Kalakshetra from Louis Malle's L'Inde Fantôme
Director: Louis Malle
Duration: 00:23:20; Aspect Ratio: 1.370:1; Hue: 5.044; Saturation: 0.106; Lightness: 0.329; Volume: 0.214; Cuts per Minute: 8.226; Words per Minute: 41.004
Summary: In 1968, Louis Malle made a documentary film about India, which was released in cinemas as a film called Calcutta, in 1968, and later broadcast as a seven-part TV series called L'Inde fantôme (Phantom India) on the BBC. Concentrating on real India, its rituals and festivities, Malle fell afoul of the Indian government, which disliked his portrayal of the country, in its fascination with the pre-modern, and consequently banned the BBC from filming in India for several years. Malle later claimed his documentary on India was his favorite film.
Here in Kalakshetra, Malle wanders from class to class, admiring the dedication of dancers who spend decades trying to become the dance. He finds the attempts of foreign dancers pitiful, while they have absorbed some of the form, he remarks, they can never hope to fit into Indian culture, a failure, which he finds, is most strikingly reflected in their physicality.
Forty-three years after Malle made this film, we watch the segment shot in Kalakshetra with Pushpa Shankar, a senior teacher at Kalakshetra. "I still have trouble travelling because they think I'm a terrorist," Shankar says resignedly. Seated in her first-floor flat, in a sedate building with a tambura carved on its facade, this sounds rather surreal. A mischievous glint enters her eyes, and she asks, "You must think I'm Tamilian? Do you know what I really am? I'm Sindhi and I was born in Karachi."
Shankar has been associated with the institution since she first made the long journey from her home in Karachi to Chennai in 1946. She was not present in Kalakshetra when Malle filmed this. Her reading of Malle's film takes the form of fond reminescence, and at times, piqued by what he is saying, angry retort. She has taught some of the dancers in the film and has worked with others. Age and time may be prosaic facts; yet, listening to her makes you want to dwell on impermanence and transition. Seamlessly interwoven with Malle's narrative is also the story of her own life.
Chennai (Madras), India
Rukmini Devi Arundale
Pushpa Shankar: Oh, you can see a monk sitting there. So many of them passed through Kalakshetra. Hundreds of Tibetan men came to Kalakshetra. This was the prayer hall. In our days it was called L-shaped studio but now they call it Tagore hall. I took classes in that room for a long time.
Monday, March 11.
We're a few miles outside of Madras at the Kalakshetra School,
Pushpa: That is Catherine Kunhiraman (in the yellow sari, extreme right); she wears very thick glasses now! Kunhiraman, the man she eventually married, used to be my 'husband' in all the dance dramas.
conservatory for the traditional dances of the south.
The school day here begins with prayer.
Teachers and students sing to God.
The religion and rite don't matter.
God has many names,
but there's only one God.
This dance school was an offshoot of the famous Theosophical Society,
founded more than 50 years ago by Annie Besant,
a European who dreamt of bringing India and the West closer.
It's a well-protected world.
It was difficult to get authorization to film.
The directors of the school kept hesitating,
questioning us with slightly scornful suspicion.
Finally, they grudgingly agreed.
Pushpa: This is Janardhanan. He also helped choreograph many dance dramas. He came to Kalakshetra in 1963. This is all Kathakali.
There are several courses.
We visited a class in Kathakali, a dance from Kerala,
which has a different cultural heritage.
Kathakali is more realistic, closer to mime, and restricted to men.
Pushpa: Balagopal. He used to play Hanuman. He is now 65 and retired. His daughter is a good dancer who finished her course at Kalakshetra last year. She now gets lead roles in some ballets.
I knew it was Balagopal jumping from the tree to pick up Sita, but always felt Hanuman had come himself. Really, his dancing transported you to another world. Balagopal used to play the sanyasi Ravana, Jana (Janardhanan) would play Lakshmana, Dhananjayan (VP) would do Rama. The legendary Chandu Panikker was Jana's father. Many of these artists specialised in Kathakali; Bharatanatyam was their subsidiary style.
It's a kind of religious pantomime with many characters.
The young dancers illustrate for us how situations and feelings
are expressed in the symbolic language of Kathakali.
This is a bee gathering pollen from a lotus.
Climbing a mountain.
Pushpa on her life: Rukmini Devi Arundale and her group came to Karachi when I was eleven-and-a-half. My father was acquainted with them and he asked me if I'd like to go and learn dance at Kalakshetra. I said yes only because I hated maths and thought I wouldn't have to study it anymore if I danced. There was a girl called Bhuvaneshwari in the group, who later taught at Kalakshetra too. She was put in charge of me throughout the long journey from Karachi to Madras. We changed three or four trains and even travelled in a jutka. I knew only Hindi and Sindhi and Kalakshetra was a shockingly new experience. I cried incessantly for six months. They would cook chapathis especially for me. But in six months, I picked up some Tamil because my roommates were most comversant in it. I joined the Mission School and within a year I was doing folk dances.
Pushpa: This was a beginners class. So many students come up to me and ask - teacher, do you remember me? How can I remember hundreds of students over such a long period of time!
