Kalakshetra is a school for classical dance, music and the fine arts in Chennai. It was established in 1936 by Rukmini Devi who studied ballet under the great Russian ballerina Ann Pavlova and later brought classical dance to Chennai. In particular, the form of classical dance typical of South India is called Bharat Natyam. I toured the 99-acre campus of the School with several of my fellow Fulbright scholars. In cottages throughout the campus, small groups of student dancers practice under the tutelage of a guru. (We were not allowed to take photos of the classes). Some of India’s best known dancers were trained at Kalakshetra.
In the evening, Cynthia (who I share the apartment with) and I attended a special program that is called Kathakali. This is a Classical Dance-Drama that originated in Kerala and the performance that we watched was with actors from Kerala. Kathakali means “story-play” and is a form of dance, drama and music (both vocal and instrumental), that is almost 400 years old. The costumes and make-up are very unusual and perhaps the best way for me to describe it is through photos that I took during the performance. The actors are all males. Traditionally, these performances continued all-night performances in temples. Fortunately, the performance that we watched was much shorter. Actors do not speak but use hand gestures and facial expressions to tell the story. So you need to watch their faces very closely. The story was projected onto a wall next to the stage so you could at least follow what was happening. Musicians beating drums and vocalists are in the background and add to the intensity of the drama.
Frankly, I had a difficult time appreciating this form of theatre—there was very little action, the costumes and make-up were very strange, and dance movements were minimal. However, I could imagine that 400 years ago, a performance like this was very special to a village that didn’t have many other forms of entertainment. The story was slow moving but also created a sense of suspense.