LIKE SO MANY URBAN SANCTUARIES in India, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d walk right by it. I almost did, but a small signboard caught my eye. The Kalakshiti dance studio is set inside a gated compound, a Raj-era bungalow deflecting the dead-duck bawls and two-stroke chortles of passing rickshaws. The house is a series of quadrangular rooms that, with each set of clasp-shut doors, walls adorned by Mysore-style paintings and local knick-knacks, further filter the din of Bengaluru’s Basavangudi district. In the surprisingly silent enclave behind the house, the only sounds are the slaps of bare feet on a marble floor, and the echoes of deep, expelled breaths, as two Bharatanatyam pupils rehearse a complex sequence of movements dating back centuries.
A portrait of Rukmini Devi Arundale, the woman who popularised the ancient temple dance and brought it to the public in early 20th century Madras, hangs on one of the posts supporting the roof of the outdoor atelier. These dancers are not devadasi, but urbanites in what many call India’s most cosmopolitan city. But their watchful guru, MR Krishnamurthy, who trained directly under Devi Arundale for 17 years, is adamant that Bharatanatyam must retain its roots as a religious sacrament.
“This art is a divine way, a spiritual thing,” he says, sitting at the edge of the practice floor under a metre-high stele, where the benevolent, half-lidded eyes of his namesake deity hold vigil over the space. Dressed in a long kurta and wrapped in a shawl, the septuagenarian’s forehead is swept with the white stripes of a Hindu devotee fresh from puja, a calligraph red dash over the pineal eye. “In the dance,” he says, “[mankind] will be uplifted.”