By Deepa Gupta
Her beauty is timeless as is her grace, poise and persona. Padmashri Geeta Chandran synonymous with Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form that so defines her, is deeply rooted in Indian culture and traditions. Essaying the many roles that are part of the traditional performance fabric, Geeta has been collaborating and experimenting with various art forms to come up with productions that are unique in style, thought and visual appeal.
In her fortieth year of professional dancing, she is all set to author a book on the pedagogy of dance even as the revised edition of her first published work So Many Journeys is on its way. Another project titled Swarna (the name of her first teacher) is on the anvil; one that Geeta reveals is a sort of biography, a production that uses dance theatre as a medium of expression and deftly puts to use her skills as a trained Carnatic vocalist.
From her love for singing, to corporate cultural responsibility, the Delhi audience and her experience of working in a film, she lets words flow as mellifluously as her dance movements.
If not a classical dancer what do you see yourself as?
A musician – actually a Carnatic vocalist.
Music is so intrinsic to dance and from when we were young we always thought that we could never become a dancer if we didn’t know music. My dance teacher (SwarnaSaraswathy) could sing for three hours and she could play the veena and dance. For us the bar was already raised very high. I have had formal training in music for 20 long years and I had very good teachers and very often the teacher who taught me music also sang for dance so there was an automatic connect between the dance and its music.
I see dance as a much larger canvas in terms of theatre, music, rhythm, mythology, literature, poetry, philosophy, spirituality. It has taken many years to unravel each of these aspects.Very often, the understanding of classical dance is very myopic in peoples’ minds who see it merely as a coordinated movement of hands and feet. But I completely disagree. I think the intellectual construct, the aesthetic construct, the cultural construct of dance is so much more important and so much more soul enriching than what you just see on stage and take back.
Corporate cultural responsibility…
I feel very strongly about it because we talk of corporate social responsibility but never about corporate cultural responsibility. Indian culture needs to be nurtured constantly. When a young woman decides to be a dancer, there is no support for her. Nothing to keep her kitchen fires burning. Corporates must come forward to give such female artists a job like they do in sports so that they have a regular income and feel free to pursue the arts with devotion and focus.
If one wants to come up with a grand production where does one get the funds from? We can’t turn to the government for everything because the mandate for their cultural departments is too huge – there are so many art forms that are languishing and dying – all those are crying for support.Somewhere the private sector needs to pitch in. And it has to be a sustained effort. It can’t be in bits and pieces. If there’s a festival that’s been going on for 10 years then someone has to reassure us saying that we will take care of it for the next 10 years.
Like the Vishnu Digamber festival that’s been on for years. Every year they battle for funds. If someone took care of the financials these festivals would do very well. My own NatyaVrikshaYoung DancersFestival – I have been doing it for over ten years. Yet, every year, I have to beg! I have my track record, and I have a proposal for this year, I have my artists in place – why can’t one just go by the merit of it?
You also need very sensitive bureaucrats. Earlier we had people who understood culture themselves. They came from culturally aware families. That’s another big failing today that in the main our bureaucrats are culturally found wanting!
Does Delhi have a better audience?
No, I think Delhi has an overkill. On any given day, there are eight programmes or more! The audience gets completely divided. There’s too much happening in Delhi. People in other parts of the country are starved. In Bhopal we just finished a very large production with five classical dance forms. A 100 feet stage and 4000 people watching us. It was a grand spectacle. Other cities have only one stage so there is much more focus, much more clarity in what they want. Delhi becomes like a free for all. Everything is around Lodi Estate and Mandi House. You don’t have auditoria in Noida, MayurVihar, or Dwarka. Why not? You have to decentralise culture. Let people and communities have ownership of spaces.
Is the audience-artist connect better in Delhi than in other cities?
The audience here is more exposed, no doubt. For example, if you perform in Chennai, the audience has largely seen Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. They are not exposed to other forms of art and other genres like Chhau or Manipuri or contemporary or international art forms. We get to see much more. We are a better informed audience. Delhi is the melting point for all art forms. It is definitely more eclectic.
How was your entire experience of working in the film, Vara?
The Bhutanese film director Khyentse Norbuwas watching my dance for nearly a year and a half and trying to understand Bharatanatyam and its nuances and he was so enchanted by the whole process – he used to come to the class at Natya Vriksha, sit in a corner and observe the singing and dancing – then he wanted to use it in a film and popularise it. When he first asked me I refused because I am very comfortable on stage. I’d rather be there. Film is not my cup of tea. But he pursued me relentlessly to accede to his request. Then a whole year later he again sent me a full script.And in a weak moment I capitulated! It was destiny I guess.
As anexperience – I got to know of many other skills – I had never understood film making really. But during Vara, I observed that process very closely. But I felt very cheated by the film genre – in classical dance, we script our own evening on stage – we are spontaneous - we express ourselves on the spur of the moment. But in a film somebody else decides your lines, somebody decides how you look, your angles, everything - you seem a pawn in everybody else’s hands. For me, I like to rule the stage, be in command of the whole thing. And then there is the bliss of instant gratification. You perform and you know whether you’ve done well or not. For me, as an artist on stage, I didn’t find the film challenge very great. Maybe if I do a second film, I’d be more cued in.
But I enjoyed the whole idea of staying with a single character, who was a devadasi dancer. Because my first teacher was a devadasi I could vividly imagine her. And working with a tremendously young team from New York in terms of camera work, lighting, sound, was very fascinating. I liked all that. And I feel happy that I could popularise Bharatanatyam and see it come alive on celluloid.