Many years ago a child once approached her mother and asked in a timid voice if she could join a dance school. Her mother loved the idea. Bu where could a school for dance be found in their small town?
The girl’s desire to learn the intricate steps of Indian classical dance forms turned into a contemplative dimension of longing as in prayer.
Then it seemed her prayer had been answered. For the school she attended hired a professional dance teacher, she was ecstatic for now she could learn what she had seen performed on stage. Life could not be better. Unfortunately, it seemed too good to last – the teacher after only one year left for another school.
You may have guessed, that child was me. Yes, I have had this dream ever since I can remember of longing to learn Indian classical dances. Now thinking back of those days I cannot help but chuckle and yet, underneath that mirth there is a trace of sadness. For I still live that dream in my heart. So, the next best thing to an unrealised dream is to see it alive in others, vicariously. Not a performance do I miss and there are absolutely great ones from artistes from India who have performed in Toronto.
Then, one day, I read about the Little Masters, a short article without too much background but it had fired my imagination. Since we were planning a trip to India then why not incorporate parts of the south in our itinerary? After a brief tour of the backwaters of Kerala we set off on our quest for that for which I had been waiting.
As it often happens with us we did not actually plan anything in particular preferring instead to wing it. Just that article had fired my imagination. The bus took us along the Thrissur-Shoranpur highway. From Thrissur town Kalamandalam is about thirty two km in the north. We had booked a room in Thrissur for the night. Next morning saw us boarding a local bus, when we asked to be dropped off at the school we were met with blank stares. No one had heard of it. Now here was a problem. How do we get there? Not to be daunted my husband and I got off midway and decided to ask the locals; finally a three wheeler took us on saying he knew how to get there.
Our vehicle stopped in front of a beautiful structure, somewhat dilapidated but situated in the midst of vast orchards and quaint gardens on the banks of the river Nila. At our calling out repeatedly someone did appear. Imagine our disappointment when told that the school had moved to a new location. Did we give up? Not on your life!
If I was determined to find the school before now my heart was hard with unshakable faith. I had come so far to see with my own eyes and feel with my heart something that I knew was waiting for me, like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, then nothing on earth could stand in my way. I did not rant or rave yet my husband sensed my feelings.
So now, armed with the address we jumped into the waiting tempo and were off once more hoping this time it would take us to the end of our quest. It was now close to 11am – we had been on the road searching for that elusive school for almost three hours.
I had set my heart on visiting this school, Kalamandalam, the place where students as young as nine receive training in the performing arts – vocal, percussion, Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Mohiniyaattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. I was happy to learn that thanks to this academy two of the major dance forms of Kerala, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam – which were on the decline, had been revived. All this was made possible by Vallathol Narayana Menon, an eminent poet, who founded the school in 1927 aiming to bring back Kerala’s rich tradition of art and dance forms.
The place itself is beautiful beyond imagination, the main building or Koothambalam (Natyagriha) being the heart of the school. The roof and floor are made of teak the pillars of granite, there are no doors and the school keeps to the tradition of Gurukula sambradaaya – the ancient way of education in which exists a deep bond between teacher and student. The administrator took us around various buildings, free of charge, and we had the privilege of watching students at their kalaris (teaching classes) where students were practising hand gestures, facial expressions, leg exercises, torso movements, character enactment and more.
In a daze I stood by the open door of a class where students were being taught the basics of Karnatic music, then watched boys painting Kathakali masks. The sight of students seated on the floor and applying different facial makeups on earthen pots conceiving them as human faces was as intriguing as it was enlightening.
How can I ever describe my feelings when I walked through the gates of Kerala Kalamandalam that January afternoon in the year 2003? Surrounded with such beauty I became part of the dance of life. This journey had turned into a pilgrimage.
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