Aathira and Nasreen Sattar
The only sounds interrupting the tranquil consistency in the sleepy town of Hesaraghatta are firm footsteps in rhythm with dictated beats wafting from this ‘village’, nestled amidst a vast expanse of greenery. It could be mistaken for an abandoned space of yore after the first few steps through the deserted stone pathway, till one chances upon a person seated at a desk in what looks like the reception area, only with a rural aura.
The plain brick walls would be ignored if not for the several framed pictures of a woman who communicates vibrancy through her bright and expressive eyes, frozen in time. She was Protima Gauri, the renowned Odissi exponent whose dream culminated into the formation of this modern-day Gurukul in 1990, aptly named ‘Nrityagram’, on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
“I dream of building a community of dancers in a forsaken place amidst nature…A place where you breathe, eat, sleep, dream, talk, imagine-dance,” Gauri (or Gaurima as she continues to be fondly called by her students and many admirers), had said. With this ideal in mind, she founded Nrityagram, a residential school which seeks to produce artistes committed to classical dance forms while imparting discipline instilled by the rigours of rural life. Today, nearly two decades after Protima Gauri’s untimely death in a mishap at Kailash-Manasarovar, her dream continues to thrive under the watch of Bijayini Satpathy, Surupa Sen and Pavithra Reddy, all of whom became accomplished dancers under the aegis of Nrityagram. Lynne Fernandez is currently the Managing Trustee.
Satpathy, who is Director, Dance Education, has staged solo performances all over the world and has received prestigious awards in the country and beyond. At Nrityagram, she is engaged in research concerning the expansion of the dictionary of Odissi terms. Surupa Sen has the distinction of being the first student at Nrityagram. Being Artistic Director, she is in charge of choreography and has put together several ensembles. Pavithra Reddy was recruited as a student from a rural outreach programme in 1990 and now holds her own as a formidable Guru at the school.
Nrityagram offers basic and advanced courses in Odissi and follows the technique propounded by Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra who taught Protima Gauri when she was 28. Making it to the residential training is no cakewalk. “The minimum course duration is one year. Maximum is three years of the basic course and further three years of advanced training. Freshers cannot join the institute. Every applicant is expected to have some knowledge of the the classical dance form. The duration of learning does not matter. If you have trained for 10 years but can’t showcase what is expected of you, it doesn’t matter. During the one-month probation, the Guru will observe you,” said Mamta who is in charge of the office block at Nrityagram. Understanding the impracticalities of a residential course for much of the city dwellers, the school offers summer workshops and Sunday classes for children.
Nrityagram reflects the way of life followed in the traditional Gurukul system in a few ways. “The students must wake up early for body conditioning (meditation) followed by breakfast in the dining hall. Students are expected to clean their own rooms and tend to the gardens,” said Mamta. The community breaks into batches catering to modules of teachers’ training, day-scholar training, advanced training and so on. Senior students are sent to the city to impart Odissi lessons to those who have opted for the part-time course.
In order to enable the students to get rid of stage fright, the institution allows visitors to watch the dancers between 10 am and 2 pm from Tuesday to Saturday. The dance hall is a no-go zone for photographers as they could could disturb the performers. At Nrityagram, the performance area is a space of sanctity where laypersons quietly observe a communication owned and understood by the dancers and their Guru alone.
The monthly fee for the residential course is Rs 20,000. However, the institution attaches utmost importance to merit and encourages young talent to join the school despite their poor financial stability, through their outreach programmes.
Those who cannot make the trek to Hesaraghatta can enjoy the performances put together by the Nrityagram Ensemble at various venues around the country and abroad. The institution also hosts its annual day in August when students showcase their skills.
Gaurima’s larger-than-life personality, her warmth and charm have left their imprint in the Gurukul where posterity attempts to immortalize her dream in sync with tradition.