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Interview:

A divine amalgam between music and dance

Having learnt and practised the age-old tradition of Bharatanatyam under luminaries in the field such as gurus Swarna Saraswathy, Vazhuvoor V Sadasivam, K N Dakshinamurthi and Padmashri Geeta Chandran stirs her own course in the arena of performing arts infusing her own vision, grammar and vocabulary of dance.

It is not only a journey of discovery and excellence in carrying the legacy to proscenium stage but also effectively use Bharatanatyam as a potent tool of communication to address social issues such as social stigma and feticide. At her hand, Bharatanatyam is not only a tool of communication but also a tool of education and social empowerment. Besides being an accomplished Bharatanatyam performer, Geeta Chandran is a highly acclaimed Carnatic singer.

Excerpts of an interview with Geetha Chandran

Question: As early as five years, you have come under the influence of your Guru Swarna Saraswathy, who hailed from the traditional Thanjavoordevadasiparampara and Bharatanatyam has become a part and parcel of your life. How do you perceive the influence of your Guru on you in evolving your philosophy of Bharatanatyam as a performing art?

Answer : My first teacher was Srimathy Swarna Saraswathy. I think she was now looking back at a piece of history because she had seen the entire transition of Bharatanatyam from temple tradition into a proscenium art form.

Unconsciously at the age of six my mother took me to learn Bharatanatyam under her. She was an artist who could dance and sing for three hours and she could play the Veena. So, she had the multi-dimensional approach to arts. So we thought that we had to do all these forms of art if we wanted to be a dancer. The whole idea of just moving your arms and legs or just learning to dance was not good enough.

Enriching

I started learning music at the age of seven. This holistic learning process was very enriching. For us, a class was not time-bound and we used to go around 3.30-4.00 to the class and used to watching our seniorsí class and then it became our class. When the junior students came we used to teach them. So ,it was a long process not just like today where you watch the clock and after one hour would say Namaskaram (Please leave).

Three or four times a week, we did this ritual without realising dancing became a part and parcel of our whole being. What was interesting also was the fact that performing was never important. We never learnt the art with stakes that I think is an important thing she taught us.

The process of learning is that what enriches the artiste not performances. Performances are just an outcome. It can work and it cannot work and it does not matter. And the whole spiritual ethos of dance is that you donít dance for an audience but you dance for yourself and itís a dialogue between you and the divine. I think all those constructs is what my first teacher gave me and which has really shaped my whole outlook to dance.

Q: Apart from being a principal exponent of Bharatanatyam, you are also an accomplished Carnatic vocalist. How would you describe this aesthetic amalgam between Bharatanatyam and your abiding interest in Carnatic music?

A: Because of first dance teacher, as I said earlier, music was integral. I started my initial training in music under Shrimathi Meera Seshadri. She was also singing for my dance. So there was a connection between the music that I learnt, the traditional Carnatic music and dance. It was a fact that she sang for my dance. Every nuance that you sang had to be translated into dance. And that was the philosophy.

If you took a Sanghathi that should be reflected in dance.

Resonance

It is not as though you just ask the musician the number of phrases to be sung and you do your bit which is choreographed. It has to have a definite resonance of what the singer sings. For me, poetry, dance and movements are inseparable and they have to be seen as a holistic experience and it cannot be divorced from one another.

I have had 20 years of training in music. After Meera Seshadri, I was under the guidance of Sri Gopalaiyer and Shankara Sharma. At one point, I had the dilemma of whether to take up music or dancing as a career. But I think my dance teachers prevailed upon me and they were very insistent and I came into dance.

Q: While continuing the age-old tradition of Bharatanatyam, you have attempted to imprint Bharatanatyam with your vision synthesising the knowledge you have acquired from diverse Gurus. What are the contours which of your philosophy of Bharatanatyam?

A: Well. One cannot define oneís own philosophy because itís what you practise and it is hard to put it into words. I think aesthetics has been the major guiding force. Respecting tradition and yet pushing the frontiers of tradition of the grammar of dance and to see what happens to it and to explore solo work and explore group work.

But, when we teach we do not dilute or experiment at all because reference point has to be clearly established for the students. So, when we teach we do not bring in otherwise our experimental work.

We teach the traditional repertoire or the Margam with theory and the practice. But my own work is, I think, at two levels; one is to extend and expand the traditional repertoire and the second is to do experimental work which could be collaboration with some other art forms. It may relate to certain theme or any other experimental work.

Q: Logical extension and the application of your vision on Bharatanatyam is the founding of Natya-Vriksha, an organisation dedicated to preserving and promoting Bharatanatyam. How would you look back on Natya-Vriksha and its contribution over the years to the preservation and propagation of Bharatanatyam in modern context?

