October 20, 2010

Subodh Poddar: An artist inspired by dance

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web."— Picasso

The inspiration suddenly came to artist Subodh Poddar during a dance performance in Mumbai in December 1988. Four great dancers: Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Sanjukta Panigrahi and Sonal Mansingh were all taking to the stage on the same evening. “This was an electrifying experience and the first time I felt like drawing dance live,” Subodh says. Using a black pen and the bright red invitation card as his canvas, he attempted to capture the energy of the dance movements he was seeing on stage. Soon both sides of the card were covered with his sketches. He then borrowed his neighbour’s card and continued drawing.

This was the birth of Subodh’s project Dancescapes and from that day on, he has never attended a dance performance without his sketchbook and pen. Over the past twenty years he has had the opportunity to sketch many celebrated dancers including Birju Maharaj, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Malavika Sarukkai, Astad Deboo and Saswati Sen to name only a few. (Image right: Mallika Sarabhai)

While an art student at the JJ Institute of Applied Arts in Mumbai, he would diligently work on the twenty sketches he was required to produce every day during his long morning commute on Mumbai’s suburban trains. Using his pen and sketchbook, he would capture the scenes of everyday life he caught glimpses of through the train window. This is how he learned to capture these blurred, passing images, which he feels is not different to drawing fast-moving dance.

I met Subodh last year at the Dance Jathre organised by Kuchipudi dancer Vyjayanthi Kashi in Bangalore. He was there exhibiting his big, colourful acrylic paintings of Indian folk dancers. He showed me his vast portfolio of the ink sketches he has created over the years of many Indian classical and contemporary dancers. I was struck by the beauty of line and simplicity of these sketches. What most impressed me was that with just a few stokes of a brush he had managed to capture the essence of each dancer and each dance style.

Later in an email interview I asked him to tell me about his artistic process...

What inspired you to draw dance?

I love to capture human form. The endless forms that a dancer’s body makes inspire me to make rapid brush drawings on paper, fast one after the other. Dancers provide inspiration in multiple ways. I draw one sketch after the other continuously… my own challenge to myself is to make each one better than the previous one. During this process I study the dancer's body language and knowing that I have managed to capture the essentials of that dancer is an inspiration in itself. (Image left: Kuchipudi Student)

I started doing this as a release from my advertising work, thinking that one day I would transform all my sketches into paintings on canvas. But a dear elderly friend pointed out that my sketches are good enough and worth exhibiting and that very few artists are doing this kind of work… With this inspiration I have continued with Dancescapes for more than 20 years now.

Which is the medium you use and why?

I use pen on paper most of the time. I go to dance performances and sketch from my seat. I can’t carry large paper or an elaborate medium that would end up disturbing others. But when I visit a dance school or a workshop I carry my easel, paper and ink. There I use various kinds of brushes to suit the dancer’s body language.

I love the effect of Chinese ink on rice paper; but it is very difficult to manage the slow drying of ink. On canvas I have painted with both acrylic and oil. Brush and ink also creates a lovely effect on Indian silk.

Is there a dance form which you prefer to draw? How is each different to draw?

I like to draw western contemporary dancers because they only make forms with their bodies, unlike Indian classical dance which is mainly narrating stories. But I don't get many opportunities to sketch western dance. I find Indian dance two-dimensional while western compositions are mostly three-dimensional. The difference I think is perhaps because Indian dance forms are inspired by temple sculptures which are carved on temple walls so we don’t see their sides or their backs... Whereas Western sculptures stand on their own and can be seen from all angles. I get inspired more by the forms. But when it comes to painting I think Indian subjects are more colourful. I love basic colours and bold compositions. (Image right: Contemporary Dancer)

What are the challenges of capturing movement on paper or a canvas?

Art is composition. So the first challenge is to finish even before I’ve started, as my sketches happen in seconds. I have to be able to see the image before putting pen to paper. I have to eliminate unwanted details like costume and jewellery to be able to get to the essence of a dancer’s body. I work only in black so the elimination of colour is also a challenge.

I love to be challenged by an ever-changing body. I love to capture a movement in minimal lines – though I very often fail! I love to find my Birju Maharaj identified as Birju Maharaj and Mallika Sarabhai as Mallika. I don’t crop my drawings afterwards and I don’t sign the ones that are not perfect in all three parameters… composition, anatomy, and grammar of dance.

How do the two art forms inspire each other? Does this allow you to engage with the performer? How do dancers react to your work?

