Tag Archive: Tamil Nadu


Let’s dance – The Hindu. Excerpt

 In a city where Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music are often the preserve of the privileged, Kalakshetra serves as a counterpoint, offering a life-altering experience to its students, many of whom come from deprived backgrounds

“Have you eaten, akka ?” Kali asks politely, before picking up a stainless steel plate and helping himself to a dosa . He’s a third-year dance student, and his journey from Kovalam (a fishing village on the outskirts of Chennai) to Kalakshetra has been the stuff of dreams. V. Kali never imagined that he would, one day, learn dance at this premier dance institute, much less chit-chat over dosa and coffee with dancers from Russia and France. …………………………………But he’s been dancing since he was in Std. II. “I thought I was dancing Bharatanatyam,” he laughs. He couldn’t have known, as there was no money for dance lessons. Kali’s father died when he was six-months-old; his mother, a coolie, raised him and his three sisters. Kali, in fact, had never heard of Kalakshetra until his sponsor, Tara Chand, saw him dancing for the inauguration of the ‘Tsunami Kuzhandai Valarchi Maiyam’ in Kovalam. Recognising his talent, she brought him to Kalakshetra, where he got an admission and, from the second year, a scholarship. “If I hadn’t come here, I would’ve had to go to work.”

Except, Kalakshetra itself was hard work. “The first year, my body ached from dancing; I cried, but I was also keen to learn. Teachers and friends helped. They taught me how to walk, talk, and dress. You know, I spoke no English when I came here, and I was very shy to speak up. Now, I can!” he says in a mix of English and Tamil. Dressed in a striped kurta , his wavy hair smartly cropped, Kali tells me about visiting home every other Saturday to see his mother. “She’s very soft. I want to earn money and look after her. And I want to choreograph; I want to go abroad…”

Outside the 100-acre campus, established by Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kali’s dream might remain one; after all, Chennai’s classical dance and music scene, besides being fiercely competitive, is often seen as the preserve of the moneyed and/or the understudy of the famous. Classes are dominated by the upwardly mobile, often hailing from communities steeped in the classical arts; and many of the budding artists are privately tutored and personally groomed. But here, Kali stands a fighting chance — and all that’s demanded of him is commitment, a willingness to work hard and of course, a passion for the arts.

“Rukmini Devi laid the foundation for a very democratic access to arts, cutting across economic strata and communities not normally associated with arts,” says Karunakaran Menon, Director-in-charge, Kalakshetra. “Where else but Kalakshetra,” he asks, “do you find a boy from a fishing village, a labourer’s son and a Mexican dancing to the same Sankarabaranam varnam , side-by-side?”

Founded in Adayar (inside the Theosophical Society) in 1936, Kalakshetra moved to the current location in Thiruvanmiyur in 1962 and has since garnered for itself the reputation of one of India’s premier dance schools. (Besides dance, music and arts are offered at the Diploma level.) Overseas students add to its cosmopolitan character, and its alumni today teach in every corner of the world. Together, they inspire the next generation, especially aspiring male dancers; only, not many are from Tamil Nadu.

If numbers are anything to go by, small-town Tamil Nadu isn’t sending (to Kalakshetra) as many dancers or musicians as Kerala; an irony, given that the art forms originated in the state. Several reasons are cited for these skewed numbers, among them, Tamil Nadu’s penchant for professional degrees, and the arts seen as something worthy of being pursued only part-time. “Moreover, Tamil Nadu has several government music colleges. But those who can afford it opt for private lessons anyway,” says musician Sai Sankar, former student of Kalakshetra and a teacher here since 1986.

Classical dance is, moreover, not perceived as aspirational enough. Tamilselvan M., a first year dance student, faced stiff opposition from his family when he left his job (as draughtsman) and joined Kalakshetra. His decision meant that the family was once again dependent on his father’s income as a security guard. With no knowledge of dance or music, they resented him — a potential breadwinner — choosing dance over a career. “But my friends are sponsoring my fees. Even if I earn one rupee from dance, it will give me more happiness than what I earn being a draughtsman,” he says.

But for Keralite brothers, Kailasanathan and Geethanadhan, studying at Kalakshetra was a childhood dream; one that their parents encouraged. Hailing from Kannur, the family has some connection with the arts (their father, a carpenter by profession, also dabbles in theatre). But it was the famous alumni from the region — Dhananjayan, Janardhanan and, more recently, Shijith Nambiar — who inspired them, even as children, to tell everybody they were going to be dancers.“Kalakshetra’s male dancers are very famous for their bani (style); men, here, dance like men. Naturally, we want to be performers, but we also have to teach; only then we will earn money,” they say, pragmatically.It is the same pragmatism that Venugopal K. echoes. Speaking in Malayalam — laced with Tamil for my benefit — the young, slim student says he’s very keen to be a performer. “But you can be a full-time performer, only if you’re from a rich family. Jeevika kaasu venum illaya, akka (you need money to live, isn’t it sister?),” he says simply.Photos: R. PRASANA

There are plenty of job opportunities for Kalakshetra students, especially in private institutions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala (Government jobs, unfortunately, elude them as the students are only diploma holders — and not graduates — when they complete the four-year programme). Sunitha E. is waiting to take up one such job in Ooty. She needs to work and send money home to repay the loan taken for her sister’s wedding. “But the four years here have been great! I’ve learnt English. I’ve made good friends, and I’ve even forgotten non-veg food!”

