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Nrityagram’s rhythm divine

Poorna Swami | Updated on January 09, 2018
Everything dances: Nrityagram was set up in 1990 as a collective of schools for different classical dance forms. Today it focuses exclusively on Odissi.

Everything dances: Nrityagram was set up in 1990 as a collective of schools for different classical dance forms. Today it focuses exclusively on Odissi.   -  Nrityagram

Practised ease: Students are encouraged to sense, rather than imitate, the desired movement. Artistic director and choreographer Surupa Sen in action. Photo: Poorna Swami

Practised ease: Students are encouraged to sense, rather than imitate, the desired movement. Artistic director and choreographer Surupa Sen in action. Photo: Poorna Swami

A day in the life of the dance village founded by the late Odissi dancer Protima Gauri in Hesaraghatta, on the outskirts of Bengaluru

Barely a month after an international tour and a month-long summer workshop with nearly 30 dancers, Nrityagram hasn’t slowed down. Following a 6 am start with a nature walk and a conditioning class, the dancers are practising relentlessly in a basic technique class. They repeat each movement countless times, stopping to correct the smallest turn of wrist or the slightest angling of foot. Their teacher sits at the front of the room, beating a stick as she speaks bols, to which she expects her students to unwaveringly keep rhythm. She notices even the finest slip-up and asks the students to begin again. It isn’t difficult to see that Nrityagram is a place that was created to foster the deepest dedication to dance.

Located in Hesaraghatta, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, the renowned dance village was founded in 1990 by the late Protima Gauri. She began her career as a model, but in her 20s discovered Odissi dance, to which she soon dedicated her life. Nrityagram is a testament to her vision, “a place where nothing exists, except dance”. The architecture, too, is that of a serene, creative space. Between gardens and rather wild green foliage, narrow red-mud paths lead to different buildings made of stone, mud, thatch, and terracotta.

Initially opened as a village with gurukuls (schools) for different classical dance forms, Nrityagram today focuses exclusively on Odissi, and is led by Surupa Sen, its artistic director and choreographer (as also its first student) and Bijayini Satpathy, director of dance education. They live and work with a handful of students, following a traditional guru-shishya parampara that emphasises rigorous technical training, aesthetically-informed thinking, and community living. In addition to the intensive residential programme, Nrityagram conducts day classes for children on campus and in the city, as well as a rural outreach programme. Describing Nrityagram’s intimate and immersive way of teaching, Satpathy says, “We believe that you imbibe the spirit of the teacher… it is a way of life… a holistic approach to training.”

Nrityagram’s current movement vocabulary, she explains, is an excavated and widened articulation of a more traditional vocabulary. Over the years, she and Sen have researched somatic practices, martial art, yoga, ballet, physiotherapy, temple sculpture and the Natyashastra itself, to develop a technique for dance training and body conditioning that allows dancers to draw from multiple references. Attention to detail and clear verbal articulation of movement are also key. In class, Satpathy corrects students with astounding precision, encouraging them to sense, rather than imitate, the desired movement. “Fall,” she tells one student, “then your body will find a way to stabilise itself.” But despite the innovation, Nrityagram is clear that it works within a classical art. Sen asserts “that balance between modernism and classicism is something I have personally never been concerned with.” Satpathy adds, “There is a feel to being an Odissi dancer. And that is preserved in the essence. The form and shapes can change around that.”

After their first technique class of the day, the students move to a different studio, where the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble rehearses. As the students walk between buildings, they continue practising the corrections they just received in class and exchange notes about the day’s exercises to write down in their dance journals. Satpathy underscores this aspect of the guru-shishya parampara. “It’s not so much about the teacher-student relationship, it’s really spending time with your art… Here you have all the time to spend with whatever little you have learned… that makes one a particular kind of dancer.”

If there is a show coming up, the rehearsal period is used to practise for that, otherwise they take up different pieces from their repertoire. Today, Sen and Satpathy rehearse four pieces — three solos and one duet. Each dancer is unique in her relationship to movement, and the definitions of tenderness or renderings of a woman in love are different for each one. But when together, whether they dance in unison or counterpoint, they appear to dance as one creature made of two distinctly individual bodies. As the bodies circle, and pause with sharp accents before resuming their endless circling, it is difficult to not be enchanted. “We are in the business of taking you to another world,” Sen says, purposefully, “another time, another space.” But the real delight of watching Sen and Satpathy dance in their home, rather than on a distant stage in Bengaluru or even New York, is seeing them fumble, forget sequences, and redo them. It is reassuring to see the human effort behind what will always seem like a divine performance. “Classical art is humanly attainable, but offers you a glimpse of the gods,” Sen reasons.

***

The students intently watch their gurus rehearse. For Sen, the success of Nrityagram lies in people coming “to understand what it is that is the essence of the form”. And so, an essential part of the daily training is to observe and imbibe, be it a traditional ashtapadi or a more contemporised choreography like ‘Samhara’, a collaboration with the Chitrasena Dance Company from Sri Lanka. Choreographed by Sen, this production, a conversation between Odissi and Kandyan dance, opened in 2012 to near-universal acclaim. It even won a New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) Award. Nrityagram’s following has since grown locally and globally, though Sen maintains that the turning point for the dance village came well before. “It has been a lot of hard work and consistently delivering at a certain level that got us audiences who began to feel like they want to follow us.”

Only a few months ago, ‘Samhara’ was restaged with additional dancers and performed in India, the UK, and Sri Lanka. Asked why she chose to revive the work, Sen says, “I think it is an extraordinary work. It has taken mind, body, and soul to put together, over one year of living together… not many people in the world are doing this sort of work.” Akshiti Roychowdhury, one of ‘Samhara’s’ new dancers, who has been training at Nrityagram for the last six years, recounts with awe the experience of watching Samhara being choreographed. She says the Indian and Sri Lankan dancers rehearsed “morning and night, morning and night”. Now a cast member herself, she describes the experience as akin to “a dream”. But she makes clear that the opportunity to perform is not any sort of arrival, certainly not at Nrityagram. “When someone new arrives, we tell them, ‘Welcome to Nrityagram. Things will get worse and worse’,” she says laughing. “But in a good way. You can’t come here thinking that in one or two years you will become a dancer. You will become a different person. But to become a dancer you have to really give it… I can see the change in myself… The kind of training they give, they don’t hold back, they give everything. And you have to keep your cup empty to take more and more.”

Although ‘Samhara’ is set to continue touring into 2018, Sen is eager to work in similar ways on a different production in the future, perhaps with another art form. “Art is deeply personal, and it’s deeply communicative, and deeply unifying at the level where we are human. The Asian arts, they give us the possibility of such communication… Everybody has gone West, but we don’t know anything about our neighbours. That’s what excites me. I would love to do more of that kind of work.”

At the end of rehearsal, the students head to their rooms to shower, then return to the dining hall for lunch. After that, they each complete their assigned chores, which range from painting designs on the walls to making sure the sheets are changed. They rest briefly, then delve into four hours of technique class, which is divided into levels based on how long a student has been training at Nrityagram. If Sen is developing a new choreography, she uses this time to create it with the senior-most dancers. If there is an upcoming show, the dancers rehearse for two more hours before winding up for dinner. In the morning, they wake up and the routine begins all over again. The work of dance never stops.

Poorna Swami is a writer based in Bengaluru

Published on August 04, 2017

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