Interview with Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy
Director: Ranjana Dave; Cinematographer: Ranjani Naresh
Duration: 00:35:36; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 25.385; Saturation: 0.077; Lightness: 0.331; Volume: 0.140; Cuts per Minute: 0.056; Words per Minute: 131.056
Surupa Sen studied Bharatanatyam as a young child. As the first student at Nrityagram, she began her Odissi training with Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. She also studied Odissi with Nrityagram’s founder, Protima Gauri, and Abhinaya with Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan. Sen is now Nrityagram’s artistic director. Sen participated in the International Choreographer’s Residency at the American Dance Festival in 2000. She has since choreographed and performed work in India and around the world. Sen is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Raza Foundation Award (2006), the Yagnaraman Award from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai (2008), and the prestigious Nritya Choodamani from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai (2011).
Bijayini Satpathy began her Odissi training in Odisha at age seven. She made Nrityagram her home in 1993, and has since performed around the world with the Ensemble and as a soloist. Satpathy is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Mahari Award (2003), awarded to the best Odissi dancer of the year; the Sanskriti Award (2007), Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar (2007). and the prestigious Nritya Choodamani from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai (2011). As Nrityagram’s director of dance education, Satpathy works on extending the vocabulary of the traditional form and formulating Nrityagram’s dance pedagogy. Through her research, she has developed an acessible Odissi training program for beginning and advanced dancers, as well as teachers.
Bios sourced from http://bacnyc.org/performances/performance/nrityagram
In this interview, Sen and Satpathy speak to Ranjana Dave about finding their way to Nrityagram, and their intense work in choreography, performance and education over the past twenty-five years.
Ranjana Dave (RD): So, to begin, we've all heard the story of Nrityagram and your story, in the past, in several ways. But since we mean to start at the very beginning, could you both tell us how you ended up here? What were the initial years at Nrityagram like, especially in terms of training?
Surupa Sen (SS): When I came to Nrityagram, it was...I came here in 1990. And the first batch of students was just starting out. It was barely a month old and Guruji was in charge of the gurukul. Kelucharan Mohapatra. And it really was a completely different experience from what it is now, as you see it. There was everything to be built still. We just had barely built the Odissi gurukul. The floor was still being built and nothing else was there. We planted the trees thereafter; we polished the floors — that was the physical aspect of it. We grew our own vegetables. We were the pioneering group which had to learn what it means to live in the gurukul style. Now what you see is quite different.
The training was very intense even then. We did 10 - 12 hours of work every day. And as I said earlier, we had three saris drenched every single day. We went for that run early in the morning. We did sound-soundless, chowk-tribhangi, all of that. The hours were quite intense. But we plunged into it, and there was no definitive understanding of the science of training. It was the traditional system of training. It was quite admissible in those days and it did what it had to do. But treating each body differently or treating the possibilities of the body differently was not part of our training.
Bijayini Satpathy (BS): I came in 1993 to be part of the ensemble, to perform in the US on the first tour. What immediately excited me about the place was the place, firstly. That you had the place, the generosity of Gaurima (Protima Gauri), who just gave and gave and gave and immediately made me part of everything that everybody else had worked for by living here — a very hard life. I had come after 12 years of training and then suddenly realised that what I had learned — just by imitation I had learned to copy movements. I had no understanding of the intent behind it or an understanding of line and form — everything else that is now our understanding of...
So all that made me extremely excited about the work that happened here and the place. At that time, when I came, the teachers who continuously stayed here and taught had left already. And that was just two-and-a-half years after Nrityagram had started. So Surupa had taken over teaching. And everything was from self-motivation. You know how hard it is to wake up early in the mornings and push yourself to class and set yourself a routine that is hard on the body, but she led us all, and we set a routine for ourselves. We corrected each other if there were choreographies we had to present. We had to pull ourselves out, watch each other, coordinate, find the points of coordination. And she had a great sense of line and form and timing. So we just followed. And it worked. From there, suddenly, a system of training started forming, without us realising and really working towards it. From our own involvement, in the way we practised without the teachers, we knew that there is a lot that we can do ourselves.
