Nriytagram blends dance with a way of living
The Odissi form of dance is no longer the religious practice it was when Odissi originated, in the first century B.C., in the southern Indian state of Orissa. “It used to be a form of worship. It’s born inside the temple,” said Surupa Sen, a dancer and the artistic director of Nriytagram Dance Ensemble, which makes its Aspen debut Tuesday, Aug. 1, in the Aspen Dance Festival. “But now, it’s formed for the proscenium stage. It’s a form of entertainment.”Still, there remains more than a trace of the devotional in the way Nriytagram presents Odissi. “The idea is to re-create the temple, wherever we perform it,” said Sen, noting that the company tells the same mythological stories as were told two millennia ago.
If audiences could see not only the stage performance, but the way the Nriytagram dancers live and prepare, they would sense just how devotional the art form can be. In fact, many people do see behind the curtain; Nriytagram, the village where the troupe lives, attracts dance enthusiasts who see performances, as well as what goes into the stage show.Nriytagram translates to “dance village,” and that’s just what the place is. A remote and picturesque 10 acres some two hours from high-tech Bangalore, the village was founded by Protima Gauri, Sen’s mentor, as a place for dancers to focus on their art. The dancers – six of whom have spent the last week in Aspen, accompanied by four musicians – have their food, lodging and training provided free. But that does not make for a luxurious existence. The members of Nriytagram pay their dues to their master, the art of dance.Sen says the regimen required makes it a form of worship. “I think it is,” said the 36-year-old Sen, who has lived in Nriytagram for 16 years. “The content of the dance is such [that] it requires an extremely high level of discipline. The way we practice it in our village, it’s a way of life. The whole life is a way of service.”That way of life includes growing their food, eating vegetarian and living communally. The dancers wake early, practice yoga and dance 12 hours a day. It takes six years of basic training to join the performing troupe. Moreover, and this is significant to Sen, who has a degree in economics, the dancers do all this away from the attractions of a larger society. But those routines and the seclusion do not translate into a set of religious tenets.”It’s not cultic, though, in a religious sense,” said Sen. “We are dancers; dancing is the only religion we have.” The practices, she continued, teach the members “what it means to submerge one’s ego, to uplift the spirit into another dimension. All that requires a certain way of thinking. What you put into your body and your mind is what will come out. And what better way to come out than dance?”
Despite being removed from urban life, Nriytagram’s dance is sophisticated. The form is as demanding, said Sen, as European-derived ballet. Odissi involves facial expressions, hand gestures and even the movement of the eyes to tell the stories. It touches on Indian literature, philosophy, music and architecture.”It’s classical in the sense that it has a highly codified framework,” she said. “It’s a language, like ballet or English. You master it, and you can tell your own story.”Odissi has changed over the years. But Sen said the evolution has been influenced only by the various Indian civilizations that have taken hold; it remains “very much based on an Indian ethos,” she said. Western audiences, however, understand the art. Nriytagram didn’t begin touring until 1993. A positive review in The New York Times in 1996 gave them a toehold in America; they have since appeared in 36 states.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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