When Hillary Clinton charted the second leg of her recent India trip, very few people expected her to travel from Delhi to the south Indian city of Chennai—a first for any US secretary of state.
Even as many observers reasoned that her decision was probably driven by the presence of a large number of American-owned car-making and computer-manufacturing factories near Tamil Nadu’s capital, the former first lady added another twist. Clinton chose to get a taste of the city’s age-old association with the arts instead of its more recent industrial avatar, visiting the Kalakshetra School of Dance, a premier residential dance school that offers instruction in the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music.
Hours before her scheduled visit on Wednesday to the 75-year-old Kalakshetra Foundation in south Chennai, the tree-lined, sandy campus bore visible signs of excitement.
Groups of students were huddled in discussion soon after morning prayers under the expansive shade of the 60-year-old banyan tree—the nucleus of the campus and the venue of the evening’s cultural act.
The night before, workers had laboured to clean the campus and give speed-breakers a fresh coat of yellow and black paint as police vehicles lined up for security inspections.
While Chennai’s music connoisseurs have no option but to throng lifeless, leather-seat auditoriums in the city centre during the month-long, annual December music festival, witnessing a performance at the Kalakshetra School of Dance, with its melange of beautiful stone-carved outdoor and wood-built indoor performance spaces, is a sublime experience.
Interestingly, decades ago, Chennai’s orthodox community shunned this institution that is praised today as an upholder of Tamil art and culture—and where visiting dignitaries are taken to showcase the best of the arts. Its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale faced immense social pressure in the 1930s when she learnt Bharatanatyam, which was considered a lowly and vulgar art form by the upper classes.
Despite the opposition, she learnt dance from Devadasi women or temple dancers and set up the Kalakshetra Foundation in 1936, which embraced the gurukul system that allowed students to stay on campus and learn the art form.
Arundale, who also broke convention by marrying a Britisher, George Arundale, finally did succeed in making Bharatanatyam socially acceptable.
As the sun set on Wednesday, Clinton ended her Chennai trip seated under the canopy of the banyan tree, watching a few senior students of the dance school performed a thillana, usually a concluding Bharatanatyam dance item involving complex footwork, to a song sung in the evening raga of Natabhairavi. Kathakali dancers, with their dramatic green and red face paint and elaborate costumes, and Mohiniattam performers with their off-white, zari-bordered saris also performed a section of Charishnu, a dance ballet choreographed by Kalakshetra’s current director, Leela Samson.
Charishnu is a widely acclaimed composition that includes several Indian classical dance forms, including Kathak, Manipuri and Odissi. The part involving Kathakali, which has its origins in Kerala, is undoubtedly the most visually appealing part of the performance and that was what the school chose to present during the 15-minute cultural fête for Clinton.
During her visit to India earlier this week, Clinton gave the country’s newspapers a huge opportunity to read into her political commentary at her various diplomatic meetings. But her visit to Kalakshetra may hopefully serve as a reminder that while politics makes the world go round, performing and visual arts hold it together.