Classes begin in the early morning, before the heat becomes overwhelming.
Bharatanatyam is a woman's dance,
more stylized and purer than Kathakali.
To be skilled at it, one must train from the earliest age and possess great patience.
These girls will train for 10, 15 or 20 years before giving a public performance.
The movement of the wrist, the nuance of expression, the position of the foot -
each has a specific meaning.
Bharatanatyam is a code, an encrypted language
that must be known to the audience as well as the dancer.
Otherwise they can't follow the story.
Westerners watching the dance
are incapable of understanding, incapable of participating.
From outside, we judge its aesthetic qualities as a performance, when in fact it's a ceremony.
Pushpa: Here you see Balagopal and his future wife Padma teach. At that time she was still a student, and he was in love with her.
Pushpa on her life: The first time I travelled for a performance was to Ooty in 1948. Athai was staging Kumarasambhavam and she had a special dress stitched for me. I didn't have a major role; I just had to stand as part of the scene, so I don't know why she took the trouble of taking me to Ooty. We must have had a special connection; I cherish each of the thirty-five letters she wrote to me.
Pushpa: This is Shanta (Dhananjayan). It was before her marriage to Dhananjayan. So many alliances were formed at Kalakshetra because it was coeducational. I remember teaching Shanta when she was very young; she was bald because she had just offered her hair to some temple. She'd dance for half the class and spend the other half crying.
Pushpa: Viji; she passed away in the USA. In her place, I once went to take a month-long class in Texas. She must have been a teacher then because she is wearing a sari here.She worked in Singapore Fine Arts for three years before getting married and giving birth to a daughter.
Pushpa: This is Bhagavatulu Seetarama Sharma who still teaches the nattuvangam class for students doing the post-graduate teaching course.
It is a song in praise of Krishna, taught only when the students reach a certain level. It is a kshetrayya padam, manchidinamu nede - it is an auspicious day today, please ask him to come immediately, the nayika says; ask him not to peep or make a cautious entry. Don't be hesitant, for I will not mention the other girl today; come to me, she says.
Moving from class to class,
nonbelievers lost in a sacred world, burdened by our equipment,
we noticed something quite striking.
No one paid us the slightest attention.
All were extraordinarily concentrated on their exercises.
To them, we didn't even exist.
It almost hurt our feelings.
Pushpa: That is Krishnaveni.
(Krishnaveni Lakshmanan was, incidentally, one of Kalakshetra's star performers, a fact that might have eclipsed Malle. She played the lead roles in several Kalakshetra dramas and was associated with the institution for fifty years. She was principal of the Kalakshetra Foundation between 1997 to 2000.)
Bharatanatyam is the mother dance that gave birth to all the others.
It's said to have originated at Tanjore, great temple of the Chola dynasty.
The dancers belonged to the temple and danced only for worship.
Even today, despite its secular appearance,
to dance is to relive a tradition, regain a heritage,
reestablish contact between the present moment and eternity.
Pushpa: This girl here is Meera Patnaik. She came from Orissa.
In those days, people laughed at us when we wore half-saris (dance practice sari, not pavada-davani). We were not supposed to wear them outside campus. Now you see people in half-saris travelling in city buses. And when we travelled, we would carry paper flowers. Who knew whether we would find the flowers we wanted wherever we went.
Pushpa: That looks like Krishnamurthy teacher. He played Jatayu in Ramayana very well.
Pushpa on her life: When I got married in 1962, I had to move to Bangalore. She tried her best to get my husband transferred to Chennai; he worked in the airforce. She called me back to do the gypsy in Kuttralakuravanji just so that I would return. At some point in the sixties, I resigned from Kalakshetra. I was very angry with Athai; it was over something petty, just like you would quarrel with your mother. A director from Patna needed a dance teacher. I was scared it would be an uncivilised place and did not go. But the money was good - I ended up working there for three months and arranged three dramas. Sometime during this period, Rukmini Devi, who was abroad, sent me a telegram requesting me not to accept the job in Patna till she had returned. I replied saying I had already committed to go there. Why have you gone to Patna, she asked. To make money, I said. When you think you have made enough, please come back, that's what she told me.
The school gives performances throughout India and abroad.
The students perform major ballets with many characters,
but each dancer dreams of becoming a soloist.
Few will succeed.
Others will pass on the tradition, becoming teachers at the school.
Pushpa: (When told what Louis Malle was saying here, about few dancers succeeding as soloists, the rest becoming teachers who pass on the tradition, as the camera moves back to Krishnaveni, Pushpa Shankar retorts - but they were some of the best performers Kalakshetra has seen!)
Students opt for teaching assignments abroad if they can find them. Nine students passed out last year. You cannot have so many teachers in one city; nobody needs them. Kalakshetra is a reputed institution and they will find work sooner or later, but it's not easy.
There is currently a Bharatanatyam renaissance,
which almost died out 50 years ago.
Perhaps this means India is sliding towards folklore.
Perhaps this renaissance is a death knell for the dance,
like everywhere that ancient traditions are artificially recreated.
