In its almost 80 years of existence, Chennai’s Kalakshetra has become more about preservation than innovation. The appointment of a new director may breathe new life into this once-revolutionary institution
The appointment of a new director at Chennai’s Kalakshetra may breathe new life into this once-revolutionary institution
I have to struggle not to wax nostalgic about my years at the dance school Kalakshetra in the early 1970s. The location close to the sea, the simple thatched cottages shaded by flowering trees, the young students in simple cotton dance practice clothes, the prayers of all faiths sung under the banyan tree, it all still seems idyllic. That this had once been a hotbed of the most radical ideas of art had already long been forgotten.
In 1936, when Rukmini Devi started it, the very thought of a dance school was revolutionary. Until then the dance form we now call Bharatanatyam had been the exclusive intellectual property of the thevaridayal, or devadasi, and her community. Only the male nattuvanars claimed the right to teach and play the cymbals during performances. In an intuitive leap, Rukmini Devi realised that the dance had a conceptual shape beyond the physical bodies and historical contexts within which it had existed—that was something no one owned, and that was what she set out to discover and teach.
Rukmini Devi’s re-envisioning of the dance form had been ahistorical, but by the time I came to Kalakshetra in 1971, less than forty years later, it had acquired a historical gloss: Natya Shastra blah blah blah two thousand years blah blah blah temple dancers blah blah blah. It was a neat conjuring trick, directing the gaze away from messy, inconvenient facts in the recent past to a distant, hazy and surely much more glorious era.
Even when Rukmini Devi ran the place, the serene exterior hid passions, affairs and intrigues. A senior staff member grabbed and groped female students, including me. One man on campus was a notorious womaniser, rumoured to be having affairs with not one, not two, but three of the teachers. Students weren’t even supposed to talk to the opposite sex. Dance teachers were dictatorial. If I wore six bangles on one wrist, I had to wear six on the other—No Asymmetry Allowed!
Though there was much I hated, I stuck it out for three long years because at some level the training seemed to work. Young bodies came into Kalakshetra as lumpen flesh and emerged four years later as dancers imprinted with the ‘Kalakshetra’ style. Despite all the protestations of ‘tradition’, what set this dancing apart from other Bharatanatyam performances of that time were the hallmarks of modernism: clean, unfussy choreography, energetic pacing without too much digression, elegant costumes in carefully composed colour schemes. Kalakshetra stood for spareness, refinement, simplicity at a time when the prevailing aesthetic in Madras was over-the-top excess.
In the dance dramas, that style was shown to its best advantage. One year while I was a student, the whole Ramayana series was staged in the theatre ‘built according to the precepts of the Natya Shastra’ (never mind that Bharata said not a word about microphones or lighting boards). Even for me, a teenager brought up in the West, with no emotional connection to the story of Rama’s exile, the ballets exerted an aesthetic power. I was often moved to tears without knowing why.
Maybe the nature of the style and the method of teaching it, which supported dancing in unison, accounted for there being no Kalakshetra dancers among the top solo dancers of the time. Before Rukmini Devi passed away in 1986, there was a palpable sense that the best and brightest of those who had benefitted from its training had no choice but to leave in order to make their mark on the dance scene. Professor CV Chandrasekar was teaching at University of Baroda. Shanta and Dhananjayan were building a performing career as well as teaching at their own institution. Kunhiraman had gone to California. But none of these dancers made it to the very top.
Yamini Krishnamurthy had done so, and she had studied at Kalakshetra, but somehow she didn’t count, her own beauty, style and charisma obliterating any effect of the training. It was only when Leela Samson came to Delhi and quickly became one of the handful of top young dancers in India, that ‘Kalakshetra’ was used as an adjective for a top dancer.
By the early 90s, the Kalakshetra style had become a victim of its own success in overcoming competing aesthetic values. The main elements that had once made the style stand out—precision of hand and arm positions, a deep, held, aramandi, and clarity of footwork—were now a standard that every dancer on stage displayed. Pure dance, which is easier to watch in large proscenium theatres, was taking precedence over abhinaya, the expressive element, which communicates best in an intimate setting. One didn’t need to watch a Kalakshetra dancer to enjoy these attributes in a dance performance. Yet Leela held her own in a field that included brilliant charismatic dancers like Malavika Sarukkai and Alarmel Valli, bringing a depth and sophistication to the Bharatanatyam repertoire that couldn’t be found in any other Kalakshetra dancer, while remaining one herself.
Meanwhile Kalakshetra took pride in its own inertia. The Rukmini Devi dance-dramas continued to be performed, and the star dancers who had danced in them choreographed their own imitations, but Rukmini Devi’s genius hadn’t rubbed off on even those closest to her creative acts. She had groomed no successor. Her death left a vacuum, which the Ministry of Culture, now in charge, seemed in no hurry to fill.