I get inspired by a dancer. And my work is completely spontaneous. I can't say the same thing for a dancer as their performance is completely choreographed. I’m not sure if my presence makes any difference to them... (Image left: Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra)

Mallika Sarabhai saw my work and said to her students: “Shouldn’t we get inspired by Subodh's work like he gets inspired by ours?” When I asked Mrinalini Sarabhai to autograph one of my sketches she wrote: All movement is life intensified. She was so right! Once I went backstage to take Birju Maharaj’s autograph. He carefully studied all my sketches and said: “I will sign all your sketches if you give me one." This is the best compliment I ever got! Kelucharan Mohapatra would always say: "I can also draw," and draw a dancer in the corner and then sign. My friend Antonella Usai, an Italian Bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer said: “From Subodh's drawings we get to see the movements that were created and also died on the stage.” I say: I follow Buddha. I live in that moment and capture the moment that goes past that very moment!

Parts of this interview were featured in an article published in the Summer 2010 issue of Pulse magazine.

To see more of Subodh Poddar's work, visit Dancescapes.

Watch the artist at work in this video:

Images courtesy of Subodh Poddar.

October 19, 2010

Mythili Prakash: Complete commitment to dance

Mythili Prakash is one of the fastest rising stars of Bharatanatyam today. She has toured internationally presenting her own original choreographic works and is a regular performer during the Chennai December Season. Her complete commitment to dance led her to take the big decision to move from her native Los Angeles to Chennai three years ago, and her career has taken off to new heights ever since. “Since I moved to Chennai in 2006 my experience has been surprising all the way,” she says. “This is really the place to be because there’s so much to be inspired by here, there’s so much going on, and so many resources. I feel I’m in the correct environment and am really happy with my decision. I had initially come to Chennai with the plan to stay for about five months and spend time here, practice, and see performances. But during this time, it hit me that I would be happiest doing this full-time and that to do full justice to my dance I would need to be doing it full-time. I had started a Masters in Fine Arts programme in the US after graduating in Mass Communications from the University of California, Berkeley, but being here is like doing a PhD in Bharata Natyam!”

Mythili was no stranger to Indian stages before her move to India. She had presented her first solo performance in Mumbai at the age of eight and then would regularly perform with her mother and guru Viji Prakash during annual visits to India. She feels that her recent performance during the prestigious Madras Music Academy Dance Festival was an important milestone in her career. “I had already performed at the Music Academy when I was awarded the MGR award in 2000 and an endowment in 2007, but I was excited and happy to be invited to be part of their dance festival this year because it means I am being acknowledged as an upcoming dancer and this is very encouraging.”

Though Mythili has left her native California and moved thousands of miles away to a country she has never lived in before, she seems to be right at home. “I feel completely at home here. My accent makes me blaringly American and it seems to get me attention and everyone has to comment on it, but I feel both American and Indian. In California I feel at home too. But there aren’t many people who are only focused on dance so I feel out of place over there and in that sense more at home here.”

What’s it like to be an American dancer of Indian origin making waves in the Indian dance scene, which can be unwelcoming to dancers they perceive as outsiders? Mythili’s experience has been a positive one: “At first, there was a bit of that NRI perception when I used to come and perform in India. But since I was a young dancer, it was a surprise and audiences seemed impressed and happy that the art form was being preserved so well outside of India. But there’s also a questioning of whether it’s fair for an outsider to come here and take opportunities from local dancers? But I, too, have been working on my dance for a long time and I think now that I have moved here, they respect and appreciate that and I don’t feel like I’m treated like an outsider. Senior dancers and peers have been really supportive. I also feel lucky to have such inspiring mentors like Malavika Sarukkai and Bragha Bessell. I do a lot of my own choreography, so it’s essential to have somebody to guide you and tell you what you’re doing right or wrong every step of the way.”

One of Mythili’s aims is to introduce Bharatanatyam to a wider audience, especially in the US where the dance form is little known outside of Indian cultural circles. Mythili had the opportunity to do just that by recently participating in ‘Superstars of Dance’, a television show produced by the American television network NBC. This televised international dance competition features different dance styles from eight countries. Mythili was proud to represent India by performing solo Bharata Natyam. “I was excited to be part of this project and I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase a dance form like Bharata Natyam on primetime television and try to get it in the mainstream. It was a challenge because I only had a minute and a half to perform. But it was a great experience and I was happy to present Bharata Natyam to such a wide audience.”

This is an excerpt of an article published in the Spring 2009 issue of Pulse magazine.

Visit Mythili Prakash’s website here.

