In her capacity as the director of Kalakshetra, Priyadarshini Govind speaks about its inherited legacy and lasting relevance.


Jyotsna Narayanan: We thought we would speak to you about a few thoughts that you have and might be able to share with us, regarding this legacy that is Kalakshetra. You yourself have been in the arts all your life, a performer, teacher, choreographer. How and what would you say is Kalakshetra, what is this legacy?

Priyadarshini Govind: How do I answer, because that word, 'legacy', it is something so much beyond what my mind can comprehend.  Because, honestly, when I entered Kalakshetra it was with the enthusiasm of somebody completely innocent of what is happening here, with just the fervent need to do something for the art world, and somewhere some instinct was guiding me. It was very spontaneous. And every day, since I entered here, I learn a little more of the immense thought, the effort, the life and soul that has been put into this place. And I keep saying it and I will continue to say it, that there is no place like Kalakshetra, anywhere.


This is an artist’s dream. This is the dream of everybody who wants to live a life of beauty, of all of us who want to live a worthwhile life. Right from the time you enter the space that is Kalakshetra, when you see the way the kolam has been done with so much love... We see kolams everywhere on the road, but why does it take on special beauty when you see it here? Somewhere, the spirit of it enters each one of us here, and we do things with a keener eye for beauty, we do things with the knowledge that there is a responsibility towards doing it. So I think whether you are born into the legacy, whether you have grown up with it, whether you enter it from the outside like I have done, the legacy is in our hands before we know it, and it is our responsibility to treat it with respect. When I sit at the prayer with the faculty and students, when I see a movement on stage, and it hits you that, you know in that one movement, how many hours of thought have gone into it, otherwise that movement would not be present with so much depth. And whoever performs that movement is able to feel that beauty and transmit it to the audience. So something has been created, that you only have to touch, and then it takes on, the beauty happens by itself, and then passes on to the next one. How, we are all blessed by, and even participate in this vision, and I feel destiny has played a role in my life that I have been able to experience this.


J.N.: Kalakshetra is known for its unique pedagogy, its style of teaching, communication, its own parampara (tradition), as we would like to believe. How would you speak of that to us, what would you say of that parampara?

P.G.: Frankly, I would say I come from a different tradition, because I learnt from a traditional nattuvanar (dance teacher and choreographer). Different because it was not an institutional learning and because there was only myself in class. It was an individual class. So my understanding of the Kalakshetra pedagogy was very different. A technique of presenting dance productions. And there were certain compositions that were unique to Kalakshetra. Beyond that, I had no understanding. So, today if you ask me, I think as I said, every movement of the arm, the eyes, the head, the feet, carried significance. I mean the significance sometimes revealed itself, sometimes it was brought out, sometimes it just happened, right? The depths that were plumbed, the process itself was most important, getting into the absolute essence of a word, of a lyric, of a melody, of a movement, of a situation, of a character was absolutely essential and crucial. And from there, the movement developed, the movement became fuller, and it came out in its entirety. When I hear the senior generation speak the kind of inputs they had, it was not just restricted to an Indian traditional way of learning. I think Smt Rukmini Devi brought in her worldview, and the learning was from anywhere, you know, anything that was of great value was adapted and adopted for, so that I think became very special. And what we see today, is an amalgam of her experiences, of how this got translated, through the understanding and physical and mental capabilities of the young students who were fortunate to learn from her, to learn from the great scholars who lived, and taught at that time. So a tradition, a way of learning, a way of teaching a very sincere and a committed way of approach, so that is the pedagogy. It doesn’t matter what your compositions are, right? It doesn't matter that we have tattu-adavus, so many nattu-adavus, it is the approach, to me that is what represents the pedagogy. Which is what I think I learned from my teachers too. The absolute truth is, you have to get to the essence, there is no compromise, there is no other route to it, there are no half measures. Absolute commitment has to be maintained and has to be passed on. That is what I would like to do, that I feel is my responsibility.


J.N.: The Kalakshetra technique is what most of us relate to and we feel it is a technique, but as you say technique is perhaps one fragment, a more necessary fragment in terms of everyday living.

P.G.: It’s the tangible fragment.


