First school art fete had 400 participants, the latest will have 10,000

Every journey begins with a small step. The State School Art Festival took the baby step 56 years ago, with 400 students and 18 events. For the Malappuram festival, scheduled to begin on Monday, the corresponding figures will be around 10,000 participants and 232 events. The growth has indeed been phenomenal.

C.S. Venkiteswaran, the then Director of Public Instruction, who is dubbed the father of the festival, may not have imagined that his baby would scale such heights when he conceived and organised the first festival at Government Girls’ High School, Ernakulam, in 1957. The idea of an arts festival for Kerala’s students took shape in his mind after he attended an all-India inter-university arts festival in New Delhi.

With bureaucrats such as R. Ramachanchandran Nair; Ramavarma Appan Thampuran; and S. Ganesh Iyer continuing the work of Venkiteswaran, with support from enthusiastic Education Ministers such as T.M. Jacob for instance, teachers who worked hard behind the curtains, and the press, the festival began to grow in size, stature, and popularity. More disciplines were added, and from a two-day event it became a week-long festival. If there was just one stage for the first festival, there will be 17 in Malappuram.

If the festival’s budget was about Rs.10,000 in 1965, it shot up to more than Rs.1 crore four decades later. The festival began to assume its present shape in the 1970’s, especially with the 1976 edition in Kozhikode, in which 57 events were conducted, including Mohiniyattam for the first time. In the previous year at Pala, there were only 28 events. It was also in 1976 that the procession, which heralds the festival in spectacular fashion on the main roads of the host city, was introduced.

In 1986, the Kalathilakam and Kalaprathibha titles were introduced for the outstanding artistes of the festival. Vineeth and Ponnambili were the inaugural winners. Manju Warrier and Vinduja Menon would be among the famous winners in later years, before the titles were discontinued in 2005, citing unhealthy competition. The Gold Cup for the champion district was introduced in 1987.

There have been many changes in the conduct of the festival over the years, like restricting the competition only to students from high school onwards, bringing Sanskrit and Arabic festivals under the same roof and including and omitting different events. One thing remains unchanged, though: the sheer joy the festival always brings.

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