(Photos courtesy of Mythili Prakash.)

October 15, 2010

Yoga benefits for dancers

Dance makes great demands on a dancer’s body, especially South Asian dance forms such as Bharata Natyam which is characterised by the araimandi or demi-plié position, and vigorous stamping of the feet, both of which place great strain on the knees, hips and lower back in particular. Traditionally, dance training in India has not included a warm-up routine. Dance classes would usually start with the practice of adavus without any prior stretching or warm-up. Performing alarippu at the beginning of a recital is said to warm up the body and prepare it for the more strenuous dances that would follow.

As a result of the demands of such a vigorous dance form, many dancers experience knee strain, backache, or problems with other parts of the body dance exerts pressure on, such as the shoulders, hips, and ankles. This is the ‘occupational hazard’ of pursuing a dance career! Such problems could be linked to incorrect alignment or bad posture. Other causes could be linked to the innumerable stresses faced by dancers today, including inappropriate flooring, long rehearsals and frequent performances, extended travel, and other factors of modern day stress, including living in a polluted environment, insufficient sleep, improper diet, etc.

Due to these factors, there is an increasing focus on dancers’ health and well-being in India today and more emphasis is being made by dance teachers and health practitioners on the importance of warming up before practice or a performance. Many dancers and teachers are increasingly incorporating a yoga or stretching regimen as part of their dance practice and teaching.

Chennai-based Bharata Natyam dancer Urmila Sathyanarayanan, known for her impeccable technique and deep araimandi, learned the hard way… While practicing one day she experienced a sharp pain in her left knee. The pain disappeared soon after but not completely, as it would come back from time to time, often enough to have her decide to consult specialists. (Image right: Urmila in araimandi)

An MRI Scan revealed a lateral meniscal tear in her left knee. (The meniscus is the piece of cartilage found between the femur and the tibia, which acts as a ‘shock absorber’ for the knee). When an Orthopaedic specialist recommended surgery to repair the damage to her knee, Urmila consulted an Ayurvedic doctor for an alternative opinion, who recommended a prolonged period of rest and yoga practice. After considering her options, Urmila decided not to take the drastic (and irreversible) step of undergoing surgery. She took the difficult but necessary decision to stop dancing for a period of six months in order to allow her knee to completely heal and recover.

During this period of rehabilitation, Urmila started an intensive practice of Iyengar yoga as part of the healing process. She sought guidance from Dr. Krishna Raman, a Chennai-based doctor and Iyengar yoga specialist popularly known as the ‘dancer’s doctor’, who is well-known for his integration of western medicine with yoga. With Dr. Raman’s guidance, Urmila was able to use yoga asanas to help heal her injured knee. After this six-month hiatus, Urmila returned to the stage and re-staked her place as one of India’s most sought after dancers today. (Image left: Dr Krishna Raman with Urmila)

As a result of this experience, Urmila has made yoga an integral part of her daily dance regimen and practice. Before a performance she can be found in her dressing room standing on one leg in vrkasana or sitting cross-legged in padmasana! Before each rehearsal or performance she spends at least an hour going through a meticulous series of yoga postures to limber up and prepare her body to dance.

Urmila has integrated yoga not only into her own dance practice, but also into her teaching. She believes that yoga, or some form of an exercise or stretching programme, should be inculcated and made part of the learning process. She has successfully integrated yoga as part of the curriculum at her dance school, Natya Sankalpaa in Chennai. “I include this right from the beginning in my dance classes,” she explains. “Classes start with a few warm-ups which include yoga asanas and only then do we start the main class. Also, separate yoga classes are also offered at my school by a yoga master twice a week.”

Urmila also teaches her students proper alignment and instructs them how to “stamp” their feet correctly so as not to put unnecessary strain on the hips and knees. She has also made changes to her dance studio, lining the floor with yoga mats to reduce shock on the knees. She encourages her students to practice yoga daily at home and has noticed a marked difference in those who do: “I encourage them to spend a little time every day on yoga because the difference it makes to their dance is very obvious, there’s a marked difference. I ask my students to spend at least half an hour a day on yoga, and an hour or an hour and a half on dance. Even if they could manage this three times a week, that would be excellent. As for my own practice, I spend an hour on stretching or yoga asanas, and two and a half hours on dance practice per day.”

Looking back, Urmila is grateful that despite the misfortune of her knee injury, it has led her to discover the benefits of a regular yoga practice. Her only regret is that she wasn’t able to integrate yoga into her daily dance practice earlier, before her injury, as a long-term preventive goal.

