Pursuing their dreams
A book release and performances
More than 130 years after Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was born, her life and achievements were celebrated in Chennai to a packed auditorium. The enterprising woman behind this event was V.R. Devika—a storyteller, educationist, and cultural activist, and the venue was the Bharata Kalakshetra Koothambalam built by another trailblazer—Rukmini Devi Arundale.
The release function of the book titled Muthulakshmi Reddy – A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, authored by V.R. Devika, was presented in three segments. The function was presided over by Padma Venkataraman (President, WIA), Bharatanatyam exponent Narthaki Nataraj and S. Balasubramanian (Chairman, City Union Bank Foundation). Each spoke warmly about the inspiration that Muthulakshmi Reddy has been for women over the generations. Padma Venkatraman added that Devika’s engaging writing style had made it accessible to all readers. The way the history of Pudukkottai is woven into the story and the architectural marvels of some of its ancient temples make it an important resource. She stressed that Dr. Reddy was an iconic personality in Tamil Nadu’s social history whose story must be shared with youth in schools and colleges nationwide.
It was evident from V.R. Devika’s vote of thanks that people from all walks of life were instrumental in launching this meticulous and readerfriendly book. Devika says, “It was Dr. Reddy’s disciple Dr. V. Shanta who urged me to write a new book on Muthulakshmi Reddy. I learnt more and more as I began to research and was able to get access to information about her mother. I deliberately decided to quote from Tamil works available on her rather than the academic tenure-driven studies on the theme. I needed to tell her story, and I have. I have cut it from a 70,000- word manuscript idea to 40,000 words to fit into the pioneers of the modern India monograph series format. I am very happy as I want young girls in government high schools and colleges to read it. It is accessible to them with its simple narration, I believe.”
The two performance segments highlighted artists who have empowered themselves through art, bringing joy and culture to all segments of society. The first, Akkarai showcased young girls from the Katradi group Kalavai Koot road village, confidently performing with their counterparts from the city. They were trained in a workshop led by Sangeeta Isvaran, a well-known Bharatanatyam dancer and activist. The dancers had met, stayed together and not only shared their performance pieces but also discussed the challenges they face as young girls to live a life with dignity and respect. Many of the girls found solace in the skills taught to them, giving them purpose and financial stability. ‘Akkarai’, as the name suggests – the other side of the shore – is about a mutual exchange of ideas between dancers of the Koothu tradition and Bharatanatyam, enriching both in the process.
The evening ended with Rajatamadhuram – the silver jubilee performance celebration of the Rukminidevi Natyakshetra Foundation. Founded by S. Premnath – an alumnus of Kalakshetra, it was heartening to see the high quality of students nurtured by Premnath over the last 25 years in North Chennai. Premnath’s life purpose has been to make art accessible in an area which is almost a cultural abyss. V.R. Devika had taken Premnath under her wing, and her mentorship of over 20 years has played an intrinsic part in his artistic endeavours.
The evening was indeed inspiring. While highlighting the work of a pioneer and colossal figure in medicine and social work like Muthulakshmi Reddy, Devika also showcased members of the next generation continuing with their tireless efforts to share their art and create a happier world.
in conversation with
Silver jubilee of Rukminidevi Natyakshetra
How did you find your life’s purpose in dance, and what were the challenges of setting up a school in north Madras in the 1990s?
I am originally from Ettayapuram, but was born in Vellore. My father had a government job. Though they were not into the arts, I had an interest in dance from an early age. It was not common for boys in my community to take up dancing as a career, but my parents were very encouraging. I started learning from the time I was in the fifth standard from various teachers living nearby.
Later, when I joined Kalakshetra, it was a turning point in my life and shaped my destiny. I was mesmerised by the ambience, the early morning prayer and the spirit of the institution. I was impressed with the methodology of teaching. I was so inspired by Rukmini Devi and her vision for Kalakshetra that I wanted to share this experience with others.
When I finished my course, my mother’s friend suggested that I start a school in Mogappair; I used to pass Mogappair from Vilivakkam to Kalakshetra every day. I realised it was important to take Bharatanatyam to areas where students had no exposure to this beautiful classical dance form. There were many challenges. The first was to get a space to start classes. Having been in the beautiful surroundings of Kalakshetra, it was difficult to get used to classrooms without the greenery and open spaces. I was not disillusioned. I created the ambience in my mind and started teaching with a focus on imparting all that I had imbibed. The next thing was to fix a curriculum; this culminated in a seven-year course for students of INTERVIEW Silver jubilee of Rukminidevi Natyakshetra S. Premnath in conversation with Anjana Anand Bharatanatyam. I realised that only by dedicating myself to teaching would my dream come true. Performance took a backseat, and I started on my journey to bring alive the beauty of my learning through my students.
