“You will die of sweat,” wailed my classmates at Maharani’s College, Mysore, when I told them I was moving to Madras. “There will be no Hindi movies,” they warned, as if that meant I was moving to the back of beyond.
Madras caught me off-guard. The heavens opened up, peopled with dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors, theatre persons… a rollercoaster of art.
A kindergarten teacher’s job got me about Rs. 80 a month in the seventies. To buy a Rs. 3-balcony ticket for Padma Subrahmanyam’s Krishnaya Tubhyam Namaha , I saved on bus fare by walking from Indira Nagar to The Music Academy. But life got richer as I rushed wide-eyed to Kalakshetra, the museum theatre or to Cholamandalam artists’ village to catch a painting show.
Joining a Bharatanatyam beginners’ class at the age of 23, with eight- and nine-year-olds as classmates was an adventure. I had no idea this decision would make me a presenter and critic and take me to the White House in Washington D.C. on my first trip to the USA.
I was refused a visa the first time I applied — unmarried, no assets, nil bank balance, a mere school teacher with a bright smile. “You have everything to make it big in the United States,” said the officer while crossing out my visa application.
But when 20 prominent citizens of Madras, including S. Guhan, the economist, and N. Pattabhiraman of Sruti magazine, spoke for me at the American Consulate, I knew I had arrived in this city.
On my return, I went to the visa section and told them I had refused a marriage proposal in the U.S. to be back here. “I would think a hundred times before moving out of Madras,” I told the visa officer.
Madras is the most open city, no matter what anyone says. It is here that Rukmini Devi Arundale made a bold experiment with Bharatanatyam and Kathakali in dance dramas. It is here that Chandralekha brought in focus on the body in dance. It is here that music stalwarts clashed on particular prayogas in ragas. It is here Prakriti Foundation was able to change the cultural scene. It is here that Dakshinachitra made people rethink domestic architecture.
It is here, a kindergarten school teacher was able to step on a spring board and rocket into a life of purpose and achievement; be a part of special events, work with slum children, and travel all over the world with not a penny spent. I am today a story teller of this city and I behave as if I own it.
It is Madras that I feel I belong to, kaya, vacha, manasa …
(V.R. Devika is the founder of Aseema Trust that links traditional performing arts, education and Mahatma Gandhi)