Archive for the 'arts' Category

Kalakshetra Dance Demonstration

May 27th, 2008

Kalakshetra is a school of fine arts (and part of a larger foundation of the same name) in Chennai. It reminded me very much of Shantiniketan, the school founded by Rabindranath Tagore, with its beautiful trees and serene setting. Leela Samson, the director of Kalakshetra and an accomplished Bharata Natyam dancer, started our session in the prayer space, under the huge banyon tree (an offspring of the famous banyon tree of Chennai). She gave us the history of the institution and an explanation of the vision of Rukmini Arundale, the founder.

Following the introduction, we went into a small auditorium, after removing our footwear. The space where Bharata Natyam is performed is often treated as a holy space. In fact, in India, arts, music and classical dance are closely linked with the divine; arts are always performed or created as devotional offerings to the Gods.

Leela Sampson

Leela Samson gave us a lecture demonstration on the art form of Indian classical dance, illustrated by two dancers, one a faculty member and the other an archivist. She had them demonstrate ten different postures or forms, footwork, over twenty ‘adavus’ that are hand gestures that portray animals or birds or simply actions, and facial expressions and eye movements that portray emotions. The very complex performance combines all these various pieces with a rhythm and pace that is precise and wonderfully graceful. The movements are fluid and convey stories. We were all mesmerized watching the dancers and marveling at the balance among the various aspects. The dancer in fact starts off with a prayer and a supplication to the earth goddess for the pounding she is about to receive. The footwork itself is gentle at times and powerfully loud at other times.

We also heard a little about change in the societal norms with respect to women’s performing the dance. Even a few decades ago, women of respected families were not allowed to perform in public, since the dance originated as an art of devadasis, women who had dedicated their lives to god as temple prostitutes. This form of dance started out as a very individual form of art, but has evolved now into group performances or duets.

Because both Leela Samson and her dancers are artists and teachers of the first rank (Samson has received the highest civilian award from the president of India), we were enormously privileged. The clips below (be patient the first time you click) show Leela Samson explaining and her dancers, Haripadman and Sarita. It’s worth watching the dancers more than once to see how the movements of upper and lower body combine. The lower body is often percussive; the upper body (head, eyes, arms, hands, torso) conveys a complex melody.

Leela Samson



Arts in Chennai

May 25th, 2008

After a brief flight, we arrived in Chennai and noticed a marked difference in landscape and an increase in the heat! As we disembarked from the bus we were greeted with shell necklaces and lime water to wash away the stress of the day. After depositing our luggage, we were quickly swept away to Dakshina Chitra, “a non-profit, community service project of the Madras Craft Foundation for the promotion and preservation of the cultures of the diverse people of India with emphasis on Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.” (see http://www.

We were met by V.R. Devika, Managing Trustee of the Aseema Trust, who specilaizes in arts education. Because it was extremely hot we began inside with an overview of the facilities and then we hit the gift shop where we supported the many artisans by purchasing examples of their arts and crafts–some for ourselves and some for family and friends. I received great joy in shopping since the proceeds went to the artists themselves, many of whom are women brought to Dakshina Chitra to learn a craft and become empowered by their ability to provide a financial income for themselves and their families.

After shopping we began our tour. Most of the houses and huts were made from remnants of a variety of homes throughout the region destined for demolition. Classes were designated by the inhabitant’s craft and signified through the materials used to build the home (Bermese teak for the upper class and local wood painted brilliant colors for the weaver’s dwelling). We even managed to meet some of the artists, including a henna painter who decorated all of us women with beautiful drawings.

Henna - Shirley

Most significant here, however, is the preservation of cultural art–everything from wood carvings to woven fabrics demonstrates a joyful celebration of the people and their traditions.

Following our tour, we retreated to a small room where Devika provided a short lecture on Gandhi as performer, as well as a performance of her own. Part cultural historian, part actor, she managed to weave together stories from mythology with the theoretical work she is conducting around Gandhi’s life performance, including the many ways in which he managed to put his life’s work on the world stage, dressing in ritual mourning clothes, and through demonstration (perhaps the Greek mimesis?). Much of her research is grounded in performance theory drawn from the Natyasastra and the 5th Veda, which explores the primary elements of performance (the body/gesture, language, spectacle, and emotions).

Despite the sweltering heat we watched and listened attentively to the description and performance of her closing dance that embraced all of the earth’s creatures through a strong connection to the earth.


As we drove away I was left hoping that we might be able to make further connections with Dakshina Chitra and its offering of Indian cultural artifacts displayed through its strong effort to preserve the many arts and crafts.