This article was originally featured in Finding Lila magazine on 17 September 2015.
As you drive north-west from the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore towards the fabled dance village of Nrityagram in Hessaraghatta, there is a sense of growing timelessness. Wide motorways, western-style coffee shops and fashion stores are replaced by small towns, vast landscapes and increasingly reddening soil. Nrityagram, with its charming leafy campus, rustic architecture and holistic, graceful way of life and dance education is itself an embodiment of both timelessness and the expanse of Indian art, dance and philosophy. It is an institution which is on the one hand deeply committed to tradition and the classical Indian dance style of Odissi, adopting the ancient gurukal system of learning where students live alongside their gurus. On the other hand however it has made a confident transition to modernity, performing regularly in prestigious international venues, adopting innovation where appropriate and even holds a strong social media presence.
Established in 1990 by Protima Gauri Bedi (1948-1998), Nrityagram celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Its longevity and success come despite considerable setbacks such as the sudden loss of its charismatic and dynamic founder and the difficulties in financing such an ambitious dream. It has been made possible largely due to the efforts of gurus Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, artistic director and director of education respectively, managing trustee Lynne Fernandez and artist Pavithra Reddy. Having had the the opportunity to speak with both Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, Finding Lila is delighted to share an edited version of that interview in which they share rich insight into the history of Nrityagram, the unique synergy between the two of them and their vision for the future of the institution.
On Nrityagram’s 25th Anniversary It is a great achievement for us. Nrityagram was not our dream, it was not Surupa’s dream nor my dream. We were just a part of a larger dream of Gaurima’s (Protima Gauri Bedi). Nrityagram was her vision and we landed with the dream in our laps without expecting it when we were very young. I was 25 and Surupa was 27. By that time however we had become complete believers in the philosophy of learning a dance as if you were living the form everyday inside the classroom and outside the classroom where you grow as an individual and you grow as an artist very connected with one another. I feel it is a success story. We feel very happy for the 25th year to be what it is today and what we have done so far.
Protima Gauri Bedi She was such a name, she was such a face to the place and we were dancing as “Protima Gauri and Group” at that time although she was pushing very hard to give a name to the Nrityagram Ensemble. She was of the belief that you find one dedicated dancer for every 1000 students. She considered herself lucky because she saw in her five years two of us commit to her completely saying that we will do this forever. She kept saying, "don’t expect a Surupa or Bijayini in the next ten years. You will be lucky after training 100 students if you will find one of yourself in them". She was a visionary, she could see far ahead of her time. Gaurima left unexpectedly although Nrityagram was being run by Lynne by that time. That she left suddenly didn’t come as a shock, however not to have her to lead us and not to have her vision and guidance was definitely something that kind of shook us. But there wasn’t a choice as to whether we would leave Nrityagram. We didn’t feel like we had a choice. That was our path and there was no way we were going to go away to do something else.
On dancing with Surupa I know for a fact that we are very different dancers. We have our own individuality when dancing but I think the sensibility with which we relate to dance, movement, music and rhythm and the depth at which we feel is of the same wavelength. Indian classical dance is a solo dance form and I would love to say that I enjoy it the most when i dance solo, or Surupa should be able to say that, but we actually are the best when we dance together. I really enjoy myself when we are dancing together because there is another space being created. There is another energy being created because of this relationship that takes place on stage.
We become our best in the togetherness. I am not saying that I do any less in a solo or Surupa does any less in a solo but that togetherness has much more power. I feel that we bring out each other’s best and our own best and we have celebrated it and loved it and I think we are blessed with that gift. It’s not like it has been a very easy journey. No two dancers will ever dance together at the same level, we are competitors- we should be! She was presented as a soloist first, I was presented the next year. Despite being dancers that young, wanting to become famous or popular or being invited more, we have never ever competed with each other in an unhealthy manner, like feeling jealous or wanting ill for the other or whatever else that goes on.
