The lens of bhakti

Dance is a reflection of one's experiences, both good and bad, danseuse Geeta Chandran tells Srivathsan Nadadhur

ELEGANTGeeta Chandran

It was an esteemed dance conference in the US where an evening slot was to feature a performance by Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran. Rather than sticking to the confines of a traditional dance recital and traversing a predictable path, the Padmashri-awardee opted to think within. And that’s where her first-of-a-kind autobiographical production Samagama Leela took birth. Dwelling on the notion of bhakti through her journey as a dancer, the performance provided immense scope for self-introspection. It helped her attain a refined understanding of her roots and the little moments that contributed to the larger picture in her journey. The reception was all-the-more gratifying for the dancer as she performed it in front of her home (Delhi) audience recently.

Taking us through the idea behind the production, Geeta Chandran shares, “The day one enters a dance class, one submits himself/herself to the form. So was I, under my first teacher, who belonged to the devadasi community and the temple tradition, and one who has seen the whole tradition flourish and shift from temples. She was a piece of history in that.” The Bharatanatyam danseuse may not have realised the beauty of the form then, but as she progressed as an artiste, a personal take had emerged from all that she’d experienced to date. “The beauty of the script is that the evolution is happening always and it needn’t be frozen in time. I can add to it, bring more context, edit it out because it is within my liberty to do it. I just love the concept!” she exclaims.

A new dimension

The pieces in the performance weren’t always traditional; they have evolved with her, stayed with her, while she has also lent a new dimension to select items. There are three versions of Krishna Nee Begane Baaro within her act — about Yashoda playing with a young Krishna, a gopika calling out to Krishna, and the blend of aatma and paramatma where Devaki is singing out to Krishna. The production has involved some questioning of bhakti as an idea too. “I saw my life through a different lens. I had to pen down a script from the gamut of memories I had. It involved a lot of introspection, a lot of nostalgia, a lot of time-travelling, establishing context to events, moments with teachers. All of it eventually may or may not have found a place in the script, but it was worth a look back,” she assures.

The essence

The beauty of the production is its exploration of bhakti in all its nuances, weaving in dimensions of architecture, sculpture, art, craft, fashion, philosophy and literature. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to do so, but these aspects have been intrinsic elements of my journey. My brother-in-law has been involved in textiles for 20 years and I always have textile in the house. I have read the best books in the textile industry, have a collection of saris from all over India. Wherever I go, I make it a point to go to the local market, understand their weaves. I have been to most religious places across the country, from Kedarnath to the Padmanabha Swamy Temple to Puri.”

For the Delhi-based artiste, the journeys to these destinations held a special spot in her heart as a child, thanks to the stories she heard from her father and grandmother. “Not a day went by without the suprabhatam and it was all a very unconscious absorption of bhakti. It was just a way of life. The cousins tagged along to the pilgrimage trips, who were also learning some form of art, and we would end up jamming together. I feel my parents have done their best in offering everything to me. As I was integrating these experiences into the script, I have realised that these aspects are studied, over-analysed, and are intentional today. Back then, we weren’t quite conscious of it,” she states.

With Samagama Leela, the advantage she had from her childhood experiences was the knowledge of the temple history in the country. “What I’ve tried to say through the performance otherwise is the rasa aspect. Whether it’s food, or dressing up, you need to experience it, and enjoy it. Dance is all about that. If not, it becomes a sterile exercise of moving hands and legs. You can be perfect but neither you nor your audience will be able to experience the rasa,” Geeta feels.

Did she see the performance as a challenge to make a culturally-disinclined generation relate to our roots? “A yes and a no. When I dance, I don’t care what the audience thinks. If you have conviction and intensity in what you do, it does touch everybody. From a teenager to a 60-year-old, there was none in the audience who didn’t cry. What more could I have asked for,” she smiles with a sense of humility.

Even as we point out to her that autobiographical dance productions can become an effective tool to document the lives of many a dancer, she reminds us that dance is very transient.

“And everybody’s life is different. It’s best to not document or want it to be remembered forever. I think it’s best to create, perform and forget that evening. ‘Create and forget’ should be the mantra for dancers. The art has to move on. Four years from now, the production might attain a different complexion. At this stage of my life, this is what I want to say. At every phase, you keep experiencing different things, good and bad, and art has to reflect that. If it doesn’t, there’s no evolution.”

Going forward, the dancer may want to explore another autobiographical performance beyond bhakti, probably something on the lines of the feminine spirit. “I have a daughter, and I also would love to trace the role models in my mom, my teachers. It will be wonderful to analyse various relationships shared with these women and notice how they nurtured me. To see that through the lens of dance and concepts like sakhi, the guru-shishya equation, the mother-daughter relationship, is something that excites me already,” she signs off.

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