Geeta Chandran is a visionary and celebrated artist in Indian classical Bharatanatyam, recognized for her work in theatre, dance, education, videos, and films. The artist started dancing at the age of five and has spent the last 55 years teaching and performing classical dance on various stages worldwide.
Even after giving many best performances, she has always remained eager to learn something new and has never limited herself to one thing. In her dance presentations, she skillfully weaves abstract notions of joy, beauty, values, aspirations, myth, and spirituality.
In a candid conversation with The statesman, the danseuse opens up about her journey and the challenges faced by the older generation of dancers.
Who was your role model throughout your journey as an artist, and what was your source of inspiration?
A: My first Guru, Swarna Saraswathy, was my role model. Hailing from the traditional Thajavurdaasi Parampara, she was a multitalented artist who could dance fabulously, sing at concert level and give stunning Veena (musical instrument) stage performances. She has always inspired me, and therefore I always believed, that ‘if a person is not good at several things, then he/she is not good at all. At the age of five only when I began my learnings from Swarna Amma, my thresholds for excellence were set very high.
Tell us something about your family background and early life?
A: I belong to a conservative family where formal education is always the first priority. Therefore, while getting training in the arts – both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic Music began when I was five years old – my formal education has always remained my main focus. And since I was getting good grades in school, I pursued graduation in Mathematical Statistics from the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College at Delhi University, and further opted for a Master’s Programme in Communications from the Indian Institute of Mass Communications.
However, through all this dance has remained my preferred medium of expression and path to joy and fulfillment. And so, when I was finally of my own volition, I embraced Bharatanatyam as my full-time passion. It was my endeavour to become a full-fledged dancer and that’s where I found my joyous space within!
Can you brief us about your institution NatyaVriksha?
A: NATYA VRIKSHA is my foolish dream which I launched in 1991. I was deeply inspired by the traditional Guru-Shishya model of imparting education. The teaching pedagogy at NV incorporates elements of Shruti-Drishti-Smriti (hear-see-imbibe).
Through the dance training, I make students comprehend the complex inter-linkages between the classical dance tradition and its strict grammar with other disciplines: Philosophy, Ritual, Religion, Myths, Ancient texts, Poetry, Literature, Art (Painting and Sculpture), Cultural Studies, Yoga, Handicrafts & Handlooms, and Beauty & Aesthetics with an aim to developing holistic dancers.
My holistic method of transmitting classical dance encompasses training students both in dance (theory and practice) and dance aesthetics. They are also made aware of the related fields such as music, aharya (costuming & make-up), stage design, and sound & light techniques, through which interested students are encouraged to follow these fields.
As a Padma Shri awardee, do you feel pressured now than ever to work harder (which brings more responsibility to you)?
A: I was honoured with Padma Shri at the age of 45. It came to me as a surprise and a catalyst. It made me even more aware of working for society and for focusing on societal systems that are not working as well as they should. The following questions came to my mind, ‘Could I as an artist make any difference at all?’ ‘Could I as an artist also develop a social voice?’ ‘Could I inspire young people to be something better than they already are?’ The Padma award set me off on these new searches.
What especially has contributed to making you what you are today?
A: My conviction that dance is more than just bodily movement has led me to undertake different responsibilities. As a teacher, I must personally subscribe to the values I elucidate in my students; my aesthetics and my values must be of a single piece. If I have value today, it is that I have made the effort to ensure that there is only a very little gap between who I am perceived to be and who I really am.
Describe the best performance you have ever put on. What did you learn from it?
A: My work on ANEKANTA is my top favourite. A concept culled from the traditions of the religion Jainism, ANEKANTA refers to the principles of pluralism and multiplicity of viewpoints, which implies ‘There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true – it could be true and other ideas also could be true.’ This statement admits us to many dimensions. That implies: one thing is that we express and the other thing is the one left unsaid; Vaktavya and Avaktavya both are part of ANEKANTA, that also showcases concepts of impermanence and permanence, of the immortal and the mortal. I believe ANEKANTA can bring valuable oxygen to public discourse based on the values promoted and promised in the Indian Constitution.
According to you and as a guru, can you enlighten us on what important traits a dancer should have?
A: Mastering dance movement is the smallest component of becoming a dancer. I feel that the dancers must work on developing empathy as their ‘Sthayi Bhava’ (foundational value). They have to be sensitive to the environment and embrace a culture of inclusivity. Only by becoming a better person can one be a better dancer. It all boils down to values and more eclectic interpersonal behaviours.
How do you feel about your last dance performance and what lies behind its title “In search of infinity”?
A: The 30 months of the pandemic had put a limit to everything; we were all boxed in, both physically and metaphorically. In that state of despair, my dance led me to deeper spaces within myself. In my own spiritual way, I reached point Zero within and peeped into the beginning of that infinity. The performance IN SEARCH OF INFINITY is my dance autobiography; it speaks of how I tackled the pandemic as an artist. This is my artistic response to the lockdown.
What are the major challenges the old generation of dancers is facing with the evolution in the dance world?
A: Staying relevant in line with the changing world becomes a challenge for the older artists. Now the viewer is not just a live person, but also the unblinking camera that is invasive, intrusive, and unforgiving. Managing this new blended reality of online and offline requires adroit management of skills – and acquiring new skills as well. This remains a challenge for older artists.
As you are a trained vocalist as well as an author of the book ‘So many Journeys’, please explain the importance of art in one’s life?
A: The pandemic underlined the role of art in all our lives. We fought the downward spiral by listening to music, being with nature, doing yoga, and dancing for ourselves. The pandemic showed that art is important to life and living. Without the arts, we would all be joyless and soulless.