On the shared search for more time Surupa is a great talker and she speaks a lot and is constantly pushing everybody to think differently and alternatively. She once asked the musicians and dancers, "if you were granted one wish, what would it be?". There were people saying happiness and peace and things like that and she turned to me and I said “I would just ask for time”. Then I wanted to clarify myself and said it's not like I wanted to live longer I just want the time to be stretched, the moment to be stretched so that I can have a little more time to eat into it. She dropped her jaw and said, "why did you say that? That is exactly what i wish for". So when you come to the heart of things, we probably have the same brain.
We fight a lot, we argue a lot, we disagree a lot and all of that is there but when we come and perform and I look into her eyes and we are Shiva and Parvati, I think "this is the moment, this is so rich", I wouldn’t change it for anything. We forget that we are performing, that is the joyous thing. It becomes effortless, the performance is about us enjoying ourselves in each other’s company and the space becomes boundless and the dance flowers in different dimensions. It’s so rich, it’s so special. Nothing matters.
The ‘pulsating moment’ in dance That’s the moment of complete alignment with the universe I would say. A complete alignment of the senses with the universe’s energy and when you align things it's like being on a cycle, completely balanced. It’s a very light, complete weightlessness of zero if you can come back to zero. Zero is a very important number in Indian vedic maths. It’s something that you can hold on for a moment and then it goes away from you. Surupa calls it spiritual orgasm. I don’t know, I don’t want to call it spiritual. I am not actually a religious person, I had written this before once in a blog. I don't believe in gods and goddesses and I am not ritualistic but when it comes to it, if I am to place Jagganath before me, he is who he is and I am totally surrendered to him. I am in awe of the concepts.
The beauty of Odissi and the process of learning A young dancer reading or looking at this may want to experience this 'pulsating moment' in the first day in class or the first year or fifth year. It doesn’t come like that. It will come one day but first there has to be a lot of work in the body and pain. It’s not like today I don’t have any pain in my body, I am sore everywhere. I was sore everywhere when I was dancing yesterday but all that goes away.
I feel that this experience is so rare, i don’t know what else can give you this. We are here working with the body, mind and spirit and all of that has to come together to experience it. Only very rare artforms make you do that. This is something you live in and it disappears, you can’t catch it. It’s a very cruel art form. It’s there with your body in your being, then it’s gone. You can’t capture it in a video. You have to be fortunate enough to revisit it. You can only work with all sincerity, starting from your yoga or martial art with your sense of control, balance, core, then work on doing your ABCs right. You must work with knowing line and form and intellectually with the music, rhythm and ideas and then find the freedom, the complete vulnerability and uninhibition of emoting freely in a theatrical manner. You do all that, in a precise sincere manner, it may happen to you once, it may not happen to you once. And I think that’s what keeps you humble.
On Nrityagram’s 25th Anniversary To me it means a great deal of fulfilment. It’s an achievement really. It’s possible to create things but it’s not so easy to sustain them. Sustaining a dream takes a lot more resilience, a lot more staying power and a lot of belief and continuously telling oneself that you can make it happen. Seeing the place grow and the dance grow, I think for me is a great achievement.
On dancing with Bijayini I think the magic has always been there from the very first time we met. We are very different individuals off stage but once we get on that stage and dance there is an instant chemistry. I don’t know where that comes from and we've had it from the very first time we danced together. I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing that happens with another individual and when you perform together it's like you’re on the exact same wavelength and there’s no need for words anymore. It's like being in a strange relationship of a kind but it's always there when you’re on that stage. Off stage we may not even want to be in the same room sometimes. We’re like sisters, we’ve been a part of a family for so long but on that stage it really is even for us, very exciting. It’s very hard to explain. I would like to think it’s a similar belief in what we do. No matter what has happened to us, dance has always come first for us and we've both given up a great deal to be able to do what we do. It's almost like the source of life for us and in that sense, maybe it is.
