Founded in 1936 and still a repository of the arts, Aparna Karthikeyan spends a morning at this institution established by Rukmini Devi Arundale
In the dappled shade of the big banyan tree, Kalakshetra students wait for the assembly to start. The bell rings at 8.30 a.m., and everybody rises: feet together, backs dancer-straight, and palms pressed in prayer. Seated on a pedestal below the wide canopy, lord Ganesh listens in, as girls in dance saris and boys in dhoti kurtas sing the praise of various gods.
A little before 9, students walk towards their classes, and I head to Rukmini Arangam, the old theatre. Under the thatched roof, on an elegant red-oxide stage, the rehearsal for one of Rukmini Devi’s later dance-dramas is about to begin. Shijith Nambiar, who studied and taught at Kalakshetra, plays Shiva in Meenakshi Vijayam. He takes his place at the centre, while dancers gather around him, instructing each other, counting steps to position. “This two hour, 45 minute dance-drama was choreographed by Rukmini Devi in 1977,” says guru A. Janardhanan. “The production was very well received; Krishnaveni teacher was the queen, I was the king; even during the final performance — in 1992 — it held the audience spellbound.” And now, 21 years later, Janardhanan ensures that every step is just as Rukmini Devi envisaged it.
At the Visual Arts centre three black koels sit on a tree; in the inner courtyard, fish swim around a lily pond. Mural painter Ajithan Puthumana is performing a pooja; incense envelops the gathering. After prostrating to Ganesha, Ajithan dips his brush in a natural brown paint — mixed in a coconut-shell — and fills in the eyes of the Ardhanareeswarar. Ajithan is lending the finishing touches to the mural. “This is the opening of the eye,” Lakshmi Krishnamurthy, HOD visual arts, tells me. “It’s done after a pooja, as it’s the eyes that infuse life into the painting.” As we speak, Ajithan applies soot black to the eyes; art students stand around him, taking photos and videos.
Dance, music and arts — Kalakshetra offers three streams at the diploma level, in the whopping 100-acre campus, says Govind Venkatesan, projects co-ordinator, as he walks me around. The sharp beats of the thattu kazhi, synchronised footwork, and thath-thin-gina-thoms, draw us to the dance cottages. In Nirmala Nagaraj’s airy classroom, girls are practising their steps; eyes follow hands, waists bend, pleats touch the floor in perfect aramandis. Portraits of Rukmini Devi frame one wall; on the other, “your life is in your hands” is chalked on a black board.
Keeping sruthi with her left hand, and thalam with her right, Nirmala instructs and encourages the students. “I’ve been here since I was a child, I’ve taught for the last 20 years,” she tells me after the lesson. Students practise for nearly three hours a day; and when they’re in their fourth year, in the run-up to performances and exams, the practise is still more rigorous. Akansha, final-year PG student, came to Kalakshetra from Bellary precisely for this sort of intensive training. Her fingertips and toes still alta red (from the previous day’s performance with the repertory company), she says she finds her course vastly interesting.
I walk with Govind to the instrument cottage. The courtyard — like every other — is morning-wet, decorated with a pulli kolam. Besides violins and mridangams for the students to use, it houses the grand piano that M.S.Subbulakshmi once played, as well as Rukmini Devi’s upright one. By the Padma Pushkarani (the lily pond, ringed by granite steps and terraces), a mridangam class is in progress.
Drum beats and violin notes meld with bird song; but the silence is often louder than the sounds.
Back at the rehearsal, Meenakshi marries her lord. Janardhanan corrects postures, adjusts positions; Shiva and Meenakshi climb on stage. The vocalist sings ‘Shobanam, shobanam, shobanamey’ and the dancing begins. And the beauty reminds me of Rukmini Devi’s words — ‘dance is poetry in motion’.