So when Leela was appointed the director of Kalakshetra in 2005, it seemed like an ideal convergence, though it was Kalakshetra that needed Leela, not Leela who needed Kalakshetra. With her arrival the dance school seemed, from the outside, to burst into life. There were top performers from all over India, poetry readings, film showings, craft bazaars and, after a long time, interesting people expressing radical ideas on art. As just one example, Anand Patwardhan screened his film about Dalit musicians, Jaya Bhim Comrade, provoking discussion about Brahminism and caste at Kalakshetra.
And any time one went into Kalakshetra, there was Leela. She was very approachable, like a gracious host, personifying the open spirit of the place.
The first rumblings of problems were so petty it was difficult to take them seriously: a Ganesha shrine had been dismantled; Kalakshetra dancers weren’t allowed to honour Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; a former professor’s daughter hadn’t been appointed to a teaching position.
And if we on the outside asked ourselves why Leela herself was not creating new work for Kalakshetra, well, she must be awfully busy, and if what was being created by senior staff was kitsch at best (The Man in the Iron Mask?), it must be because the new culture needed time to come to fruition.
Leela’s resignation in 2012, well into her second term, came out of the blue to those of us not in the know. On the surface it seemed to be about the issue of her age. The Ministry of Culture had specified that the director could not be over 55 when starting, but had left the question of retirement open-ended. Without a clear directive, Leela became vulnerable to the default retirement setting once she turned 60.
Dancers around the world came together in support of Leela, though aware only of the issue of age, which dominated the online forums in which this was discussed. The general feeling was that Leela had resuscitated an institution that had become moribund, and a technicality should not cut her term short. The board asked Leela to withdraw her resignation; the Ministry of Culture, which first accepted it without—it seems—giving it much thought, now accepted her withdrawal with equal insouciance.
Leela did not return to her post for long. This time it was neither the board, nor Ministry of Culture, nor Leela herself who was responsible. The 16 dance and music teachers of Kalakshetra came together against her re-instatement, arguing that once a resignation has been accepted there is no procedure by which it can be withdrawn.
By then it had become clear that age was far from the most contentious issue of Leela’s tenure as director. Many more serious administrative questions were raised: how a contract for Rs 3.9 crore was awarded to Madhu Ambat for documenting the Ramayana series of dance-dramas, how new hirings were made without authorisation, how a contract for renovations to the main theatre was awarded, and so on.
Leela’s answer to my questions, in an email, was, ‘I don’t have to defend myself’. But that may be exactly what she does have to do, as cases against her are on-going in the courts. Gopalkrishnan Gandhi, the present chairman of the Board of Directors, stressed that as a Government-funded institution, its board must ensure transparency and accountability, even if that is seen by the director as ‘un-supportive’ or ‘obstructionist’.
A dance teacher who has been with the institution since Rukmini Devi’s time defended their joint action, saying simply, “We are artists too.” She disputes the perception that Leela brought new relevance to Kalakshetra. The day-to-day work went on as it always had, before, during and after Leela. I suggested that dancers in a recent remounting of Gita Govinda were about as exciting to watch as cold porridge; she disagreed vehemently. I said the costumes looked like they were badly stitched from old curtains; she countered that they matched the costumes of the original exactly. Value judgments from outsiders are irrelevant. In a thousand years, she said, Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas will look exactly the same, and future generations will find them as beautiful as ever.
Gandhi too takes a long view, noting that ‘every director, like every student and teacher…will have to bid farewell to Kalakshetra, and Kalakshetra will have to cope with the pang of that parting.’ Given the breadth and depth of talent in this country, he and the search committee set out with cautious optimism to find a new director, who, without falling into simplistic categories such as ‘administrator’ or ‘visionary’ would be able to nurture the ‘Kalakshetra bani’.
That the search committee chose a dancer of another bani, in fact, the Vazhavoor school, was a radical move, illustrating how little old labels mean in Bharatanatyam today.
Over the 77 years of Kalakshetra’s existence, the field of endeavour had shifted from discovery and invention to preserving and passing on. Rukmini Devi’s iconoclasm was slowly reduced to iconography. But now that unthinking reverence has given way, putting Priyadarshini Govind in charge has the potential to spark a creative revival. Priyadarshini Govind is the premiere dancer of her generation. Her dance is like water, brilliant and clear as ice one moment, melting and fluid the next, and positively steamy in the erotic sringara padams. That she is not an insider may well work to her advantage in navigating the internal politics of the institution. Kalakshetra teachers will admire the perfection of her adavus; they can learn from her sensual grace, if they are willing. If only I could be young again, I’d sign up to study at the new Kalakshetra.