The Bhavan – 50 years in London and going strong

The Bhavan – 50 years in London and going strong
Interview by Smt Swetha Raghunathan. Swetha is the author of 15 books. She has studied storytelling at Kathalaya. She has completed her MA in Writing from the University of Warwick. She has been a recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust Award and The Times and Scottish Book Trust Jura New Writer Award. 

The Bhavan is the branch of the Bhartiya  Vidya Bhavan in London, United Kingdom. Home to many students of Sanskrit, Bharatanatyam, Tamil, Kathak, Odissi, Hindustani Vocals, Carnatic Vocal, Mridangam, Tabla, Sitar, Flute, and other Indian classical art forms and languages, the Bhavan has gone a long way in promoting Indian arts and culture in the west.  Known also for hosting musical and dance maestros, the Bhavan is a well-known name in the Indian community  and beyond in the UK. CSP spoke with the Executive Director of the Bhavan, Dr Nandakumara who is from Mattur, the Sanskrit speaking village of Karnataka.

The Bhavan in London completes 50 years in April 2023. What have been the highlights of the 50 years? And what celebrations are you planning? 

The Bhavan started in 1972 with the sole intention of promoting the arts, culture and philosophy in the United Kingdom through classes, concerts, lectures and workshops. Over the last 50 years, The Bhavan has grown considerably both in size and in its contribution to Indian arts and culture. It is, I believe, the largest arts and culture institute outside of India under one roof. We have 800 students. We have six full time teachers, 15 part time teachers and 8 full time office staff.  The Bhavan is known to everyone who is who’s who in this part of the world, being the branch of the well-known Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai. Over the years, we have been conducting classes, organising workshops, organising lecture demonstrations. We have hosted over 3000 concerts, workshops, and summer schools on several aspects of Indian art and culture by renowned and upcoming artists. We have collaborated with schools. We believe in reaching out to new audiences in the language they understand.

MS Subbalakshmi and Sitar Maestro Ravishankar were among the first patrons of The Bhavan. They wanted The Bhavan to focus on teaching classical Indian art forms to interested students. This is what differentiates The Bhavan – we don’t just host music and dance events – we also teach the art forms to students. Our students have gone on to become professionals in the field. We have invited leading Indian artists like Lalgudi Jayaraman, Hari Prasad Chaurasia and more to perform at The Bhavan. Our students learning these art forms are inspired to take their art to the next level when they attend these concerts. We create professionals in the field of music and dance yes, but also, we create an audience for Indian performing arts. Our students, having become literate in the classical Indian art forms become lifelong connoisseurs of the Indian performing arts.

As the executive director of The Bhavan, what have been your primary goals for the Indian arts and how have you achieved these?

The goal for me has been to reach out to people with the noblest of messages. Like the Rig Veda tells us, “Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides.” The Bhavan was started with Gandhian principles and values. We are providing access to an authentic version of Indian culture and the arts. We are giving an authentic education in the field of art and culture which can stand the test of time. We are conducting regular classes in our traditional art forms and reaching out to schools. When we reach out to schools to spread the message of Indian art and culture we talk in language that is familiar to them.

Can you tell us about Bhavan’s Summer School 2022?

The Summer School is for advanced students. We are teaching the latest developments happening in the field in India. We invite around 6-7 artists from India to conduct a three week long intensive course with regard to something special in their chosen field. The artists stay with us. They conduct individual classes and group classes. The Summer School is a window to recharge the batteries of the students and also the teachers. It is refreshing for both teachers and students.

What subjects do you teach at the Bhavan and which have been your most popular courses?

22 different subjects are taught. Popular courses include Indian music and dance. We also teach Indian art and archaeology. We teach flute and Bengali music. We teach Sanskrit, Tamil and other languages. While all courses are equally popular – Hindustani vocal and Bharatnatyam are especially popular. The Sanskrit learning courses have over 50 students enrolled.

You hold over 100+ concerts each year. How popular have these concerts been in the UK especially with the non-Indian crowd?

Concerts are of great importance to students and music lovers based on who gives the concert. The popularity of the concert depends upon the artist performing. Unknown artists attract lesser audiences. But our role is to support both known and unknown artists. We want to promote the Indian performing arts, so we invite both known and unknown artists to perform.  We consider promoting unknown artists to be our responsibility and duty.

