The first thing I saw this morning at Nrityagram was a raatrani bush in bloom, shining with dew and last night's rain. I had to resist the temptation to shake it. Living here is about smelling the flowers. And presently, as preparations for Nrityagram's 25th anniversary performance in Bangalore ascend to a fever pitch, it feels momentous to be here.
A potted history – set up in 1990, Nrityagram is a dance village on the outskirts of Bangalore, sandwiched between the grasslands of Hesaraghatta and the looming threat of urbanisation. Its founder was Protima Gauri Bedi, remembered in equal measure for her scandalous celebrity image and her innings as an Odissi dancer. Nrityagram is modelled on the guru-shishya parampara, in which students and teachers learn and live with each other, co-existing in a mutually symbiotic environment and within and beyond the studio. In its initial years, the village was home to Kathak, Mohiniattam and Odissi gurukuls, and its vision aspired to encompass other classical dance and martial art forms.
Post the heady 1990s, three Odissi dancers – Surupa Sen, Bijayini Satpathy, Pavithra Reddy – remained at Nrityagram along with Lynne Fernandez, the dance village's managing director and light designer. Touring as the Nrityagram Ensemble, they mined every inch of what they had learned, to create new work in the Odissi idiom. Sen is the choreographer, possessed of an inspired, slightly mad demeanour; she often creates with her eyes closed and limbs flailing. In a previous interview, Satpathy, the director of education and Sen's choreographic muse, called her "a dervish roaming in space, very very mad".
Nrityagram's methodology fuses an understanding of anatomy, space, time, energy, melody and rhythm with the canonical principles of Odissi. Its vocabulary actively draws from the Natyasastra, Abhinaya Darpana and other dramaturgical texts. The dancers use physical practices like yoga, ballet, pilates and kalarippayattu to cross-train and develop strength, flexibility and an enhanced understanding of the body.
Nrityagram's work treats Odissi as a language where inherent grammatical codes find new meaning when they manifest themselves within a compositional freedom of sorts. Then, Odissi is not a boundary that seems to define and somewhat restrict the idea of what dance could mean; it is a provocative linguistic configuration, a springboard for new ideas and influences. This is a compelling concept that has stayed with me ever since I first came across Nrityagram's work 15 years ago. Since then, I have written about its work, drooled over it and yearned to know it better.
Life got in the way until I realised that I just had to comprehend what dance meant to me, and that I had to do it at Nrityagram. In my years of intermittent dancing and consistent writing, the choreographic process has always been a key research interest. It makes for questions I pose to every dancer I meet, and always results in revelatory answers. Situating myself inside a choreographic process, however, is something I find hard to articulate.
What does it mean to live at Nrityagram? After having danced on the beach, and in my cramped bedroom, to the chagrin of my neighbours, it feels miraculous to have access to studio space and to be able to walk to it. There is a sensorial shift in how I experience life. I take pleasure in opening the window and looking at the trees. I watch the birds even though I can't identify them and say hello to friendly cows and cowherds when I go for my morning run. On a furrier note, I can catch rats, be nonchalant about squirrel poop and insect hives, and only shriek ever so softly when I see a snake.
Nrityagram has taught me that looking within is not a metaphorical cliche. I dance for more hours than I care to count, and my bones often feel like utensils jangling in a crowded sink. But for the first time in my life, I am viscerally attuned to the possibilities of the body, and constantly surprised by what it can reveal to me if I listen to it.