“When I see the girls walking barefoot on the grass, amidst the trees, I can visibly observe how the dance, music and culture seeps into them”, says Premnath about a trip to his alma mater, Kalakshetra. He dreams of building a similar sprawling campus where he can do a lot more; and, he is pragmatic enough to be aware that it is a lot more difficult to accomplish that in this age of sky-rocketing land prices.
But Premnath is not waiting for a magnificent campus to come up. He has been extra-ordinarily innovative to rent a regular school and convert it into his own campus. After the school hours, the desks are removed, carpets are rolled out, kolams are drawn and zoom! academics gives way to arts. Every day. It is almost magical – Meenakshi Matriculation School, tucked away in a corner of a small lane in TVS Colony of Anna Nagar, West, gets transformed to Rukmini Devi Natyakshetra.
Natyakshetra is a misnomer now. What started off as a dance school 17 years ago, has now grown to be a full fledged arts centre with over 350 students studying dance, carnatic vocal, violin, veena and painting under the careful guidance of 30 teachers. From 7-year olds to late teens, the place is teeming with young artists with music in their eyes and dance in their movements.
For a guru revered, and even lovingly feared, by his students, Premnath is still quite a young man. We had attended his marriage only recently. Yet, the numbers don’t seem add up, when we are told he started this foundation 17 years ago. He set out to build this not-for-profit institute before he turned 20, soon after graduating from Kalakshetra.
I first met Premnath at Aseema Trust, an organization run by another talented, multifaceted lady, V.R.Devika. Devika always makes it point to introduce Premnath as the favorite child of Aseema. With Aseema, Premnath has collaborated to produce quite few dance and music shows. I had the pleasure of watching a spectacular show on Gandhi early this year. They are expecting to launch a dance and music CD in August.
Premnath says he has a rigorous selection process to select about 150 students per year. He gets over 250 applications. He looks for students and parents who will last the rigorous 7-year course. There are many who drop out after 3 or 4 years. But there are many who persist, despite public exams and transfer of parents. There is a student who is continuing the course, even after he got transferred to Madurai – he travels from Madurai to Chennai every week!
When it comes to arts and culture, Premnath maybe called a purist. He insists on strict dress codes. He is uncompromising on the quality. He sees his schools as a gurukul. He has a great belief that through arts, he is instilling the Indian culture and heritage in his students. He doesn’t consider competitions to have any intrinsic worth. He has a healthy contempt for TV reality shows; his experience has taught him that participants burn out after losing and stop growing after winning.
At the same time, he has also broken moulds. He has taken arts outside the traditional localities of Chennai. His school has students from different communities and different economic backgrounds. He takes great pride in the diversity of his students. Some of his alumni have joined back as teachers.
After a long guided tour around the school and many more interesting conversations, he had a surprise in store for us – – my wife, daughter and me. Premnath arranged for an impromptu dance show – for 10 minutes, he said. A few girls rolled out a carpet and we sat down on the corridor that opened into a broad balcony. With Hariprasanth, a protege of Premnath, singing, we were treated to one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lifetime. 10 lovely little girls, most of them clad in sarees, gave a wonderful Bharatanatyam performance, exclusively for us. The show went on non-stop for 30 minutes. Premnath said he didn’t stop the show, as even our 4.5-year old daughter was sitting there, motionless and glued. Not for a moment did the physical energy of the girls sag; not for a moment did the intensity of expression drop. We felt that their sincerity made the dance fit for an audience of 1000s. But the girls were in their own world – for those 30 minutes, I doubt if we existed for them, or if they cared whether they were dancing for 3 or 3000 people. What more can we desire for!
[Photos courtesy : http://rukmininatya.net]