The Neelambari resort at Arattupuzha, Kerala focuses on traditional classical dance forms
Photo: TS Sreeni and his wife Meera. Photo by Albin Mathew
By Shevlin Sebastian
Revital Eytan, senior lecturer and a director in the School of Performing Arts at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Tel-Aviv, was in Kochi recently. She wanted to do research on the performing arts of South India. As she moved around, somebody told her that the best place to witness authentic classical dance performances was at the Neelambari Ecotourism resort at Arattupuzha (80 kms from Kochi). So she decided to go for a day.
Managing Partner TS Sreeni arranged for Revital to see a koodiyattam dance. But to ensure that Revital understood what she was seeing, Sreeni quickly briefed her on the social and historical context. After the performance, she asked the dancer whether she could learn from him. The end result: Revital stayed for eight days.
The Neelambari is a resort with a difference. “The idea is to showcase the rich cultural legacy of Kerala,” says Sreeni. So, the resort has a Koothambalam (a sort of temple theatre). Inside the hall, there are four intricately carved pillars. The ceiling is also etched with fine designs. The wooden stage floor gleams. The backdrop is a wooden wall. The audience sits on cane chairs, as a cool breeze blows in through the trellised windows.
And it is in this hall that visitors can see a Kathakali dance as well as Thayambaka (drums), and Tolpava Koothu (puppetry) performances. Interestingly, there are no in-house artists. Instead, Sreeni calls them to the resort or takes the visitors to dance centres nearby. Noted Koodiyattam exponent Usha Nangiar has a dance school just three kilometres away. Usha shows the movements in slow motion and explains the symbolism. “It is very enchanting for the guests,” says Sreeni.
Incidentally, the design of the main building at Neelambari is in traditional nalukettu-style (this is a rectangular structure where four halls are joined together with a central courtyard which is open to the sky). Mural paintings adorn the walls. The roof is made of red tiles. This area comprises the reception and the lounge. Nearby, there are cottages of two rooms each. The furniture, the doors and windows are wooden; everything is spic and span. The ambience is rural. There are no sounds except of birds and insects. Mentally, you tend to slow down and feel calm.
For those who are not interested in the arts, there are yoga classes, Ayurveda massage, the use of a spa, a boat trip down the nearby Karuvannur river, apart from visits to nearby temples and villages.
And it is interesting to know that Sreeni has given up a thriving career in the IT business. After passing out of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur in 1998, he had worked in Wipro before joining Kalkitech, an IT company in Bangalore. In 2016, when he quit, he had been vice-president of international sales at Dubai. “I wanted to try something different,” he says. “Initially, my plan was to write a novel.”
But a chance meeting with a friend, who is an affluent businessman based in Dubai, was a turning point. The latter agreed to invest in Neelambari as an art centre.
Art has always been close to Sreeni. “I grew up in a cultural ambience at Chalakudy,” he says. “There was a Kathakali Club in our area. When I grew older, I read a lot of books on traditional dance forms and kept attending programmes.” But while in Dubai, Sreeni joined a group that conducted the prestigious International Koodiyattam and Kathakali Festival. “I was able to make a lot of contacts with artists,” he says. “My interest deepened and this eventually resulted in the Neelambari.”