This article was published in the Autumn 2005 issue of Pulse magazine.

October 14, 2010

How to watch contemporary dance

When we’re confronted with an abstract work of art, be it a painting, a sculpture or a dance performance, we often don’t know what to think of it. We don’t understand it. So often we don’t like it. This is because we tend to like what we know.

When we’ve been conditioned to think or see things in a certain way, we find it a challenge to appreciate something we’re unfamiliar with. We feel we have to understand something in order to appreciate it. We tend to want to respond with our head rather than with our senses.

When we watch a classical dancer performing, we use a yardstick to measure the dancer’s technique, and another to appraise his or her skills in abhinaya, etc. But when watching contemporary dance, we have no yardstick – so we feel lost. We don’t know what to think, or how to evaluate what we’re seeing. (Image left: Kalpana Raghuraman in In Between Skin)

For this reason, the first step to appreciate contemporary dance is to have an open mind. Forget what you know. Don’t think. Feel. Ask yourself what you feel as you watch. Is it pleasant? Unpleasant? Do you feel excitement, boredom, disgust, amusement?

In contemporary dance there are often no expressions or abhinaya, no fancy costume or jewellery – this is because the dancer is simply an instrument for movement. It’s the movement that counts and not the dancer.

It’s also important to consider the context of contemporary dance. Contemporary dance developed as a rebellion against the hierarchy and restrictions of classical dance. It is often a means of exploration, a way for choreographers to make discoveries about movement, about themselves, about life. More importantly, it’s about them finding their own voice.

I recently spoke to two dancers who trained in Indian classical dance but are now exploring contemporary dance. I asked them why they have moved to this dance form. Kalpana Raghuraman told me: “I am de-conditioning my body to let it find it’s own voice. I want to see what comes from myself.” Jayachandran Palazhy, Artistic Director of Attakkalari said: “Bharata Natyam is not related to my time and what I want to say. It relates to mythology. I want to find my own language to express what’s important to me in the present day and time.” (Image right: Jayachandran Palazhy in Purushartha - by CD Chitrak)

To understand contemporary dance, it also helps to understand where the choreographer is coming from and what they want to say. Read up on the choreographer, get the programme notes, go speak to him or her after the show and ask questions.

Finally, don’t just see one performance of contemporary dance and then give up. “The more we watch, the more we learn.” This is also true of contemporary dance. After you’ve seen several performances by different choreographers you will develop a yard stick to assess the dance – even though you may not understand it!

This article was published on www.narthaki.com in September 2009 following a week-long dance writing workshop organised by Narthaki in Chennai in July 2009.

Photos courtesy of Kalpana Raghuraman and Attakkalari.

Watch Chronotopia by Attakkalari:

October 12, 2010

Leela Samson: A love for beauty, life and expression

Leela Samson, a former student of Kalakshetra who had the privilege of studying directly under Rukmini Devi, is one of India’s best-known Bharata Natyam dancers. She taught for some years at Kalakshetra and toured all over the world as a member of its dance troupe. She is also a respected teacher, choreographer and writer.

I had the opportunity to meet with her following her recent performance in London, England. We had arranged to meet the next morning at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan where she was conducting a month-long workshop with a group of young British dancers. As we arranged our chairs in a corner of the dance studio and I tested my recorder, she admitted that she never sleeps very much after a performance because of all the energy and excitement she feels after a show. She didn’t show any signs of fatigue, but seemed rather composed and cheerful. The traces of alta still fresh on her hands were the only remnants of her performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the night before.

My first question to Leela was one she’s surely been asked thousands of time: “How did you start dancing?” She started by explaining that she didn’t plan on becoming a professional dancer. She believes that it was fate that made the decision for her. Her father, who was a naval officer, and her artistically-inclined mother who enjoyed playing the piano, had sent their sons to prestigious schools and encouraged them to play sports. They felt that their only daughter should have some kind of artistic education and so decided to send her to Kalakshetra in Madras. This was a long way from Pune where the family was living, but Kalakshetra was one of the only schools which offered a formal education and the serious study of classical dance, music or painting. Leela has fond memories of her days there and remembers being very happy in its ashram atmosphere. When asked why she chose to study dance and not music or painting, she replied that she doesn’t really know why, and that she actually planned to become a doctor! She told me how when she finished secondary school she wanted to register at the university to study medicine. She was asked by the nun at the registrations office why she was applying to study medicine when she had a first class diploma in dance from Kalakshetra. Leela replied that she had learnt dance, like someone learns a sport or a craft, but that she really wanted to become a surgeon. She was then sternly told that she should think seriously about what she wanted to do and to come back if she decided to study medicine. Leela explained that until then, becoming a professional dancer wasn’t something that she had really thought about, and that at the time she didn’t realise the value of a first-class diploma from Kalakshetra. She laughed and said it was like a dancer coming out of the Bolshoi and declaring that she wanted to become a surgeon! (Below: dance class at Kalakshetra by Isabel)

