Those were the days!
Photos courtesy: Natyarangam

April 10, 2017

Natyarangam presented an interesting discussion peppered with impromptu demos on OUR KALAKSHETRA DAYS by three stalwart dancers-gurus at Narada Gana Sabha Mini Hall, Chennai, on March 19, 2017. It was a lively discussion with the stalwarts sharing experiences of their golden days in Kalakshetra when it was in Adyar. The moderator was S. Janaki of Sruti magazine.

Janaki opened the conversation introducing Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar (CVC), V.P. Dhananjayan (VPD) & C.K. Balagopalan (CKB). A. Janardanan was indisposed and hence could not attend the program. CVC being the senior most narrated his joining The Besant High School in Adyar Theosophical Society campus for academic studies to do his SSLC and music lessons in Kalakshetra under Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal, T.K. Ramaswamy Iyengar. Those days, no boys were sent to learn Bharatanatyam and since Rukmini Devi wanted only boys to do the male roles in her dance dramas, she insisted on the boys learning music also to learn dance. When Dhananjayan intervened to use the word ‘naatyam’ instead of ‘dance’, CVC cut him short by declaring, “I want to say it in my own way!” The wonderful opportunities Kalakshetra offered to him made him an accomplished musician and also a Bharatanatyam artiste. He simultaneously continued his college education getting a B.Sc degree. Rukmini Devi gave him special privilege to stay in the hostel and attend his college.

For Dhananjayan and Balagopalan, it is the same story as both came from the same north Malabar area, and both landed up on the same day - October 5, 1953. VPD briefly explained that Balagopalan had already received admission through proper application process, but VPD was an intruder. Kathakali Asaan Chandu Panikkar brought him as an obligatory gesture to the school master Rama Poduval (Payyanur). According to VPD, Shanta was the first girl Asaan introduced to them and these boys who knew only Malayalam, requested her to take care of them. Yes, from that day till today, she is taking care of VPD!

The austere life at Kalakshetra Adyar campus put them through many hardships including getting up early morning at 4am, serving Guru Chandu Panikkar who was in his eighties at that time, morning pooja in the hostel, limited breakfast with 2 idlis, one dosa, 2 slices of bread, one glass of milk (no coffee at all till the age of 18), brown rice, plenty of vegetables etc. Every Friday evening combined bhajan with Dr. Padmasani, D.Pasupathi, Adyar Lakshman and other seniors. Compulsorily taking part really groomed them into a spiritual ashram like life. Veena Sambasiva Iyer took interest in students learning Bharatanatyam, correcting the layam while practicing in the Mirror Cottage in the early morning and making them put taalam and say the adavus and jathis, showing how experienced acharyas took interest in the students irrespective of their own field of art. It was a real old style Gurukulam, where everyone lived in complete harmony and like a joint family.

S Janaki with C.V. Chandrasekhar, V.P. Dhananjayan, C.K. Balagopalan

C.V. Chandrasekhar, V.P. Dhananjayan, C.K. Balagopalan

C.V. Chandrasekhar

V.P. Dhananjayan, C.K. Balagopalan

V.P. Dhananjayan demo of Kathakali

S. Janaki with C.V. Chandrasekhar, V.P. Dhananjayan, C.K. Balagopalan

CKB narrated how he and VPD took great musician and composer Mysore Vasudevachar (Pacha Thaatha as they called him) then in his nineties, for evening walks. During these walks, he would tell them stories of Ramayana and explain each character and their feelings and moods which helped them in performing roles better. VPD remembered Sarada teacher choreographing Seeta Swayamvaram in puppet like movements and CVC nostalgically jumped into action when Balagopalan also demonstrated the “bommalatta” movements. This was a prelude to the first Ramayana series of Kalakshetra in Bharatanatyam style where Dhananjayan and Balagopalan were cast as Rama and Lakshmana. Extempore they demonstrated the forest description. Hariprasad came forward from the audience to help sing those lines.

CVC was very enthusiastic to demonstrate the Drupad style singing. He was inspired by the senior Dagar brothers who were brought to Kalakshetra to interact with the inmates of the school and that exposure later invoked interest in him to learn Hindustani music while he was in Benaras doing his M.Sc and teaching Bharatanatyam in the University. He also said he had the unique opportunity to learn Ashtapadis from Papanasam Sivan under instructions from Rukmini Devi before his dance Arangetram. During those days opportunities were open to all and those with keen interest could imbibe many subjects to mould oneself into a total artiste.

Janaki pertinently asked VPD whether he could do any negative roles since he has always played roles of sober nature. VPD sprang up to justify that Kalakshetra Adyar days allowed everyone to learn every part that Rukmini Devi composed and VPD proved that by substituting for the role of Ravana in Seeta Swayamvaram when a Kathakali artiste could not reach in time to perform in Bombay.

CKB was emotionally charged when he talked about his role as Hanuman which brought him name and fame. He said he followed certain austerities when he played the role which gave him spiritual strength to justify the powerful character of Hanuman. Once while taking a leap from a pedestal prop, he twisted his ankle and a doctor in the audience came forward to administer emergency first aid. CKB narrated how he could perform through that excruciating pain and then fell flat. He said Hanuman only came to his rescue.

Many such incidents and experiences were shared with poignancy remembering the golden period in the Adyar Kalakshetra. It was interesting to know how Thiruvanmiyur campus was developed and built by students of those days under the able guidance of Dr. Padmasani. CVC paid high tribute to her, who was all in all in Kalakshetra - a doctor, hostel warden, watchman, musician, and strict disciplinarian without whom Rukmini Devi could not have achieved so much for the institution. A selfless soul - that was Dr. Padmasani. 

The audience felt each individual should be heard separately and more interaction would bring more light into the golden days of Kalakshetra. On the whole, the two and half hour session was educative, enlightening and entertaining not only for the connoisseurs but all rasikas. 

Watch the whole program