“Stand in the center! You are the king! The king always takes center stage!” Dr. Nanditha Krishna tells the young man, who is playing the king. As she watches the rehearsal for the Grove School’s Annual Day, she provides a few pointers and corrections to the children. The teachers directing and choreographing the performances have already done a brilliant job.
The stories enacted by the children are from India’s ancient traditions – like the Dashavatara…the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu. Rippling blue ribbons of cloth across the floor are waved to portray the waves of the ocean. The first avatar, Matsya, the fish, pulls a boat across the sea, in a re-enactment of the Indian version of the Noah story, the flood story known to every world mythology.
Vishnu’s second avatar, Kurma, the turtle, holds the world on his back during the great churning of the waters, while the gods and demons wage an epic struggle for control of the world.
There are musical interludes, with a haunting melody—essentially Indian, sung by a chorus of children. These melodies are not the sort of happy, meaningless childhood melodies one so often hears, instead they evoke a spiritual dimension; they touch something beyond this world, and even small Indian children make an early acquaintance with the deeper levels of reality.
These children seem extraordinary. Each one is absolutely graceful and brilliant — dancing, singing, or speaking, in Tamil or Sanskrit, moving across the stage, smiling just enough – enchantingly charming. The littlest is five or six, and the older ones are high school age. Where have they found such gifted, talented children?
These are the students of the Grove School, one of the best private schools in Madras – and every child is encouraged to develop a presence on stage and his or her singing and dancing talents. Every child is steeped in the ancient traditions of the oldest stories, which are not only captivating just as stories, but are imbued with the most profound mystical meaning.
Not all the students are Hindu; some are Moslem, and they take part in these performances with equal enthusiasm. No one is required to take part, but all do. Who could resist the beauty of these enchanting tales?
The Grove School is run by the C.P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, which was formed in 1966, following the death of the great statesman, C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, a remarkable individual and visionary, with a very practical nature, who, as diwan (governor) of Travancore brought his state into the modern world with ambitious projects such as the first great hydroelectric power plants in India, while never losing touch with the oldest and most revered traditions, the essential tenets of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) which have inspired and held together Indian civilization for 10,000 years. He was a brilliant speaker and communicator. His great-grandaughter, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, is the Honorary Director of the Foundation.
The first school run by the Foundation was not the Grove School, but the Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre, begun in 1985, in response to a need for special education for Indian children with learning disabilities. The children benefit from an alternate education which includes not only academic studies, but also yoga, art, music, and dance, and which aims to foster in each child their own unique talents and abilities. Saraswathi Kendra is affiliated with the National Institute of Open Schooling, which allows children to graduate and be accepted into universities all over India. Those Saraswathi Kendra children who may come from disadvantaged families do not pay more than they can afford.
If, after a couple of years, at the Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre, a child is able to transfer to a regular school, then that is done. If not, the child continues her education at Saraswathi Kendra.
The Saraswathi Kendra School, in 1985, began with four students, who because of learning disabilities were not able to succeed in the regular school system. In the beginning, there was just one teacher, one table, and four desks.
Since that small beginning, hundreds of children have graduated from Saraswathi Kendra and have gone on to highly successful careers; many as musicians, classical dancers, or sports stars.
Top Photo: Author: Ramanarayanadatta Astir. Acquired in 1965. University of Toronto Book contributor: Robarts – University of Toronto Collection: rob arts: Toronto. This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.
Second Photo: Kurma: Date: 1850. PD-US. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.
Third photo: Sharon St Joan / A Child in a Tamil Nadu village.