Although the Indian government has offered her land and asked her to start a dance institution in Delhi, Leela prefers to teach privately. She decided at the beginning of her career that she didn’t want her artistic time to be eaten up by all administrative matters running a school entails. She believes that all you need to create beautiful dancers is a small space, and feels she has proven this through all the professionals she has put into the field. She keeps her classes small and only takes a few children as students from when they’re six or seven years of age, and keeps them right through their schooling.

Born to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Leela belongs to a minority practicing an art form which has become dominated by Brahmins. She feels that she has been kept at a distance by some traditionalists for this reason. Bharata Natyam is a devotional dance form but Leela believes that the dance doesn’t speak a religion, but a universal philosophy. For Leela, Bharata Natyam has become a universal language which is being universally performed by people of all races and religions. “The constant search for something, be it a goal, beauty or happiness, a search for truth or love or the beloved is what the dance and art is about. It comes from the same impulse: looking for something beyond oneself, which is common to every human being.”

Though Leela received very traditional training at Kalakshetra, she has not hesitated to experiment with contemporary themes. She has been doing contemporary work with a group she has formed of young dancers. When I asked her to describe how she sees her evolution as a dancer, she explained that although she is considered to be a very traditional dancer, she has been able to use tradition to say new things in a modern context. For her, Bharata Natyam is a traditional art form which has the language and capacity to speak a modern language. She doesn’t see modernity and tradition as being in two different worlds and perceives things not in terms of past-present, but rather present-continuous: “For me, the fact that I’m dancing as a person of this time, if I’m dancing a traditional art form, for me that art form then becomes contemporary.”

We had been speaking for some time and Leela’s students had already arrived and were busy chatting and doing warm-ups at the other end of the room. I had time for one last question: “What’s the most important thing you would like to communicate through dance?” Leela was momentarily pensive before reflecting that many things get communicated through dance and that each person in the audience picks up on different things according to his or her sensibilities. “But I would say love for beauty, love for life, love for expression. People tell me I’m very philosophical! As a person I am. So maybe it comes out in my dance, I don’t know. I can’t tell. I haven’t seen myself dance!”

This article was published in the Spring 2004 issue of Kala Arts Quarterly.

Photo of Leela Samson by P. Ravindran courtesy The Hindu.

Since this interview, Leela Samson went on to become Director of Kalakshetra in 2005. Rukmini Devi – A Life, her biography of her guru and the founder of Kalakshetra, was published at the beginning of 2010. She was recently appointed chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Visit the Kalakshetra website here.

October 10, 2010

Nrityagram: Living for dance

Deep in the South Indian countryside, there is a place where dancers live to dance,
“…a place where anyone with a passion for dance could come and stay and train, not having to worry about finances or anything else, and devote themselves one hundred per cent to dance. The students would live on the campus learning all the major classical dance styles from the best gurus.”
This was late classical dancer Protima Bedi’s dream and vision for a dance village. Her dream was realised when she built Nrityagram 18 years ago as a labour of love in a quiet, isolated setting in rural Karnataka on the outskirts of the city of Bangalore. Today the founder is no more, and there are only a handful of students studying only one classical dance style, Odissi. But Protima Bedi’s spirit and legacy live on at the school and in the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, which has received international acclaim during its tours around the globe for its impeccable technique and breath-taking choreography. If Protima were still alive today, she would be proud of her dancers’ artistic excellence and absolute commitment to their art. (Image left: Bijayini Satpathy by Marie Luare)

What is the recipe for Nrityagram’s success? “Our dancers are completely dedicated,” says Surupa Sen, one of the first students to join the school in 1991, who is now Nrityagram’s Artistic Director. “They have integrity and passion. Also, we aim for excellence in dance and the work we do. I hate mediocrity. I want to do things well. Most people are satisfied with mediocrity and don’t ask for a lot. We have no room for mediocrity here.” A good dose of integrity, dedication and passion is definitely necessary to succeed, but so is lots of old-fashioned hard work. The dancers face a rigorous training schedule. Their day starts at 6am for a run through the countryside, followed by yoga and body-conditioning exercises before their dance practice begins. After a break for lunch, classes continue in the afternoon. In total, the dancers put in 8 hours of physical exercise a day, six days a week.

