By 1951, ill health had forced one of the great dancers of the Independence era, Shanti Bardhan, to retire from the stage. Lying on a cot, his performer’s body wracked by disease, Bardhan went on to create one of the iconic movements of the Indian dance — birds flying across the stage.
It is a story that a visitor hears at the campus of the Ranga-Shri Little Ballet Troupe (LBT) in Bhopal, an institution that Bardhan had founded with performer Gul Vardhan. How the former, a handsome man who used to perform with Uday Shankar, spent his final years at LBT, unable to sleep due to the pain and watching the open skies.
“The formation of birds at sunset and sunrise triggered his imagination and led him to create the choreography based on birds in LBT’s Panchatantra, a stage adaptation of ancient Indian fables,” says Bansi Kaul, veteran theatre practitioner from Delhi and the Vice-Chairperson of LBT. The performance idiom and movements of birds and animals travelled all over India, since dancers, who used to work with the group, spread out, got jobs in schools across the country. “They carried the flight of the birds with them. I feel that 90 per cent of the movements, today, in all schools that do a production on birds can be traced to Bardhan,” says Kaul. The original dancers of Panchatantra were trained by Vardhan, the feisty performer and moving force of the group, till her death in 2011.
Now, as the curtain falls on several theatres across the world, LBT is planning to fight the effects of the pandemic on the arts. The thinkers of the group suddenly find themselves tackling balance sheets and doing the math instead of planning the next work. “The productions of LBT are a part of the living heritage of the country that we are determined to keep going whatever it takes,” says Kaul.
The dance movement of birds is one of the several threads that binds LBT with the history of Indian culture. Created in 1952, the troupe has responded to the nature of a changing nation with a range of theatrical productions. Its 1953 work, Ramayana was created with non-dancers such as fishermen and labourers of Mumbai and won the Edinburgh Fringe First. Ramayana is one of the longest-running shows in India.
As the artistes revise their lines and movements in Ramayana, Panchatantra and other productions in hopes of better days, Kaul and trustee members as well as friends of LBT are adding numbers. “We have 20 members in the group, each getting a minimal salary from a salary grant given by the Government of India of Rs 6,000. With our savings, we will be able to pay them for four more months. We will not let go of any artiste but we will also not take in more when members of the troupe leave or retire,” says Kaul. After Bardhan’s death in 1954, LBT shifted from Bombay to Gwalior. In 1984, they moved to the present campus in Bhopal.
A corpus is being set up with funds from well-wishers and a grant from the central government. “LBT was a part of a movement in which independent organisations worked in harnessing the cultural landscape of India to complement cultural institutions created by the central and state governments. The house on the LBT premises, where Gul and the veteran dancer Prabhat Ganguly used to live, has been converted into a library that boasts of 6,000 books including entire collections donated by prominent artistes and writers of India. We plan to keep it growing with more collections so that it will attract future readers, and keep the space vibrant and relevant,” says Kaul. In the halls of LBT, a rich tradition is also present in the form of artwork such as puppets and masks. In Ramayana, a scene that reflects a chauvinistic mindset was of Ravana kidnapping Sita — represented by a small Rajasthani puppet of a woman. The masks worn in the play were square, an unusual shape in theatre, and drawn from Jain sculptures.
“One of the challenges of COVID-19 is to preserve this heritage. We have decided to connect our dancers with schools of Madhya Pradesh where they can teach students once schools reopen. This would help as an additional source of revenue as well as preserve an art form,” says Kaul. “The Madhya Pradesh government used to run its Drama School from the premises of the LBT till early this year and the rent was a great support to the organisation’s running. The group will now have to look for other institutions who will want to rent out space, so that a survival is possible,” says Kaul and adds, “We will perform, we will not let it go.”
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