Protima Gauri Bedi I had an extraordinarily special relationship with her. It was very much a relationship between a guru and a student but it was also kind of a love-hate relationship and I sometimes couldn't understand why she would make me do certain things in terms of dance, in terms of the work, in terms of life itself. And then sometimes I just blindly did what she said. I had such faith. I didn't like it but I had a sense of complete surrender where she was concerned. I did ask her a lot of questions and I got a lot of answers but sometimes I didn't. Today when I think about it I realise that was her way of teacing me things about life very quickly and very differently from maybe another guru would but I am grateful for that little time I had with her. Obviously she was not meant to be there the entire time. I learnt in a very fast-forward manner, in compressed time and she also taught me in one sense how to dream and to believe in myself and to know that you can make the impossible happen if you believe in it enough.
Nrityagram after Gaurima In the beginning Gaurima did ask me to run Nrityagram and I said no because it would mean literally giving up my dance career. Lynne now runs the place and takes care of it in terms of administration and things. Creatively, yes I have taken care of it for a very long time. I call myself a conscience keeper in one sense for the place because I've been there from its inception. Shouldering the responsibility of the direction in which it could go artistically has come quite naturally because even when Gaurima was alive I started restaging and creating some work. She was extremely supportive of it from the beginning. Artistically the way Nrityagram has gone is because of my inherent sense of everything I think dance should be. I would say that my vision was very different from Gaurima's. She was amazing with production and presentation. She was such a star, anything she did was star-like, and she had a great sense of marketing and what could work.
My sense is very different. I believe the excellence speaks for itself and hard work is the essence of everything. That was very different from the way that she functioned. She was the kind of person who came on stage and she was a star. Everything about her was a star. If you were dancing with her it was very likely that people would just look at her simply because she was such a larger-than-life personality whereas for us I think that people look not so much as individuals on that stage but the dance itself. That’s what I believe I want to be and it's quite different from the way she saw it.
Life and biography of Gaurima The biography does not do her justice. What was most extraordinary about her was that she was capable of such immense change overnight. We are the kind of people who think about a lot of things before we can actually make a decision with our lives. She was twenty years ahead of everybody that I knew. If she had a thought, she just put her whole life into it to make it happen. I would sometimes say to her “yesterday you told me that this was going to happen” and she would say “oh god Surupa, life is so different everyday. A million cells have changed since yesterday and you’re still the same”. So she was capable of that change. So it was almost as if she had a belief and she could turn it over on its head overnight and go with it.
It was like you’re in a constant state of discovery but it forces you to look at yourself in such ways that people pushing you to discover yourself and discover life almost as if it’s like death itself every day. That’s why I always say death is such an exciting thing because you have to live life as if you are going to die everyday and that’s how she lived. That's a great thing I have learnt, if you’re going to do something you just do it. It was an extraordinary journey, it was like you were tripping down all the time and if you’re not able to deal with that pace, it’s hard. I feel like that I was very lucky.
On her use of rhythms in Odissi The way I use rhythm is quite different and I've had several discussions about it with a rhythmic composer. I compose a lot of my own rhythm and I think of rhythm as mathematics and sound combined so if you have an intense idea of what sound is in Odissi and how you would like the dance to become, then you create rhythm that suits your choreography but at the end it adds up to the number of beats that should summate into a cycle. It is a very different way of using rhythm and my dancers sometimes find it very difficult to understand what I am doing but it always adds up. I think for me it is very much the way that I understand dance and creating music for dance is very different to me than just creating music for music.
On her vision for Nrityagram My vision for it has always been as a place where there is creation of excellence and passing on of passion. I do believe that this is my most powerful, intense longing that I will be able to pass on, the passion that I feel for the art and sense of belief in what it is that you do. In the same way that my guru thought for some time that this is a place where people can dream and dance and live intensely an art form that is so extraordinary that there is no comparison to it really anywhere in the world.
Words and images (c) Nisha Somasundaram