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In Conversation With Geeta Chandran

Ranjani Saigal

Padmashri Geeta Chandran is a celebrated dancer and choreographer whose name is synonymous with the Indian classical dance: Bharatanatyam. She began learning Bharatanatyam from the tender age of 5 years under the tutelage of Smt. Swarna Saraswathy, who hailed from the traditional Thanjavur dasi parampara. Subsequently, Geeta continued learning diverse aspects of the classical dance from a galaxy of eminent Gurus.

Today she is a renowned artist who has synthesized the knowledge she received from her Gurus to imprint Bharatanatyam with her personal vision of the dance. Geeta is celebrated not only for her deep and composite understanding of the art of Bharatanatyam, but also for her Carnatic music (she is a trained and accomplished vocalist), her work in television, video and film, theatre, choreography, dance education, dance activism and dance-issue journalism.

Geeta Chandran is also Artistic Director of the Natya Vriksha Dance Company, known for the high aesthetic quality of its group presentations. Geeta has constantly striven to create new spaces for the classical dancer of today. Her choreographies HER VOICE and IMAGINING
PEACE articulated her conviction that dance can be a vehicle to build social bridges.

Her widely acclaimed dance-theatre production KAIKEYI and her choreographies on the themes of DRUGS have thrown the spotlight on issues of social stigma. She is also known for using classical Bharatanatyam to amplify gender and environmental issues. She has traveled all over the world with her performances and has danced at many prestigious dance festivals in India and abroad.

An A-Top graded dancer at Doordarshan and at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Geeta has been recipient of both the Junior and Senior Research Fellowships from the Government of India’s Department of Culture.
She is recipient of several awards including the Lady Shri Ram College Illustrious Alumna Award, the Dandayudhapani Pillai Award, the Bharat Nirman Award, the Natya Ilavarasi, the Indira Priyadarshini Award, the Media India Award, the National Critics Award, the Sringar Mani and the Natya Ratna.

Geeta has authored a book SO MANY JOURNEYS, an intensely personal collection of her writings narrating her engagement with Bharatanatyam.

In recognition of her vast and varied contribution to Bharatanatyam, Geeta was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the President in 2007.

Could you describe the early years of your journey through dance?

Ours was a typical Tamil Brahmin family with parents who had a great love for Canatic music and Bharatanatyam. We lived in Delhi and Amma took me to every performance that was happening in town. We were very active in the South Indian Samaj in Delhi. I have been privileged to see the performance of great artists including Balasaraswathi, Indrani Rehman, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Madura Mani Iyer and many others. My mother herself played the Veena. She firmly believed in the dictum that one should be “Kansen before becoming Tansen” – meaning one should watch and imbibe the arts before becoming a performing artist.

She later took me to learn dance under Swarna Saraswathy who comes from the Thanjavur Dasi Lineage.  I remember the first day I saw my teacher. I was a little five year old and she looked dazzling in her black pattu podavai, diamond earrings and nose rings. She had pictures of her world tours that she had done in the 40s and the 50s. That was the beginning of a great relationship. I had my Arangetram under her guidance.

Did you think you would take up dance as career when you were young?

Not at all. Ours was a very traditional family and academics always came first.  My father wanted to make sure that I would have the skills to earn a living for myself. My mother was a strict disciplinarian. I would get up in the morning, practice music, go to school and in the evening attend classes and do my homework. I think we were so fortunate that there were no televisions. I got my degrees in Statistics and Mass Communication from Lady Shriram college. After my masters, I got a well-paying job.

All through this, dance always continued to be very important. At one point my teacher Swarna Saraswathy fell ill and I could not continue my training. I could not think of giving up dance and hence I started training with V.Dakshinamoorthy and took Abhinaya lessons from Jamuna Krishnan and Kalanidhi Narayanan.

