The entrance is narrow and the neurotic might think of it as an indicator of a reluctant host. Perhaps it is. Austerity makes a man appear unaccommodating and that is as far from the truth as Kalakshetra is close to being the kingdom of beauty. Still the entrance doesn’t allow a 4X4 to drive through casually. Kalakshetra cannot be bothered by frivolous.
I had always heard of this place spoken of in hushed tones as if it were the temple of the Gods, perhaps even a place where the Gods entertained themselves (after all, dance was also discussed whenever Kalakshetra was mentioned). My folks tried to get my sister an admission in the school here but Destiny had other plans. I had never seen this place until recently and then again before becoming a rather common visitor (by my measure) of this place over the past few months. Here is where dance is worshipped, then taught and then played with to explore its boundaries (more like exploring one’s own creative limits). Though the cynics complain that this is a place where people only follow and things are too “strict” I am yet to come to a dance class which wasn’t ruled by one dance teacher and everyone following her. My personal experience has only revealed that there is a martinet everywhere and some people prefer one to another. Very few people are truly interested in dance to actually explore beyond what their teacher’s teach them. They become the great artists. The remaining are merely good performers. Kalakshetra has created great artists and performers (though the latter outnumber the former but that is true of every great institution in mostly any field) and if I am to judge merely based on their performances, I realise why Kalakshetra has been treated with such respect.
My friend, his wife and I walked into this place breathing in the serene surroundings and listened to the chirping birds as if everyone was clearing their throat and tying the salangai (dancer’s anklets) for a grand performance. There was going to be no dance that day but the birds didn’t know the schedule. I was showing them around the place and introduced them to whatever little I knew and a lot of hearsay. They were in love with the place and for reasons unknown, I felt proud. Perhaps it is difficult to disconnect beauty from one’s own sense of taste and goodness finding pride in acknowledgement as if it were an approval of one’s own refinement.
We walked around the place and stopped at the canteen. My friends were hungry and I had not had enough of this beautiful place. Madras is one the few cities in India which still houses such exotic locales for the lover of things simple and spiritually beautiful. The other place I like to hang out is Vasant Vihar, but more about it later. While my friend and his wife were picking from a rather meager range of edible items, my attention was caught by a small boy playing around the tables. As expected, I started playing with him only to realise that he spoke words I didn’t understand. Even when I filtered the baby-talk the words seemed familiar though I couldn’t make sense of it. I tried talking to him in a combination of English, Tamil and Hindi and the boy continued to play with me and talk to me in a language I couldn’t understand. At one point, I gave up, and laughed my way into a surrender.
“Sorry, sweetheart, I don’t understand what you are saying?”
Then, in a truly sweet voice, he replied, “He is speaking in Malayalam.”
Since his lips hadn’t moved I looked up to see a beautiful young lady dressed in the practice costume of Bharatanatyam dancers.
“He is speaking in Malayalam and he is basically asking whether you can lift these chairs and …”
I missed the rest of what she was saying. I had heard long ago that there is a Goddess (Meenakshi?) whose nose-ring shone like the moon and her face was so radiant that the most austere of Gods (another imposing host?) couldn’t resist her beauty and charms. Here in front of me in blue and dark mustard sari stood a person who could very easily play the role of that Goddess in any dance drama (and she already had a nose-ring that shone beautifully in the dimming lights of the day).
She smiled and responded likewise. I could only think of Lord Shiva and as it always has been whenever I invoked the Divine Lords, I bowed my head.
“Is he your son?”
I think she said, “Yes.”
“He is very cute and rather active. Do you mind if I play with him?”
She smiled and shook her head.
I asked Lord Shiva, “Had the Goddess Parvati come to you with a child as beautiful as Kumara would you have still lost your heart to her?” and the Lord replied, “She is a Goddess and not a human being.” I laughed and the lady wondered how I understood her son’s statement and laughed. The boy had no such concerns and hence, I preferred being with the more beautiful of the two.