Pushpa: The little boy is Ramalingam, who joined along with another boy called Venkatachalapathy. They used to do Kuchipudi together. Kimiko, the Japanese dancer behind him, still visits Kalakshetra. I completely disagree with his point of view that foreigners cannot understand Bharatanatyam. One of my best students was a ballet dancer whom I choreographed a varnam for.
If India forgets Bharatanatyam,
there will always be foreigners to dance it.
These two were admitted to beginning classes at the school.
Their touching but pathetic efforts are a bit embarrassing.
The American and the Japanese girl have learned a little of the technique,
but it's obvious something is missing.
There is neither truth nor grace in their dancing.
It's a caricature.
Watch them carefully.
They demonstrate in striking fashion
how impossible it is for foreigners to fit into Indian culture.
The failure is particularly striking here in its physicality,
but it's the same in all domains.
Pushpa: Indira Bora and Jayashree Narayanan. Indira went back to Assam and learnt Sattriya and performed it. Jayashree recently retired after being the dean of the dance department at Pondicherry University. The people singing and teaching them are Vasantha and Seetarama Sarma. The woman who is playing the tambura - that's Vasantha. Vasantha now has Parkinson's disease and lives in Bangalore.
Pushpa: They are practicing Kalyani jathiswaram here.
Even now, we have people watching the classes all the time. They crowd in and disturb the classes, so Leela (Samson) made openings to let them stand outside and watch. We request them to watch classes from outside; they are not allowed inside because we can't have the class disturbed so often. Besides, there are so many classes to see; why should they linger at the same place for more than a few minutes? The students also lose their concentration. It disturbs me too; I don't like to scold my students in the presence of visitors.
The dancer must forget her body, which is immensely difficult, because perfection is achieved only through absolute control of gesture and memory.
Indira PP Bora
But these dancers have gone beyond technique.
These images clearly show dance as language, or better yet, dialogue.
The gestures are a prayer, an invocation.
The dance is one of the yogas, meaning a path to transcendence, a bridge between here and the beyond.
Pushpa: This is Husseini Swarajathi.
What is this man saying! I'm sure even the fact that we dance barefoot will mystify him.
We filmed tirelessly, several days in a row,
as if the dancers were elusive images that would fade away.
There was something uncertain and unreal in the air that tore at one's heart.
This grace, this beauty, this perfect harmony of body and mind
is like the idealized vision of India,
one that I'd so rarely encountered that I questioned if it really existed.
Mystical India, India that transcends appearances to achieve unity.
The southern Indians like to represent their great god Shiva
in his incarnation as Nataraj, the cosmic dancer,
he who orders the movements of the universe.
Dance is the supreme expression of Hinduism.
This is India: A worldview we don't understand,
a social hierarchy that puzzles us,
an economic reality that shocks us,
but also the hesitant, fragile grace of two girls conversing with God.
We have to practice every day. From 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., and often in the afternoon.
Pushpa: Indira spoke her own, very amusing concoction of Tamil. It would make us laugh and then she would say - but you understood what I said, didn't you?
She's from Assam, on the other side of India.
She's light-skinned, with slightly Asian features.
The other is from Madras, a purebred Tamil.
I liked their laughs, their expressions,
how natural they were, and how serious.
I told them that classical dancers in Europe also practice every day.
They answer sharply, "We have to concentrate more.
If we're not completely concentrated on what we're doing,
we can't express our faith, our love of God.
We must think and concentrate."
Pushpa: This is again Vasantha teacher, who was playing the tambura in the previous section. She was a very good singer too.
Bala vinave, Kshetrayya padam, Ragam Kamboji, Tala Triputa
bala vinave varada gopalunipai vatti brahmalu
O, my friend, listen to me, my affection for him is all in vain
(yalane vanipai marulu valukantiro
Why should I have any love for him, why should I swoon over him, o friend with fish-like eyes...)
"The heroine is the main character in solo Bharatanatyam performances.
She always venerates the hero, and the hero is always one of the gods in our religion.
Each god is attached to a specific temple,
like Tanjore, for example.
The dance we rehearsed yesterday was dedicated to the god Krishna.
Today's is to the god Shiva.
Songs always address one god at a time.
We don't seek innovation.
We don't believe in it.
What we do comes from the distant past,
and we always choose traditional songs."
Pushpa: This padam portrays a virahotkanthita nayika, a lovesick nayika. I learnt it from Mylapore Gowri Ammal.
cinna nati modalu vani cinnalage ne lonaitiyunna
vagalu cenna lekayunna samito kannero ekkaati joli kantalu
From a young age, we spent so much time together. How happily we played; he has forgotten it all.
Then, my friend, why should I feel this connection with him now?
He doesn't remember anything of that love, what have I got to do with such a man?
These are the stars of the school, the best and the brightest, or they will be when they finish, for they still have much training ahead.
Now we've begun to distract them a little.
We're keeping them from attaining the total concentration needed to attain perfection.
We keep filming. We watch them endlessly.
Time has stopped. We don't want to leave.
We can't tear ourselves away.
Then we're suddenly thrown out,
like slightly suspect characters come to disturb their perfect order.
They sensed something fishy about our presence.
When I think back on it now, I think they were right.
We were indeed thieves, intruders in a world to which we didn't belong.