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  Life   Art  17 Sep 2018  Revisiting Nrityagram: A dream village for dance

Revisiting Nrityagram: A dream village for dance

Published : Sep 17, 2018, 6:55 am IST
Updated : Sep 17, 2018, 6:55 am IST

Protima left Mumbai in 1989 to start the dance village.

Protima won confidence of public and dance community.
 Protima won confidence of public and dance community.

I am writing this from Nrityagram. On 18th August, the 20th death anniversary of its founder Odissi dancer Protima Bedi, Nrityagram dancers pay tribute to her in the city at a auditorium. I have been closely associated with Nrityagram from its inception and founding.  Protima was my very dear friend. As a dance critic, she used to seek my advice and suggestions. She was studying Kathak in the beginning. Later on she studied Odissi under Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. In Mumbai, she had opened a school for Odissi and for some time she conducted classes at S.N.D.T Women’s University near Churchgate with help of Vice Chancellor Dr Madhuriben Shah.

She had shared with me and her close friends her dream of establishing Nrityagram, dance village at Hessarghata, 30 kilometers away from Bengaluru, close to land earmarked for Film and Television Institute of Karnataka. Protima used to say:

“Nrityagram is a community of dancers in a forsaken place amidst nature. A place where nothing exists, except dance. A place where you breathe, eat, sleep, dream, talk, imagine – dance.  A place where all the five senses can be refined to perfection. A place where dancers drop negative qualities such as jealousy, small-mindedness, greed and malice to embrace their colleagues as sisters and support each other in their journey towards becoming dancers of merit.”

Protima left Mumbai in 1989 to start the dance village. She gave up her career as a fashion model, occasionally acting in films and leading a bohemian life of a socialite. Watching in Mumbai Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra’s Odissi performance, she was mesmerized and decided to learn Odissi under his guidance, staying with him in his residence in Cuttack, Odisha, in age old tradition of Guru Shishya parampara, and made a name for herself as a leading Odissi dancer. Though she, like legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale started learning at the age of 28, she also dreamt of establishing an institution like Kalakshetra where young people can learn many dance forms.

Persistent as was her nature, when she undertook any project, she convinced Chief Minister of Karnataka, Ramakrishna Hegde to give her the land on lease by State Government. By 1990 the institution had taken roots. She raised loans, borrowed money, received donations from several quarters and with help of renowned architect Gerard da Cunha built Nrityagram.

Nrityagram was inaugurated on 11 May 1990, by the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh. Following the vernacular architecture of the region, using local raw material, stones, red bricks and thatch, following his master architect Laurie Baker, Gerard da Cunha succeeded in translating Protima’s dream  of a dance village. She got small cottages built for residence of dance students, gurus, visitors, a kitchen, a dining hall, dance hall for Odissi dance and other buildings for Kathak and Mohini Attam dance forms. She was ambitious to offer training in seven classical dance forms and also martial arts of India. But with passage of time, she had to abandon that goal. It was a daunting task to get traditional gurus to come and settle down in Nrityagram.

The great Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra came from Cuttack to train students in Odissi, veteran Mohini Attam dancer Kalyani Kutty Amma came from Tripunitara, Kerala to impart training in Mohini Attam, Kalanidhi Narayanan from Chennai came to teach abhinaya in Bharatanatyam and as visiting faculty Kumudini Lakhia from Ahmedbad came  to teach Kathak. Besides  these dance forms, Protima  arranged for Yoga classes, martial arts, lessons for Sanskrit, Indian mythology to  give dancers an all round training in classical dance forms.

Protima’s first dance student Surupa joined her in the year 1995. Other student Bijayini Satapathy, a former student of Guru Gangadhar Pradhan came from Bhubaneswar and one Pavitra Reddy from Bangalore also joined them. These three dancers formed the principle dancers for Nrityagram ensemble. Working day and night Protima succeeded winning affection of local Bangalore dancers and gurus. Slowly dancers from out station joined as residential students. Protima won confidence of public and dance community.

Lynne Fernandez, a Delhi-based theatre actor and light designer, who had worked with Barry John, Joy Micheal and other theatre directors, first came to Nrityagram in December 1995 to coordinate Surupa Sen's debut. She got completely involved with the various activities of Nrityagram and began to assist Protima. When the three dancers became accomplished ones, Protima formed Nrityagram Ensemble. The fame of Nrityagram as an unique dance village spread far and wide. Protima received an invitation to tour USA, but since she was still raising money for Nrityagram, she deputed Lynne to lead the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble for its New York debut in 1996. It received rave reviews. Protima was extremely happy.

