Holding onto tradition

‘Parampara is like an umbilical cord that connects dancers to the beginnings of their art form, ‘ says Bharatanatyam artiste, Poornima Gururaja

The rectangular veranda of Kalasindhu Academy of Dance in Banashankari, Bengaluru has multi-coloured-tiled benches around a tulasi (katte) where students cool their heels. Leaning against a wooden pillar, Director of Kalasindhu, Poornima Gururaja says it is their ‘favourite spot’. The tastefully done space, exudes a charm and ambience that reminds one of a small temple down the road.

It appears to be a conscious choice for Poornima to recreate a temple-like space for her dance academy. As a Bharatanatyam artiste, temple architecture and aura seem to be an essential part of her art practice. She takes her students before their Rangapravesha to Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu to perform the whole margam and seek the divine blessings. They also pay a visit to the heritage home of Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. “Seeing the photographs of legendary nattuvanars like Kittappa Pillai, my students feel rooted. Some mystical energy guides our performances there,” describes Poornima, who strongly believes in placing the classical dance form in its context, especially when it is taught in urban settings far away from its place of origin, practice or inspiration.

For instance, she informs: “When I teach Jagadoddharana…., I take my students to Dodda Mallur temple in Ramanagara district. Students look at the composition in a new light when they see the deity — Ambegalu Navaneetha Krishna – in whose admiration Purandaradasa wrote this kriti. These field trips should not be viewed just from the religious angle, one can see the idol as a baby with mystical powers or appreciate the temple carving. Let students view it however they want to. The point here is — for presenting certain special compositions that are based on specific deities or temples — they should be aware of its significance.”

When Poornima set her hands on Pallakki Seva Prabandham, an 18th century work by Shahaji Maharaj, she visited the Tyagaraja temple in Thiruvarur several times and attended the full moon procession there. In her observation: “The heady smell of incense, the sound of drums and the dance of the palanquin bearers just soaked everyone present there in bhakti. When thousands of people hailed together, ‘Arura Tyagesa, Arura Tyagesa’, the two-century-old composition came alive.”

Integrating classroom teaching with field visits has been Kalasindhu’s practice since its inception in 2009. Before setting this up (after she came back from Boston), she did a thorough research on dance pedagogy for six long years. During this period, she made several observations in prominent dance schools of Bengaluru. “All disciples of a particular guru danced in the same manner. There was so much ‘cloning’. I didn’t want it to happen in my class. And my experience with Pallavi Dance School in Boston had already prompted me to provide a concrete background for classroom learning. For keeping the solo format of Indian classical dance alive, internalising the art form becomes necessary and learning beyond the classroom aided it,” she asserts. Spending two decades abroad taught her a range of valuable things. Most importantly, reflecting on one’s own art. “When I used to perform in the US as a teenager, people applauded but asked me what my addition to the choreography was or what I thought of it. Initially, I used to break down every time it happened, but slowly I realised its value and began interpreting my guru’s choreographies and conceptualising my own productions on new themes.” Krishna: A Poet’s Inspiration that toured several cities in the US was produced by Pallavi Dance School during this period. “The production recounts how Krishna has become an inspiration to poets like Kanakadasa and Purandaradasa,” she explains.

During her stay in the US, she either came to Bengaluru once a year, or invited her guru, Narmada there to learn a whole margam. “I got married, moved to a foreign country, had children — life changed so much but dance remained a constant,” she observes.

Poornima holds ‘Nirantara Narmada Festival’ every year in remembrance of her beloved guru. And as a devout follower of Thanjavur style, Poornima invites K. P. Chandrashekaran Pillai, the son of legendary nattuvanar Kittappa Pillai, every year to hold master classes at Kalasindhu. “We too keep visiting their home often for a sense of belonging. On one such afternoon when Chandrashekaran asked my students to rehearse a piece, all the women of the house who were taking their siesta got up and began singing the jathis. The children were shocked to witness the simplicity of these women who never showcased their mastery. Therefore, it is not just famous personalities like Vyjayanthimala or Hema Malini who can be the source of inspiration to young dancers, but also these women from small hamlets who know the art inside out.”

In order to provide her students a wide range of exposure, she curates workshops by eminent dance practitioners. From Sonal Mansingh, Kanak Rele to Yamini Krishnamurthy, Kalasindhu students and other dance students have got an opportunity to learn from and interact with legendary artistes. “Recently, Sonal Mansingh asked participants to show how they would portray the bosoms of goddess Radha. She then said: ‘Portraying it in air as if she is standing beside the dancer looks aesthetically better than showing it on one’s own body.’ Doesn’t it make a huge difference? Nuances like these can only be imbibed from great gurus,” feels Poornima.

The recent proliferation of dance programmes across universities in India, according to her, is a milestone in the history of dance. “I hope now there will be both practice and theory in equal measure. With academic research in the field, there would be specialisations in niche areas of dance such as dance writing, dance photography, costume designing, dance music etc.”

The concept of holistic learning was introduced to her early in life by her previous dance guru, Kaushik. “He taught us not just Bharatanatyam but painting, carpentry, make-up and even some ayurvedic principles. His focus was purely on ‘learning’ and not on its display. Therefore, our arangratrums were conducted in a closed group comprising eminent dance gurus. It was like a thesis presentation.

To do it at a very young age was certainly tough, but it gave us confidence in the later years,” she recounts.

According to her, what is important is to stick to one’s guru as long as one can. “To be with your guru is to be with the parampara. This gives you a kind of inner confidence you cannot imagine — a force that protects and nurtures you in times of anxiety and hopelessness,” she adds.

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