March 1, 2018
(This is an excerpt from the March 2018 editorial featured in narthaki)
Kalakshetra Banyan tree
The last few days of February saw my Facebook and Whats App pages becoming FLOODED with outrage, anger and indignation at the recent events that took place on the campus of KALAKSHETRA. A video of a group dancing in a Flash Mob with shoes at the Banyan Tree area of the Adyar Campus went viral. An eco outreach event organised by a Chennai organisation also had stalls for prospective home buyers. Vegetables were on sale and all this was captured on social media. Also on screen capture before it was hastily taken down was a sign declaring spaces in Kalakshetra FOR RENT.
The Kalakshetra Alumni Association - a global group of eminent, active and successful teachers, performers, academics and social media influencers gathered their energy and began alerting senior bureaucrats in New Delhi about these recent misdemeanours.
Sifting through the barrage of messages and mountains of moans and groans from artistes, painters, photographers, weavers, designers and others revealed that Kalakshetra meant much more than a dance school. The 82 year old institution has played a vital role in the reinvention of modern Bharatanatyam and the reconstruction of a post colonial national identity via the vision of its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale (ATHAI). In its glorious and checkered history, Kalakshetra has seen its own crests and peaks but has remained a beacon of hope and a haven of peace and calm for all its students - past and present.
The morning multi-faith prayers under the Banyan Tree was the fulcrum of Athai's multi-faith vision. For the first time I encountered a multi-faith prayer that embraced Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Zoroastrianism strung together like a garland which was chanted under the Banyan Tree by staff and students every single day of my years on campus. The sounds and images still echo in my mind screen. It was a blissful start of a long and gruelling day of Adavus and Araimandi practice. I would have the wooden stick thrown at my feet by the stern Sarada teacher and made to stay longer in class for corrections. As I would stagger out of the morning sessions, the sight of the silent Banyan Tree would calm my frustration and soothe my teenage restlessness. I have since returned a few times to the campus and would always take a few moments to walk to the tree and remember those days when Athai would make her sudden appearance in the mornings and we would experience a collective "frisson" of excitement and respect at her erect and charismatic demeanour.
The 8am ritual was a MUST for all of us and the tree framed the solemnity with its wide embrace. The several pairs of footwear left meticulously outside the sacred perimeter was a familiar sight, as was the shuffle of feet slipping into them after we dispersed.
To watch a cheap Flash Mob dance WITH SHOES under the Banyan Tree on my WhatsApp got my blood boiling. And I was among the last to actually react since my travels kept me from checking my phone every single moment.
As comments, accusations and cyber yelling poured out via our hand helds, this flagrant violation of Kalakshetra's original charter forced many of us in the Alumni Association to return to the words of the visionary founder. Founded in 1936 "with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, DEVOID OF ANY VULGARITY AND COMMERCIALISATION."
The founding charter continues to delineate specifics about high standards, education without fear, art in conformity with tradition and other issues. And now, the presence of tomatoes, onions, and shoes!!!!!!
What this incident forced upon many of us were the following questions.
Why does a national institution of culture, education, weaving and ecology need to rent its space?
What are the norms or rental?
Who decides and when?
Are there contracts?
Who monitors and what are the penalties for flouting rules?
What authority do the board members have in these decisions?
With an annual budget of almost 15 crore rupees annually (2 million US dollars), why are rentals happening?
As former student, award winning bureaucrat and tennis fan Ananda Shankar Jayant asks, "Will Wimbledon turn into a Farmer's Market and Flash Mob venue during the off season?"
This widely publicised incident also attracted some hasty coverage by the local Chennai media but the thorny issues remain unanswered. Kalakshetra Foundation Chairman, R Gopalaswamy defended the decision to allow Reciprocity Foundation to hold their second annual eco awareness event on campus during which the DABBAN KOOTHU dance was performed.
Former directors Leela Samson and Priyadarsini Govind shared their individual views on their personal Facebook pages, each blaming the indifferent government or the nonchalance and carelessness that has occurred AFTER their tenure.
(Here are a couple of articles featured in the media.
What is the Ministry of Culture doing?: Former Kalakshetra director Leela Samson slams campus misuse
Claims about non-veg food, damaged floors are false: Kalakshetra chairman responds to Leela Samson)
The issue is not about who allowed footwear and who permitted the sale of tomatoes and onions. It is about CULTURE BEING IGNORED AND DEMOLISHED SYSTEMATICALLY AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL.
Without a director for 8 months, and the rot inside the campus among staff and students continuing unchecked, it now remains to be seen what is going to be done and IF the strident voices of the KALAKSHETRA ALUMNI ASSOCIATION will be heeded. Social media cannot bring about real change but it CAN and DID alert the Kalakshetra dance world about the shenanigans within the historic campus.
All over the world, institutions call upon their alumni to be associated and continue to guide universities and colleges.
WHY IS IT THAT KALAKSHETRA DOES NOT WANT ANY ONE FROM THE ALUMNI TO BE PART OF ITS BOARD AND ONGOING ACTIVITIES?
That in itself is a question to be asked and pondered upon!
Anyone who asks these uncomfortable questions is automatically blacklisted and called an enemy! Count me among those!
February 29th marks the 114th birth anniversary of Rukmini Devi. What a way to honour her memory!
KALAKSHETRA must be included in the Prime Minister's new vision of creating 20 institutions in India of international eminence. IITs will make the lists but why not KALAKSHETRA? The 100 acre campus which now serves a mere 200 students can become an active and energetic crucible of ideas, new thinking, research, workshops, movement investigations, conferences, creative conclaves, residencies, international collaborative experiments - the possibilities are many. Which other institution of culture and ideas encompassed education, music, dance, weaving, fine arts with animal welfare and ecology?
#SAVEKALAKSHETRA is more than a hashtag.
My once glorious Alma Mater is sinking and it seems it has almost hit rock bottom!
Do send us your thoughts.
Founder/Managing Editor, narthaki.com
From Kalakshetra Alumni Association
Alumni meet minister, say Kalakshetra 'desecrated' by Siddharth Prabhakar
Six members of the Kalakshetra alumni association including a senior railway official and a prominent dancer from Chennai met the Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma regarding the 'desecration of the sacred spaces' inside Kalakshetra.
Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai: Alumni meet minister, seek more role in running institution
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