Rukmini Devi (Arundale) once wrote, “I brought a small sapling of the great Banyan in the Theosophical Society and on the 1st January 1951 we had a small ceremony for planting it in our new campus. Many friends from different parts of the world brought earth from their own countries for this ceremonial planting. The land was bare except for small saplings that we had been planting from time to time. It was a vast sandy beach with not a speck of green and only the sea to make us feel cool under the hot sun. But I had a great feeling of benign presence and in my heart I felt hopeful.” And with that hope in her heart — and that banyan sapling’s promise — there began the growth of the verdant campus in which Kalakshetra has now sunk deep roots.
Today, a rich forest has grown on what was barren land. And to celebrate it, the Kalakshetra Foundation has recently brought out a book rich with the pictures of trees, flowers and fruit, insects and birds in all their brilliant hues: Pidhana — The Canopy of Life. What it reveals could not have been imagined by people like Prof. Janardhanan when he arrived at Kalakshetra in 1958 and saw “a largely empty campus, with a four-roomed cottage and a L-shaped studio the only construction.” It was a sea of barrenness that almost merged with a sea of “roaring waves”. To bring life to such barrenness was Rukmini Devi’s aim and when she had succeeded she would say, “From the harmony of environment — life, thought, philosophy and nature — with the creative spirit within, inspiration is born and art is the expression.”
Supplementing the striking photographs by R. Prasana Venkatesh, Sai Archana and Sreedhar Vaidya is the textual tree species documentation by Nizhal. It was Nizhal, twenty this year, that sowed the seeds for the book. A ‘Tree Walk’ it organised at Kalakshetra in 2013 led to it suggesting a documentation of the trees on the campus — and a book was born. It’s a book that will have many wanting to follow the nature trails Kalakshetra could add to its offerings. It is also a book that needs cloning by such Nature-rich campuses of institutions like the Government Museum, the Theosophical Society, the Madras Christian College, the Madras Club, and the Kotturpuram Tree Park.
The Kotturpuram Tree Park is another signal contribution to the greening of the city by Shobha Menon-led Nizhal. From wasteland on the northern bank of the Adyar River, near the Kotturpuram end, Nizhal led a movement of the citizens in the neighbourhood into creating and tending this Park, which now is also supported by the Corporation of Madras. Almost every tree in the Park bears a plaque announcing its species, deer roam where they have long meandered, a paved track has citizens of every financial status discovering the joys of walking, scores of benches provide space for those who want to enjoy fresh air while they gossip, a gazebo houses the story of the Park, and, best of all, there’s virgin forest at the eastern end of the Park with trails in it for those seeking ‘nature-in-the-raw’. The Park’s still a work in progress, but in 10 years’ time, if cared for, will be another ‘forest’ in the city. It’s a model to be followed in other parts of Madras that is Chennai if we are to make a green city greener.