As Bharatnatyam exponent Geeta Chandran completes 40 years, she talks about the confluence of classical and contemporary, notions of beauty and being a Carnatic classical singer
On a balmy evening in September 1974, exponents of Bharatanatyam and admirers of the 200-year-old art form waited patiently in the small AIFACS auditorium on Rafi Marg. But Swarna Saraswati was restive. Her student of many years, was to soon give her three-hour long arangetram. “Many sat in judgement” of the upcoming recital. These were times when a guru had to prove “that she had prepared her disciple well”.
The petite girl dressed in a bright blue costume gingerly entered the stage to begin with the alarippu (invocation) preceded by the pushpanjali. Her uneasiness was only for a moment though. The second the singer hit the first note and the mridangam player began pounding on the instrument, she felt it was time to give her all. When she reached the varnam (centre piece of the performance), the stomp in her feet, the elegant torque of her wrist, the freezes, and the turns, cemented her position as a classical dancer of repute.
“Arangetrams were very important at that time. And mine was a proud moment for my guru. Her word was law and just a nod from her meant you had passed the test,” says Bharatanatayam exponent Geeta Chandran, who has completed 40 years in her field.
Chandran is an artiste whose compound knowledge of Bharatanatyam has made her art form merge with life itself, moving out-of-the-box and exploring Bharatanatayam to iterate gender issues and drug use among others. Her last production, Gandhi-Warp and Weft explored the key concepts of Gandhian philosophy, while in her collaboration with puppeteer Anurupa Roy, she discussed women in war, by turning to Draupadi. “My spine is still that of a Bharatanatyam dancer. But trying contemporary themes with it only makes the form move into another direction. My guru told me that you can’t be a postman and replicate. You have to innovate,” says Chandran, who learnt abhinaya from Kalanidhi Narayanan, whose compelling artistry on stage is well-known.
However, the dichotomy between classical and contemporary was frowned upon by many of her seniors and contemporaries. But Chandran experimented with costumes and took the puritanical approach beyond the scope of “how it should exist.”
As for the flow and cadence of her dance, Chandran believes that her training in Carnatic classical helped. “I can dance only because I can sing. The taalam that eventually creates a structure in your head results in exactness and that flow in a performance,” says Chandran, and just then she breaks into a krithi (composition).
She dregs memories of her early days in Delhi, when academics were an important part of life. “I was learning at a time when 80 channels were not beaming at us. Here was a draconian guru, who did not cajole you. You just danced because you were told to,” says Chandran, who reveals that her daughter Sharanya didn’t learn the way she did. “I wasn’t as pushy as my mother used to be,” says Chandran. “Bala ma (Balasaraswati) was a fat and voluptuous dancer. But the moment she began dancing, she was the most beautiful dancer you could come across. Today, most dance gurus want their shishyas to be thin, lanky girls. We need to get rid of these notions,” she says.
An exacting teacher to her students, Chandran now waits for the same flow, the one which springs in spurts, or the footwork that gets her attention.
At 52, a time when she seems to be at the peak of her career, she strives every day to keep up the stamina. “Dance gives me this energy. I feel sick when I don’t dance. I would like to aim for another 40,” says Chandran.