Surupa is one of the most innovative and exciting choreographers in India today. Her highly-developed sense of aesthetics, brilliant imagination and keen attention to detail for everything from the patterns created by the dancers onstage to exquisite music and stunning costumes has taken the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble to great heights. She was awarded the best choreography award by the prestigious Madras Music Academy in 2006 for Sacred Space, a dance production based on temple architecture and its relationship to dance. “I see dance and movement as a kaleidoscope of images,” she explains. “If you break them up, you will see different ways of doing things. Each dance has its own beauty. Odissi is made up of semi-circular patterns. We create movements. The dance evolves, and we keep adding details. This is a natural process. It’s organic. The dance didn’t look like this 2000 years ago. It’s a natural, constantly evolving process. You have to get into the skin of the dance, no – the bones, to know the specifics. You have to feel it in your marrow.” (Right: Surupa Sen by Eric Rousseau)

Having evolved in an isolated, rural and fertile setting deep in South India, under the influence and guidance of different gurus, and far away from the birthplace of Odissi in the Bay of Bengal, the Nrityagram style has developed a distinctive flavour which is its own. While deeply grounded in traditional Odissi vocabulary, it has been expanded to include an additional creative dimension which adds to the visual aesthetics of the dance. The use of leg extensions, arresting poses and energetic leaps, combined with the visual juxtapositions of the dancers on stage, and an effective use of space and stage presentation make their performances highly energetic, exciting and entertaining.

The Odissi gurukul at Nrityagram is headed by leading dancer Bijayini Satpathy who has received many accolades in the press and her fair share of prestigious awards. She joined Nrityagram, after receiving the foundation of her training at the Orissa Dance Academy in Bhubaneswar, when she was invited by Protima Bedi to join Nrityagram’s first tour to the US in 1993. She feels that her experience at Nrityagram was a turning point in her journey as a dancer: “It has opened up my eyes to the dance and to a different way of seeing, understanding and feeling dance.“ Students at Nrityagram not only learn dance technique but are also taught how to understand movement and body dynamics through training in body awareness and conditioning techniques. (Above: Nrityagram Dance Ensemble by Carlos Llano)

Special classes are conducted on Sundays for local children through the village outreach programme. In this way, over 300 children have received free dance training at Nrityagram. Pavithra Reddy is one of these children who has grown up to become a permanent member of the dance ensemble and a rising star. Another important member of the Nrityagram family is its Managing Trustee, Lynne Fernandez, who has been at Nrityagram almost from the very beginning and wears many hats: from administration to fundraising and project development, she also creates the stunning lighting effects which accompany the dancers on stage.

Nrityagram’s leafy rural setting and traditional, rustic architecture is quite unique and evokes another time. While this idyllic dance village does seem to occupy another time and place, there are fault lines lurking just below the surface. The 10 acres of land where Nrityagram stands is on lease from the government and the lease is due to come up soon. Though its exquisite buildings were designed by an award-winning architect, they are practically falling to the ground. “Nrityagram is harder to run than it was to build,” laments Surupa. “There are maintenance costs. We have 10 acres of land, 15 workers, 3 office staff. The buildings are beyond repair.” With the Ensemble’s busy international touring schedule, the difficulty in attracting dedicated students and the need for financial resources, teaching at the school has taken a back seat. “The dance school is not easy to run. Lots of students have quit, the school is in an isolated area, there is no funding. Dancers coming to Nrityagram need to have a certain mindset because they have to give up everything to come here and live in a community setting. Also, sometimes it’s hard for a dancer to have family backing.” Though Nrityagram did had a Mohiniattam gurukul for 6 years, as well as Bharatanatyam and Kathak classes for 3 years, the Odissi gurukul is the only one which has been able to sustain itself through the Ensemble’s international tours. Even the village outreach classes have suffered a setback: a van used to go around the local villages picking up children to take them to dance class but it has broken down. If they want to come to class, they have to find a way to come on their own. (Above: Nrityagram campus by Isabel)

With these challenges and obstacles to face, what is the future of the dance school? Surupa and Bijayini take a realistic view of things: “We’re committed to Nrityagram and Gauri Ma’s dream but we have a different vision. It’s not possible to have seven gurukuls. Also, we feel that students should have to pay for their training. Things that are free are seen to have no value. There should be a value attached to learning. We don’t believe in giving it away for free!”

