Founded in 1990 by Protima Gauri Bedi, Nrityagram is a ‘dance village’ on the outskirts of Bangalore. In a modern variant of the devadasi tradition of Hinduism in which young women were ‘married’ to a deity or temple, those who study at this residential school choose to devote their lives to dance and music, making movement their life’s calling.
For many years the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble has been led by the school’s very first student, the dancer and choreographer Surupa Sen. And so, fittingly, it was she who appeared with two other dancers, Bijayini Satpathy and Pavithra Reddy, in a rather sparsely-staged and yet rewarding programme of solos, duets and trios at the 2011 edition of the Edinburgh International Festival.
The focus of this year’s festival was on a multiplicity of cultural exchanges between the East and the West. These ranged from a Korean solo interpretation of ‘King Lear’ by the erstwhile Cloud Gate Dance Theatre member Wu Hsing-Ku, to a juxtaposition of Ravel with three Eastern Asian compositions as interpreted by the Arditti Quartet, and beyond. If within such a far-reaching context the work of Nrityagram seemed far more a case of cultural tradition than fusion, this should in no way be taken as a criticism, given the high quality of the performance.
The title ‘Sriyah’ is derived from the Sanskrit for ‘the divine female principle’. Taking their cue from this word, Sen and her colleagues did indeed at times approach a state of divinity in their dancing.
They are patently the highly-skilled practitioners of odissi, a movement form that likely ranks no higher than third place in terms of audience familiarity in the UK.
Kathak has its rapid spins and foot stamps, and bharatanatyam its almost architectural, even mathematical angularities. What odissi possesses are directionally diverse curves. Yes, there are quick jumps and spiralling turns in its vocabulary, but one of the first things that strike you about the alluring, seemingly ageless women on stage is the shapes their bodies make when at rest. They adopt wonderful S-curves in their torsos, and exude a subtly seductive beauty and force. They are that cliché, the temple sculpture come to life. The point is not how accurately they resemble stone carvings but rather the air of vitality they breathe into a venerable art form.
Sassy, spry, yet also spiritual and sporting perpetual yet not phony-looking smiles, these ladies are fluid movers gifted with precision timing. The patches of sweat beneath their arms were a further, tell-tale sign that they are human beings rather than stone figures. Working hard to make every movement appear effortless, they endowed Sen’s choreography with a sometimes nearly exquisite sense of erotic restraint.
The most captivating dancing occurred after the interval via a trio that operated at a more languorous pace than what we’d seen earlier; somehow the rhythms, when slowed down, carried an extra magnetic charge. This was followed by an absolutely dreamy yet exacting duet in which Sen and Satpathy were the manifestation of masculine/feminine balance. How did I know this? Because a disembodied voice told me so.
Each piece, in fact, was introduced by an unseen woman – perhaps Sen herself – who mainly regurgitated information already contained in the programme. Not very imaginative, this (I’ve wondered before what more could be done to enliven the explicatory side of classical Indian dance concerts), but at least the ideas were clear and concise. And once the words were spoken the dancers, often bathed in reddish or amber light on contrasting fields of blue or green, got down to business. Throughout the evening four musicians at the front of the stalls produced a steady, hypnotic blend of rhythmic beats above which floated flute, violin and the rather divinely insinuating vocals of Rajendra Swain.
Supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), New Delhi under the auspices of the Nehru Centre, London.