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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

Our three-part series on Indian classical instruments concludes with a concise description of wind instruments.

Bansuri: This is the Indian bamboo flute, a transverse alto flute typically 20 inches long made out of a single length of bamboo shoot. Bansuris vary in length within a range of 12 to 40 inches. The instrument has 6-7 open finger holes. The ancient bansuri has been used in India from time immemorial by cowherds and pastoral nomads. It is the ultimate symbol of divine love in the legend and mythology of Krishna and his consort Radha depicted through the centuries in sculpture, painting, poetry, literature and other oral traditions.

The bansuri was used as accompaniment to lighter compositions and film music for many years until the maestro Pandit Pannalal Ghosh introduced it into serious Hindustani classical music. This artist made many modifications to it, increasing the length, making larger bores and also adding a seventh hole. The increased length enhanced the bansuri’s octave range – especially in the lower register. Bansuri maestros who continue to delight us with their mellifluous music include Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Ronu Majumdar.

Venu: Synonymous with Lord Krishna, the term is used to describe the Karnatic classical flute prevalent in south India. Being one of the oldest instruments, the venu is a keyless transverse flute made of bamboo just like the bansuri. Its sizes and lengths vary. Compared to the north Indian bansuri the venu produces a shriller soprano-pitched tone. The fingers of both hands are used to close and open holes. On the one end is a blowing hole with eight finder holes placed closely on the length of the instrument. This flute mimics the human voice range of two and a half octaves. Flute maestros of the past and present include T. R. Manalingam, Dr. N. Ramani, Sikkil Sisters, B. N. Suresh and S. Shashank.

Nadaswara (Nagaswaram): This highly popular south Indian instrument is acoustic in nature. It is a long pipe, body made of hardwood with a large flaring bell at the end constructed with either metal or wood. The nadaswara has double reeds; the top portion contains a flattened mouth piece in which the musician blows. The long cylindrical body has seven finger holes on it; the nuanced music is produced by partial or full opening and closing of the finger holes all the while controlling the pressure and airflow through skillful blowing techniques. The practitioner of this discipline needs immense stamina and breath control. Because of the physical challenges involved in playing the nadaswara, this field has long been dominated by male musicians alone. Lately, a few female nadaswara players have tried to break the mold. Great exponents include Rajaratnam Pillai, N. Krishnan, K. Arunachalam, Subramanya Pillai and Sheikh Chinna Maulana.

The nadaswara is referred to as ‘mangala vadya’ denoting an instrument played on joyous and auspicious occasions such as temple celebrations, festivals, processions and especially south Indian weddings. Also because of its intense volume and forceful sound, the instrument is better suited for outdoor settings.

Shehnai: This instrument, like its southern counterpart (nadaswara), is played at auspicious occasions in northern India and is widely believed to bring good luck. One can get a taste of shehnai music from Bollywood movies especially in scenes of jubilation, celebration or romantic victories. The late music maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan’s name is practically synonymous with the shehnai. We do have some present day torch-bearers of this tradition, although only a handful.

The shehnai is a quadruple reed wood wind employing two sets of double reeds. This tube-like instrument gradually becomes wider at the lower end. It has about 6-9 holes and is smaller in size than the nadaswara. There are many legends surrounding the evolution of the shehnai – which in Persian literally means ‘the emperor’s flute.’

Other wind instruments such as the clarinet and the saxophone have been embraced by some adventurous Indian instrumentalists like Narasimhalu Wadiwatti (clarinet) and Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone) who are from the southern state of Karnataka.

Harmonium: Originally a western instrument, the harmonium has been Indianized over a period of one and a half centuries since being introduced to the Indian subcontinent by French missionaries in the mid 1800s. The harmonium is commonly present in many Indian homes and is popular as an accompaniment to vocal music like khyal gayaki as also semi-classical and light-music genres such as thumrii, ghazal, qawwali, bhajan, kirtan, stage and film music. It also is referred to as ‘peti’ (box).

Being a western import, this instrument has a tempered scale and cannot typically mimic stylized Indian music, which employs meends (glissandos). For this reason, the harmonium is shunned by a few purists in favor of the more authentic sarangi as the preferred accompanying instrument. The harmonium has 42 black and white keys played with the right hand, while the left hand activates and pumps air into the bellow of the instrument. The versatile harmonium has of late emerged as a solo instrument. Maestros include Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh, Pandit Panchakshara Gavai, Pandit Puttaraja Gavai, Pandit Sheshadri Gavai, Pandit Tulsidas Borkar, Pandit Appa Jalgaonkar, Pandit Purushottam Walawalkar, D. Arvind Thatte, Pandit Sudhanshu Kulkarni, Pandit Manohar Chimote, Rajendra Vaishampayan and Dr. Ravindra Katoti, among others.

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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