From Kerala Kalamandalam to Kolkata Kalamandalam … a trip down the years

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It's been six decades since Kalamandalam Thankamani Kutty carved a nice for herself in Kolkata's exalted arena of dance.

Her entry into this land where dance and other performing arts were celebrated is wrapped in a host of experiences. The City of Joy transformed Thankamani Kutty's life and transported her into a realm of ecstasy.

The immaculate artiste who introduced South Indian dance forms to Bengal and who was also instrumental in setting up the Kolkata chapter of Kalamandalam, has bowed out of the limelight now. Though the embers of her passion are still aglow within her, her concern for the waning interest in classical dance forms is a matter of concern.

Born in Kerala, Bharatnatyam was her forte. The Kolkata Kalamandalam was set up in 1968 by the dancer along with her famous Kathakali artiste husband P. Govindan Kutty. Now in her eighties, Thankamani Kutty takes Onmanorama through 60 years of a life lived fruitfully in Kolkata.

Changes have swept through Kolkata as well as her homeland Kerala and though she has taken them all in her stride, political upheavals, religious strife and social tragedies have had an unsettling effect on her. Though Thankamani Kutty has tried her best to erase unpleasant events from memory, they keep haunting her.

Kolkata is no more the place that it once used to be when she made it her second home. Relaxing in Kalamandalam in South Kolkata’s Prince Anwar Shah Road, the dancer expresses her anguish and apprehension over the turmoil in Bengal’s cultural scenario. There’s decay everywhere. Bengal’s culture and tradition, once celebrated the world over, is in a shambles today and her greatest fear is that this fall in values will also be reflected in dance. What drives the decay is something she cannot comprehend.

Thankamani Kutty no more holds performances at home or abroad. But there's one golden rule she still espouses, that is, never to commercialise dance. The trend today is to commodify dance without mastering its nuances. She warns her students against such base marketing tendencies.

Every year, thousands of students in Kolkata gain admission to schools under Kalamandalam. However, she fears that a lot many of them misuse the concept for which the institution exists and turn to quick-fix dance forms for fast returns.

“Only ten out of a thousand take their studies seriously. A majority of others stay on just to get a certificate from Kalamandalam with which they open their own schools”, says Thankamani Kutty in anguish. What do such schools teach? How do they train their students? Such teachers who know little about their job are in effect doing a disservice to their country. They have no right to teach”, says the ace dancer.

Her anguish does not end with this. Of graver concern is the fall in cultural and aesthetic perceptions and standards. Those classical dances and music forms that each city in India was famous for, fail to attract even those interested in them today.

“This was not the scene years ago. We artistes used to draw inspiration and energy from viewers who were deeply involved in our performance”, says the dancer. But that tribe of discerning enthusiasts exists no more. Hence, Thankamani Kutty too has lost that fire which once drove her to perform in ecstasy. The consummate artiste who once taught Hema Malini and Vyjayanthimala the intricacies of Bharatnatyam and Mohiniyattam, reveals why she left the centre stage for the sidelines.

Though she has moved away from public glare, she has not stopped teaching. Her efforts are all into training and perfecting those students who wish to be true dancers who would love to delve deep into the realms of dance.

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Thankamani was born in Manjeri, Malappuram, into a family of committed Communists. Her father was a close confidant of EMS and many a political turmoil she was witness to as a child is still green in her memory. The social unrest following the Communist-Congress feud of the fifties is one such incident.

Thankamani Kutty joined Kerala Kalamandalam as a student at the tender age of 12. It was Kalamandalam founder and poet Vallathol, her father’s friend who gave her a seat to the hallowed institution. An admission to Kalamandalam was no easy matter. Only the truly talented deserved to get in and that’s how someone as gifted as Thankamani got enrolled.

Marriage came when she was just 17. Though the young girl was reluctant to commit herself to a change in status, she had to bow down to her father’s wishes. In marriage, she saw a chance to flee from Kerala’s perpetual political squabbling, recalls Thankamani. On May 15, 1958, she became wife to Kathakali maestro Guru Govindankutty. Two weeks later, on June 2, the couple stepped down at Kolkata’s Howrah station.

“Can you believe it? There were thousands from the Kerala Samajam to receive us. I was blown away by the reception”, says the complete dancer.

The Bengal of those days was no better than Kerala. The next decade saw the rise of Naxalite power in Kolkata. But over the following years it lost focus and power, she recalls.

Soon, the couple set up the Kolkata chapter of Kalamandalam on the lines of its original. It was like a continuation of Kerala Kalamandalam and a centre to impart training in dance was set up there in 1968. Today, Kalamandalam has four campuses in and around Kolkata.

Thankamani learned Kathakali from her husband. The duo soon found themselves performing dance-dramas to adaptations from Tagore’s Chandalika, Shyma, Rakthakarabi and Shapmochan in Bharatnatyam and Mohiniyattam styles. It was the first time that Tagore’s works were adapted to suit these two dance forms. The great bard himself had not given a thought to converting his works into different versions of dance. Besides, it was for Manipuri dance that Tagore had a leaning.

As for Bharatnatyam and Mohiniyattom, there exists an ocean of differences between the two. While the steps in Bharatnatyam are sharp and sprightly and the expressions drowned in depth, Mohiniyattom resorts to mudras and movements of the hands to convey its beauty. Along with working out and integrating Tagore’s dance-drams to her dance forms, there were a few other things Thankamani learned from her husband. Call these the art of meaningful living. One was the art of conducting oneself and the other, the gift of being hospitable. These two were of prime importance to Guru Govindankutty.

"Learning these two great lessons was integral to my life in Kolkata given the fact that a village lass like me had to know how to live up to city standards. And Kolkata was indeed big even in those days," says Thankamani.

Life later taught her how vital those two life lessons would be. Over the years their house in Kolkata saw itself playing host to innumerable Communist leaders of all hues and importance from Bengal, Kerala and all of India. Thankamani recalls the day she first met Bengal’s revolutionary, the charismatic Jyoti Basu.

"Jyoti Babu knew my father. I first met him at the Kolkata Book Festival. As soon as I met him I started talking to him in Malayalam and he burst out in laughter. I was flustered. But my husband and all others around us thought nothing amiss about it. I had actually become a heroine of sorts as I had won the distinction of making the great Jyoti Basu laugh out loud in sheer enjoyment," says a visibly happy Thankamani. Nobody was close enough to get him to laugh like that, I was later told.

Though staunch Communist followers, the couple maintained close and dear ties with many Congress leaders in Kolkata. Many Congress leaders had in fact graced Kalamandalam with their presence there.

But to this day, Mamata Banerjee has not stepped in, says the dancer ruefully. Though the dancer had invited the leader on many an occasion, Mamata never deigned to go there. "She might, one day," says Thankamani still nurturing hope.

The couple has three children ... Sukumar, Somnath and Mohan. The eldest son was named after famous poet Sukumar Ray, father of Satyajit Ray. The second son, Somnath, the present secretary of Kalamandalam, was named after the smart politician Somnath Chatterjee.

Guru Govindankutty succumbed to cancer in 2007 and his body was donated to a hospital in Kolkata.

The home-grown dancer, despite her long years in Kolkata, has never forgotten her roots. She would come down to Kerala, especially to her relatives in Guruvayoor every Onam. She even used to give recitals in Guruvayoor.

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