J.N.: It’s the tangible fragment, but hardly the whole, hardly the whole. You’ve told us also about the fact that the process is what makes it Kalakshetra, right? And therefore the end product is also, it has a flavour of that process. What you talk of is a very old-world charm, in that sense, where so much effort, so much like you say a very sincere effort goes into the process itself. In the faith that there is beauty at the end of it

P.G.: I would actually like to interrupt you here, I’m sorry. I get very distressed when people talk about it as an old-world charm. It is it is how it should be, whichever century it is, it doesn’t matter. That is the world that is relevant,and again, that word relevance, how does Kalakshetra remain relevant, I think it's each of our responsibilities. I think it’s our duty to ensure that Kalakshetra retains the best, and passes it on. I think the world should understand that Kalakshetra is a place that has to be preserved.


J.N.: What do you see as an artist yourself? How do you see yourself bringing to this beautiful process?

P.G.: As an artist, strangely, I feel if I am able to facilitate, the growth artistically, creatively, of the faculty, ensure that the students grow in the best possible way creatively, create an atmosphere of harmony and beauty, and where learning is but a natural process, but the thing that you do, like breathing; where even a flower, you don’t walk past it without looking at that fallen flower, I mean it's very natural to stop in your tracks and watch that squirrel drink water, I mean these are the things, ultimately, that hone your sense of proportion, your sense of beauty, your sense of art and this is what you learn from. So I feel that, if I am able to instill that in the students, make it possible for the students make it possible for the faculty to function in a harmonious way where they are able to realise the potential within themselves and without, then I think and, you know, retain the beauty of this, environment, whether it’s the crafts centre, whether it’s the schools, I think Kalahektra should play a leadership role in art education at primary and pre-primary levels and also for senior citizens. This is something that we are, I mean, something that I feel is very important. Because I feel children unquestioningly imbibe all that is around them. If you give them a world of beauty, if you give them a world of incessant learning then that is what they will carry with them throughout their lives. So I think Kalaskektra can do that through art. Today, the world has moved by leaps and bounds, beyond anybody’s imagination. I feel art whether it is psychologically, whether it is physically, whether it is emotionally, plays a very strong role. As dancers we know. I feel angry with the world. When I am finished with the dance class, I feel the world is the right way up again. Similarly when I am happy, the movements take on a different meaning. So art plays a big role in every way. So if that can used in a very scientific, in a very artistic way to educate the child through art which is what Kalakshetra was started for and to start at that age—where if this is what they receive, if this is what they understand then at 10 and 15 they will never veer past this. I started abhinaya at a very young age. I realize now what an advantage it was because very thing came naturally at that age, everything is so uninhibited, it’s a very moist soil that is here. And it takes and it picks on such strength of growth, right. So I feel that is where we need to mould the children, through art and education, I think Kalakshetra should play a very important role.


J.N.: You look at yourself as a facilitator of a certain parampara and a certain aesthetic, a certain belief, in the arts and in the purity of art. The question here is that while most art institutions battle with remaining relevant in a changing world, Kalakshetra has done fairly well for itself, in that sense. It has held on to its identity, it has held its space, despite, many challenges. What would you say is that quality that has helped it stay alive?

P.G.: I think the very reasons that for which Kalakshetra was remains relevant today. Was very necessary yesterday, is still more necessary today, and will always be necessary tomorrow. Because, we are talking about climate change, we’re talking about environment, preserving the environment. Look at Kalakshetra. I mean here, the children immediately kind of fall in line with a certain practice, and all the traditions that have been, are towards that, isn't it?


J.N.: It almost seems like as if you know, it were ahead of the times.

P.G.: Exactly. And it was echoing practices that were there, and also imbibing the best of what she (Rukmini Devi Arundale) had seen everywhere else in the world during these performances, I see parents bringing their children. The children wander in and they look with rapt attention at what is happening on stage, sometimes, they’re just looking at the musicians, and watching this finger, sometimes they’re watching the dance on stage, then they run and they’ll play in the sand, for some time, and then they’ll wander in. I think that kind of childhood, where else do you find it? I think parents want that for their children. And then you see the older generation, who are walking in here, and for them, they’re at that point in their lives, when what they see on stage, it need not be anything that is religious, it need not be anything that is bhakti-oriented, I mean in, in an apparent way, but the complete spiritual overtones, the feeling transcends a certain human level and takes you to another world, where all of them are transported to that world, and it touches a chord, and they come out like they have been a part of something that was very special, something very moving and yes! So it’s not even whether Kalakshetra will remain relevant.


