Distant drums

Sheila Kumar visits the Santiniketan of the
 South, the Kerala Kalamandalam
 in  Cheruthuruthy

As we drive into the green hamlet of Cheruthuruthy,
 the first sound that wafts over the air, over the rippling
 waters of the river Bharatapuzha, is the rhythmic pulse
 of the chenda drums. A sound ubiquitous to all major
 temple festivals in 'God's Own Country', the drums beat
 incessantly and before I know it, my fingers have taken
 up the drill. Where is the sound coming from, I ask a local
 and receive a dumbfounded look. "Why, from the
Kalamandalam, of course," he says. That's when I realise
that Cheruthuruthy is Kalamandalam, the crucible of
traditional music and dance forms of Kerala.

Cheruthuruthy is about 50 km south of Palakkad and a
decent drive along a long and winding road. Here, tea
stalls are aplenty. Along with the glass tumblers of piping
 hot and sweet chai, one can munch on one of Kerala's
 treasures - the long, golden bananas called nendrepazhams
 (indeed, a taste of heaven) - or choose from a variety of
 locally baked delicious biscuits. Part of Shoranur town,
Cheruthuruthy sits on the banks of the swift, deceptively
docile Nila, a tributary of Bharatapuzha. Its waters flow
 in a straight line here, lazy loops there, sometimes
 turning treacherous.

We are staying at River Retreat, Cheruthuruthy's only
hotel. A delightful red-brick building, it was once the
summer residence of the Maharaja of Cochin. The rooms
 are cozy, all modern conveniences in place, heavy old-world
 furniture polished to a high gleam and the service extremely
 friendly. We discover a common balcony that overlooks
the river. Once the heat of the day has lessened, all hotel
 residents sit there, feet up on the fret-worked iron railing,
 staring at the ebb and flow, the little islets now glimpsed,
 now run over by the river. To the far side, men balance
on their haunches, fishing lines sunk in the water, chatting
desultorily; on the bank opposite, a rusted red chimney
of some mill protrudes, rising from the shrubbery.

We have saved the main event - the visit to the
Kalamandalam - for the last. So we enquire if there are
any more attractions in Cheruthuruthy. Locals tell us in
devout tones about the Irunilamkodu Temple. Curiously,
no one is too sure of the identity of the deity worshipped
 at the shrine. It could be Lord Shiva, it could be his son
Subramaniam. The legend goes, that when a cheruman
logger woman sharpened her sickle on a big rock, a
small part of the rock fell off and the remaining portion
 bled. The rock was an idol and the woman had chipped
 off its nose. The idol was consecrated at that spot and
sandalwood paste is the most important offering here,
 to complete the idol's nose.

I head there, on one side of the shrine, I see a 75-foot-high
boulder. As I make my obeisance and turn to leave, the
guide tells me that worship at the shrine will be incomplete
 if I don't climb the steep boulder and touch the shivling
of unknown antiquity on top of the crest. I decide to go.
 Halfway up, I turn to look over my shoulder and nearly
 swoon - it's a sharp vertical drop. When I finally reach
 the crest after a half-hour trek, it offers a magnificent
view: the lush Agamala forests, the paddy fields and
coconut groves. I take a long breather before I make
my way down the rough path.

I'm told there is a traditional pot-making centre in the
small potters' colony. The pottery made here is for
local use; matka for water, shallow dishes used as
plates, deep kadai for cooking rice and fish stew.
For the Ayurvedaphiles, there is the Nilayoram Resort
 tucked way inside the winding lanes. I'll confess that
 I am less than impressed by its landscaped gardens,
the rooms that reek of kozhambu (herbal oil) and the
 staff that knew almost nothing about the place.

There is no getting away from the fact that
Cheruthuruthy, while great for a couple of days,
 is actually a transit stop for those visiting Kalamandalam.
 So we head for Kerala's premier art academy. As we
 drive in through its dusty gates, the first impression is
of total serenity. Palms wave their fronds, splotches
of seasonal flowers add colour, and over the air wafts
 the sound of drums. As clear is the sharp click of the
baton the dance teachers use to keep taal.

Kalamandalam was founded by the famous poet
Vallathol Narayana Menon in 1930. Today, it's run
 by the state government. Over 300 students take
courses in theatre, dance and music that will equip
 them with a Bachelor of Performing Arts degree.

The administrative buildings and the kalari (classrooms)
 look like a mass of numbing concrete. Just inside the
gates, though, is a new building housing the art gallery
and museum. The stunning koothambalam(theatre) is
 an ornate, pillared and regal sprawl. Most evenings, it's
the performance area. Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi,
 Bharatanatyam are taught at the Kalamandalam, as are
the chenda, maddalam and mridangam (types of drums)
 and the dance forms special to the state like Koodiyattam and Tullal.

This 30-acre campus is a self-contained township.
It has a natyagraha, a regular high school, hostel,
 a college library, a room for archives, recording studio,
 staff quarters and an employees' cooperative society.
As befits a university, apart from the performing arts,
scholastic studies are also undertaken.

The really interested tourist would not feel left out.
The Kalamandalam holds three-month crash courses
in select disciplines and holds Kathakali, Koodiyattam
, Mohiniattam recitals for tourists, under a 'Day with the
 Masters' offer; the fee to watch it ranges from Rs 1,500
 to Rs 6,500.

As we leave, we take with us some montages: a Kathakali
classroom full of boys practising their eye movements
without moving their heads; supple and incredibly graceful
 young girls in blue and red saris doing the Mohiniattam;
boys dressed alike in starched off-white dhoti and mundu
 with gold zari at the hem, heading for a mridangam class;
 and, of course, the compelling, addictive beat of the
chenda. The drumbeats, in fact, see us out of Cheruthuruthy.

When to goThe best season to visit Cheruthuruthy is from August to March

How to get there
AirThe nearest airport is Nedumbassery Airport, Kochi (85 km). Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Air Deccan fly in and out from here
RailThe nearest railhead is Shoranur Junction (3 km)
RoadTwo hours from Palakkad

Where to stay
Nilayoram ResortRs 3,583 for double occupancy (Best time for Ayurveda therapy is June to September)
The River RetreatRs 1,050 to Rs 1,950

The River RetreatIt is located on Palace road, Cheruthuruthy, Thrissur, and has 140 rooms.
Location:On the bank of Bharathapuzha, Cheruthuruthy, 'River Retreat' offers 14 centrally air-conditioned furnished guest rooms. Situated amidst serene surroundings, River Retreat is two-hours from Cochin, Calicut and Coimbatore airports and three minutes from Shoranur Railway Junction.
Facilities:Front desk business centre, concierge elevator, parking available for buses, banquet, restaurant, safe deposit box, lounge coffee, shop, 24-hour room service.

International Hostel: Rs 900-1500.
Government Rest House and Guesthouses: It's a short distance
along the Shoranur road from Kalamandalam. For about
Rs 100 per person, it's worth the stay. Tel: 0488/462760

Featured in Harmony Magazine
November 2005

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