In a city where Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music are often the preserve of the privileged, Kalakshetra serves as a counterpoint, offering a life-altering experience to its students, many of whom come from deprived backgrounds.

“Have you eaten, akka?” Kali asks politely, before picking up a stainless steel plate and helping himself to a dosa. He’s a third-year dance student, and his journey from Kovalam (a fishing village on the outskirts of Chennai) to Kalakshetra has been the stuff of dreams. V. Kali never imagined that he would, one day, learn dance at this premier dance institute, much less chit-chat over dosa and coffee with dancers from Russia and France. He ladles chutney and sambar onto his plate and goes to sit with Iris (from La Rochelle, France), Ernesto (from Mexico) and Venugopal (from Kerala).

From somewhere deep within the campus, the first bell rings. Kali runs to wash and put away his plate, before hurrying along the sandy, shaded path to the morning assembly at 8:30 a.m. In the five minutes it takes him to reach the Banyan tree, Kali talks about his typical day — breakfast, followed by lessons, and in the evening, rehearsing with friends. Every morning the canteen serves tiffin, like idli, dosa, and oothappam. “Others might find the menu boring, but I like the food here,” he says. “I didn’t eat like this when I was growing up.”

But he’s been dancing since he was in Std. II. “I thought I was dancing Bharatanatyam,” he laughs. He couldn’t have known, as there was no money for dance lessons. Kali’s father died when he was six-months-old; his mother, a coolie, raised him and his three sisters. Kali, in fact, had never heard of Kalakshetra until his sponsor, Tara Chand, saw him dancing for the inauguration of the ‘Tsunami Kuzhandai Valarchi Maiyam’ in Kovalam. Recognising his talent, she brought him to Kalakshetra, where he got an admission and, from the second year, a scholarship. “If I hadn’t come here, I would’ve had to go to work.”

Except, Kalakshetra itself was hard work. “The first year, my body ached from dancing; I cried, but I was also keen to learn. Teachers and friends helped. They taught me how to walk, talk, and dress. You know, I spoke no English when I came here, and I was very shy to speak up. Now, I can!” he says in a mix of English and Tamil. Dressed in a striped kurta, his wavy hair smartly cropped, Kali tells me about visiting home every other Saturday to see his mother. “She’s very soft. I want to earn money and look after her. And I want to choreograph; I want to go abroad…”

Outside the 100-acre campus, established by Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kali’s dream might remain one; after all, Chennai’s classical dance and music scene, besides being fiercely competitive, is often seen as the preserve of the moneyed and/or the understudy of the famous. Classes are dominated by the upwardly mobile, often hailing from communities steeped in the classical arts; and many of the budding artists are privately tutored and personally groomed. But here, Kali stands a fighting chance — and all that’s demanded of him is commitment, a willingness to work hard and of course, a passion for the arts.

“Rukmini Devi laid the foundation for a very democratic access to arts, cutting across economic strata and communities not normally associated with arts,” says Karunakaran Menon, Director-in-charge, Kalakshetra. “Where else but Kalakshetra,” he asks, “do you find a boy from a fishing village, a labourer’s son and a Mexican dancing to the same Sankarabaranam varnam, side-by-side?”

Founded in Adayar (inside the Theosophical Society) in 1936, Kalakshetra moved to the current location in Thiruvanmiyur in 1962 and has since garnered for itself the reputation of one of India’s premier dance schools. (Besides dance, music and arts are offered at the Diploma level.) Overseas students add to its cosmopolitan character, and its alumni today teach in every corner of the world. Together, they inspire the next generation, especially aspiring male dancers; only, not many are from Tamil Nadu.

If numbers are anything to go by, small-town Tamil Nadu isn’t sending (to Kalakshetra) as many dancers or musicians as Kerala; an irony, given that the art forms originated in the state. Several reasons are cited for these skewed numbers, among them, Tamil Nadu’s penchant for professional degrees, and the arts seen as something worthy of being pursued only part-time. “Moreover, Tamil Nadu has several government music colleges. But those who can afford it opt for private lessons anyway,” says musician Sai Sankar, former student of Kalakshetra and a teacher here since 1986.

Classical dance is, moreover, not perceived as aspirational enough. Tamilselvan M., a first year dance student, faced stiff opposition from his family when he left his job (as draughtsman) and joined Kalakshetra. His decision meant that the family was once again dependent on his father’s income as a security guard. With no knowledge of dance or music, they resented him — a potential breadwinner — choosing dance over a career. “But my friends are sponsoring my fees. Even if I earn one rupee from dance, it will give me more happiness than what I earn being a draughtsman,” he says.

But for Keralite brothers, Kailasanathan and Geethanadhan, studying at Kalakshetra was a childhood dream; one that their parents encouraged. Hailing from Kannur, the family has some connection with the arts (their father, a carpenter by profession, also dabbles in theatre). But it was the famous alumni from the region — Dhananjayan, Janardhanan and, more recently, Shijith Nambiar — who inspired them, even as children, to tell everybody they were going to be dancers.

“Kalakshetra’s male dancers are very famous for their bani (style); men, here, dance like men. Naturally, we want to be performers, but we also have to teach; only then we will earn money,” they say, pragmatically.