Whenever Gaurima came back to see what was going on, she was extremely pleased that the standard just kept going up, because of our continuous work. We were not just relaxing when the teachers was not there. There were no teachers actually, unless there were workshops. So she gave us full permission to go ahead and start auditioning students to start our own...gurukul. So we started auditioning students in 1998. Our first batch of students started on the day Gaurima actually passed away. And since then it's been an exciting journey. Odissi has taken a different form here. A lot of people now say that they are doing 'Nrityagram Odissi', which feels very good, because a lot of hard work, sincere and thoughtful work, with clear understanding and research, has gone into what has happened. And I think there's a lot yet to happen.
RD: That was my next question, actually. How did you start evolving what you now call the Nrityagram technique. That's a question to both of you.
SS: I think...the basic training, as you know — Bijayini has been working a great deal with the deconstruction of it, and the training methodology — it's really her baby. I do the choreographic work and training of the professional ensemble. I think what happens is — in that continuous involvement in developing each movement in a manner which is complete, in a manner where you can use the movement in so many different ways. Each step, each spin — even if you learn something from the Natyasastra, we don't take the Natyasastra and apply it as is. There would be no meaning to it. It's like trying to find a language from someone else and then applying it just as is in your own language. So just understanding what is the essence of the style and then being able to develop it without losing any of its intrinsic qualities takes just pure hard practice — it's nothing more. I don't think it's such an amazing thing to do. It's just really rigorous riyaz. Every single day, you think, sleep, eat, dream, breathe — that.
Then after that — everything that comes out of you is just that language. And the possibilities of that language become vast. What you learn is — yes — you learn only ten steps of chowk — that's all I have learned — ten steps of chowk and ten steps of tribhangi — from Guruji's style. But after you look at that, how do you understand that each step has a definite pattern happening. If you join all the movements, what you can and cannot do. You can do this and cannot do this. That is not something you can just intellectually do; you have to intuitively, instinctively feel it. It has to be emotionally right, physically right, intellectually right, spatially right and definitely spiritually right. Because it is born of a certain ethos. Now, if I take it out of Orissa, where it is born and develops, I have to be able to also understand in a deep manner what it is that is the essence of that form, and that stylistic difference between this form and another form and another form and another form. What makes it different? Where you hold your eyes, and how you hold your eyes. How you hold your neck. Even the difference between a slight angle of the neck, a slight angle of the body, the torso, makes all the difference. And so, to find that, you have to simply practise it till there's nothing else coming out of you, till you've really — when you say — sublimated yourself.
And from there, you start developing a pedagogy, which is what Bijayini has been involved in, in a manner where it lends itself to you, where you can develop anything from it, anything. But the language essentially does not really change. It is expanded, you elaborate it, but you don't change it.
BS: The work on conditioning is something that already existed before I came. There was a lot of cross-training in different kinds of techniques like kalari or chhau. It was very much part of our own training. So, from that, even though we had just the basic ten chowks or ten tribhangis to practise and that was all (we had) as our basics and we had days to go through to just practise those — then you finetuned it and finetuned it and like she said — you reached completion in isolated parts of the body. And then the feel had to be complete in all that. Once all that was achieved — and we had the ability because of all this conditioning technique that we had — and our students came in — in the first year, when I started teaching them, there was a point where I was faced with this question that is that all that is the total vocabulary to train the student? What else?
Now, if I'm going to teach them namami, what are the things that cannot be sourced from the existing vocabulary? If I had to teach them Batu, which is it that is going to suddenly surprise them? So, at that time, the first step was to deconstruct the existing traditional choreography that everybody learns and is standardised and things like that, and take from it the qualities of movement that didn't exist in the basic training that existed then. After that...(break in recording)
The first step was to deconstruct the existing choreography at that point, and find the lowest common denominators of Odissi movement that are repetitively used in the vocabulary and become the nuance of the dance form. And then, with that possibility I thought that the dance training can be much more systematic, because Odissi is a very complex dance form. It requires many layers of coordination, in opposition — it's very hard for the body. So even though we had the conditioning, I wanted to simplify the training process and make it systematic. And then, with our interaction with choreographers and dancers from outside, one started to understand the body in Odissi. So the anatomy of the body in Odissi, the muscles, the joints, the range of flexibility and strength that is required, how you can just pinpoint your training and focus it, to develop it in that manner. So we do cross-train, and we have created a conditioning series based on kalarippayattu, yoga, western techniques, ballet basics, Odissi techniques, Natyasastra etc, just to focus it towards making better bodies for Odissi. And systematise the training, taking elements from the Abhinaya Darpana, and really studying the meanings of charis, bhramaris and utplavanas - their definitions, and then finding what existed and bringing in new movements without losing the nuance of it.
And then, when you have all these abilities coming into the body, the choreographer gets excited, I think, and Surupa then wants certain movements to take place. Also, through her work, we have researched the temple sculptures from which Odissi is supposed to have been born and then questioned why certain poses are not there. Why certain poses are overused, why certain postures are very rarely seen, and how we can make complete use of it. So, another branch of work has started in that direction, and to bring all that in, we wanted do make an extensive study of the Natyasastra which made it all possible. And that's how we have pushed a lot of boundaries. Actually, this work has not just been mine. When I see what she is looking at in terms of the picture she wants to create on stage, I would think of an alaga utplavana like that. Otherwise — a double-legged jump — which I don't think any other Odissi dancer thinks of, unless there is a character that requires it. But not as a technique. So it's been complementary, the development of my research on basic technique and also then when the bodies are prepared like that I think she creates choreography that way...I don't know, maybe....
RD: Well, you've actually led up again to my next question. Is there a point at which you consciously started choreographing? Were there triggers, and — can you take us through your choreographic work? From Sri...
SS: Take you through it?
RD: Yes. (laughter) Not dance it out; just tell us about it.
SS: Talk about the choreography is always a bit difficult for me, because I don't quite...
RD: Maybe you can pick things that you want to talk about, you don't have to index your work.
BS: Well, you should definitely start with how you started choreographing.
SS: Why did I do it?
RD: That's the first part of my question.
BS: Under duress.
SS: Under duress, she says (laughter). I started because I was given responsibility for maintaining an ensemble. I started training everybody with the little information I had. I have been making up dances all my life. It's something I just do for fun. It's something that inspires me and just moves my mind. And my mind is quite overactive, for the most part.
I just like to make up dances. It gives some kind of creative fulfilment. And, so, when we had to do our new work, and we had a grant for it, I was really excited. And I think you can make a dance out of pretty much anything. Which is anything. Music has to be there. I love music, and so music becomes an extremely important impetus for me. The dancer herself has to be inspiring for me to create something for them. And I can create something for each person quite individually, seeing their possibilities and what their potential is. Putting it together is just something I do. I really don't know whether there is an intellectual process to it. Right now, I am teaching a workshop, and I've never really taught a workshop. And as I go into the class, I start thinking. It's not something I can really create before and think about the process. It comes to me quite instinctively. I never really believed that I was good at it or anything. It's just something I do. And the dancers have been very patient. They just lend themselves to me quite...(BS interjects — unquestioningly) captive victims!
The first production happened because we had this grant. I wanted to do work which...(it was my) first time working with Raghunath Panigrahi. His music was extraordinary. He was very kind to me. I have to say that he never treated me like a child who did not know what she was doing. Instantly there was a chemistry between us. Artistically he allowed me every single freedom to think and to direct the production in a manner that I thought was good or worked for me. I also worked with Kumaresh and Ganesh on that first production, and we did a non-traditional work. But the most important part of it all was we had the freedom here to do anything we wanted, so long as...to me, I am not tampering with anything. I am very particular about that, that I will not tamper with a language that is handed down to me. I feel it is a great responsibility. And creating a work out of that, music first, then movement, sometimes movement first, then music, sometimes poetry first, then music, then dance. Each work tells you what it wants. You just simply be there and allow it to happen. That's what I believe. You are a channeliser for (turns to BS)...is there a word called 'channeliser'?
BS: No, you can make it up.
SS: Channel. So you're a channel for something to happen and it's really exciting to see what can happen. To me, that's the process. You sit there, and you wait like hell, or heaven, and then each person tells me what they're going to do, and the music tells me what it wants, and I listen really carefully. To me, choreography is a lot about listening, and everything else just takes shape, I think.