But the stress of running Nrityagram and raising money took a heavy toll on Protima’s health. Protima suffered a mild heart attack.  But never-say-die Protima involved Lynn in managing the institution. In the beginning Lynne was hesitant to take up the responsibilities.Protima assured her that she had seen her dedication and complete involvement with Nrityagram, leave alone doing the light designing for the performances. She was the right person to assist Protima and run Nrityagram.

Unfortunately, during this period she faced her personal problems. Kabir Bedi and she had parted and their children one daughter Puja and a son Siddharth were being raised by Protima. Kabir also used to support them. Son Siddharth was studying abroad in USA. He was suffering from depression. He wanted Protima to come to America and stay with him. Protima had planned to do so. But before she could wind up affairs of Nrityagram, Siddharth committed suicide. That devastated her.  She gradually withdrew from running Nrityagram. She had planned to go for pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar seeking inner peace and to heal the wounds caused by her son’s suicide.

Protima formally handed over Nrityagram to Lynne Fernandez on 10 July 1997 and appointed her as the Managing Trustee of the institution. After that next month in August, Protima set off on her pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar. And in the Malpa landslide, near Pithoragarh on 18th August 1997 Protima died. At that time I was touring USA for my lectures on Indian dance. I received the shocking news in Dallas . She was the life of Nrityagram even when she had withdrawn from taking active part in its running.  Her passing away was a great loss.

The entire responsibility of looking after Nrityagram then fell on shoulders of Lynne Fernandez , Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy. Surupa assumed  the role of  Director of Nrityagram and principle choreographer.  Bijayani Satpathy took charge of Odissi Gurukul besides performing with Surupa Sen and Pavitra Reddy.  Their combined efforts and hard work, perfection in dance along with a high level of good technical support, leading to a professional presentation, earned Nrityagram ensemble great reputation.Since then they have never looked back.

Surupa and Bijayini further studied under Padma Subrahmanyam Natyasastra and took practical training in Karanas and dance movements, mentioned in Natyasastra. Both of them evolved and extended the vocabulary of Odissi dance, enriching the form with inputs of Yoga and martial arts. Nrityagram grew in its stature by leaps and bounds. Today it is known for some of the best ensemble work.

When one enters Nrityagram, one sees at the entrance a stoic sculpture of three women holding a pitcher. On the stone pathway that leads inside, lined with pale ferns, one would see a girl dressed in practice attire. One notices silence around, broken only by the intermittent sounds of a dance class in session.

Bijayini Satpathy is taking her regular morning Odissi class for resident and workshop students.The students practise the torso movement that accompanies the tribhang, three body bend  posture. All of these seem picture perfect. Equal attention is paid to the  movement of the eyes, which express bhavas, feelings.

“When I came here in 1993, I had already trained for 12 years. But what I had learnt matched what the then students of Nrityagram had learnt in their three years here,” confesses Bijayini, ‘’It is about refining what the dancer learns over and over.”

Protima’s natural cheer fetched Nrityagram many friends, funds and goodwill. She even reached out to the villagers, arranging free classes for the children.

As Nrityagram grew, Protima took its work overseas. The challenge was to present classical dance forms as an immersive yet pleasurable art to the MTV generation. Soon, Nrityagram’s ensemble performances began to be noticed and much appreciated. The school’s Vasantahabba, Bengaluru’s first all-night festival, held to coincide with the onset of spring, became the art aficionado’s staple.

During my visits when I look back I realize that Surupa probably gained the most from this unlearning. Her craft soared and gained a masterly finesse that helped her translate abstract ideas into chiselled movements. Her choreography, starting from Sri in 2000 to the  Sriyah, revealed an architectural character. The use of space and pieces with lines and forms while being true to the technique wove simple designs that transformed dance into aesthetic delight.

 She and Bijayini speak in a simple language the audience can understand because it is the essence that is being conveyed,But to get to that simplicity, it takes complete submission to the art. Surupa’s story is one of such submission. She came to Nrityagram in 1990 as one of its first students. With great determination she made up her mind never to leave Nrityagram.

