How Losing a Roof Brought Together Chennai's Art Community

Artists, performers, musicians and passers-by have pitched in to restore a beloved cultural centre to its former glory in the aftermath of cyclone Vardah.

Carnatic musician Seetha Rajan and her students sing a tribute to Subramania Bharatiar at the Chandra Mandapa the day before cyclone Vardah destroyed the intricately hand-crafted roof. Credit: Chitra Padmanabhan

Carnatic musician Seetha Rajan and her students sing a tribute to Subramania Bharatiar at the Chandra Mandapa the day before cyclone Vardah destroyed the intricately hand-crafted roof. Credit: K. Srinivasan

It has been 11 years since I watched a movie in a theatre. I don’t have the time to spare for the extravagance of sitting in a hall for three consecutive hours, so I’ve often missed out on the feel-good cocktail that movies concoct for us.

But for the last two weeks, I have been watching an incredible story of destruction and devastation that ends with (spoiler alert) unlikely superheroes coming to the rescue, in my hometown of Chennai.

It all began when a tree fell on a roof. Cyclone Vardah, which hit Chennai in December, lifted a heavy tree and smashed down a simple but exquisitely crafted two-tiered, sloping, Kerala-style roof made of 15,000 tiles.

The day the sky caved in: Credit: Gita Jayaraj

The day the sky caved in: Credit: Gita Jayaraj

The roof served as the sky to the partly-open, sunken-in-the-earth kalaripayattu arena that has hosted Carnatic concerts, green warrior meetings, fledgling plays, connoisseur’s recitals, LGBT pride events, provocative film screenings and many other events over the years . Lovingly named ‘Chandra-Mandapa’ in tribute to the iconic dancer-choreographer Chandralekha, SPACES truly reflects the artist’s creative spirit.

Tree-lined and overlooking the Besant Nagar beach, SPACES is a workbench for the arts in Chennai – Shaji K. John teaches kalaripayattu to six year olds, 60-year-olds and everyone in between; scholar and composer Seetha Rajan sings morning ragas and helps newbie students enter the world of Carnatic music; choreographer Sheejith Krishna and his Sahrudaya group practice Bharatanatyam and that’s just the weekdays; the weekends bring premieres of new plays, book releases, art classes, organic sellers’ meetings, discussions of architecture and the list goes on and on.

It had been this way for years but then the cyclone struck. “It was like a scene out of Jurassic Park,” said John’s Polish student of kalaripayattu, Karolina Szwed. Szwed described how trees were uprooted during the cyclone, branches broke off and landed many metres away from the trunks they were attached to and the much-loved Chandra Mandapa turned into a massive heap of broken tiles. In the adjacent, bigger theatre, the Chandra Mandala, the roof too has developed massive gaps as the cyclone claimed over 200 tiles.

Volunteers at work. Credit: Gita Jayaraj

Volunteers at work. Credit: Gita Jayaraj

The sorrow of losing a roof

As word spread through phones and word of mouth (since Vardah had ravaged the city’s wifi as well), people took detours, hopped over fallen trees and crossed streets that were in shambles, just to head to Number 1, Elliot’s Beach Road.

Some walked in gingerly, half-afraid of the scene that would confront them; some wept, with their hands on their hearts; others exhaled grimly and started to clean up – chop branches, clear foliage, remove twigs, then repeat.

The kalaripayattu students with tough limbs and hardened muscles did the lifting and chopping, Bharatanatyam students heaved and hoed using the ‘tha-ka-dhi-mi’ beats to keep their energy up; theatre artistes from Koothu-p-pattarai, Theatre Nisha, Pariksha, Little Theatre Group and a dozen others decided to bring their own magic wands – brooms, axes, shovels – in an effort to restore the precious space.

Sadanand Menon, the managing trustee of SPACES, described how a couple of women who run a school for children with special needs in a nearby neighbourhood, brought two big tiffin carriers full of home-cooked food for the volunteers. He also recounted the story of a journalist who came to interview him but ended up abandoning that task to help with cleaning the debris instead. And Re-Store, the eco-farming group, organised a sumptuous breakfast of organic food for the army of volunteers.

Gaining community in lieu of a roof

Playwright Mangai points out that the community’s solidarity and sense of urgency for restoring the place stems from the fact that “it is the only space in Chennai that doesn’t operate on commercial considerations; it’s also the only place that hosts both rap music and the most classical of performances. The space has everything to do with Chandra’s spirit. I would call it an oasis for art. It draws you into its embrace of art – without smothering or intimidating you.”

It was not just the artist community that threw itself into the task of clearing up the kalari, but also passers-by and people who had only ever visited SPACES as part of the audience too pitched in with the rehabilitation efforts by keeping up a steady supply of water cans in the shade of a tree that was still rooted to the ground – an elixir for the thirsty. The resident cats, (albeit weatherbeaten) too popped by when organic food activist Ananthoo organised a delicious breakfast.

It was hard labour for urban bodies, observed Monali Bala, a multi-genre musician who was among the first to arrive at the site of destruction. “But everyone was willing to haul, shovel rubble, sweep, heave and get very grimy and dirty.”

Theatre Nisha’s Meera Sitaraman, 28, described how she crouched in the midst of the foliage whittling down huge branches. “I was speechless. SPACES is my home. And cleaning up was something that I just had to do. I can’t see my effort as a way of payback, because there is no payback for what SPACES has given me.”

Many others echoed Sitaraman’s words. Sowmya Balakrishnan, 45, spends an hour everyday at SPACES learning music in the morning and kalaripayattu in the evening. She was among the volunteers who mopped and swept the kalari when the floor finally came into sight after the rubble of tiles had been cleared up. “Whatever I have learned at SPACES has to do with the expansion of the self. The structure’s physical openness was a reflection of that. And whenever I am here seated as a member of the audience it has given me a peek into many wondrous worlds,” she says.

As word about the damage to SPACES spread through Facebook and other social media, Menon heard a knock on his door one day at 7 am. It was the parent of a student of kalaripayattu, now studying in Australia. After seeing the photos on Facebook, she had told her father to dash over to Menon’s and hand over a cheque as contribution to SPACES’ restoration.

A space transformed: T.M Krishna in full flow. Credit: Ananya Vajpeyi

A space transformed: T.M Krishna in full flow. Credit: Ananya Vajpeyi

This was not an isolated instance. Students from the Asian College of Journalism also handed over small amounts with unspoken prayers for the place’s restoration. In another instance, actor Kalai Rani quietly passed around a hat at the end of a piano and veena recital and it returned to her brimming with money.

“The loss of a roof has come with a gain of a community,” says Menon. The space has been restored and cleaned, and though it remains bereft of trees and its exquisite roof, the kalari pit was still a welcoming sight on December 28, 2016, when musician T.M. Krishna held a crowd of over 700 spellbound for three hours at the tenth annual Remembering Chandralekha event.

Playwright Mangai says, “I broke down when I saw the roof of the Chandra Mandapa destroyed. But I felt it had been resurrected in spirit when I saw it on the day of T.M. Krishna’s concert. The Mandapa was now an amphitheatre and it worked beautifully for that concert. Like the phoenix, the Chandra Mandapa had been rejuvenated. It was the sheer energy of SPACES that made this possible.”

Dhanya Srinivasan is an independent writer based in Chennai.