Song of Surrender

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Remembering Rukmini Devi and her Kalakshetra

By V Ramnarayan

Nostalgia is wishful thinking in reverse gear. At least that could be the worst case scenario when old men settle down like Mr Mulliner at the Angler's Bar and begin to unleash tales of fancy from the past, always seen through rose-tinted spectacles.

At its best, however, nostalgia can make you stop and ponder a while amidst the frenetic business of life. If you happen to be honest and objective, and not given to syrupy sentimentality, you can actually take stock of both the past and the present, try to see where we have evolved as humans and artists or sportspersons, and where we have allowed time and technology to force shortcuts on us, thus depriving us of something precious that may never come back.

Watching some Kalakshetra dancers and musicians past and present at the recent Bani Festival stitched together by the director of Kalakshetra, her staff and her students, I was curious to test my own nostalgia quotient against acceptable parameters of objectivity. The chronologically graded format of the programme the evening the Kalakshetra bani was presented enabled me to measure the young talent on view with the flashes of the consummate artistry of the seniors, almost all of them septuagenarians today.

The performances of the youngsters in groups of six gladdened the heart. The strong foundation laid by Rukmini Devi and strengthened by the early efforts of Sarada Hoffman and other good teachers has evidently resulted in a continuing vibrancy of tradition and excellent adherence to technique. The all round good taste of the institution still pervades every aspect of the programmes offered by Kalakshetra--from the beautiful stage decor, and lovely costumes (though these seem to have grown more ornate through the decades), to the well-mannered courtesy and quiet dignity of the staff senior and junior as well as the volunteers. I can hear murmurs that chaos occasionally tends to rule, but that is preferable to efficient rudeness. Vocalist Hariprasad was in sublime form, and his elaboration of the raga Sahana was among the best I have heard in many a summer. The Natabhairavi tillana in praise of Rukmini Devi by the youngsters reminded us of its brilliant rendition by the CV Chandrasekhar-Leela Samson duo during the founder's 80th birthday celebrations.

Among the veteran dancers, Shanta and VP Dhananjayan and A Janardhanan gave us glimpses of the technical skill and poignant interpretation of the lyric and theme that made them special in their heyday. Balagopalan stole the show with his extraordinary abhinaya in a cameo appearance. The precise, controlled nattuvangam by Savithri Jagannatha Rao would have won the approval of the giants of yesteryear.

The floor seats were, as always, occupied by studious youngsters and some superfit oldies, eagerly drinking in the action on stage. Here again I could not help remembering how 40 years and more ago, I sometimes joined my young family as a member of the 'tarai ticket' audience. It was from these vantage seats that we watched in awe as the likes of Janardhanan and Venkatachalapathy as Rama and Lakshmana, Krishnaveni as Sita and Balagopalan as Hanuman wove magic before our eyes. The grand music by Mysore Vasudevacharya rendered by Sitarama Sarma, Pasupathy and others often made you turn your eyes away from the stage towards the orchestra pit.

The recent occasion might have been made more complete by the presence of stalwarts like Sarada Hoffman and Leela Samson, and some of the artists of more recent vintage.

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