As the mighty deodars gently sway in the wind, the hills come alive with the sound of music – specifically, the Hindustani classical Raga Bhoopali being rendered by a couple of talented, young village girls. Slowly the beat of the tabla and the strains of the harmonium change to the softer notes of Raga Yaman as the group easily slips into a ‘bhajan'(hymn). Around 90-odd children join in and the entire open-air theatre is awash with melody.
This musical extravaganza is a weekly event at the Helena Roerich Arts School and College in Naggar, a small settlement, located 1760 m above sea level in the picturesque Kullu valley of Himachal Pradesh. Until a decade ago, this was just another sleepy hamlet, where the inhabitants spent their days weaving cloth and tilling small pieces of land. The only highlight of their lives was the folk singing and dancing during festival time. The winter months – from November and to February – were particularly dreary with most people not even stepping out of their homes for days.
But Naggar today is buzzing with cultural activity. Thanks to Alena Adamkova, popularly known here as “Alena madam,” not only have the locals developed an appreciation for Indian classical music, they also enthusiastically check out the art exhibitions she regularly organises in town.
“Alena madam” first introduced the community to the arts when she set up the Helena Roerich Arts School and College for the local children. As the kids spent their weekends picking up the finer nuances of music and art, their parents too started taking a keen interest.
Little wonder that Shinu Sharma (name changed) eagerly looks forward to Sunday, which is the day she takes both her children – aged eight and 11 years – to the college, located within the International Roerich Memorial Trust (IRMT) complex. She makes sure that they never miss their classes. Sharma says, “Though the children in our town attended government schools and colleges, they never had the opportunity to learn anything extra like music or painting. These are things that make life beautiful. Alena madam has changed that. We feel really happy and proud when we hear our children sing or see them sketching the mountains.”
Adamkova is a household name in Naggar, so much so that from the staff at the local hotel to the salespersons in shops selling traditional Kullu shawls, everyone can be heard making plans to be there for the opening of the latest exhibition she has organised at the Trust-run art gallery. In fact, they all hope to meet with her as well.
However, Adamkova was not always this popular, especially when she had first come to Naggar in 1992 after taking up the post of curator and head of the IRMT gallery and museum. In fact, this 40-plus Slovak Indologist, who is married to a Russian documentary filmmaker, found that the Trust’s complex of 11 buildings, spanning 16 hectares overlooking the River Beas, needed quite a lot of work. She recalls, “Things were in a bad shape when I joined the organisation. People were indifferent to me and there was hardly any interaction between the villagers and the Trust authorities.”
But she was up for the challenge and had no difficulty in closely working with the locals because she is fluent in Hindi and Sanskrit, besides knowing 11 other languages. In fact, even her 10-year-old son, Yaroslav, converses a like native with his Himachali friends, as he studies at a school in nearby Manali.
When Adamkova had started working for the Trust – named after the Russian cult painter and philosopher Nicholas Roerich – it was only about running a museum and gallery that house 30 original paintings of Roerich and his son, Svetoslav, along with a few other artists. Now, of course, the Helena Roerich College also operates from here.
Although initially she had been keen on starting an international art academy, Adamkova, who has studied traditions of Vedanta philosophy and worked for many years at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata, eventually set up the college. Today she is glad that she did.
The college first opened its gates for the children of Naggar and other similar settlements in neighbouring Kullu and Manali, in 2003. A year later, it also got affiliated with the Pracheen Kala Kendra University, Chandigarh. As faculty she roped in her friend, Sheru Baba, a local resident, who had studied theatre at National School of Drama in Delhi, in addition to a few music teachers from Manali and Shimla. Adamkova is also quick to acknowledge the generous help that she had received from the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The Helena Roerich College for Arts has a variety of courses on offer. There’s Indian classical music – instrumental and vocal, Indian classical dance – Kathak, theatre art, folk drama, and other fine arts like sculpting, carving and printing. Elaborates Baba, who is the Trust’s cultural organiser, “We started out with only 20 students. It took us some time to convince parents and family members to let their children join with us. Now we have 150-odd children, with many more eager to sign up. To ensure that our activites do not get in the way of their academics, we hold classes only on weekends and on local holidays.”
Smiling at a bunch of 10- to 14-year-olds running around the sprawling IRMT complex, Adamkova adds, “In fact, we had to raise a new building especially for this college, and we already have 12 students who have graduated.”
Although she herself doesn’t paint, this gifted curator makes it a point to invite artists from around the world to hold workshops for her children. Of course, artists, who are keen on capturing the beauty of the Himalayas while they enjoy the ambience of the Roerich gallery, are always eager to oblige. They exhibit their works at the gallery and freely interact with the children as well as local artists. Almost every month – with the exception of the harsh winters – there is an art showing in town. “Apart from local artists from Kullu and Manali, we also get musicians from Delhi to come and teach at the college. Hindustani classical singer Meeta Pandit has held several workshops with our children,” says Baba.
Art apart, the children are also informed about ways to keep their environment clean – a cause that is close to Adamkova’s heart. “The heavy influx of tourists in these mountains is spoiling the environment. Look at all the plastic bottles, wrappers strewn around. It is disgusting,” laments the spirited woman. She fervently hopes that making the children conscious of this will have the desired effect.
Today, the people of Naggar greatly value all that Adamkova had done for their community. They realise that had it not been for her, their children would never have had the chance to discover their latent talent for the arts and they themselves would never have shed the mundane existence they had been leading for generations.
Of course, Adamkova has also contributed to improving the local economy – while Naggar had always been on the tourism map, with visitors making a beeline for the exquisite Naggar palace, now this humble town is also the favoured destination of art lovers. Here’s to Adamkova and her budding brood of artists and musicians.