J.N.: It’ll always remain relevant.

P.G.: It’ll always remain relevant. In fact, it’s so important, that you know Kalakshetra retains what it has, and grows from strength to strength, because that is what, people, the world needs. The world has always needed it, and will always need it.


J.N.: Towards this would you believe that, there is enough dialogue and, and enquiry amongst all of us as people who belong to this institution in any capacity, as students, staff members? Is it important to revisit that which you called the essence?

P.G.: I didn’t grow up with this. So when I came in, and even today, I look around me and I think, everybody here takes it for granted, right? So where is the question of dialogue? They don’t realise, I mean, I wouldn’t, it’s not a blanket statement, it’s not a criticism, but I feel that the value of it, when you have it, and when you have got it so easily, you’ve grown up with it, you don’t see it for the, the rarity that it is, isn’t it? Therefore where do you speak, I mean you take it for granted, isn't it? I feel that the, it has to be a very strong responsibility, not in a rigid way, but in a very positive way, for everybody who has been through Kalakshetra. I think, its, it’s not about keeping your environment clean, it’s not about arranging your furniture in a particular way, or wearing your sari in a particular way, or putting a flower in a particular way. It’s that thought process, it’s the generosity, it’s the breadth of vision, it is the understanding that the world you know, is a place, and what your place in that world is; and whether you are just existing or you want to live a life of great meaning and beauty, isn't it? I don’t know how many people who’ve lived and learned and passed out of Kalakshetra or continued to be here, how much they think about it, I don’t know.


J.N.: But you would feel that such a space would be more and more relevant in the years to come?

P.G.: Completely.


J.N.: A space for dialogue, a space for conversations, of understanding further the vision of Rukmini Devi?

P.G.: I think it’s very necessary, and I hope in this 80th year, we are able to... The problem is, we digress and we go into the personal, but what she was was larger than the person that she was, isn't it? She pointed a way, and it is a way of life which she has created.


J.N.: The word conformity, normally, is associated with this institution, where there is a feeling that you are said, this, told, ‘This is what you need to do’, and in this manner, at this time. So there is a very clear direction of how to do something, and very often for younger people, there is always the feeling that this is a little too rigid, and at the same time you find that in Kalakshetra there is an immense artistic movement, but we are not able to understand it has creativity sometimes when you’re younger as students, specially as students, because you’re only listening to ‘this needs to be done in this way’, whether it is an aramandi, as you said, just now, placing a flower, ‘no you just do it like that, don’t ask why’. What is this place, because the world is moving towards questioning, younger people like to have a rationale for things; are we ready to give uh, them the answers they are seeking, how would you understand this, movement, from conformity to creativity?

P.G.: Yes, I believe in a very strong groundwork. I believe in a very strong grounding in whatever you are learning, and for that you need a lot of discipline. And, I don’t think discipline is a bad word that it’s sometimes made out to be. It’s very necessary to be on time for prayer, if you’re not on time for, in time for prayer, you have to be, you have to explain why, and I think it’s in a way, you have to pay the price for it. And if you don’t follow certain, traditions that were created here—there was a reason behind why these were created—if you don’t follow these, definitely I think you should pay the price—I think discipline is very important, you’re calling it conformity, I think it's groundwork that you receive? But, I think it is also the way the teacher handles it. When the teacher explains to you the reasons for why it is done, there is a meaning to it, you talk about why it done, and you talk about the importance of why it is done. And if a child is ready to receive it, okay, if not, the child conforms. Because at some point in the child’s life, they will understand, and that would have been ingrained in her or him already, and then the meaning of it comes, you have to give it time. But that doesn’t mean you say, Okay, till the child understands, she doesn’t need to do it. I’ll be doing an injustice to that child. I have to ensure that she or he conforms. So it is up to me, I mean I think the best teachers, would bring that act out with love, hopefully we should, Kalakshetra should continue to have the best teachers, I think that is very important. And also I strongly believe in the guru-shishya parampara, because the complete trust in a teacher is very important. And hopefully the teacher will live up to it. And, when I ask questions, somewhere, something should have gone in to trigger that question; the question cannot appear from nowhere, when it appears from nowhere, it’s worthless, there is no value to it. So, when there is something that has gone in, unquestioningly, then questions arise, then the answers for it help you to grow, you know. So I feel, that questioning is a very overrated quality that is being encouraged in youngsters. You question, but you question with thought, right?