……………………………Walking past the airy classrooms, we reach the big banyan tree; under its enormous canopy, students sit cross-legged, on floor mats; teachers sit in a semi-circle, on a raised platform; among them isGuru A. Janardhanan, former Principal of Kalakshetra, who trained under Rukmini Devi. The assembly begins right after the bell. A tanpura sets the pitch, crows caw in accompaniment, and voices rise in prayer and song.

Mohammad Rashan is standing on the second row, a little to the left of the Ganesha idol under the tree. He sings the praise of Goddess Saraswathi, with his eyes closed, hands raised, palms facing the sky. He’s from Kurunagale, Sri Lanka, where his father works as a mechanic. Rashan had previously trained in Kandian dance; here, he’s learning Bharatanatyam, but his family is not aware of that. What do they think he’s up to? “Costume designing,” he says, his cheeks dimpling as he smiles. “My mother’s family is very orthodox — some think dance and music is haraam ; they will not accept dancing as a career.” But Rashan wants to follow his religion as well as his passion. “I do namaaz five times a day, I fast during Ramzaan and I also want to dance. Now, I will go to Colombo and start a dance school,” he says, a little unsure how his six siblings will receive the news…

There’s clapping under the Banyan tree, whose stout roots are etched with names of past students. Janardhanan is distributing certificates for the prize-winners of the past year. Sai Komala, third-year music student, is awarded a certificate for the highest percentage of attendance for her year. The great granddaughter of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Aiyangar, her journey to Kalakshetra was neither easy nor straightforward. She had no parental support, and lived in an orphanage before coming here. “When I saw this campus, I really liked it. At the orphanage, they asked me to go the Government Music College. I insisted on coming here, as the teaching is better”.

Devi. P, a first-year PG dance student is here for the same reason. “When I told my mother — a cook in a doctor’s house in Tiruvannamalai — that I wanted to pursue dance, she asked me to learn in Tiruvannamalai itself”. As the only parent (Devi’s father died years ago), with a son working as a lorry cleaner, her mother felt Kalakshetra was out of their reach. “But it’s precisely for candidates like her that Rukmini Devi introduced scholarships,” says Janardhanan. “She felt poverty should not stop you from learning the arts”. “And I want to, in turn, inspire students from small town Tamil Nadu to take up dancing”.

The infrastructure at Kalakshetra is clearly a boon for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For many here, routine visits to the sabhas — to listen to a Carnatic recital or watch a dance-drama — wasn’t part of their childhood. “But their challenges are not very different from the ones that foreign students face. To ramp up, they practise with their classmates, before and after their lessons. There are no restrictions on hostel timings. The talented and hardworking children show great progress, and catch up with their peers by the second year!” says Sai Sankar.

…………………………………..“Rukmini Devi envisioned this years ago — art touching and transforming lives — long before we used words like ‘cultural exchange and outreach programmes’,” says Menon. Indeed, Kalakshetra, the institution she founded, teaches one to live with the arts.

A lake comes to life – The Hindu. Excerpt

Thousands of ordinary citizens pitching in to revive a 320-acre lake.

It feels like a carnival at Ukkadam, home to the Periyakulam Lake. It is the final Sunday of volunteering, as the monsoons are expected any time now. School children are shrill with excitement, college students jump out of buses laughing and shouting out greetings; picnic umbrellas dot the area. The CRPF, the police and people from the Armed Forces work together in precision, as if performing a drill. Three hundred NCC cadets take up position. A large group of employees from a cement factory talk animatedly, while nearby, the entire team from a Tamil daily has shown up. “Instead of being only the observers who write about events, we unanimously decided to pitch in with volunteer work,” says one of them.

…………….Mud is shovelled into shallow metal and plastic basins (in blue, green and red) and passed from hand to hand. Snatches of IPL talk and loud instructions fill the air. Musicians join the fun. The murasu, melam and thapattam set the pace, and as they vary their pace, from slow to brisk, the tempo of work also increases. There is clapping and dancing. When they are not digging, people are taking pictures on their smart phones. Tempo travellers carrying tea, coffee, biscuits and buttermilk serve free food to the volunteers. Coimbatore’s famous Annapoorna has sponsored upma, khichdi and sweets for everyone.

