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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

Chandramandapa- A Contemporary Kalari in Chennai

Kalaripayattu, which has its origin in Kerala, needs no introduction, as it has come to be recognized as the mother of all martial arts in the world today. Traditional Kalari is a temple of learning, art, religious worship of various icons, but with a cult and ritual of its own. Consequently, we had designed this Kalari culture centre in 2007 at Besant Nagar- The Chandramandapa. It was built as a memorial for the famous dancer/choreographer Chandralekha who lived, danced and created her path-breaking dance-drama works there. She paid homage to this body of knowledge of Kalaripayattu by drawing inspiration from the art form for her electrifying creations like “Sri”, “Raga”, “Sharira”, and other iconoclastic dances that made her memorable all over the world.

The project involved the construction of a new performance space for kalarippayattu, the redesign of the open-air theatre, her residence, and a new library. The renovation of the house and the library are yet to happen. The Chandramandapa is the historic Kuzhikalari(arena) of Kerala that was transformed into a concept for the twenty-first century. The main challenge was to accommodate the requirements without affecting the existing vocabulary of the site.

Construction of the Kalari

The design was evolved in such a way that none of the existing trees was disturbed. The performance centre skirted the trees as they added to the natural aesthetics of the surroundings and the climate within the campus. Chandramandapa follows sustainability in its limited use of timber, stone and tiles. It faces East to bring in adequate sunlight and warmth. The simplicity of décor on the outside and inside retains the features of the classical Kalaripayattu training spaces. Its basic structural design starts in the traditional precepts.

Chandramandapa, Besant Nagar
The Existing Trees on the Site Were Not Disturbed

It is a “kuzhi” or pit, dug out of the sand to a depth of 4 feet from ground level. It adheres to the old orders of Kalari by its height of 21 feet and dimensions of 42 feet by 21 feet. After that, it breaks away from tradition to accommodate the requirements of a variety of contemporary performing arts and the Kalari exponents of today. It differs from the traditional Kalari as it was paved with stone, whereas the ancients preferred mud or sand surfaces to soften the fall of the warriors.

Kalari in Besant Nagar
The Stone Paved Kalari

The next element was the roof. The seating is a series of stone steps from the floor to a little above ground level. Traditionally, the Kalari was an open pit. Here, the raised roof allows for better airflow and compensates for the absence of air conditioning. It offers natural ventilation and ensures the privacy of the pit that is vital for all performers. The pillars and rafters lend themselves to carry contemporary lighting, acoustic and electronic equipment whenever needed.

Kerala roof
Chandramandapa Has a Kerala Style Roof Over the Kalari


The Chandramandapa can be rightfully termed a “timeless” one. In the olden days, Kalari artists were susceptible to being secluded by onlookers because the master passed on the secrets of the art in the greatest of privacy. However, today, the Chandramandapa is a popular public space, offering a traditional ambience with modern facilities. It was envisioned as an amalgamation of traditional and contemporary performance theatres to serve as an amphitheatre and a “theatre-in-the-round”.


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