For two decades, Nrityagram has been teaching a new kind of Odissi. Even as their quest for excellence deepens, they find it hard to create a widespread dance culture, says Poorva Rajaram
BEING AN aesthetic stickler can sometimes backfire. Nrityagram, a live-in dance gurukul in Hessarghata, 30 km outside Bengaluru, has been holding open dance classes two times a week since 6 September. The publicity posters proved so pretty they were stolen from every display location. Only six people have signed up so far. “We spent Rs. 500 per poster and the thieves didn’t even wait for the classes to start,” says a bemused Surupa Sen, the 40-year-old artistic director. “The capital investment for me is quite high. I bought a car simply to make it to the city.” Twenty years after its founding, how does an uncompromising artistic vision come to terms with the necessity of patronage, the hunger for audiences and the hope of students?
There’s no lack of fame. Nrityagram is already deeply entrenched as India’s leading classical dance brand, both at home and abroad. It has expanded the Odissi vocabulary and infused the Indian circuit with a professional and stylistic rigour. Founded by socialite-turned-Odissi dancer Protima Gauri, Nrityagram teaches dance to 200 students from the nearby area. It used to organise Vasanta Habba, the famous annual night-long festival of arts that had 40,000 visitors when it was last held in 2004.
Nrityagram doesn’t pretend Odissi has been a consecrated classical art from time immemorial. It has reintroduced dance positions from the mahari (devadasi) tradition that were lost when, about 70 years ago, there was a rush to establish Odissi as a classical dance. Says Bijayini Satpathy, the 37-year-old director of the Odissi Gurukul, “Visiting temple sculptures in Konark show that only about 1/20th of available positions made it to the classical dance.” They have unearthed old links between Odissi and the scholar Bharata’s treatise Natyashastra (usually considered Bharatnatyam domain). “We use more positions in each basic stance, say 35 each in tribhangi and chaukha. But we ensure we retain the essence — Radha’s feelings about Krishna,” says Satpathy.
Nrityagram’s introductions are not didactic — mythology does not die. They rid audiences of impostor dance lovers. Satpathy says the viewing experience should be “dreamlike”. It is.
Both Sen and Satpathy have ambitions larger than just running the Nrityagram initiatives or growing individually as dancers. The day begins at 7 am and they are dancing, teaching or working on new projects past 9 pm. “It’s not as if anyone has anywhere else to be,” smiles Satpathy. Both give the impression of containing an inner whirlwind of plans, thoughts and abilities — yet they are sure-footed in conversation.
Their larger mission is to sensitise audiences — “to create rasikas,” as Sen says. A corollary hope is to have dedicated students. “We look all over the country and find maybe 20 passable candidates. Of those, we might want two. Why can’t I get 250 or more committed applicants like dance troupes in the US? ” wonders Sen.
Satpathy came to Nrityagram in 1993, and now lives with her photographer husband Mahesh Bhat on farmland she bought adjacent to Nrityagram. She speaks Hessarghatta-inflected Kannada and is a certified organic farmer. Her house is her “sleeping pad” since most of her time is spent in Nrityagram. “I don’t think of being here as a sacrifice. I wanted to constantly engage with dance.” Before Nrityagram, she spent 12 years at the Orissa Dance Academy in Bhubaneswar, where a visiting Protima Gauri spotted her. Satpathy received a scholarship to join them after the tour. Nrityagram is now a family affair. Her mother visits her often and her two brothers, a pakhwaj player and a flautist, play for the dance ensemble.
Critical reception of their work falls into potholes. While foreign reviewers call them “mysterious”, Indian critics use superlatives like “effervescent”
Sen was Nrityagram’s first student and is their choreographer now. Satpathy calls her “the only choreographer I want to work with in the country”. She says evenly without vitriol, “I abhor mediocrity.” Her actions prove this. Growing up in an army family in Bengaluru and Secunderabad, she began learning Bharatanatyam at six and went to Nrityagram after a bachelor’s degree in economics from Delhi.
Satpathy has learnt Sanskrit for the past nine years, and in the past decade, Nrityagram has only performed original productions. It is unusual in including pieces that don’t invoke deities. They’ve found material in the Upanishads. Sen informs her work with a meticulous reading of mythological texts and says, “My choreography has to have depth. It can’t be literal. We want it to be complex, not complicated.”
With its high aesthetic standards, Nrityagram struggles with the Indian dance culture. Their intricate productions require logistical support that most Indian festivals don’t provide. “It’s a joy to perform abroad. There is detailed attention paid to your needs,” admits Satpathy. Their lighting, critical to their overall effect, is designed by their managing trustee Lynne Fernandez, a former theatre professional. Their costumes are sourced from Mumbai and music is composed in Odisha by Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi and performed by handpicked musicians.
Critical reception of their work tends to fall into two potholes. Stumbling foreign reviewers veer towards exoticisation — they are “mysterious” and “fascinating”. Indian reviewers, meanwhile, deploy crusty superlatives: “effervescent”, “stupendous”. Satpathy says, “The only reaction that matters is if someone comes and says they cried. Why can’t people react honestly?”
The current urban culture of dance that squeezes classes between tuitions and school is partly responsible for prospective students’ commitment-phobia. It takes at least three years for a trained student to physically adapt to the movements required of a Nrityagram dancer. They have six full-time students enrolled right now, a number that’s remained dormant throughout their history.
Sen is undeterred by the low turnout for their Bengaluru classes or the current pool of permanent applicants. Defeatism is not her style. “We need to make classical dance cool for young people,” she says, adding they will revive Vasanta Habba in 2011. In the past, they’ve spent six months cleaning up garbage after the festival. One hopes the road to coolness lies in worthier gestures of faith.