Madras miscellany History & Culture

Dance gains respectability

E .Krishna Iyer (left) as actor, singer and dancer playing the part of Malavika in Kalidasa's Malavikagnimitra, staged by Suguna Vilas Sabha and (right) the Kalyani Daughters

E .Krishna Iyer (left) as actor, singer and dancer playing the part of Malavika in Kalidasa's Malavikagnimitra, staged by Suguna Vilas Sabha and (right) the Kalyani Daughters  

The Music Season is upon us and there’ll be a couple of thousand and more performances attracting hundreds from abroad and other parts of India besides the local rasikas. But how many of them will recall that, though Music continues to dominate the much-extended Season with Dance a distant second (even though the Music Academy and a couple of other organisations now offer separate dance festivals), there was a time when there was no dance at all to be seen by the public. Sadir, now Bharata Natyam, were reserved for temple spaces, private get-togethers and nautch parties. Dance gaining respectability was made possible through the sustained efforts of E. Krishna Iyer, an advocate, actor, dancer, musician, singer, and freedom-fighter who went to jail.

Krishna Iyer’s arguments in public, debates in the press and persuasion at Music Academy meetings resulted in the Academy hosting in March 1931 a path-breaking recital by the Kalyani Daughters, two young girls whose mother was a well-known devadasi dancer. The Academy later recorded, “An entirely new line was struck this year by the Kalyani Daughters of Tanjore. It has almost become a fashion now-a-days to condemn the Indian Nautch and look askance at it. In our view this condemnation is least deserved… We are glad that the performance served as an eye-opener to those who came to witness it. We hope that in the days to come, public opinion will veer round and give unto Abhinayam its proper place.”

A couple of other recitals organised by the Academy the following year preceded a major debate at the end of the year which culminated in the Academy passing the following resolution unanimously:

Bharata Natyam is a great and an ancient art being unexceptionable, this conference views with concern its rapid decline and appeals to the public and art associations to give it the necessary encouragement.

This conference requests the Music Academy, Madras, to take steps to disseminate correct ideas regarding the art and to help the public to a proper appreciation thereof.

This conference is of opinion that it is desirable that, to start with, women’s organisations do take immediate steps to give proper training in the art, by instituting a course of instruction for the same.

This conference is of opinion that, in order to make dancing respectable, it is necessary to encourage public performance thereof before respectable gatherings.

As an earnest of its intentions, the Academy, on January 1, 1933, hosted the Kalyani Daughters at a second recital. That date, according to Krishna Iyer, marked the renaissance of Bharata Natyam.

Rukmini Devi Arundale and Kalakshetra took the next step towards making Bharata Natyam meet all the classes of that historic resolution. That step was taken when Krishna Iyer invited Rukmini Devi to attend a dance recital at the Academy on January 1, 1935. After seeing a disciple of one of the great dance teachers of the time, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, dance, Rukmini Devi decided to learn the art. Krishna Iyer persuaded a reluctant Meenakshisundaram Pillai to accept Rukmini Devi as a student. The rest leads to today… a season of hundreds of dance performances in the city.


The first lighthouse

With the city’s fourth lighthouse now open to the public, there’s been much written about the four lighthouses the City has had, adding to the material already written about them. But I write today not to tell their story once again but to place before readers a picture of the first lighthouse of the city. Forget this picture: I doubt whether any reader has seen any picture of that lighthouse. Certainly this is the first I’ve seen of what it might have been like — and I was certainly thrilled when I spotted it in a magnificent spread that constituted the end-papers of a recently-released book on Madras that is Chennai.

A large coffee table book, with a price to suit its size, bulk and wealth of pictorial content, Madras Then Chennai Now has a heap of fascinating pictures of the past and striking pictures of the present, to me the most striking one being the one divided between the two end-papers. The picture is titled ‘Plan & Elevation of the Bulwark of Madras extending from Clive’s Redoubt to the saluting Battery at the S.E. Angle of the Glacis of Fort St. George’. The picture shows a skyline of buildings between the two extremities mentioned and below it a close-up of what is called the Bulwark which, it is stated, was to be 10,800 feet long. Now the only bulwark I had read of before was something quite different; it was huge military fortification. The bulwark shown in the book, on the other hand is a sea-wall like we today see in the Tiruvottriyur area, but well out into the sea and meant to protect the beach and the buildings lining it from the destructive waves of the Bay of Bengal. And one of those buildings is the Fort Exchange (now the Fort Museum) with what looks like four metal legs forming a tepee holding up a cylindrical container with the lamps, as intriguing looking a lighthouse as you can ever see.

