The dancer and the village

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on August 21, 2020

Wise moves: Unlike other artistes who cling on to their creation, Protima Bedi had the wisdom to hand over charge to the next in line   -  IMAGES COURTESY: NRITYAGRAM/ SURESH PAREKH

A virtual tribute to Protima Bedi by Nrityagram evokes memories of a person who had given her self and more to this unique entity

It could be the Indian setting for Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. Idyllic, sylvan surroundings, a lake close by, and an ethereal bevy of swans dancing in harmony with the trees and the wind, integrating the curved movement of their supple backs with the ecosystem. The curse of Rothbart, the sorcerer, is slightly different in this version. It is a curse that prevents audiences from watching the dance of the cygnets and swans. A curse that keeps performers and spectators apart all over the world, like a sad love story that has reached its phase of viraha.

I first met Protima Bedi aka Gauri in the late ’80s, at least a year before she built Nrityagram. The conservative dance circle of Bangalore was abuzz with the news that the infamous Protima Bedi had acquired land on the outskirts of the city from the Karnataka government to build a dance village of sorts. My dance gurus were among the first to welcome her with open arms. I remember seeing her in person for the first time, wearing a starched sari, sitting demurely on a low stool next to my gurus Chandrabhaga Devi and US Krishna Rao, the complete antithesis of her pictures in society magazines showing her streaking on a beach in Bombay. She spoke with passion about her dreams and wanted to be a part of the charmed inner circle of classical dancers. Many wondered whether she was doing this on a whim or was truly the born-again creature she appeared to be. This was indeed a reverse transformation of the legendary swan. From the bold and ambitious black swan, Odile, to the more heart-centred Odette.

Within a year, Nrityagram was born with a dramatic Woodstock-style spring festival aptly named Vasantahabba. I was among the thousands who would make the pilgrimage to Nrityagram every spring to experience the best in music and dance from across the country. Protima transformed into a mother swan and became Gauri Maa to the people in the village as well as the resident artistes of Nrityagram.

Unlike other artistes who cling on to their creation, Gauri Maa had the wisdom to let go. She handed over charge to the next in line — Surupa Sen — and also to Lynne Fernandez who just happened to be visiting but succumbed to the spell of this magic land. Lynne stayed on as the managing trustee. Under Lynne’s administration, prima dancers such as Surupa Sen, Bijayini Satpathy and Pavithra Reddy could focus on their art. Arts administration is a highly underrated skill and the lack of it is the prime reason why many institutions do not survive beyond the life and ambitions of its founder, usually the principal artiste.

Over the years, I visited Nrityagram on some occasions and came to know its founder as a person. Protima was also instrumental in introducing me to Pamela Rooks who made a film on my play Dance Like a Man with Shobana in the lead. I bonded with her best when she told me I was such a bad dancer, something I knew all along.

On August 18, 1998 (the year I got the Sahitya Akademi award), I got the news of her death in a devastating landslide in Malpa, Uttarakhand. By then she was on a spiritual journey, dressed as a monk with shorn hair. The last I saw her, she radiated beauty with her simple presence.

On August 18, 2020, for the first time, Nrityagram went virtual on Gauri Maa’s remembrance day. Seeing the kuteeram on my laptop, I felt a surge of emotion. This is the space that has shaped the destiny of many dancers. One of the dancers, Dhruva, did a beautiful sketch of the Dashavatara, perfectly delineating the various incarnations of Vishnu. I had seen Protima do a similar piece in 1997, perhaps the last time she performed to the public. Her swan song was as poetic as the land she cultivated with art, beauty and spirituality. Protima had built a small temple with no deity but a rock. The temple is dedicated to ‘Space’. Every day a lamp is lit to honour and respect ‘Space’, the medium through which a dancer creates.

Talent central: Protima Bedi's legacy rests on the young shoulders of artistes like 11-year-old Aishani Dash   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NRITYAGRAM/ SURUPA SEN


In the performance pieces, the youngest dancer was 11-year-old Aishani Dash, who carries a legacy on her young shoulders. Her pure form is a beginning once again. A beginning that was made when Protima first saw the land and said, “It speaks to me”. It speaks to us now, through this young dancer and her hopes for a future that will always have a place for her art and talent.

Lynne puts it best in her programme note: “Rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh dating 100000 years are filled with paintings including some of the people dancing to drum song. Thousands of years may have passed, but those instincts remain the same. When struck with tragedy, we mourn with ballads. On witnessing war, our anguish is epic. We even conjure nursery rhymes to speak of the plague. And in creating, sharing, and experiencing our collective humanity through our art, we end up holding hands with each other.”

Indeed it takes 1,00,000 years to make a beginning.


Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

Published on August 21, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor