In India, a Dance Haven Shuts Out the World

A picture of Abhinaya Rohan, the Nrityagram dance village in India. (Abhinaya Roha via the New York Times)
I recently did a tour of Nrityagram. This small community near Bangalore in southern India is an oasis of calm and total devotion to an ancient art: Indian classical dance. Birds called, and around the low, earth-colored buildings with dance studios, living rooms and a small temple stood hundreds of vibrant green trees dripping with moisture. (It's the end of the rainy season.)
As I turned a curve, I saw a bright orange and yellow little girl dreaming in a banyan tree. She slipped off her seat and started the tour.
That early morning scene - the trees, the gray sky, the rain threatening, the people sitting at breakfast - unfolded as I peeked at a screen on my phone late at night in my New York apartment. The tour was virtual and was conducted on WhatsApp. This is more or less the only way to visit Nrityagram these days as it closed its doors to the outside world at the beginning of the pandemic.
"We lived our lives just as if nothing had happened," said Surupa Sen, Nrityagram's 23-year-old artistic director, later in an interview with Zoom. Under their leadership, Nrityagram is still what it always was, but more than that: a dance oasis, self-contained and determined, removed from a chaotic and sometimes frightening world.
The virus has spread widely in India. As of this writing, it is for the most part the second largest country after the United States with an official death toll exceeding 100,000. But within the 10 acres that make up Nrityagram, life has remained remarkably unchanged.
Even before a general lockdown was declared in India, Nrityagram restricted access. The dance students - nearly 150 from surrounding villages and as far as Bangalore - have been asked to stay away for fear of introducing COVID-19 into this small, closely-knit community.
Because there is so little communication with the outside world, the people who live in this separate hamlet do not wear masks, and training continues undisturbed in studios that are open on the sides to the elements and let the breeze blow through the whole Year.
The only people who come and go are a small group of women from the nearby village who help with the daily chores. Upon arrival, they are asked to put on locally washed clothes and masks.
The form practiced by Sen and their dancers is Odissi, which has its origin in the eastern state of Odisha. It is one of eight official classical dance forms of India with movements and forms that are reminiscent of the sculptures and reliefs of medieval temples. In its origins it is a form of devotion dedicated to the deity Jagannath, whose name means Lord of the Universe.
"The idea is that you submit to a universal something," said Sen. Your work has expanded form but remains true to its underlying drive, the search for transcendence.
Sen and her dancers devote most of their waking hours to perfecting this art, refining and strengthening their bodies through movement, and perfecting their dance through technique courses and rehearsals in which they learn traditional Odissi choreography as well as new works by Sen. The group consists entirely of women. The only male dancer returned to Mumbai to visit his family at the beginning of the pandemic and has not yet returned.
Life here has continued to be routine.
For this piece we asked the dancers to document their day from morning to evening and to capture moments and locations with disposable cameras.
At 6 a.m. they get up for a morning run. Then each woman is responsible for cleaning part of the hamlet and placing flowers on the small altars in the dance studios.
These rituals are "part of the practice, part of giving back to the guru" or the teacher, "and to the school". And "it's part of their training," said Lynne Fernandez, CEO of Nrityagram. Next, warm up by doing yoga or practicing the Indian martial art form of kalaripayattu.
At 10:30 am, the dance class begins with exercises that target one type of movement and then another - sharp and fast, slow and smooth, low on the ground, in the air, and more. In its gradual, almost scientific progression from one part of the body to the next, it is not unlike a ballet class.
After lunch - "our favorite moment of the day!" One of the dancers, Abhinaya Rohan, said during our WhatsApp tour - they will return to the studio for another three or four hours, more if Sen creates a new dance.
They teach in the evenings. Nowadays this is done through Zoom, although everyone agrees that it is not a good thing to convey the nuances of the dance. "It's not the same kind of energy," said Pavithra Reddy, who has been with Nrityagram for 30 years. "And we have to go much slower so the dancers understand what we're looking for." Still, it's something.
That means at least six hours of dancing per day (except Mondays, on your day off) plus conditioning. It sounds exhausting, but Rohan said, “The strange thing about dance is that it energizes you. I never feel tired. "
In addition to the dancers and Aishani Dash, the little girl in the tree, there are six other members of the community whose work enables the dancers to devote themselves to their art: two office workers and two volunteers helping to build a food forest, an arbitrary looking one but productive and low-maintenance farming system that produces most of the community's food; And there is Fernandez and her mother who everyone calls a nani or grandmother. Nani makes meal plans and prepares cucumbers for the whole year.
Normally, Nrityagram survives almost exclusively on the performance fees of his dance company, which tours the world for several months each year and was not infrequently in New York. (The prices for the dance classes are too low to generate any significant income.) With all performances being canceled for the foreseeable future, this income has completely disappeared. Recently they were forced to run an online fundraiser.
Aishani, 11, is the only child living among adults and a dedicated dance student who takes daily lessons and rehearses with the members of the ensemble. In one rehearsal I observed from afar, she examined every correction Sen gave her with diligence and gravity.
“We discovered that she danced alone when she was 4 or 5 years old,” Sen said after class. “She invented her own dances to the music from the studio. So we invited her to a weekend course with the other children. “In her absence, she completed the work with the adults. One day, she said, she hoped to become a professional dancer.
The dancers are no longer able to tour or hold performances for locals but have decided to perform for each other. "It helps us maintain this urge to perform," said Dhruvatara Sharma, a member of the ensemble. “Actually there is more pressure. You have to be perfect because you are performing for a really well educated audience. "
After that, they talk well into the night and offer tiny reviews and observations. It's something they normally wouldn't have the time or opportunity to do.
Sen also performs, and the intimate, informal setting allows her to try things that she would be hesitant to do in a conventional performance. “Last time,” she said, “I danced four pieces that I would normally never do together. They were all sad about longing. Usually that would be just too much, too much intensity. "
After two decades of teaching, choreographing, and touring, Sen was able to slow down and rediscover her own dance. "I feel like I am considering myself a dancer for the first time in my life," she said. "And I discover that this color is also there and this color." All of this, she says, will be reflected in whatever she wants to create next.
This also applies to the other dancers. For one thing, they had a lot more uninterrupted, focused time to work with their guru - but also to think about their dancing outside of the pressures of preparing for a performance. "The fact that you can do this in an environment of pure focus and steadiness brings about a certain purity," said Sen. "It feels like expanding beyond yourself."
The main thing that Nrityagram dancers have gained is time. Again, the dimension of time in the pandemic has changed, opening spaces in the dancers' schedule and in their minds.
"Odissi comes from a time when people had more time and you could live a lot longer in a moment," explained Sen. "The feeling of longing, the longing to find something, takes time. You have to stay with it for a while, sit in it and experience all the colors of it. “Now, sheltered from the storm that surrounds them, that time has come for the Nrityagram dancers.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company

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