Sunday Herald: The woman at the helm

Dancer Revathi Ramachandran shares her dreams as Kalakshetra’s new director

Revathi Ramachandran
Highlights: 
“I don’t see myself as a boss; the task before me is to take forward the ethos of Kalakshetra — where art is beauty, aesthetics, social reform and education all rolled into one.”

After a gap of 10 months, the iconic Kalakshetra of Chennai has finally found its new director in celebrated dancer-choreographer Revathi Ramachandran. The danseuse says, when she was first told about her appointment, two words popped into her head immediately —“Rukmini Amma.” And right from that moment, Revathi knew that her vision for the seminal centre for the study and performance of fine arts must focus on its far-sighted founder Rukmini Devi Arundale’s original goals of art preservation and propagation for posterity.

“When the country was in turmoil and fighting for its freedom from the British, no one, it seems, had any time for art and culture. But Rukmini Amma thought differently. She wanted to bring about cultural renaissance. She instinctively knew that a society can stabilise only if it is rooted firmly in its culture,” says Revathi. Thus was born Kalakshetra.

Today, it has been recognised by the Government of India as an ‘Institute of National Importance’, and is a veritable world of art and culture spread over 100 acres near the seashore in Chennai. “I have been dancing, teaching and choreographing for the past 45 years; with such experience comes a more in-depth view of success. Today, to me, success means being able to be a kartha, a contributor to society, rather than merely enjoy fame or bask in the glory of a designation,” she says.

But Revathi clearly recognises and acknowledges the power and responsibility that has now been entrusted to her as the new director. “I don’t see myself as a boss; the task before me is to take forward the ethos of Kalakshetra — where art is beauty, aesthetics, social reform and education all rolled into one.”

For Revathi, though, life has always been a multi-faceted journey. A basketball champion, who has even played for Tamil Nadu, as well as a veena exponent, Revathi had dabbled in banking after completing her education. But all her talents took a backseat when bharatanatyam came to the fore.

A teacher indeed

Her dance teacher was the famed guru Mangudi Dorairaj Iyer, who trained her in Shuddha Nrittam among other things. It was only a matter of time before the phrase ‘Shuddha Nrittam’ came to be associated with Revathi, who not only researched deeply about this particular aspect of the classical dance, but also presented it on stage to much critical acclaim. “Just a month before he passed away, my guru had told me that I would always be known for Shuddha Nrittam. His words have come true,” she says, recalling how her dance training was extremely focussed and immersive.

Which brought us to the question of the quality (or the lack thereof) in teaching classical dance forms today.

“Today, teaching dance is like eating from a thaali — there certainly is variety, and there is taste, too. But the traditional way of learning is like eating homemade rice and sambar — ultimately more satisfying and nutritious,” she describes, using an inventive food analogy.

Revathi says teaching for her is not ticking off a list of items. “I cannot teach dance as an activity — for it to be learned, you need to plunge into it completely,” she believes. She narrates how it amuses her that she gets the maximum enquiries for dance classes in hot, sweltering May. “May is no time to dance in Chennai, and yet, parents want their children to do something, and hence they wonder if bharatanatyam can be taught during the summer!”

Competition instead of fusion

Her aversion to the superficiality of this sort is perhaps one of the reasons Revathi is not such a great fan of fusion and thematic experimentations in bharatanatyam. “Classical dances can evolve in terms of lighting, stage, sets and costumes, but unless it elevates the production to another level or makes a crucial difference in narration, experimenting with the form and traditional themes is not something I’m comfortable with,” she says.

She feels fusion for fusion’s sake will eventually fall flat, and instead, the focus should be on healthy competition among dancers to bring about better quality and innovation.

Revathi has managed to achieve both, especially in productions such as Jagat Pavani Ganga that uses ancient verses and a combination of bharatanatyam, mime, Carnatic music and theatre to depict how Ganga has been a silent witness to the abuse heaped on her, but continues to provide for her children. It exhorts the audience to pledge to protect her sanctity.

“Artistes must not forget their social responsibility, and this is also part of my dream for Kalakshetra — every student who steps out of the institution must not only become accomplished in art, but also turn out to be a good human being,” she says.

Now, that’s a dream Rukmini Amma would certainly have approved of.

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Sunday Herald: The woman at the helm

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