A: I started teaching under my Guru at his own institute in Delhi. I was actually trained in teaching dance. I used to sit beside him and take up the class and he used to correct me. Under his guidance I started to teach and Natya-Viriksha came into being 20 years ago.

It has been a wonderful journey with my students as I was able to mentor them at diverse levels besides teaching dancing.

Over the years I developed a good partnership and friendship with them. Imparting Bharatanatyam has always been a pleasure; sharing tradition and sharing the entire vocabulary of dance in todayís context, I think, is a great challenge for any teacher because pedagogy has constantly to be revisited and teachers will have to use teaching methods to keep the studentís attention.

Q: You are also the artistic director of the NatyaVriksha Dance Company which is known for its highly classical performances. Would you elaborate on the guiding principles and your practical approaches to Bharatanatyam performances and creations by NatyaVriksha Dance Company?

A: Well, the company came into being around the 1990s and we just felt that exploring many bodies and spaces would be interesting. But it did not come out of a pressure to engage in group work which, I see, is, in many places where irrespective of whether the people are qualified or not they jump into group work.

Group is a different area unlike sole dancing and one needs to unlearn many things to be in a group. We went into group work (performance) 10 years ago and since then, we have been learning through our mistakes. It is an interesting to work with my students in professional manner and each and every production is well-rehearsed. And we have been appreciated for coordination, music, and costume design and even for lighting. In fact, the group handles every aspects of the production from costume designing to lighting.

Vision

Q: In accordance with your vision, you have continuously engaged in expanding the frontiers of Bharatanatyam with the intention of creating spaces for it in modern context and reach out for, particularly, young audience. Would you believe that Bharatanatyam is an art which should be linked to life and Bharatanatyam can function as a social bridge builder, thereby making a difference to life?

A: Yes, Bharatanatyam is a way of life. My students whether they are accountants, lawyers or professional marketeers, they have excelled in their chosen fields and they are better human beings because they have gone through traditional rigours of dancing.

They also respect their culture more than those who have not had a formal education in India. I think that they are blessed to be exposed to art. I feel whatever they do they do it with a different sensitivity and different sensibility, a fact which I have observed over the past 20 years.

I think Bharatanatyam is a potent communication tool if you really donít see it as a mere traditional performing art. So, it is possible with that vocabulary to effectively convey any message. For instance if we hold a seminar on subjects such as war or violence, speeches can be made for ten hours, sometimes a ten minute presentation would be much more effective than words. I think that communication aspect of Bharatanatyam should be more and more explored especially in the present context as there is no perfect audience; itís full of violence, stress and negative energy. So I believe that dance creates positive energy and creates those bridges.

Q: In an unprecedented manner, you have used your creations to address social issues such as social stigma, female feticide and gender and environmental issues. How would you look at your creations such as dance-theatre production Kaikeyi, choreographies on the themes of drugs and mythologies retold and their impact on society?

Objectives

A: We attempted to achieve diverse objectives through dance. Some productions have been collaborative initiatives while we have been commissioned to perform on a given subject. About 15 years ago, we were asked to make a production on women and war and the presentation was entitled Her Voice. It was a collaborative presentation of puppets and dance. It travelled far and wide and was received highly positive reviews.

The presentation deals with the latter part of the life of Draupadhi. She suffers terrible losses when her children and relations were killed in the war. As a reaction to the news of deaths of her relatives, she says muchati muchati (forget and forget). She says I am the one who started this cycle of violence and now let us break it as war does not solve anything.

We tried to deal with social stigma through the character of Kaikeyi. Kaikeyi is a character from Ramyana and she is supposed to be a black character so no girl is named after her.

We revisited her and a series of events from Ramayana were adapted into a dance drama. Then we did a production entitled Mythologies Retold on feticide. We created a story out of a contemporary myth for the production.

Q: Apart from your role as a social activist, you have authored So Many Journeys, a book about your life-long engagement with Bharatanatyam and Dynamic Women Dancers (Womenís Hall of Fame series). Would you expand on the themes and a kind of personal narratives that made up So Many Journeys and Dynamic Women Dancers?

A: The book So Many Journeys is really made out of my own teaching experiences and performing experiences. I wanted to leave behind something for my students.

So, it is a compendium of my own experiences through a 30 year career and the book also traces the evolution of dance, presentation and audiences. Vara (The boon) is my first film project in which I act as a Devadasi and the character involves a lot of dance and singing scenes.

An internationally renowned professional worked in the project as the crew.

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