  Nrityagram frees mind from set patterns. “Surupa opens you inside out as she choreographs,” Heshma Wignaraja, art director of Sri Lanka-based Chitrasena Dance Company recalls the eight months she spent with Nrityagram to produce Samhara their collaborative choreographic work. Samhara  also opened a new chapter for Chitrasena Dance Company, set up by Heshma’s grandparents to reinvent the traditional Lankan dance form of Kandyan.

In Samhara, the sensuous grace of Odissi comes face-to-face with the vigour of Kandyan. The art forms are presented as challenging yet subtly complementing each other. When Bijayini and Surupa dance together, one feels one is the body, and the other the soul.

Surupa’s compositions  have fetched the community global acclaim.

Over the years, only Odissi gurukul has been functioning, specializing in Odissi. In hands of Surupa, as an imaginative choreographer, Odissi dance form of Nrityagram has acquired a distinct style. The sensuous, lyrical, sculpturesque and vibrant quality of their Odissi sets Nrityagram dancers apart from other Odissi exponents. For building up archive of Nrityagram Protima had given video recordings of her own Odissi performances  and other landmark events to a film maker to digitalize them for permanent record. Unfortunately that unknown film maker never returned them and he too was found missing. Therefore there is very little in terms of Protima’s Odissi dance, except someone has put it in a you tube, in which Protima performs from Tulasidasa’s Ramayana, sequence of Ravana kidnapping Sita and Ravana’s combat with Jatayu, who is killed by Ravana. It was choreographed by Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra Another performance of Gita Govinda ashtapadi Kuru Yadunandana, on you tube. Otherwise very little documentation is available on Protima’s dance. There are a large number of photographs in Nirtygram archive, which Protima maintained systematically as precious documents. They form historical records of  various activities conducted over years at Nrityagram. I have suggested that they be digitized and those who have been associated with Nrityagram be interviewed on video and a historical documentation be made. Nrityagram: For the Love of Dance, a 30 -minute documentary directed and produced by New York based film maker Nan Melville is one of the finest records.

Nrityagram has great admirers in America. The well known American choreographer Mark Morris had visited Nrityagram at the invitation of Protima. Seeing her amazing work, he extended her and Nrityagram Ensemble full support. Similarly the legendary Russian dancer Barishnikov is another ardent admirer of Nrityagram dancers.

Nrityagram Dance Ensemble has won critical appreciation for their performances world over. In particular, their astounding success in USA has been remarkable. The 1996 New York debut of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble was called, "one of the most luminous dance events.’’ Now apart from lead dancer-choreographers, Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, and Pavitra Reddy four other brilliant dancers like  Akshati , Kavita, Dhruva and Prithvi are  permanent dancers of the Ensemble. It has its set of musicians.

Surupa has won several awards. She won Raza Foundtion award, whereas Bijayini Satpathy won Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar, both Surupa and Bijayini won Krishna Gana Sabha awards. By 2008, the ensemble had made 12 tours of the US. Its 2006 production, Vibhakta (The Division), by Surupa Sen which was performed  by Surupa Sen with Bijayini  Satpathy was listed in "The Ten Best Dance Performances of 2008" by dance critic Joan Acocella of the New Yorker. 

Their latest collaboration Samhara, with Taji, the brilliant dancer of Chitrasena’s dance company of Sri Lanka has created waves. They are scheduled for a six week tour of USA in September and November this year.

Looking back over past twenty six years I do marvel at Protima’s vision to have a centre far away from madding crowd where the dancers work 24X7 daily achieving perfection and high standard, and excellence in classical dance. In India, in the most prestigious annual dance Festival of The Music Academy in Chennai in January ever year Nrityagram Ensemble performs regularly with a huge following of their admirers. There is not a single national dance festival in which they have not performed. Their residential workshops over a period of a month in May and June at Nrityagram are extremely popular. The regular training from morning 6 am beginning with body conditioning and Yoga is based on scientific basis. Classes from 10 am till 2 pm and again rehearsals for new choreographic works from 4 pm till 7 pm conducted by Surupa and Bijayini keep the Nrityagram Ensemble in perfect form. They also teach twice a week in Bangalore city. The latest good news is that after the expiry of 30 years lease, seeing their excellent work in dance, the Karnataka Government has extended the lease and Nrityagram has now a permanent home.

Behind the success story of Nrityagram, one sees the discipline, hard work and aim to project the cultural heritage of India that prepares young generation to carry forward it in future.

The writer is an eminent dance historian

Tags: kathak, nrityagram