Protima Bedi founder of Nrityagram had a dream – free training in a community setting. Today only a handful of dancers remain who have evolved a strand of odissi on their own terms.
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 global tours for its impeccable technique and breathtaking choreography. If Protima were still alive today, she would be proud of her dancers’ artistic excellence and commitment to their art.
What is the recipe for Nrityagram’s success? “Our dancers are completely dedicated,” says Surupa Sen, Nrityagram’s Artistic Director, who was one of the first students to join the school in 1991. “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 schedule: a 6am cross-country run, 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 received the best choreography award from 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 2,000 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.”
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 its own distinctive flavour. 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.
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 onstage.
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 and three 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 and 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 have 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.
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.
Nrityagram will be performing at the Amsterdam Indian Festival on 23rd November 2008.