Whether this ‘bulwark’ was ever built is not stated, but the date 1822 below the elaborately designed title is probably the date of the drawing. I wonder whether the name of the person acknowledged below the date, ‘De Havilland, Major Acting Chief Engineer’ belonged to the artist or the planner of the project. Another date mentioned in the title, 1820-28, also leaves us with a mystery; was that meant to indicate the timeframe for the execution of the project? From what I’ve been able to check, such a sea-wall was never built. But the thought of it has left us this striking drawing with miniatures of all the buildings along the stretch of beach shown. And that makes quite a picture!

It’s the pictures selected and sourced by publisher Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books that dominates the book. Madras offers pictures of the past, many seen before but also some quite rare ones of people known and unknown. Chennai, on the other hand, blazes in colour as it provides several aerial or top-angle shots of the city never seen before. Both sets of texts add substance to the book, Nanditha Krishna’s a nostalgic text of a laid-back past and Tishani Doshi’s a lively recounting of a Chennai that today bustles with activity.

The pictures accompanying my text today show the lighthouse of the drawing, the first (1796), the second, the pillar lighthouse on the Esplanade seafront (1844) before the High Court was built on the site, the third lighthouse in the dome of the High Court’s tallest minaret (1894), and the fourth on the Marina (1977) to which crowds are now flocking to enter and see Madras that is Chennai from on high.


The travails of mapping NEFA

Fifty years ago next year, there was completed the detailed survey of what was then called NEFA, the North Eastern Frontier Agency, and which today includes the whole of what is called Arunachal Pradesh. That rugged experience in a forested, hilly terrain where lived few people and where existed “no communication of any kind” was detailed a couple of years ago by a leader of one of the three Survey of India teams that carried out the work. That officer-surveyor, who went on to become a Lieutenant Colonel and a scholar who earned Ph.D., now lives in Madras where despite being in indifferent health he keeps busy writing. Measuring and Mapping the Great Himalayas, published recently as an e-book by books, is an electronic version of the printed version released in 2011.

Dr. L.R.A. Narayanan, then a Major in the Corps of Engineers who worked with the Government of India Survey Department, led a team comprising 18 survey officers, 300 semi-technical survey assistants and 1,500 porters for the 18 months the survey took in 1962-64 even while the Indo-Sino War was going on in the area. Narayanan and his colleagues on the NEFA project received two years special training for it. Much of the survey was done in areas snow-bound for months. Food had to be air-dropped or carried as head-loads, like the equipment and camping paraphernalia, by relays of porters.

Compounding the difficulties with the field survey to produce maps on a 1:50,000 scale was the fact that there were no modern equipment and modern instruments at the time. Writes Dr. Narayanan, “Triangulation survey and ground verification of various details had to be carried out by simple plane table with aerial photographs from the Indian Air Force. We also had to use crude electronic distance measuring instruments… to measure distances up to 70-75 kilometres… Pictures were taken in black and white using box cameras.” Helping to put all this together for his book were eight Survey officers who had worked with him during the period of the field survey. When the book finally came out, Narayanan realised it had taken them seven years to put it all together.

Taking early retirement after nearly 20 years of service with the Survey of India, Narayanan joined the National Remote Sensing Agency as a department head. A particularly important project he supervised at NASA was the ‘Survey and Estimation of Forest Cover in several parts of India’. The map that resulted drew the attention of the Government of India to the “fast deteriorating forest cover in our country”, and led to the establishment of the Ministry of Forest and Environment. Another project he supervised was wasteland identification leading to opening up of much land for developmental activities. Post-retirement he got involved with academia, research and advising on digital cartography and remote sensing — all a far cry from what went into that memorable survey of the 1960s.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 4:43:22 PM |

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