We played for a while before I was told it was time to go. I rose and bowed once again to the mother (no one could have ever guessed that she could be a mother) and we left. My friend hadn’t missed the beauty that the woman had carried so lightly. He exclaimed about it and his wife punched him playfully and they discussed how men would always be men (what were we expecting, anyway? That they would become Cocker Spaniels on a Monday morn?). My friend couldn’t help saying something like, “A woman should be like that! Man! To be married to one like her” and it sounded familiar. I laughed the most genial laugh before adding this to my growing list of observations about art and artists.
So many friends of mine, when introduced to good-looking artists feel that that particular woman is the right partner to have and it amazes me how often the average male falls into that trap. I was on a bus with a bunch of college girls (and I was in college then, too) when a guy pulled out a sheet of paper and sketched the ghats where we were stuck. The girls simply couldn’t resist getting introduced to him and chatting with him about a lot of things unrelated to the ghats or to sketching. I think he expected the effects. After Titanic, many a woman friend of mine wanted to be sketched in the nude though they were too Indian to go beyond just dreaming of that possibility.
Though I love artists I have invariably found most of them rather touchy, moody and unpredictable not to mention besotted with personal predilections and overpowering concerns which make an average human being wonder aloud. History has been filled with artists who threw temper tantrums, were over-sensitive, possessive, insecure, jealous, suicidal, megalomaniacs, narcissists and visited by several mental aberrations which arise from a sensitivity that also promises them their gift in an art. Poe, Woolf and Hemingway made me feel sad for them but what they created was brilliant (perhaps not that much for Hemingway). There are a few “normal” artists too but they are so rare to come by. Although I could arm every one with this information and plausible caveat, everyone looks at an artist as if s/he was genuinely a beautiful human being. How could someone with such a sweet voice be a wicked person? How could someone so graceful be vulgar? How could someone so talented be so selfish? How could someone who painted like a poem, be petty? How come the sculptor is so touchy? And that is where the questions reveal our assumption: We think of the artist as the art. We think of the dancer as someone as beautiful as the dance itself. We think of the singer to be as morally rich as the aalapana. They are but normal human beings when the mask comes off and that is something we can never be prepared for. As a human being they can be as disgusting as a psychopath or as beautiful as a child (and now you know why I picked the child’s company!). So I turned around to look at the lady with her son and wondered what her true story was. Vulgar and petty? A liar? A thief? Or perhaps like her dance, beautiful, generous and soothing?
And this is where the beauty of Kalakshetra comes in. As soon as I stepped into the auditorium not a single thought accompanied me. I was in the world of beauty willed with stoic seniors dressed in traditional South Indian wear and looking gorgeous (even the men). Wicker chairs greeted us while we waited for the screen to lift. I looked around and watched foreigners, who had come to learn the art, carry their attire effortlessly. Dedicated, I thought to myself. These people were here for a few years and it was not something easy to live through. They had to resign themselves to a routine involving practices other than learning dance and these practices are quite difficult even for some Indians (perhaps because they strove to become as much non-Indian as possible). I admired them as they walked around assisting in the arrangement of the show. I bowed my head to all of them. Kalakshetra didn’t seem to make exceptions and that made me respect the institution even more. It annoys me when people/places faun over the “big” people or as is common in India for the “white” man. That is why I like temples in Kerala – no special treatment for anyone. Kalakshetra was true to its cause and would disallow anyone who wished to break that discipline. I think every person should also be like that – be clear as to what they want to be and disallow people and relationships (business, included) which isn’t in tune with their core. As Alfred says (in The Dark Knight, and I paraphrase) one needs to be able to stand alone and do what is right. Why accept the vulgar and nurture it when rightness is lost and brownie points don’t count?
The violin concert was to begin and the duo had taken their seats. They were the children of a great artist and as I watched the man play a note, I wondered, “Like his strings, would he be soft and yielding with his friends and family?” I noticed a blond girl in a baby pink sari and asked myself, “Would she be as innocent as she appears?” and I laughed before calling the cab service to pick us up at 21:30 hrs. There are things that one can understand and count on and then there are things that life will reveal to us in its own ways. Art is beautiful while the artist is human.