Faced with crumbling buildings, disappearing students, and a broken-down van, the dance school may need a new lease of life, but Nrityagram is still alive and thriving in its Dance Ensemble. It is through the love and passion that it was built on and the dedication and devotion of its dancers that Nrityagram thrives despite the difficulties. Protima Bedi may be no more but her dream and legacy live on. (Above: Pavithra Reddy, Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen in rehearsal by Isabel)

This article was published in the September 2008 issue of Pulse magazine.

Photos courtesy of Nrityagram.

October 9, 2010

Dr Kannan's workshop for dancers

Recently a group of Bangalore-based dancers got together to move around like animals, make sounds and visualise colours, sit on big rubber balls and walk in circles. No, these dancers were not rehearsing for a new avant-garde production, they were attending a workshop on preventing dance injuries by Dr Kannan Pughazhendi from Chennai! (Above: Dr Kannan teaching at Kalakshetra. Photo: The Hindu)

Dr Kannan is a multi-faceted health professional: he’s a medical doctor, physiotherapist, sports medicine specialist, lecturer at the YMCA College of Physical Education, and director of the SPARRC Institute in Chennai. When he’s not busy performing all these roles, he’s helping India’s athletes and classical dancers keep in top shape. From athletes of the Indian cricket and badminton teams to dancers from Kalakshetra and Nrityagram, Dr Kannan’s generous care and attention to detail has helped many to perform to their maximum potential. Dr Kannan has an allopathic background but draws inspiration from many alternative therapies and body care and conditioning techniques which he integrates into his fitness programme with the aim to prevent and heal injuries.

The workshop participants were a diverse and eclectic group: Odissi, Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi, Chhau, classical ballet and contemporary dancers as well as a fitness trainer, a physiotherapist and a dance therapist joined in. Established dancers, up-and-coming performers and committed dance students rubbed shoulders and stretched their hamstrings while Dr Kannan led us through the exercises with lots of good humour and enthusiasm.

The workshop followed a unique recipe for strength, flexibility and fitness, starting with stretches inspired by Iyengar yoga to limber up the body from head to toe in preparation for dance. This was followed by Chinese Chi Kung breathing to aid recovery and rejuvenation. We then made different healing sounds while visualising specific colours to heal the body’s vital organs. Next we were using the Swiss ball in different ways to develop our core strength which is particularly important for dancers. Then it was time to move like animals when Dr Kannan took us through the basic Kalaripayattu exercises which help to build strength and increase flexibility. And last but not least, we were introduced to Bagua, a Chinese martial art technique which involves walking in a circle to build strength in the lower limbs and the spine. Not one region of the body was overlooked during this meticulous programme Dr Kannan had prepared for us. He also gave us tips on healthy eating and took the time to patiently answer the participants’ many questions and queries.

On the morning following the workshop, I woke up with some new aches and pains but I knew that these short-term muscle aches would not compare to the many long-term benefits of the body care and injury prevention techniques I learned during this valuable workshop!

October 8, 2010

An Introduction to Indian Classical Dance

(Above: Rukmini Devi)

India’s many styles of popular, folk and classical dances are as rich and colourful as the country itself. Bollywood dance is probably the most popular dance associated with India thanks to the popularity of Bollywood films, not only in India but also abroad. These prolonged and energetic dance sequences are a vital ingredient of any Bollywood flick – along with a good dose of melodrama and a few fight scenes!

However the Bollywood-style of dance seen in Indian films today is something that has evolved over the history of film-making in India. Dance has always been a vital feature in Indian cinema, though in earlier films, the dances featured were always classical, choreographed by the great dance gurus of the time. Renowned Bengali director, Satyajit Ray’s classic films like The Music Room (1958) and The Chess Players (1977) featured professional dancers performing classical (North Indian) Kathak dance. Tamil films like Parthiban Kanavu (1960) and Konjum Salangai (1962) included mesmerizing dance sequences of the (South Indian) classical dance Bharata Natyam by renowned dancers. (Below: Saswati Sen in Satyajit Ray's The Chess Players)

So what makes a dance classical? There are eight Indian dance-styles which are classified as ‘classical’ because they all have their roots in the Natyashastra, a classical treatise on the arts believed to have been written in Sanskrit by Bharata Muni sometime between 200BC and 200AD. This text covers several aspects relating to drama, dance and music. It covers the facial expressions, hand gestures, head and eye movements, and some of the body positions and movements which are common to the classical dance styles.