RD: You once said that the creative process is a very 'alone' process, as opposed to being lonely. Do you want to...
SS: Yes. Well, because a lot of the time only I know what it is that I am seeing in my head. A lot of the time I am not really able to express clearly why I want them to do something. And now I think I have become better at it. I express a little more clearly. But earlier it was just — please do this — and there were so many questions, especially from Bijayini. But why? And I hate it when somebody asks me why all the time! Because I really don't know the answer. I am sitting there thinking that this is a good question, but I really don't know the answer. So I just know that I have to trust that this is what I want to do, and you just do it. And then when I look at it, suddenly I know why I wanted to do it. It makes itself known. So it's a different way of thinking perhaps and it's sometimes really difficult for the dancers, but it's the only way I know how to work. I never really learnt how to choreograph; it's just something I do.
BS: No, we did. We have done workshops in choreography, but you follow no format. There are things like — you consider time, space, music, concept, context, relationship. We know all the principles; it's not like that. I know all the principles, but I don't believe I can choreograph. But she works extremely instinctively. The questions that I have sometimes — I have to just make do with making my own meaning out of whatever she wants. But I do trust her because I have seen how it develops. It feels like she is possessed, in a trance, and she's seeing something. It's crazy; she creates with her eyes closed and moves like she has no limbs. And there are no shapes and forms I can see. When I have learnt from her I have just taken the sensibility of what she is doing. It is the nuance of how she is moving. And then I give it arms and legs a lot of the time. And show it to her. Sometimes it is accepted and sometimes she says — no, it's not that, and then gives it a little more form. But a lot of times she is just roaming around like a dervish roaming in space (SS laughs) and I am trying to catch what she means...(in response to SS)...yeah, very mad, very very mad. If you see any of these creative processes, all this amazing work has been created like that. And then I have all these questions. I just decide that this is the meaning of this movement. Or why are we going from this move to that move even though it doesn't feel like it's naturally going? Because it's foreign to us. I know all the little parts, but to bring it together and make one string of it — it sometimes restricts you, is limiting and it doesn't feel very natural or organic, but I make it organic. Then I find a meaning in it and I'm very happy with the meaning. I enhance it and get completely indulged in it (sic). All that happens, till after two years of performing she suddenly says one day, "The meaning of this movement is that." And that's when I want to really kill her. Because it takes...but it's a nice process. It's a very challenging process, it's extremely enriching and for me I have to always tell myself — I have more tools. I could move that way with that meaning; now I'll move the same way with that meaning. So I have more tools. I have more range. That's how I accept it.
I wouldn't work with anybody else, if that answers any question.
RD: I was about to ask you (BS) what it feels like, being a choreographer's muse, which you've...
BS: Great! It's extremely exciting, when dances are made for you. It feels like this is the way I want to move because she is tapping on that. She is really finding my skill and my strong points, sometimes my weak points, and pushing me to breach that threshold and go ahead of that. It's extremely challenging and I am growing all the time. It's not like I have ever — to have a captive choreographer — I think I am the luckiest dancer in the world today because I have it. It's always, "Ok, Bijayini, come and show," and I am waiting for that moment. Sometimes she says, "I don't want to see you anymore. I want to see them," and I don't like it. Because I know that — now if the little girls are dancing I ask to be part of it because I am learning. I learn from it. With every little move, with every little difference, with every little change, to rethink a movement, to find another way of looking at it, everything is challenging for me. Everything is new learning and adds to how I understand movement, what I think of dance and also to my research. How am I looking at my research, thinking, oh, that can be another way of doing things!
RD: Hmm. A couple of questions. So you (SS) have often said — I was reading an interview where you said it would be hard to, say, depict drug addiction to Odissi. That the form has a specific ethos and content and won't easily be adaptable to another one. Would you use the word 'contemporary' in relation to Odissi, and if yes, then expand on that.
