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Jyothi Venkatachalam

Kerala Kalamandalam is the premier center of excellence in Indian performing arts emphasizing especially on the traditions that developed in Kerala. Established in 1930, this unique institution, devoted to classical performing arts, is situated near the majestic river Bharathapuzha, celebrated in literature as Nila, in the village of Cheruthuruthy in Trissur district. The ancient gurukula system of education continues to be a living tradition in the school, which has, over the years, become a significant milestone in the cultural history of the state.

Kalamandalam imparts training in and conducts performances of Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Thullal, Mohiniyattam and Panchavadhyam an example of one of the wonderful instrumental ensembles of Kerala, and Mridangam, the foremost among the percussion instruments in Carnatic music. Besides the regular, long-term intensive courses leading to professional expertise at its best, Kalamandalam has facilities to provide, on request, short term and personalized courses.

Toward the close of the 19th century, the traditional arts of Kerala were on the verge of extinction. The social, political and cultural factors that contributed to the downfall of the art forms are many and varied. This was but an ephemeral phenomenon. The dawn of the 20th century witnessed a cultural renaissance all over India. In Kerala, among those who spearheaded the cultural renaissance, poet Vallathol Narayana Menon is an immortal name. Besides being an outstanding poet and scholar, Menon was a passionate lover of Kathakali and other similar classical dance-theater traditions of Kerala. Against all odds, he took up the task of saving Kathakali and other stylized art-forms from eclipse. Kakkad Karanavappad, an eminent scholar and Manakkulam Mukundaraja, a devoted cultural activist, were an unending source of inspiration to Menon in the establishment of Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930.

The poet spared no attempts to see that Kathakali, the classical dance-theater, and Mohiniyattam, flourished in the fertile campus of Kalamandalam. He invited titans in the field to the institution. They lived in Kalamandalam, performed off and on in its yard and taught talented students for years and years. In Kalamandalam, Kathakali students are trained in such a way as to master the techniques first. Character-analysis and emotional identification are encouraged to be undertaken during successive stages of study according to individual preferences and leaving sufficient room for improvisation within the classical frame work. The Department of Classical Dance has Mohiniyattam as its thrust area; but Bharatanaatyam and Kuchipudi also are taught and performed as subsidiary subjects.

The birth of Kalamandalam was remarkable in many respects. Its establishment made the social and cultural emancipation of traditional artists a reality. At the same time, Kathakali and Mohiniattam -- the two major dance forms of Kerala were heading to extinction for want of patronage – were ensured their progress and existence under Kalamandalam.

In 1971, the campus of Kalamandalam shifted to Vallathol Nagar to accommodate the growing number of students. This new campus consist of several training rooms, the temple theater known as the Koothambalam, high school, college library, recording studio, hostels and a complete set of administrative offices.

Institutionalization of Kathakali and other traditional art-forms of Kerala is bound to create apprehensions about the erosion of time-tested values especially in the mode of teaching and in the guru-sishya (preceptor - disciple) relations. Poet Menon had foreseen the problems associated with such an institutionalization of classical arts. Hence in Kalamandalam, he made a successful attempt to retain the essential characteristics of the Gurukula tradition of training and the teacher-student relations. Certificate and diploma courses were introduced successively in the various art-disciplines. Yet the system of training remains unchanged. High school education to students along with intensive training in a select performing art was introduced in 1990 supplemented by the plus two and degree courses (BArt), recognized by the state government.

In 1990, Kalamandalam celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. The presence of many stalwarts in the field of dance, music, theatre, poetry and literature made the jubilee celebrations an unforgettable event in the history of Kalamandalam. Many great artists and equally distinguished guest performed at Kalmandalam. For most of them, it was the fulfillment of a dream. This temple of arts kindled their spirits.


Lavanya Dinesh

We continue our introduction to instruments used in Indian classical musical with the string category.

