The sun stretches his golden arms over the vast stretches of the Sahyadri Mountain as he awakens behind the diaphanous veil of a silvery mist. In the foreground, jasmine creepers flash their smile with a display of fragrant white blooms. The abundant lemongrass stalks balance crystal dew drops on their pointed heads and sway in a dance of dawn to the strains of musical notes emerging from the music studio. Distant sounds of Sanskrit chants drift from the Hanuman shrine – a perfect accompaniment to a yoga session in progress for Bharatanatyam dancers.
If you think the above reads like a description of an opening scene in a film script, think again. For the teachers and students who have made Chinmaya Naada Bindu (CNB) our home, this is the start of just another day.
Situated in the 65 acres of Chinmaya Vibhooti in Kolwan, near Pune, India, Chinmaya Naada Bindu is a gurukul for Indian classical music and dance. This professional performing arts wing of Chinmaya Mission was inaugurated in 2009 stirred by Swami Tejomayananda’s vision to propagate Vedic wisdom through the performing arts. “When students are guided by a focus on spiritual upliftment ” he told us, ”they become the finest ambassadors of our cultural heritage.”
Our Inspiraton? Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda of course. A lover of the arts, he asserted the coming together of the pursuit of beauty and spiritual pursuit. So when “Chinmaya Vibhooti” was envisioned as a resource center to preserve and share Gurudev’s thoughts and works, it naturally became the womb for the conception of an arts gurukul. Here, while training in the performing arts, students would experience a lifestyle rooted in India’s spiritual heritage.
India’s age-old Guru-Sishya tradition was prized for giving students close and continued contact with their guide. This was valuable because sometimes, the most precious learning happens outside of the classroom – through silent observation or through a casual remark from the teacher that suddenly ties up all loose ends dangling in the mind. This tradition seems to work its magic at Chinmaya Naada Bindu.
Neither our music classrooms nor our dance studio – wooden floored, mirror clad and all – seem capable of containing the interactions between teacher and student within its edged boundaries or clocked hours. Instead, our teacher-student class space extends to the following:
– A walk in the monsoon drizzle nuzzling together under one umbrella –
– The grass mound against the backdrop of the rain soaked Sahyadri hills –
– The sun-drenched dining room over a plate of rice, lentils, and vegetables –
– The climb up the steep hill towards the Pranava Ganesha temple –
– The pillared hall of the Hanuman shrine at sunset –
– The tiered stairs by the grassy slope bathed in moonlight –
The result? A mental synergy is formed between the teacher and the taught and the students awaken to a paradigm shift within them. “How does an excited 19 year old always planning the future for fear of wasting time, transform into a calmer person much more at peace with herself, in the space of a few months?” asks Tessa Ramburn, my Bharatanatyam student from Mauritius. “The secret lies in this wonderful place. Here I have (learnt) an incredible sadhana known as Bharatanatyam.” The concept of sadhana has embedded itself with clarity in the psyche of this teenager – that the art form is not a technique to be mastered through sadhana, but is itself the sadhana.
So, what is it that draws the youth from global corners to CNB and more importantly what keeps them here?
A little bit of heaven
Nestled in the midst of paddy fields, corn crops and sugarcane plantations, CNB is somewhat of a best kept secret. While getting here takes effort, the rewards are plenty – and they begin on the rugged drive towards the gurukul.
Fields in multiple shades of green cover the undulating land, occasionally breaking to hold blue lakes that gleam like sapphires, in the streaks of sunlight. Past charming villages, past herds of cattle, past ranches and resorts, past the Hanuman mountain …. WHAT? The Hanuman Mountain? Yes! As the eyes follow the contours of the rise and fall of the mountaintops, they suddenly metamorphose into an incredible likeness of Hanuman – His colossal body lying face up towards the heavens.
At our entrance gate, the waving flag atop the Hanuman mandir signals an auspicious welcome. After all, as the story goes, did Hanuman not exemplify the ideal student? Facing his chosen guru, Surya the Sun, did he not run backwards in front of the chariot to learn his daily lessons? As Swami Mitrananda explains it “this running in reverse is symbolic of having to unlearn habitual patterns, before any real learning can begin”.