Non-Indians can understand and appreciate instrumental music – which is beyond language barriers. It can be difficult for them to understand vocal music. Sitar, violin, and veena are popular among non-Indians. 25% of the audience is non-Indian and 75% is Indian.

Have you seen an increased interest in the Indian arts over the years?

Yes, there has been an increased interest in Indian art. This has happened because there has been an increase in the number of Indians who have travelled to the UK. Indian films, which have also become very popular, have brought a lot of attention to the Indian classical art forms. People want to join our classes after watching films. Yes, demand has increased.

In what way does Indian art impact you personally?

Our real strength is our culture and our philosophy. India is rich because of her culture, which has been continuing for thousands of years. No other tradition in the world is as ancient as the Indian civilisation. We derive our culture in an unbroken line from the time of the Vedas. Our culture and literature purifies you – be it a performance of Kalidasa, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

Art teaches you how people can communicate without words. Take hand gestures for instance – we all use them. Every hand gesture has a language and grammar of its own. When we study the arts, we understand this language. We move through the arts from the form to the formless, from the known to the unknown. All art forms convey the abstract and philosophy. Art takes us from the mundane things and helps us experience greater things in life. Great scientists have often been great music lovers. Arts help us focus and dedicate ourselves to whatever work we undertake. When you read Kalidasa, you get purified.

How do you take Indian art forms to the next generation? Does the Bhavan also impart classes on Indian Heritage and Culture? Do non-Indians attend these classes?

We believe in reaching out to the young in a way that is familiar to them. One needs to find various ways of being accessible to them. We believe in speaking their language.

We teach Indian art and archaeology. I take Sanskrit classes. We have students from West Indies, Europe, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Sri Lanka apart from Indian students. 

Can you tell us something about your experience of being from Mattur, the Sanskrit speaking village in Karnataka?

Mattur is a beautiful little village 7 kilometres from Shimoga (a nearby city). It is a village full of farmers. Many of the people who live there are known as Sanketis and they belong to the Vedic tradition. They migrated from the Tamil Nadu – Kerala border 800-900 years ago and settled in various parts of Karnataka.

I grew up in this village, where learning the Vedas was a part of  life for all youngsters. Most of the people are followers of Krishna Yajur Veda. Even today you will find at least 40 scholars who can repeat the Krishna Yajur Veda without referring to a book because they learnt it through the oral tradition. The students are not allowed to look at any book till they learn the Vedas by heart. Everything is learnt the way the teacher received it from their Gurus. Apart from the Vedas, study of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas are also a part of everyone’s life in the orthodox families. During the olden days teaching was done totally free. No teacher received any payment for imparting the traditional knowledge to the next generation. Even today we have a Vedic Patshala, Vedic school wherein 20-25 students from various states of India come to study the Vedas and Sanskrit, for whom teaching accommodation and even food is free.

In Mattur, on a regular basis, once or twice a week, short discourses, lectures and also narration of the scriptures in a musical way take place. This has helped us all to immerse ourselves in a vedic and cultural atmosphere.

We are known as Smartas, we worship both Shiva and Krishna or Vishnu. All Gods are worshipped in various temples situated in different parts of the village. There is a beautiful river Tunga which flows towards the west of the village. Major crops of villagers are areca nut (pak), coconut, banana, mangoes and a little bit of rice.

Every year I visit Mattur. Every house has one or two people living in Bangalore, we have around 100 IT graduates, many Sanskrit MAs and also quite a few have stayed back to take care of ancestral land and family property. The language we speak is called Sanketi and most of us are capable of conversing in Sanskrit.

How did Sanskrit come to Mattur?

While the people in Mattur knew the traditional Vedas, they never thought they could converse in Sanskrit till the 1980s. It was Chamu Krishna Shastry who introduced a 10 day crash course in spoken Sanskrit. Many of the youngsters, parents, mothers attended the course and started conversing in Sanskrit. Many such crash courses have taken place in our village and we all converse in Sanskrit.

What is your personal journey that brought you to The Bhavan?

I studied in our village Mattur until SSLC. After that I moved to Shimoga to complete a part of my degree. I completed an MA in Sanskrit from Mysore and taught Sanskrit for three years in Bangalore. I then moved to London to do my PhD at SOAS. I was associated with The Bhavan after that and went on to become the Executive Director.