‘A systematic audit of the quality of teaching and learning is the only way to redeem the lost glory of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University of Art and Culture’

Jnanpith awardee ONV Kurup, when asked to speak about his days as the chairman of Kerala Kalamandalam at Cheruthuruthy in Thrissur, is reminded of a day in 1956 or ’57 when he as a young man sat before an aged Mahakavi Vallathol.

Just out of college and ready to start his teaching career, Mr. Kurup was acting as an interpreter for P.C. Joshi, the first general secretary of the Communist Party of India, during his visit to the State. When he asked Vallathol whether he wished to achieve anything more in life, the poet placed his hand on his chest and said, “I would like to see Kalamandalam becoming a university like Viswabharati.”

Now looking back, Mr. Kurup is happy that Kerala Kalamandalam in 2006 became a deemed university for art and culture during his tenure as chairman.

Established in the early 1930s by Vallathol Narayana Menon, following in the footsteps of the movement started by Rabindranath Tagore at Santhiniketan and Rukmini Devi Arundale at Kalakshetra, the Kalamandalam became part of the cultural renaissance to revive indigenous art in India during the colonial rule.

Since its inception, the institution has been at the forefront of the movement to preserve and nurture art forms like Kathakali, Thullal and Mohiniyattom.

But today, the institution appears to be in a dilemma about its future. Those associated with the Kalamandalam say the present predicament is the natural outcome of the teaching methods adopted in the past, like Vallathol’s insistence on retaining the gurukula system which has been a part of traditional Kathakali training.

“In the early 20 Century, there were nearly 120 ‘kaliyogams’ that patronised the art. Once the feudal patronage was lost, the glory of art forms like Kathakali and Koodiyattom started to wane. What Vallathol did was to democratise the training process without changing the structure,” says K.G. Paulose, the first Vice-Chancellor of Kalamandalam. (see interview)

However, in the 90s, when students who joined the institution after Class VII completed school, Kalamandalam had to start higher secondary courses.

Then Kalamandalam went on to attain university status and started awarding degrees. Initially, the University Grants Commission (UGC) refused to grant the status, citing lack of infrastructure.

The situation was temporarily resolved with the Kalamandalam conducting classes and the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady (where Dr. Paulose was the registrar), awarding the degrees. The Kalamandalam is now poised to become a university.

“Unless there is major structural change – with school education segregated from the graduate courses with a separate principal – Kalamandalam is not going to get the benefits of being elevated to a university. It is basically because the government is not taking issues at the Kalamandalam seriously. Similarly, no positive steps are being taken to uphold the Kalamandalam’s role as a cultural institution,” says N.R. Gramaprakash, former registrar.

Kathakali maestro and former head of the institution Kalamandalam Gopi says the present academic structure is not conducive to conserve and promote art forms like Kathakali.

He says subjecting students to the ‘gurukula’ system, where training starts with the kalari at 4.30 a.m., and the conventional general education system is a mismatch.

“There is no point in introducing more general subjects by cutting down the time available for training and practising the art form. This institution has the potential to mould great artistes; new students have the flair too. All it needs is a vision. A new curriculum, which gives prominence to Kathakali training needs to be formulated through collective discussions,” says the legendary actor, who is now Professor Emeritus at the Kalamandalam.

Even among artistes, there seems to be little consensus. While Thullal artiste Kalamandalam Prabhakaran laments the general decadence of society taking the sheen out of art forms, veteran dancer and teacher Kalamandalam Kshemavati says the organised system of education has helped in improving the quality of art.

“It is almost impossible to make a living as a Thullal artiste. That is one reason why nearly 95 per cent of students opt for other classical dance forms and Thullal artistes have to look for other jobs for a livelihood,” says Mr. Prabhakaran.

Many agree that training at the Kalamandalam, grappling with the erosion of quality in arts and lack of respect for artistes, needs to be in tune with the changing times.

“It is imperative to have a monitoring mechanism comprising representatives from all departments and those who have worked in supervisory capacities in academic circles with access to art forms. The decision of this body should be treated as final. A systematic audit of the quality of teaching and learning is the only way to redeem the lost glory of Kerala Kalamandalam,” says V. Kaladharan, art critic and deputy registrar of Kalamandalam.

The Kalamandalam needs a major shift in perspective on how to position itself in the academic and cultural scene to tide over the manifold challenges it is facing. There are apprehensions being sounded against the Kalamandalam becoming a full-fledged university, like Viswa Bharati, a Central University.

This idea seems to have found resonance with the present leadership under Vice Chancellor P.N. Suresh, as the Kalamandalam is actively working towards redefining itself as a ‘National Nodal Agency’ for performing arts. The proposal submitted before the UGC has been approved and forwarded to the Union Ministry of Culture.

“The formation of a national-level forum under Kalamandalam and Santiniketan to coordinate and link all universities offering programmes in cultural studies has been suggested. This will facilitate exchanges at academic and cultural levels and will go a long way in arresting the decay in cultural ethos,” says Mr. Suresh.

The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development has given its consent to the Kalamandalam’s request for associating with Santiniketan for sharing curriculum and having interdisciplinary faculty training. This move would strengthen the theoretical and practical areas of research on performing arts at both the institutions.

“We are also working on a project where Kathakali clubs in all districts could take up training and awareness programmes at schools under the financial support and monitoring of the Kalamandalam. There is no shortage of resource persons,” he says, giving a hint of the greater societal interventions being planned for Kerala Kalamandalam.

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