adyar can't reach God).

Adyar was famous for its film shoots. We had our own brush with film stars. Gemini Ganesan, Lalita, Padmini, Ragini and Sahasranamam came in white pants and shirts to play cricket on our playground. I remember touching Padmini chechi to see if she was real! What a hero I was when I boasted at home about seeing the Travancore Sisters live!

December meant the art festival under the palm-thatched pandal on the playground. Students did everything: danced, sang, stitched costumes, made sets, props, devised palm/mango leaf decorations for archways and gateways. Our education included weekend tree planting and road laying in Tiruvanmiyur, where the institution moved in the 1960s. The girls carried sand and pebbles, the boys pushed the road roller. How we waited for the mattu vandi that brought lunch — sambar-thayir sadam and potato chips! Far more education today, but less discipline and teamwork.

There was food for the soul too. How we loved to listen to Tamil Pandit Viswanatha Iyer telling stories in his home Chandra Vilas in the evenings! At night, the drums made us sneak out to the Amman Koil, jumping and dancing as we watched spell-binding therukoothu.

Sanskrit teacher Adinarayayana Sarma choked up over the beauty of Kalidasa's imagery. But he also brought salt and chilli powder, urging us to steal kilimookku manga. Feasts of ‘Kumarasambhavam' and green mango!

Ashaan's daily ritual of picking and reverently placing flowers before the Tagore bust was an inspiring visual. We were terrified of this unsmiling martinet. Once, I did his signature piece ‘Bale variga' from Kirimeera Vadham, where Dharmaputra goes through many moods (kilakinchitam).

Imagine my consternation when Ashaan got up and left without a word! On my way to lunch I heard Athai calling out from the office upstairs, “Ashaan said you did well!” Next day, she came to see the same padam, used her Kleenex a lot, but said as she left, “Don't think I cried. It's sinusitis!” I have received many awards. But what can give me more joy than those reactions of my gurus?

BIO

V.P. DHANANJAYAN: Born in 1939 in Kerala, he is an eminent dance artiste and guru who studied Kathakali and Bharatanatyam in Kalakshetra, and became a lead dancer in Rukmini Devi's productions, before launching Bharata Kalanjali with wife Shanta, an alumnus of Kalakshetra. As dynamic gurus, the Dhananjayans have trained several generations of dancers, choreographed notable productions such as Sanghamitra, The Jungle Book and Mahaabhaaratam, performed and conducted workshops in many countries, and established Bhaaskara, a dance institution in Payyanur, Kerala. He has won several awards including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Nrithya Choodamani and Padma Bhushan.

I REMEMBER Congress leader Kamaraj was a frequent visitor to the Kathakali cottage in Kalakshetra. He sat quietly and watched irascible Ashaan Chandu Panicker teaching us with an iron will. We felt his intent focus, though Kamaraj seldom made comments. Once, he did break his silence to ask Ashaan testily, “Do you feed these boys at all? Why, you can count their ribs!”