J.N.: In Indian thought one always believes that you have to be prepared within yourself before you can ask a question.  

P.G.: Yes! It is not out of fear that you don’t ask, but it is because you are not yet ready to ask a question. And one of the things I really want, I mean to see in Kalakshetra is, that there is no fear. Fear of asking a question. But at the same time, the necessity to learn and therefore question should be the practice, you know?


J.N.: You’ve spoken about the guru-shishya parampara, and this process of learning, of learning first with discipline and just implicit disciple, because the mind is not yet ready to question,

P.G.: Absolutely.


J.N.: Or you know, even understand what it means to question; and then to grow to a point when you are capable of questioning; not questioning, but you’re capable of questions that you want answers for, of a higher learning process with your teacher. But this is a very beautiful relationship between a teacher and a student, and I think in Kalakshetra we have had that wonderful relationship that is always been possible. But it is also an institution, in some ways, it, so how would you speak of, say the merits and the demerits of it being both an institution, where students don’t just pass through one teacher, very often they meet up with different minds, with different interpretations, different abilities, but at the same time, the spirit of learning with a guru is retained?

P.G.: I think that’s a huge challenge, both for the student, and especially for the teacher. Because this is an institution, You represent a pedagogy, but it is not something that you have created, but you have inherited, just like others. And it is your responsibility along with others, to pass it on, so it is a collective responsibility. And, what happens is, where is my place in it? And how much of ownership do I have with the student, that is important. So, it is my responsibility to kindle that student’s mind and open it, but I also have to have the detachment, that the student will pass on to somebody else, but I should still have that same responsibility without that possessiveness. It is a huge challenge for teachers here, and it’s also, I mean it’s each person’s journey, each person’s growth and that’s also something that’s very important that I create an, environment of harmony. I mean, when I say 'I', I mean in my capacity here to ensure that things are alive and vibrant, positive, in a positive environment. Because, every teacher has to feel valued, has to feel that they are giving something of value to the student, at the same time, they should not look at themselves in comparison to the others. Because when that comparison comes, invariably, unnecessary emotions come in the way, and I feel I should be in a position to ensure that those feelings should not arise in this environment.


J.N.: Right, what you’re then speaking of is also perhaps a part of Rukmini Devi’s vision, where she spoke of a certain personal evolution, in every one of us, whether we are students, teachers, whatever. But as for everybody on this campus, the path of personal evolution is very important, do you think then, that we have enough in Kalakshetra to challenge us as adults, I wouldn’t use the word teacher or student, but as adults. What is the importance of this growth and do have enough to take us through the process personally for us?

P.G.: I think it is very easy to be overwhelmed by all that is there around you, and therefore you feel, what is my place here? That kind of negativity can come. Or what, of what anyway or what use am I? Or this environment gives me the space and the food to grow, and therefore I have to ensure that through me something passes on to the next generation, so that is also possible. So I genuinely feel that each of us has something to contribute, in our own way. If we’re able to look at that value that each one of us has, and if we’re able to appreciate that, and make that the centre of that person’s contribution, then I think that that sense of self-worth, that sense of connect with the organisation will happen naturally.   


J.N.: Where would you like to see Kalakshetra go from where it is today? How would you like to see it move, and what do you see as your role in that journey?

P.G.: I think Kalakshetra is beautiful as it is. This place is a world in itself. What I would like is the world to realise what it is, and through little windows and sometimes when the door opens, and closes, to see the beauty. Because it needs to preserved, it needs to be nurtured, it also needs to be protected from, I mean it, it’s, as you say, the door can open, but that door should also shut, because it’s very important to take that breath and then you know? But I think Kalakshetra is really today a leader in art education. It should lead in creating a generation of young people, who think and feel and therefore this has an impact on society, in the sense harmony is important, embracing an inclusiveness in thought, and aiming for excellence and transcending the trivial, and where you aim for something that is bigger and higher than our mere physical and mental selves. So I think that Kalakshetra can play a leadership role in creating a society, in impacting society, I think this is the place and Kalakshetra has both the emotional and physical infrastructure to do it.