By Vidhya Nair
The annual Remembering Rukmini Devi Festival is held in the last week of February-early March to coincide with Smt Rukmini Devi’s birth anniversary which is February 29th. I was privileged to attend the festival in 2020 [ my last trip overseas before the pandemic hit!].
The ambience at Kalakshetra at this time of year is unique, the weather is still cool and pleasant and unlike the Margazhi season, you get to meet and engage with many Chennai residents especially the young students and industry stalwarts. There was an eclectic programming of both music kutcheris in Hindustani and Carnatic featuring Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons and Sanjay Subramaniam in concert. I attended the latter to get the experience of watching this vocalist with a strong following and fanbase. It was a packed auditorium and many students took their place on the stage where he delivered, with his excellent team of musicians, rare Tamil krithis which enthralled the audience. Many were familiar with the compositions and joined in putting talam or had their eyes closed in reverence to the music. Sanjay was a tour-de force performer with his masculine voice and command of the stage. I understood fully why he had so many fans. There was also a very engaging Villapattu performance as part of the opening ceremony in the morning. Beautifully spoken Tamil and the tongue-in-cheek humour was memorable and play on Rukmini Devi’s name and attributes were cleverly done.
The other highlight show I witnessed was a ” presented by Sheejith Krishna, P T Narendran, Shijit & Parvathy Nambiar along with the Sahardaya Repertory. The attendance for this show featured all the who’s-who of Bharatanatyam from the Dhanajayans to Malavika Sarukkai, to Mythili Prakash. It was an electric performance which featured many of the signature poses, expressions and characters well associated with each of the dancers now household names themselves. There were ecstatic howls and screams of joys by many of the youngsters who sat at the front of stage and gallery upstairs. It was clear this was home turf and with the brilliant live musicians, you felt transfixed. An experience only possible at the Rukmini Arangam. Several nights also featured the Kalakshetra classics with episodes from the Ramayana presented in dance-drama. The space has a divine energy that transports you into the magical world of storytelling in its purest form and despite the large crowds that filled the Arangam, the easy chairs and high ceiling ventilation supports a relaxing and engaging evening. I also enjoyed the simple canteen food and the shop which featured their handmade Kalamkari collection, traditional dance sarees and a wonderful array of Kalakshetra publications. I left with a few copies of books by Rukmini Devi herself and other writings on the history of this famed institute.