An Ashrama for the Arts
Traditionally, an ashrama was a hermitage that sheltered spiritual seekers from distractions not pertaining to their studies and created an atmosphere conducive for disciplined dedication. It was not a place for the languorous or the lethargic. It was an abode where shrama (hard work and austerity) burnt away sluggishness from body and mind.
I like to refer to CNB as an Arts Ashrama! A look at our daily activities will tell you why.
The serene pre-dawn hours are the most cherished by our students – whether it is for the practice of the bansuri, vocal music or the agonizing adavus (bharatanatyam dance steps). Following this, most begin their day with a visit to one of the two majestic on-site temples where the deity is ritually bathed in scented waters and sacred hymns. After breakfast, fresh flowers are gathered and incense and lamps are lit in the office, as we join for morning prayers. Sanskrit chanting class follows after which students head to their studios for music and dance lessons.
The hours after lunch are for self-practice, theory lessons, repertoire training, office activities or interacting with visitors. The evening brings satsang with an acharya or group bhajans that culminate in arathi at the temple.
In the midst of all this seriousness our divine messengers do appear – the 4pm chai-wallah with a flask of steaming tea or an angelic student who disappears on a motorcycle to return with potato bhujias or spicy vada-pav from the village.
And for campus visitors, “star” sightings are a common occurrence. One never knows which legendary musician one will encounter in the dining room or on the pathway. Artists like Pt. Shivkumar Sharma regularly bring their students here for private music retreats and Naada Bindu students get to sit in.
At day’s end, as rest of the ashram retires, many of our students (and sometimes the faculty including myself) return to the classrooms to end our day as we began it, with a personal embrace of our art form. Thus the first and last sound resonating in the campus is always the music, always the dance.
The Arts Intensives
Although our regular schedule is no ho-hum, it is during the dance/music intensives that CNB really comes alive. Their balanced, multi-tiered curriculum has earned them the reputation of being “a life changing experience.”
For example, the Monsoon Dance Intensive, a 21-day residential Bharatanatyam training that I design and conduct in July of every year aids in the development of the total dancer. For 8 hours everyday students immerse in a rigorous schedule of dance and all things related to dance. Technique, abhinaya & tala, Yoga, Sanskrit, Vedic chant, Carnatik music, mythology and symbolism are taught by in-house and guest teachers. Satsang with visiting acharyas, cultural tour, guided hikes and showcase performance are also part of the experience.
Our Chinmaya Social Responsibility Programme has also been gaining prominence for bringing free music training to schoolchildren of neighboring villages.
Art & Audience
Fully aware that it is the performances that motivate students, we are home to one of the most prominent performing arts festivals of the country. The Naada Bindu Festival is held for three days in our 1008 capacity Sudharma auditorium and brings in world-class performers. Enhanced by spiritual discourses and lecture demonstrations it augments the holistic experience of classical arts for our audience who live in our ashram, enjoy personal interactions with the artists and experience art not as entertainment but as a way of life.
Our imagination soars as we envision our own holistically designed arts-complex with an amphitheater, underground “chilla” rooms for undisturbed practices, meditation gardens, a recording studio, resource library and an archival museum. While we dream, plan, fundraise and visualize the future, one belief remains firm in our hearts – that it is our students who hold our real future and it is the art that we so passionately wish to initiate them into, that holds the future of our culture and our heritage.
So come see us soon and until then – adios, arrivederci, au revoir, and Hari Om!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ramaa Bharadvaj is a storyteller – sometimes with movements and sometimes with words. After 31 years in the USA as an award-winning dancer, movement designer, educator, arts advisor & advocist, she returned to India in 2009 and currently guides the dance program at Chinmaya Naada Bindu. She savors her students, her family, and her travels. She lives in Bangalore (but works in Kolwan, unwinds in Chennai and refreshes in San Diego). Ramaa and her family are long time devotees of Swami Chinmayananda.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org