Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Am I religious?

I performed for a small private gathering in Jaipur in the beginning of this month. A lovely vibrant Iranian lady with a lovelier English accent (I told her so, and also that my most favorite accent was that
of Penelope Cruz) asked me after the performance, "How religious are you?” This was in the context of her experience when she saw me perform Sridevi that evening, a choreography masterpiece of Surupa Sen
that Mavin Khoo wanted to learn the instant he witnessed it.

Simple questions like this stump me at best of times. I made up an answer that was convincing to my ears, yet as a serious practitioner of Indian Classical Dance, which for the rest of the world is religious, I had never thought of the significance of my religious inclination in the context of my dance. My response was "In fact I am not religious at all. But I am given to my dance completely. Therefore, I love and BELIEVE everything it stands for and portrays. This dance is steeped in religion, it tells tales of Gods and Goddesses, and even flirtation, sensuality, and erotica in this dance is textured with divinity and spirituality."  In retrospect I find my answer to be completely true.

I AM NOT RELIGIOUS AT ALL. I do have an altar in my room at Nrityagram and one at home. The one at home is maintained by my maid who is supposedly untouchable (my mother has a grave problem with it). I love the way she arranges flowers of different colours in the altar around the Buddha and Ganesha sculptures. I have these two deities because they happened to be given to me as gifts. I have no time for them because I spend almost no time at home. I have a Kaali (I have it because it was a gift to Surupa who is frightened of its eyes), a Buddha and Saraswati (a great street vendor was successful in selling
them to me in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka) and a Ganesh (a gift from the original sponsors of Odissi Gurukul at Nrityagram - Raymonds) in my Nrityagram altar. I simply love the ritual of decoration with flowers
and the fragrance around it. I light an agarbatti whenever I feel the room could do with a little fragrance and the lady who cleans my room arranges three flowers everyday as instructed by me. I chant mantras
like "Sahanaa Vavatu...", "Purnamadah...", Om Bhur Bhuvah...", " Om Namah, Omkaara Rupaaya..." after I finish my daily routine of fitness exercises, and I try to concentrate on the meaning of these powerful
words while allowing my body to relax. I chant, "Angikam Bhuvnam...", " Saraswati Namastubhym..." before I begin my first class of Odissi and try to be true to the meaning. My focus becomes stronger and more concentrated when after the chanting I offer my salutation to the Mother Earth and the sacred space of my dance hall through the dance ritual called "Bhumipranam". Anyone who understands Sanskrit will know that these chants, though of Hindu belief, are more symbolic than religious.

However, when I start dancing to words from The Puranas or classic texts, there is no doubt in my mind about why so much devotion? Or am I a believer of Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti? Or whether I identify with
Radha's devotion for Krishna? Why Krishna, the biggest Casanova, who has just made Radha wait for him a whole night while having a good time with the other woman, must be treated with a different shade of
anger that is governed by yearning and longing of the "Atma"(soul) for "Paramatma" (Infinite). In fact my struggle is to immerse in the truth of it, believe it completely and own it as if it is mine. I work at it until I feel the sensation of that belief under my skin and sometimes while performing, my ownership of that belief becomes so strong that it makes my hair stand. It is a trance like state and it is true as death in that moment.

Dance is an awesome medium, which has opened channels of realisation for me about myself and the universe. I experience a lot that I am unable to express in words. Simply reading the same would have taken a long time for them to seep into my consciousness as they have through dance. Dance makes it possible for me to absorb through layers of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual simultaneously. And therefore, the experience stays with me forever.

While performing a composition like Sridevi, Shivaashakam, or Ardhanaariswara, the choreography (I have only Surupa Sen's brilliant choreography as reference) requires me to portray the deities in question as experienced by a devotee and at times as the deity Himself or Herself. Unimaginably everlasting and blissfully suspended is the experience of the magnificence of divinity however slight and momentary...

And yet at the end of the day I believe that I am not at all religious.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Guru Gangadhar Pradhan

There are few moments in my life that I feel blessed for,where I have been in the right place at the right time. In other words I have been chosen to be a part of the greater universal plan. One such moment was my initiation into Orissa Dance Academy in 1980, then headed by Ganga Sir. As I look at more and more dancers today, my belief gets only stronger that most of the better dancers today come from his lineage.
Even though I was never directly taught by Sir, I received his sense of a strong foundation in technique through all the amazing teachers he entrusted us with. I am ever so grateful to him for the clarity with which he lead his team of teachers.

I remember when I had to leave for Nrityagram to join the ensemble on their first tour to USA in 1993, he sat me down to give me pearls of advice that have become my self-discipline. I was to dance with the ensemble temporarily and return after the tour. He felt proud that one of his dancers was the one to be chosen by Gaurima, as well as the greater responsibility that I be a worthy representative of his philosophy. He said, "Maa, go to class well before time and completely prepared." He took it for granted that a dancer must come prepared with dance lessons already taught. He emphasized, "Always bring your water bottle to class and a few biscuits. You never know  when the class will finish. You must have the mental strength to go through till the end and not disturb the flow of rehearsal. Take a break only when given." There is not a single day till now that I have broken this ritual and I have only gained tremendously from this practice.

As a young student I saw him angry, very angry and frustrated all the time. He played the mardala for rehearsals and often broke into long speeches regarding self-motivation, hardwork, and loyality. I was scared to see him in our class and dreaded rehearsals with him. I do not remember him ever satisfied or happy. My chioce to move to Nrityagram hurt him deeply and I believe he held it close to his heart forever. His pain over it was so intense that he perhaps never saw the grains of his teaching in my dance. He never came to my performances till the international festival in Malaysia. However, I believe that our differences resolved when one day after my performance in Bhubaneswar he called to say, "Maa, even though I didn't see you dance, I feel proud with what the fifty eyes that saw you had to say. Carry on your work." I had been troubled that he had not forgiven me. May be I didn't recognise the largesse of his heart. That day I let it go.

I believe Odissi is young and still growing to fulfill and complete its identity. The work of Ganga Sir has certainly influenced the course of this evolution significantly and will continue to do so till his philosophy is passed on through the blessed ones that were there in the right place at the right time as I was.