One day I realized that I could not do justice to two parallel professions – my full time job and dance. So I went to my teacher and asked if he would give me five hours a day of his time. He agreed.  I quit my job and started training in earnest. I expanded my repertoire considerably. During summers he would go to Chennai and he would take me along. We would attend concerts and together critically analyze and learn from them.

Later he started encouraging me to teach at his school, Natyakalalayam. Finally, one day he said it was time I started my own class. I was scared, but his support made it easy for me. And thus it was that Natya Vriksha was born. Since then I have always worked with distinguished artists like V. Krishnamoorthy, Karaikudi Krishnamoorthy and others who have had a profound influence on my art. Guru Mahalingam Pillai in Bombay was anot

It seems like most serious South Indian artists move to Chennai. You never chose to do that. Would you consider living in Delhi an advantage or a disadvantage to your career?

Living in Delhi has been extremely vital in helping shape my art. In Delhi one gets to see a wide variety of artists of the highest caliber. The culture is also very open to collaborations and has provided me so many creative opportunities.

When did you branch out from classical into the contemporary art works that you are so famous for?

I see no dichotomy between contemporary and classical in Bharatanatyam. To me Bharatanatyam is an aesthetic flow that can meander with imagination. Arbitrary classifications like "contemporary" and "classical" are deeply misleading. There is only good dance and bad dance. Good dance is that which has intellectual integrity and is the organic response of a body seeped in training. Training the body is the key. With one look, one can know whether a dancer is well-trained or not. Beyond the training threshold, dance is an artistic, aesthetic, creative response.  

Many of my works are often results of creative collaborations that just happened. I met Puppeteer Anurupa Roy and found her work to be very fascinating. We became good friends and decided to experiment with creating something new using Bharatanatyam and Puppetry.  I particularly felt that this would be a great collaboration for a new production that I was asked by WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict, Management and Peace). I was asked to create something to address the issue of Women in War. We used the Draupadi as the protagonist. Some of the scenes can be extremely horrific and I felt use of Puppet rather than Bharatanatyam for that would be very appropriate. Thus we did not collaborate just for the sake of collaboration. The collaboration grew in an organic fashion, as our artistic response to an issue. We had over thirty performances and they were very well received.

You have also worked with visual artists. Could you describe that effort?

SHE–Rahasyam was inspired by a painting by Aparna Caur where she had a foot of women kicking the periphery of a square that was restricting her and emerging from it victorious. I was very taken with this painting and tried to recreate the concept of the square with lighting. It was the first time I used lighting as a choreographic devise. My dance was representing a woman trapped in the (seemingly luminous) vessel trying to break free. This exemplifies how the arts cannot and do not exist in vacuum and that multi-dimensional and multidisciplinary sensibilities are integral to creating holistic creative expressions, whether in dance or visual arts or on the interface of the two.

What is your experience performing to foreign audiences?

I enjoy it very much. But I think the mainstream is not open to contemporary ideas from India. They much rather see traditional work. I think we need to work to change that and help motivate people to refresh their perceptions of “traditional” as a continuum rather than a stasis, frozen in time.

In addition to being a dancer you are also a published author. What motivated you to write “So Many Journeys”?

My publisher was very interested in getting me to write a book on dance. As I started looking at the collection of dance books, I found they were either focused on the technique and origin of Bharatanatyam or on the revivalist period of dance with Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswathi  Bharatanatyam has had great things happen during the time that I have been an active performer and hence I decided to write about that period through my own experiences as a dancer. Every dancer has had a different journey and the title is reflective of that.

Do you have a message for the many teachers and students in the New England area?
I think dance is very special. My teacher would always say “Patram arinchi pitchai podu” – Know the vessel before filling it with donations. I think that is a great suggestion for teachers. Also I think teachers should work to mainstream the art form.
For students, I think a multi-dimensional training is the reality of life. So many opportunities exist in so many fields. My suggestion is that even if you do not make dance a career, keep it as a serious hobby for it will certainly enrich your life.

Thank you for your time

Thank you

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