August 31, 2012

Sound of Silence

This piece first appeared in the Asian Age on August 30, 2012. Download the PDF here.

The single curtain call after Nrityagram’s performance at the NCPA last Saturday left Mumbai audiences thirsting for more. People clapped lustily with aching palms, almost as if the dancers were apparitions who would disappear when the claps ceased. Disappear they did, returning this Monday to teach a group of serious dancers at a three-day masterclass as part of their weeklong residency at the NCPA. Led by Bijayini Satpathy, who is the director of Nrityagram’s Odissi Gurukul, the class draws on some basic concepts and principles in Odissi, holistically articulated by Nrityagram after extensive research. In class, Satpathy is supported by Nrityagram ensemble dancer Pavithra Reddy, Kandyan dancer Thaji Dias and the mardala player Shivshankar Satpathy.

Not everyone understands movement as silence or quietness, but at this class, they are inherent associations, as Satpathy constantly exhorts the participants to ‘be quiet’ in movement. Working with starkly minimal blocks of movement, all phrases she has explored in the course of teaching basic Odissi concepts, Satpathy lashes together a short choreography. It is illuminating to be privy to this process, to see how the elementary movements we often dismiss as amateurish are transformed into stunning showcases of the form when treated with care.

And examples of this are scattered across Nrityagram’s own work. In class, dancers in groups of four unfurl across the room in ardha bhramaris (half-spins), slightly dizzy from the spinning but full of explosive energy in having discovered great power in a single movement phrase. These are the very ardha bhramaris that Surupa Sen’s choreography uses to infuse new bursts of energy or to effect a change of mood, in her recent work Vibhakta – where two dancers spiral out to stage left and stage right, executing ardha bhramaris with great vigour. Indeed, for those familiar with Nrityagram’s work, the phrases at the workshop and the bols used to elaborate the rhythm are almost a form of delightful pastiche.

Satpathy draws one’s attention to the ‘in-between’ moments and the ‘dead’ moments, where there is a transition between one movement and the next, or when the movement seems temporarily finished. She talks of ‘delay’, where a sharply slapped foot keeps the beat while the torso stretches time with sinuous undulations, demonstrating how an awareness of such moments reinforces the presence of the performer.

While Nrityagram has been teaching workshops abroad since the nineties, they have rarely done the same in India, their work at Nrityagram apart. Satpathy reveals why, “Many of our showcases abroad are funded by universities. To avail of university funding, we need to have an educational component in our tours. So we often stay in one place for five days, performing and conducting masterclasses and discussions. Here, the sabhas call you for a single performance; you get there in the morning and perform in the evening. Where is the opportunity to take a class or spend more time in the same place?”

The participants at the NCPA master class are Odissi dancers and those deeply invested in other forms. Kathak dancer-choreographer Sanjukta Wagh finds it enriching to learn from someone who gives so willingly of herself as an artist. She elaborates, “I admire Bijayini’s openness to questions and interventions from dancers not experienced in Odissi, and am inspired by her rigour. The masterclass is like a burst of energy each morning; I come away with insights about my own dance and engagement with form. Though I might never dance the phrases of movement I learn here, I have benefited from the rigour, attention to detail, the groundedness of the body and the deep understanding of the Natyasastra in practice. It will stay with me and make me want to go to Nrityagram for more.”

Meanwhile, at Nrityagram, the daily grind demands complete devotion to dance. Classes and rehearsals begin early and end well past sunset. Their three year basic course in Odissi has a fascinating structure. For six months, aspiring dancers are only exposed to several kinds of body conditioning. After this, they spend a year learning the basic vocabulary of Odissi. This has been expanded beyond what is conventionally taught elsewhere, keeping in mind elements that enter the vocabulary when the dancer learns set pieces. In the second half of the course, the dancer learns Odissi items, putting together a skeletal repertoire and spending time on each nuance. The training also includes comprehensive theory classes and training in allied skills, like conducting lecture demonstrations or workshops. “In three years, we only teach them five basic pieces – from mangalacharan to moksha, to complete the Odissi repertoire. However, they learn new pieces quickly because they have been trained so thoroughly,” explains Satpathy.

Satpathy does not believe in the repertoire-expanding workshop model. About Nrityagram’s workshop structure, she says, “We never teach dance items in our workshops; instead, we attempt to convey the concepts we apply in performance. The principles mentioned in this class could be relevant to dancers from any form; advanced dancers may know exactly what we mean and dancers at an elementary level can also think through what we say and make it their own. Teaching an ‘item’ doesn’t work for us because we feel to need to share a philosophy with the dancers we collaborate with.”

Ranjana Dave

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