It is the same pragmatism that Venugopal K. echoes. Speaking in Malayalam — laced with Tamil for my benefit — the young, slim student says he’s very keen to be a performer. “But you can be a full-time performer, only if you’re from a rich family. Jeevika kaasu venum illaya, akka (you need money to live, isn’t it sister?),” he says simply.

There are plenty of job opportunities for Kalakshetra students, especially in private institutions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala (Government jobs, unfortunately, elude them as the students are only diploma holders — and not graduates — when they complete the four-year programme). Sunitha E. is waiting to take up one such job in Ooty. She needs to work and send money home to repay the loan taken for her sister’s wedding. “But the four years here have been great! I’ve learnt English. I’ve made good friends, and I’ve even forgotten non-veg food!”

Performance slots, however, tend to be trickier than jobs, especially for students from under-privileged backgrounds, who might not have the same patronage, networks or even social skill sets to break into the Chennai’s sabha culture. In their fourth year, students are encouraged to participate in competitions (like the Music Academy’s “Spirit of Youth”) and several have won prizes. The ones who do get a chance to perform during the music season. “As for in-house performances, students are selected if they’re good dancers; it does not depend on the colour of the skin, or pedigree,” says Menon.

Walking past the airy classrooms, we reach the big banyan tree; under its enormous canopy, students sit cross-legged, on floor mats; teachers sit in a semi-circle, on a raised platform; among them isGuru A. Janardhanan, former Principal of Kalakshetra, who trained under Rukmini Devi. The assembly begins right after the bell. A tanpura sets the pitch, crows caw in accompaniment, and voices rise in prayer and song.

Mohammad Rashan is standing on the second row, a little to the left of the Ganesha idol under the tree. He sings the praise of Goddess Saraswathi, with his eyes closed, hands raised, palms facing the sky. He’s from Kurunagale, Sri Lanka, where his father works as a mechanic. Rashan had previously trained in Kandian dance; here, he’s learning Bharatanatyam, but his family is not aware of that. What do they think he’s up to? “Costume designing,” he says, his cheeks dimpling as he smiles. “My mother’s family is very orthodox — some think dance and music is haraam; they will not accept dancing as a career.” But Rashan wants to follow his religion as well as his passion. “I do namaaz five times a day, I fast during Ramzaan and I also want to dance. Now, I will go to Colombo and start a dance school,” he says, a little unsure how his six siblings will receive the news…

There’s clapping under the Banyan tree, whose stout roots are etched with names of past students. Janardhanan is distributing certificates for the prize-winners of the past year. Sai Komala, third-year music student, is awarded a certificate for the highest percentage of attendance for her year. The great granddaughter of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Aiyangar, her journey to Kalakshetra was neither easy nor straightforward. She had no parental support, and lived in an orphanage before coming here. “When I saw this campus, I really liked it. At the orphanage, they asked me to go the Government Music College. I insisted on coming here, as the teaching is better”.

Devi. P, a first-year PG dance student is here for the same reason. “When I told my mother — a cook in a doctor’s house in Tiruvannamalai — that I wanted to pursue dance, she asked me to learn in Tiruvannamalai itself”. As the only parent (Devi’s father died years ago), with a son working as a lorry cleaner, her mother felt Kalakshetra was out of their reach. “But it’s precisely for candidates like her that Rukmini Devi introduced scholarships,” says Janardhanan. “She felt poverty should not stop you from learning the arts”. “And I want to, in turn, inspire students from small town Tamil Nadu to take up dancing”.

The infrastructure at Kalakshetra is clearly a boon for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For many here, routine visits to the sabhas — to listen to a Carnatic recital or watch a dance-drama — wasn’t part of their childhood. “But their challenges are not very different from the ones that foreign students face. To ramp up, they practise with their classmates, before and after their lessons. There are no restrictions on hostel timings. The talented and hardworking children show great progress, and catch up with their peers by the second year!” says Sai Sankar.

But while the curriculum (English, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit are taught, besides dance and music) and the ambience (outdoor areas to meet and practise and any number of classrooms to rehearse) helps, it’s often teachers who go beyond the call of duty to help bridge cultural and linguistic challenges. The students are openly grateful for the handholding, for notes being dictated in a known language, since not everybody is conversant with the medium of instruction (English). Shaly Vijayan, former student and a teacher since 1985, says that she can sense, especially in the first year, when a student has a complex and steps in to help. “The hostel too is a great learning ground, especially for languages,” she says.

But dance itself needs no language, I realise, as I watch a group of students rehearse in a classroom, next to Rukmini Arangam. Rashan demonstrates a move, while Sunitha, sitting on the windowsill, sings the swaram. Kali, Venugopal and Devi join in the dancing; feet land lightly on the wooden floor, fingers spread in full alapadmams; necks oscillate gracefully, and eyes widen and soften.

“Rukmini Devi envisioned this years ago — art touching and transforming lives — long before we used words like ‘cultural exchange and outreach programmes’,” says Menon. Indeed, Kalakshetra, the institution she founded, teaches one to live with the arts.