Many of the classical dances were traditionally performed in temples as a sacred offering to the gods by resident dancers. Today classical dance is performed on stage, most often by solo dancers, though group compositions and innovations in dance choreography are also very popular. All classical dances have two distinctive elements: nritta or pure dance which is abstract dance movements, and the facial expressions (abhinaya) and hand gestures (hastas) of its expressive dance element, or nritya. It takes several years of rigorous training to learn and master any of these Indian classical dance traditions.

There are four classical dances having their roots in South India: Kathakali and Mohiniattam from the state of Kerala, Bharata Natyam from Tamil Nadu, and Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh. In North India we find the origins of Kathak, Odissi from the state of Orissa, Manipuri from the north-eastern state of Manipur, and Sattriya from north-eastern Assam.

Traditionally performed only by men, Kathakali from Kerala literally means ‘story-dance’. Performances include several dancers enacting scenes and different characters from Hindu mythology, especially the Ramayana and Mahabharata. This ‘larger-than-life’ art form features bright billowing costumes, colourful make-up, exaggerated expressions and frenetic music which is played by accompanying drummers.

Kerala’s other classical dance, Mohiniattam, is a graceful and alluring dance performed by women, most often solo. The movements are soft and graceful, characterised by gliding movements. The torso moves in circular figure-8 movements with the legs kept in a half-bent (demi-plié) position. The footwork is rhythmical and energetic, keeping time with the music. Mohiniattam dancers are always dressed in beautiful white and gold costumes.

Originating more than 2000 years ago in the south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu, Bharata Natyam is one of the most popular Indian classical dance styles, performed by both male and female dancers. The quick, rhythmical footwork is mathematical in its precision, while symmetrical, geometrical patterns and lines are drawn by the intricate arm and leg movements, and dramatic poses. Like Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi, a distinctive feature of the dance is its basic posture in the half-sitting or demi-plié position.

The classical dance of the state of Andhra Pradesh, Kuchipudi, is similar in many ways to Bharata Natyam with its rhythmical footwork and quicksilver movements. A unique feature of the Kuchipudi style is Tarangam, a technique where the dancer dances on a brass plate while moving it across the stage.

One of the most popular Indian classical dances is Kathak which has three main schools or styles based in the North Indian cities of Lucknow, Banaras (Varanasi) and Jaipur. Kathak is characterised by fast rhythmical footwork set to complex rhythms, and impressive lightning-fast pirouettes finishing in precise, dramatic poses. The rhythm and tempo of the dance is set by the accompanying percussion instrument, the tabla, the sounds of which the dancer’s feet emulate through quick, precise footwork accentuated with the sound of bells tied around the dancer’s ankles. Female dancers wear long flowing ankle-length skirts which twirl and flare out during spins and pirouettes, creating beautiful visual designs.

Odissi, the soft and lyrical dance from the eastern state of Orissa can be described as visual poetry! Considered to be linked to the element of water, the gracefulness of the arm and wrist movements, and fluid movements of the torso resembling waves on the ocean, are juxtaposed with firm rhythmical footwork and striking poses. The characteristic postures of this classical dance are the tribanghi, where the body is ‘bent’ in three places (head, waist and hip) and chawk, a quadrangular posture created by the knees bent outwards and outstretched arms forming a square. The love poems of the Gita Govinda describing the love between Radha and Lord Krishna, are a favourite theme of expressive pieces performed in the Odissi style.

From the mountainous region of Manipur on the north-eastern border of India, comes the graceful feminine dance called Manipuri. With delicate steps and gentle undulating movements, Manipuri dancers sway to the music while moving their arms in slow circles and arcs. The continuous flowing movements and curving of the body into different postures give this dance form a suppleness and fluidity which contrasts with the quick, sharp movements and strong footwork of the classical dances of South India. Like its movements, facial expressions are also soft and subtle. Manipuri dancers wear long, embroidered skirts along with translucent veils. Male Manipuri dancers play on a drum known as pung while executing exciting leaps and turns set to a fast rhythm.

Sattriya originated in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, where this classical dance has been performed for centuries as a spiritual ritual in monasteries by male monks. Today the dance is a performing art also performed by women in solo and group performances. Though centuries old, Sattriya was officially recognised as a classical dance of India only a few years ago. The repertoire of this classical dance is vast, accompanied by traditional music from Assam which includes a drum called khol, cymbals, flute, violin as well as other instruments. Dancers wear distinctive Assamese costumes and ornaments.

This article was published in two parts in the April and May 2008 issues of Rangoli.

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