What dance is in movement, music is in sound, painting is in colour, sculpture and architecture are in form. They are essentially one. ….the influence of spirit upon matter.
The Kalakshetra educational experience is a hallmark of excellence, marked by simplicity, elegance, and formal rigour. Known for its adherence to classicism, students of the Institution learn the nuances of Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music (both vocal and instrumental) and Visual arts with exacting standards in theoretical study and practise. Kalakshetra offers a range of options for the needs of every individual interested in learning music, dance or art, from its schools to its college, to the flexible evening course options.
Many renowned nattuvanars and dancers of that period were invited by Rukmini Devi to spend time in Kalakshetra and teach. Among them were Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Rukmini Devi’s first teacher, Muthukumara Pillai, and Chokkalingam Pillai. Karaikkal Saradambal Ammal, known for her nritta, and Dandayudapani Pillai later joined the staff, as did Mylapore Gowri Ammal. These early teachers bequeathed many compositions and stylistic inputs to the institute which remain embedded in the Kalakshetra style today. Rukmini Devi herself adapted their teaching to create what has come to be known as the ‘Kalakshetra Style’. One of Kalakshetra’s first students, Sarada Hoffman (nee A Sarada), who learnt this art from Rukmini Devi herself, worked with a keen sense of perfection andwith an understanding of the aesthetic, under the guidance of her mentor to teach this style to generations of students who entered the institution. Early students like Krishnaveni (Lakshmanan), Ambika (Buch), Shanta (Dhananjayan) and many others went on to become eminent performers and teachers of this style. Other stalwarts like S Sarada who codified the theory and music required for the dance. Teachers like N S Jayalakshmi and Pushapa Shankar who were themselves students in Kalakshetra, spent decades teaching in the institute, moulding generations of students not just in the Kalakshetra style of dancing, but more importantly inspiring them to live the life of art. Ambu Pannikar, the great Kathakali ashaan who spent the last six years of his life at Kalakshetra, taught Rukmini Devi several Kathakali movements and set pieces that were used to great effect in her dance dramas. After his death, another doyen – Chandu Pannikar came to the college, bringing along with him young boys, Dhananjayan, Balagopalan, and later, his own son Janardhanan. These three, along with the older Kunhiraman, Ambu Pannikar’s son, became the early male dancers of the institute, participating in the new dramas that Rukmini Devi choreographed. They became known for their heroic roles in Kalakshetra’s dance dramas.
Rukmini Devi personally trained the early dance students, who then took on the responsibility of teaching new students. She held a special morning class where she taught ballet exercises. And as she had an intrinsic understanding of the relationship between music and dance, she took music appreciation classes for all the students.
She classified the adavus, the basic steps of the dance, making them efficient and beautiful, and systematized a teaching methodology for the dance form she inherited.
In these early days, the staff at Kalakshetra was motivated by a great spirit of service, and worked tirelessly to bring the vision of Kalakshetra to life. Among them was Sankara Menon, who was the principal of the Besant Theosophical High School. He helped Rukmini Devi in every aspect of administrating the institute and gave talks to students on philosophy, poetry and all things beautiful. Later he succeeded her as director. Leela Samson, another illustrious alumni, also headed the institute and served as Director after S Rajaram whom she succeeded.
Kalakshetra became the first dance institute to establish a meaningful theoretical syllabus for dancers. S sarada (the granddaughter of pandit Subramania Sastry), with the guidance of scholars like Adinarayana Sarma and Venkatachala Sastry worked with the theory aspects bringing to it an understanding of the texts with the background in Theosophy and ancient literature. S Sarada also researched the texts for Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas, sang for classes and performances, and took detailed notations of Rukmini Devi’s choreography. Kamala Rani, one of the early students, established herself as a brilliant nattuvanar, breaking barriers for women in field. Her classical musicality lent grandeur to Rukmini Devi’s productions for decades. D. Padmasini, who hailed from a Theosophical family, joined Kalakshetra as a music teacher at BTHS. She worked as the doctor in the hostel dispensary, became Superintendent of the hostels, and sang for dance dramas. She and her brother, M.D.Mani supervised the difficult move of Kalakshetra, the Besant School and the hostels from Adyar to Tiruvanmiyur, two miles down on the south coast of Madras. They worked along with the students to plan the new campus and to plant trees on the new campus. Kamala Trilokekar managed the Montessori school and the Arundale Teacher Training Center, both affiliated to Kalakshetra. These were people who were beyond role and definition, who gave their lives entirely to the service of Rukmini Devi and the institution she created
Rukmini Devi’s first love was music. To her, the dance simply gave visual shape to the music. She was in a sense, a pioneer in that she was the first dancer to invite, not one, but several great musicians to Kalakshetra. They not only came, but contributed selflessly and very substantially to her work, as much due to the special respect she had for them, as for the wonderful atmosphere that she had created about her in this new center for India’s arts. Papanasam Sivan, who taught music at the Besant School, was renowned for his devotional singing. He sang for Rukmini Devi’s dance performances, helping to break caste barriers for dance accompanists, while she gave legitimacy to a dance form which had lost respect in the society of the time. Kalidasa Nilakanta Aiyar, an expert on tala, helped to set the teermanams correctly in the older dance pieces.
Tiger Varadachariar became Principal of Kalakshetra in 1944, when the Sangita Sironmani course was begun in the institute. Madurai Subramani Aiyar, the violin vidwan, Tiger’s brother Veena Krishnamachariar and T.K. Ramaswami Aiyengar all taught the Sangita Sironmani course. Eminent musicians such as Veena Sambasiva Aiyar (his heirs S Rajeswari and Karaikudi Subramanaiam were both students at Kalakshetra. Rajeswari went on teach at the College of Fine Arts for many decades), Budalur Krishnamurti Shastrigal, the master of the Gottuvadyam, and M. D. Ramanathan, who had been Tiger’s student at the institute, all served as Principals. Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma was a professor.
The legendary Mysore Vasudevacharaiar also spent many years in Kalakshetra composing the music for Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas, especially the first few of the Ramayana series. His grandson, S Rajaram, himself a musician and composer, also served the institute, first as Principal of the College of Fine Arts and later as Director of Kalakshetra Foundation ( as it had come to be known by then), succeeding Sankara Menon.
Kalakshetra’s reputation rests on its dance dramas, meticulously crafted ensemble pieces choreographed by Rukmini Devi. The music for the dance dramas is the living legacy of the musicians who came to the institute. Rukmini Devi choreographed her first drama Kuttrala Kuravanji, to the music of Veena Krishnamachariar. Its success inspired her to choreograph Kalidasa’s Kumara Sambhavam in 1947, for which Tiger Vardachariar composed the music. Papanasam Sivan composed the music for Andal Charitram, Gita Govindam, Abhignana Shakuntalam, Kannapar Kuravanji and others. Mysore Vasudevachariar came to Kalakshetra in 1953 with his grandson Rajaram. He composed the music for the six- part Valmiki Ramayana until his death, after which Rajaram took over. For Rukmini Devi, these musicians provided the backbone on which she built her productions.