Periyakulam used to be one of Coimbatore’s biggest lakes – spanning 320 acres, with a catchment area of 63 sq km — but it was gradually asphyxiated by water hyacinth, raw sewage and garbage till it became mere shimmers of water in a sprawling, muddy area, with orange specks interrupting the brown expanse. Last year, Siruthuli, the NGO dealing with water bodies in Coimbatore, took up the matter with the Government. The permit to work on the lake came through at the end of April and on May 1, the de-silting operations began under the direction of Coimbatore Corporation, Siruthuli, Residents Awareness Association of Coimbatore (RAAC) and the Vijayalakshmi Charitable Trust. Corporates have also pitched in. And the people of Coimbatore have showed up every Sunday to lend a hand.

In a little over a month the landscape has changed. Where there was once just garbage and undergrowth, there is now clean and scrub-free ground. Round-the-clock work has cleared the humongous mess and made way for bunds. Five Poclain earth movers swing, dip, scoop and dump vast quantities of soil from one place to another. More than 8000 volunteers pour onto the bed of the lake and imitate those actions. Forming a human chain, they bend, scoop, pass and throw pots filled with soil on to a growing mound that is part of a 20-ft wide, six-and-a-half kilometre long bund around the lake. Four islands have been painstakingly created at the centre of the dry lake. Saplings will be planted on them and along the bund. Seventy per cent of the work is complete.The rejuvenated Mookaneri Lake in Salem. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

………………Why do they do it? “I know machines can do the same job we are doing and more efficiently, but the personal satisfaction we get is unmatched,” says N. Thulasidas, vice-president of the Indian National Cement Worker’s Federation, who has come with a 52-strong team. “We came prepared for more than just two hours of work. When people come together for a cause such as this, it will definitely succeed. We hope we will soon be able to boat on this lake.”

Lalit Mahesh, who has just graduated from school, has come here with friends from Pollachi. He says, “People can do what earthmovers cannot. They can inspire. To see the work happening firsthand is very satisfying.” Lalit is well aware of the water situation in Tamil Nadu and the world. “Tamil Nadu faces an 11 per cent water deficit,” he says. “By 2045, that deficit will increase dramatically. Already, one person out of three in the world has no access to potable water.”

For 51-year-old B. Ganesh, the lake represents livelihood. It provided his daily catch for 18 years. But it became progressively difficult for him and his fellow fishermen to eke out a living. “The lake used to be so beautiful in the mornings when I set out with my friends for my daily catch. We used to enjoy drinking the fresh water that was available in plenty even a decade ago.” The fishermen have volunteered with clean-up efforts in the past, and they welcome this drive wholeheartedly as well.

Coimbatore shows up: Volunteers included the CRPF, RAF, students, senior citizens and even newly weds. Photo: S. Siva Saravanan

Volunteers included the CRPF, RAF, students, senior citizens and even newly weds.

M. Lukman, a fruit vendor, has spent all his life near the lake. “It teemed with birds, and the greenery and water made it look like something out of an English travel channel,” he says. He hopes this initiative will improve the plight of other wetlands as well, as the livelihood of several fishermen has been severely affected. “Plenty more needs to be done, but I have faith that the lake will be restored to its original glory.”

Many people share this belief. What is happening at Periyakulam is more than just physical shramdaan , or donation of labour, as R. Raveendran of RAAC says. “When the lake comes alive, we will know we had something to do with it. This ownership will ensure that we will never let it come to such a pass again.”

Labour nourished with cameraderie.

100 days of hope – The Hindu. Excerpt

When she spots the camera lens, 72-year-old Rukku flashes a radiant, toothless smile. Her peers quickly catch on the infectious smile, transforming a place of hard labour into something else entirely.

It was at a Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) site that I met Rukku, from Nilgiri district, and a curiously harmonious group of middle-aged and older workers.

“I now don’t need to depend on my relatives for money. I can now buy my grandchildren whatever they want,” Rukku says.

The MGNREGA guarantees a hundred days of wage-employment every year for its members. The unskilled manual work offers livelihood and better financial security in rural areas. Rukku herself earns about Rs. 4,000 a month. She is among the thousands over the age of 65, who work regularly as beneficiaries of the scheme.

Lakshmi, now 65, lives with her husband in Erode. Her children are grown up and live in another city. They do not send her money. Her husband is unwell and too weak for manual labour. She is now the breadwinner of the family.

The scheme also seems to foster a habit of regular savings among the workers.

Under the scheme, these men and women build civic utilities like ponds for ground water recharge, roads, footpaths, children’s playgrounds and burial grounds. The scheme has enabled creation of thousands of farm ponds in the lands of small and marginal farmers and in the farmlands owned by SC/ST communities.

An important feature of implementation of MGNREGS in Tamil Nadu is the active participation of the differently-abled, facilitated by a separate Government order stipulating a special schedule of rates. The tangible benefits have translated into a healthy work atmosphere.

Saravanan, an Assistant Engineer at the site, explains, “Though advanced in age, the workers here are quite able. The camaraderie and a sense of independence from their kin tend to help them get back their health.”

Work is all they’ve ever known. It’s what they do even now, in the evening of their lives. The only difference is that the work now happens amid meals cooked on charcoal fires, the laughter of their grandchildren and the camaraderie of 200 of their peers.