SS: I just think that the contemporary is a sensibility. I think there were extremely contemporary people thousands of years ago. It's got nothing to do with what I wear and how I move. I think I am much younger than a lot of people I see who are very young, because the way they think is really dated. They are unable to process information in a manner which is useful now or in a manner that allows for growth. To me, that is what contemporary is. So I may be doing Odissi but — I don't know if there is a thing called contemporary dance per se. Odissi for me is just as contemporary as whatever movement people are doing out there. It's a language. And so, if I say — drug addiction, yeah, because, you know — how do I show a piece of paper? I can show (gestures) a piece of paper, fire, you light smack on it and you take it in. I can show that. But what's the purpose of that exercise. It is extremely important for me — what is it that I am doing and why? There are so many contemporary dancers who can show that. I am not interested in it. The difference is that when you dance classical forms, it is a form of universal expression. I am interested in communicating ideas that are universally true.
Now, this can be debated forever. Drug addiction — is it universally true? I don't know. Emotions are universally true. The pain of separation, or lust, love, anger, versions of anger — everything has already been said as far as I am concerned. I am not saying anything which is new or extraordinary. Nothing, nothing. Let us not give ourselves that much importance. What we are trying to do is simply — to me, dance is about being present. Contemporary is a sensibility where the way that I express myself can be contemporary, within my language. Today I am speaking to you in English. You understand my English. I am not speaking a dated language. That's all I need to do. I need to make myself understood in my form, and I think we do that. Not because I really work hard at it, but because that's who I am. And you work not on the dance, you work on yourself. You are the project. You work on yourself. If you become somebody, and you are practising your art every single day, and there is no difference between you and your art, what you do will be contemporary. I mean, this is how I think; I don't know whether it makes sense or not.
RD: I have a question for you (BS) which you sort of addressed earlier when you spoke about the methodology. Teaching requires you to know what you are teaching but you also have to understand how the dance plays out in other people's bodies and minds. So how has it been and what are you thinking about in terms of teaching now?
BS: At Nrityagram, we have had many students under different kinds of training and the most intensive is the residential training, where students stay for three years of basic training and three years of advanced training. And in the process of training, while we've started teaching students, we've realised that technique has to — first of all — set in different bodies of various proportions — of limbs, background, understanding — everything different. It has to be articulated in a different manner, so that eventually when they come and dance together, they move as one body. But their understanding of it, their experience of it, is different, so that they relate to it. So it has always been like that, and that has also given us many outlooks to one thing, many ways to looking at one thing. If it is chowk number two, or three or four, if I have taught one person the same thing, brought out the same movement, I know that actually that movement has all these dynamics within it. So that is how it has always been, will always be.
But when the dancers of different shapes and forms and sizes and backgrounds and understanding and experience come together and dance in an ensemble or just in a class, they dance together. So there is definitely a set technique but the way I articulate the training to each one of them, the way they perceive it, is different.
RD: Finally, to both of you, what's next?
SS: More work.
BS: More research.
SS: Good work, hopefully. Dance like you really want to, and dance like you belong. I don't think there is anything else to live for, really.
BS: It's an exciting time. All this while we have had our students graduate from training and join us in the ensemble. Right now, this is a really exciting time of transition for us where we find that it's been a long time since the three of us — Pavithra, Surupa and I — have been dancing together — almost for 22 years. And the students have come much later. So now there is a big gap in skill levels because of the experience of it. They know the same technique; we dance the same technique, but experience brings a different level of seamlessness when you execute the movements. And the experience of life. Having emoted a certain way, having lived life a certain way. So, now, we have separated ourselves from the ensemble and we are beginning to create an independent ensemble. And to see the possibilities of just our technique, because we also learnt the other technique earlier — we brought in the other understanding. But these products are just our technique. So to see the possibilities of what can happen with just them and then what we can do independent of having a large group, always trying to negotiate coordination and spacing. It has always been a challenge. With every graduate coming into the ensemble, we have had to negotiate all that. But now that we are free to move any which way we want, and to also have that kind of conditioning, that kind of technical training then brought to the ensemble and to see the possibilities of it. So it's extremely exciting. Definitely, for the next five years, we are looking at a lot of very challenging work by the new ensemble...
SS: Hopefully they'll grow up and fly. That's what you really want for them.
BS:...and very light and simple work by us. As we grow older.
SS: ...and leave us alone.