Five decades and still dancing – The Hindu

The 1967 Films Division documentary I am 20, features Indians born on Independence Day in 1947 talking about their desires, ambitions and fears. The 20-year-olds adopt a range of tones; they are motivated, flippant, playful, curious and critical as they discuss the feeling of being as old as our independent nation. Freedom is something they all reflect on, though it has different meanings for each of them. This experience also resonates in the work of artistes who found themselves formulating a rubric for dance practice in a young post-Independent India.

Back to the beginning

When dancer and pedagogue Kanak Rele set up the Nalanda Dance Research Centre, she saw it as a means of substantiating India’s identity as a cultural powerhouse. Now in its 51st year, the artists of Nalanda bring their history to the NCPA’s August Dance Residency, through a site visit, film screening, workshop and performance. Rele comes from a family that loves India. “It was dinned into us that our country was great,” she reminisces. “That is why I named it Nalanda after the famous university of yore. Once I started studying under great stalwarts, I realised that there was a storehouse of knowledge that had to be opened up to more dancers. There is no point in dancing like a parrot without understanding what you are doing.” Her efforts were also bolstered by an unprecedented level of government support: nobody has ever shut their doors. “I convinced people without fighting, shouting or hurling abuse,” she says. “But I show them results.”

By 1973, the centre’s professional training college, Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, affiliated to Mumbai University, was offering full-time degree programmes in classical dance styles. An entire generation of dancers in and around Mumbai studied at Nalanda. For those with no family background in the arts, the degree was an empowering qualification, addressing reservations about career prospects and the sustainability of the arts.

An immersive experience

Nalanda’s week in residence begins with a visit to their research centre in Juhu. Occasionally, hordes of people line up along its walls, straining to catch a glimpse of the actor Amitabh Bachchan in his bungalow across the road. But you’re more likely to catching a glimpse of the institute’s dancers walking in and out, their practice sarees fluttering in the breeze, discussing all things dance. As part of the visit, the centre will also screen a film that showcases their founder’s work.

A few days later, the repertory dancers and alumni of Nalanda will perform in the show titled Suvarna Nalanda – The Golden Nalanda, assembling a trajectory of Rele’s choreographic work through their performances. Bharatanatyam dancer Deepak Mazumdar will take the stage along with Mohiniattam dancer Sunanda Nair and the current principal of Nalanda, Uma Rele, performing excerpts from Santavani, a piece based on the abhangs written by the saint poets of Maharashtra. Young graduates from Nalanda’s professional programmes will present selections of pure dance and dance dramas in Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam.

The older Rele is billed as the star performer, dancing her signature Mohiniattam piece Kubja, which tells the story of the eponymous hunchbacked woman who is transformed after an encounter with Krishna. The veteran is an expert storyteller, deftly manifesting her character’s quick shifts. Kubja’s disposition transforms from her nervous state of mind as she goes through the motions of making sandal paste to utter delight at unexpectedly encountering Krishna on the streets of Mathura.

Drawing on these studies of bhakti (devotion) as an emotion, the final event of the residency sees Rele teaching a two-day workshop exploring the various dimensions of bhakti rasa.

Then and now

When it comes to Nalanda’s present-day initiatives, Rele talks about dance therapy, the movement science and fitness courses, and the interest in making the institute’s work available as an online resource. Over five decades, Nalanda has largely stuck to its mandate of imparting traditional training in classical dance forms. When principal Uma Rele speaks about the institution, she reinforces this core focus, “The vision and mission of Nalanda is to propagate Indian classical dances and stress on purity. That will never change,” she says. “For instance, as a Bharatanatyam dancer, I can say that its repertoire has remained the same after the Tanjore Quartet defined it [in the early 19th century]. According to me, the basic things will never change or should not change. Once the students go out, they can experiment. We maintain the purity of the dance form and the language even in our experiments.”

Classical dance pedagogy often comes up short against the challenge of teaching a rigorously codified language in a fast-changing performance landscape. The multiple layers of meaning and significance, history and mythology, can turn rigid, at odds with a dancer’s urge to rethink their notions and thus, their relationship with classical dance. Within the structure of formal training systems that focus on technique and vocabulary, there is little leeway to be curious, investigative or analytical. How can training systems seed and enable critical thought in dance practice?

Nalanda’s founder, Rele feels that it is up to individuals to expand their lives, even as they receive the best training possible within the institution. She has met many dancers who disappeared from the scene after acquiring a high degree of expertise. This speaks to the ephemerality of dance practice, but at 80, Rele is resolute. “I would like to continue my work till the end of my life,” she says, aware of mortality and yet steadfastly relentless in her optimism.

Nalanda is at the August Dance Residency, NCPA, from Aug 14 – 20 for details

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