It took a lot of time to change the mindset of people in the area. Their tastes and understanding of art were very different. Dance was more cosmetic, and I wanted to share values about life through my art. This was how Rukminidevi Natyakshetra Foundation (RNF) was founded in July 1997.
How do you maintain the high quality of dancing with part-time students?
It was purely the inspiration of Rukmini Devi’s work that guided me. I wanted to recreate the beauty that I had experienced at my alma mater. I did not start the academy to compete with anyone but merely to share the joy this art form has given me. It was not only about anga suddham, I realised early that natyam is a complete experience; it cannot be seen in isolation. Music, costumes, accessories, and props come under this vast umbrella. I started music and art classes at our school, and these students also follow a set curriculum.
Performances are important for students to understand how all these art forms come together. I was clear from the beginning that all our performances should be of high production quality. I made my vocalist train under Radha Venkataraman (an alumna of Kalakshetra), also a faculty member. Similarly, Ragguprasad sir has been helping us train mridangists. I slowly started collecting costumes over the years. It took time to introduce the audience to an aesthetic palette of colours and materials. We did not depend on parents for anything but lent the costumes and jewellery to students from our own collection. Even the ‘talai saman’ for performances in the final year are from our institution. Over the years, we have managed to get costumes for four different productions and almost 100 margams! Jothi, our costume-incharge, looks after this department. I also make the students learn to do their own make-up and be selfreliant.
I would often share stories we had heard in Kalakshetra with my students. They have visited Kalakshetra on many occasions and performed there too. Initially, they were overwhelmed by the experience, and I warned them that they should not merely be carried away by what they see. While it is important to be a rasika, it should not stop with blind admiration. The only way to grow as individuals is for us to imbibe those qualities into our own practice and journey.
How do you ensure students’ regularity and attendance at events in RNF?
While I sympathise with the increasing pressure on school students, I feel that once they choose to learn an art form, they have to give some priority to that too. We implement this in a couple of ways. Firstly, admission is only during the beginning of the term, and students cannot join at any time of the year. This gives a certain seriousness and continuity to the batches. Right at the beginning, we inform the parents about the expectations of students joining our institution.
In order to make it easier for parents to plan, the calendar of events for the whole year is prepared at the beginning of the year. Teachers keep reminding the students of the importance of attending the events. At our end, we ensure that each event is conducted professionally by starting on time and keeping to the duration as stipulated. The day after an event, we all sit with the students to discuss about the programme. Students are excited to give feedback, and those who did not attend realise how much they missed out! So instead of forcing them to come, we find ways for students to motivate themselves. I think the enthusiasm of our teachers is infectious!
It must be quite a financial burden to keep the institute running with many staff, administration personnel and events throughout the year. How do you manage that?
To be honest, RNF is not money driven! Of course, having the finances to realise one’s dream is important, but my vision for a beautiful centre of the arts has been the driving force, and I owe that to my mother’s outlook on life which I imbibed.
I always wanted to serve society, and for me the arts was the best way to do that. Many assume that RNF is run with large grants and sponsorships. You will be surprised to know that in the last 25 years, we have been self-financed! However, the goodwill and generosity of time and advice have come from many quarters, especially our mentor V.R. Devika. When she arranged our performance at Kalakshetra many years ago, a well-wisher spoke to me after the performance and asked how I was managing all this financially. To my delight, a few days later, she donated one lakh, which I used as my corpus fund. Artists who come to give guest lectures and perform accept our humble remuneration. This has been a great help to us.
The rest of the expenses are solely managed with the fees we receive. We make a clear budget at the beginning of the year to avoid a financial crisis. This careful planning has helped me keep this foundation alive. I must acknowledge the financial assistance my parents have given me. Besides this, we ask people to donate their old silk sarees for our costumes. We sometimes ask parents for small donations to help run an event, and many come forward willingly. Now that we are moving into our new premises, I am planning to apply for a government grant.
It is wonderful that you have now got your own space for RNF. What are your aspirations for the school for the next 20 years?
I am very excited that our new building is being constructed. Till now, we have been working from different spaces in schools. Now that we will be under one roof, the foundation will have its own identity and sense of cohesiveness.
In this next phase, there are two areas which I want to strengthen. Our curriculum, which I set up almost 25 years ago, has been a success, and I would like to fine-tune it and make it more relevant for students. Also, it should be implemented more systematically in all the batches. Only by practical application can we arrive at the best methodology of training.
I feel it is important to bring art
back into our daily life. We want to
connect with more schools in areas
like Ambattur and Mogappair. This
academic year, we have included
the national anthem and Tamizh taai
vaazhthu (Tamil Nadu state song)
for music students. We thought we
could help the schools by improving
the musical rendition of these songs.
Our teachers can train the students, or
our music students studying in those
schools can teach their peers the
correct musical rendition. We have
plans for a small performance space
so that our students and guests can
perform at regular intervals. This will
give an opportunity for people in this
part of the city to partake in quality