Been and Rudra Veena: The Been was an instrument used in the dhrupad style of Hindustani classical music most prevalent until the latter part of the 19th century. It is a unique-looking instrument, designed to follow the precision, the ‘gamaks’ and ‘meends’ – the glissandos typical of dhrupad vocalization (gayaki). The notes that emanate are characteristically longer in duration and highly resonant. Its body is a hollow tube made of teakwood, with strings fixed at both ends. The flat bridge amplifies the depth of the notes’ spectrum. The metallic frets are arranged on the tube at a slight angle. The frets are movable (fixed by wax or strings) and can thus be adopted for every raaga (melody). Two resonators made out of real pumpkins are attached to each side of the instrument close to the two ends of the tube. The entire instrument rests on these two resonators. The dhrupad exponent Ustad Mohiuddin Dagar made slight changes to the Been, transforming it into a bass instrument called the Rudra Veena.

Saraswati Veena: This is now referred to as just ‘veena’ and is the last survivor of many types of veenas created in South India, used to play Karnatic music. The neck and the main resonator (a sphere) of the instrument are made of the jackfruit tree, which is hardwood. The neck is hollow and on it 24 straight frets are stuck with glue made of bee’s wax. The bridge is flat and made of copper, giving it a recognizable metallic color. The four main playing strings are tuned to the note (Pa Sa Pa Sa). These notes are strummed with the forefinger and the middle finger of the right hand. There are an additional three rhythm strings tuned to Sa Pa Sa note, struck in unison with the little finger of the right hand. With the left hand (forefinger and the middle finger), the glissandos are made using different pulling and gliding techniques. Veena maestros include legendary Veene Sheshanna, Emani Shakara Shastri, Dr. Chittibabu, R. K. Suryanarayana among others.

Vichitra Veena: This is a fairly modern instrument evolved out of the Been. Similarly, the vichitra veena has a flat bridge or ‘jawari’ and two pumpkin resonators or ‘thumbas’. The hollow body is made out of teakwood with strings being fixed on both ends. The strings are stopped by a glass egg or glass paperweight. Because there are no frets on this instrument, one can play beautiful meends (glissandos) on one-and-a-half octaves, emulating the abilities of the human voice a lot closer than many other string instruments. Famous exponents are Abdul Aziz Khan, Dr. Lamani Misra and Ravikiran.

Sitar: This has been the most popular Indian classical string instrument for the past century. Pandit Ravi Shankar has been solely instrumental in spreading the fame of the sitar to the West. This plucked instrument is a combination of the smaller Tanpura and the Been and has frets on its neck. The body is carved out of tun (cedrila tuna) or teak wood and the main resonator is shaped from a pumpkin. Many modifications have been made to the sitar such as addition of rhythm strings (chikari) and sympathetic strings. The latest addition being a bigger resonator and thicker strings that enable ‘been – like’ alaaps to be played on it. There are 13 sympathetic strings, three playing strings and a fourth bass octave string along with the three rhythm strings. There is a smaller version of the sitar designed for faster playing speed. Legendary sitar maestros heard over the years are Ustads Rahimat Khan, Imdad Khan, Vilayat Khan, Rais Khan, Abdul Halim Jafar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Nikihil Banerjee, Purbayan Chatterjee and Shahid Parvez.

Surbahar: This instrument belongs to the sitar family. Its neck is 130 centimeters and the frets are long and movable. The pulling method here allows for a glissando of six notes on the same fret. The legendary Baba Allauddin Khan of the ‘Maihar Gharana’ who was the guru of great stalwarts like Pandit Ravi Shankar and father of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and the reclusive surbahar exponent Annapurna Devi, was himself a master of several string instruments including the surbahar.

Sarod: This has its origins in the Indo-Persian ‘Senya Rebab’ popular in the 16th-19th centuries. Rajasthani and Bengali instrument makers have changed its shape over the years. Even today, different versions of the sarod are played by different schools of music. The sarod is made of one piece of carved wood, the neck has no frets and the bridge is placed on skin stretched over the body of the instrument. The sarod player hits the strings with the right hand using a coconut wood plectrum. With the left hand, the sarod player stops the string using the end of his fingernails. The number of strings varies with the style of the sarod in question. Its maestros are Hafiz Ali Khan, Brij Narayan, Radhika Mohan Moitra, Saran Rani, Timir Baran, Ali Akbar Khan, Buddadev Dasgupta and Amjad Ali Khan.

Lavanya Dinesh is an accomplished performer and teacher of Hindustani classical vocal music. Lavanya regularly performs at musical venues, both in India and the U.S. The artist has worked as a music critic and feature writer for The Times of India and Deccan Herald. She can be reached at

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