Padma Shri Geeta Chandran was just five-years-old when she took her first step towards Bharatnatyam. Today, she is a renowned artist and a name to reckon with. Not only a trained Bharatanatyam exponent, she is also trained in Carnatic music and is recognised for her work in theatre, dance, and even videos and films. Chandran, who is the artistic director of the NatyaVriksha Dance Company, celebrates World Dance Day (April 29) with a line-up of activities every year.
On World Dance Day, she tells indianexpress.com about the evolution of classical dance forms, and the importance of introducing students to arts at an early age.
You started learning Bharatanatyam when you were just five-years-old and have been associated with it ever since. How have classical dance forms evolved over the years?
In over forty years since my arangetram, I have seen an explosion in both the practice and the interest in Bharatanatyam. It was on March 15, 1931, that the first-ever formal performance of Bharatanatyam was presented at the Madras Music Academy featuring Rajalakshmi and Jeevaratnam, the daughters of Tiruvalaputtur Kalyani, who were therefore billed as Kalyani Daughters. So this global explosion of Bharatanatyam in less than a century is of great significance since the dance has spread geographically to all parts of the world.
It has galvanised both its practitioners and the audience. It is a potent symbol of India’s soft power. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi understood its potential and used it internationally to promote India as an ancient culture – a classical dance form that could rival western ballet.
There was a time when contemporary and Bollywood dance forms were not as popular as classical forms. However, things have changed today. Do you feel that such dance forms have become more popular among the youth?
One of the beautiful aspects of human life is that it meanders and springs surprises. One must be open to change. Everything changes; we do not eat like our grandparents sitting cross-legged on the floor, nor is the food we eat what they ate. The grains have changed, new vegetables have entered our kitchens and our cooking fuels and mediums have changed. So, when absolutely everything around us is changing, why do we expect dance to be static?
The new forms of human expression – be it film-inspired dance or contemporary dance forms, are all valid forms of human expression. But each has its place and space. To me all dance is valid; there is only dance that is well danced; and dance that is not well-danced! Overall, we have to improve our quality audits when we view and experience dance.
Some classical dancers try incorporating contemporary themes in their performances to make it more relevant. What do you feel about the same, or even, fusion dance?
Contemporary themes are one genre and fusion is another. If we consider dance as an art form then what it expresses and how it expresses will change. Again, dance that is created as propaganda is different from dance that is created as a valid artistic response to an issue. As I said before, if it is an organic artistic response, it will be celebrated. If the impulse for creating something new is just monetary gain or a publicity gimmick, our discerning audiences will not watch it repeatedly. The value of a classical dance experience is that one can return to watch it again and again and every time find new inspiration in it.
Recently, the CBSE decided to make art education mandatory for all students from class 1 to class 12 from the coming academic year. What do you think about this move? How important is it to introduce students to art at an early age?
I truly think that this can be a game changer if we manage expectations and outputs intelligently. We must be clear that the aim of arts education must not be to create artists – clearly schools cannot ever achieve that simply because they are not geared for it – but to create a new generation of rasikas who understand the arts process and get excited by its creative storm and potential to understand and unleash creativity.
The real challenge is to get trained teachers who see themselves not in silos as painting teachers or music teachers, but as part of the arts faculty of a school. In a school in Faizabad, I am leading an important experiment where the arts are being totally integrated with the larger education pulse. Based on my experience, I am already planning teacher training courses that will catalyse arts education in schools across India. It’s a large dream but with commitment, I think it can be done.
What advice would you give to youngsters who would like to take up classical dance forms professionally?
Classical dance is an arduous choice which requires amazing sadhna and has a long gestation period before one’s goals can be achieved. That said, it also is one of the most exciting and challenging options since one is completely in control of one’s body, mind, career and destiny. Dance offers incredible joy and a sense of achievement. Sweating it out daily – and there is no way around that – is so liberating and fabulous.