Padma Shri awardee and the celebrated Bharatnatyam dancer Geeta Chandran has completed 40 years pursuing her art. She has imbibed lessons from eminent gurus and brought those beautifully to bear on the dance form she now excels in. She also enjoys an illustrious career as a choreographer and skilfully presents abstract notions of joy, beauty, values, aspirations, myth and spirituality through her performances. Chandran speaks to Guardian 20 about her journey as a dancer and the guru-shishya tradition among other things.
Q. You have been associated with Bharatnatyam since the age of five. How has the journey been
A. Well, when I started it at the age of five, I did not have any idea that Bharatnatyam was going to be my profession and that I would be teaching it as well. It was my mother who wanted me to be an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer. This was so because at my home, it was essential to learn one of the art forms, as education was never seen to be complete without knowing the arts. I grew up in such an environment. At the age of five she took to my first teacher. Having said that, academics were very important as well. It was a very structured kind of upbringing. I was a very conscious kind of kid. In my house, everybody was a doctor or an engineer and nobody was an artist. I did my graduation in mathematics from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. Everybody at home thought I will go into mathematics.
But by the end of three years I knew I did not want to go for maths. But my father told me to do a master’s course, as in our house doing only undergraduation was like being uneducated and then I did my master’s from IIMC where my horizons were widened and I understood a lot about communications and expressing oneself. It also helped me in viewing things in a different perspective of creativity. Dance was all about creativity but I had never seen it from the angle of communicating expressions. But when you are young, you feel you are a super human. So, I took up a job and danced also. I did this for a few years as I was not happy with my job and I was guilty I did not do my riyaaz [practice]. And then one fine day I thought, with my job I will have lots of money but I won’t be a happy person and then there was no looking back. That was a beautiful phase when I discovered the missing links and threads and put it all together for
Q. How has the equation between the teacher and a student changed in recent years?
A. I will share my experience first. I started teaching at my guru K.N. Dakshinamurthi’s institute. I was very one lucky person who was actually taught to teach. Nowadays, it is a common notion that in the arts, when your performance career fails, you sit one morning and start teaching, but it is not true. Teaching is very important and it’s changing very fast. Teaching made me think a lot about bodies, how to customise many movements and patterns and I would notice how my guru taught and how he communicated with the young. I also understood that teaching is about psychology, about approaching the young and making the subject interesting for them. I learnt it in a very draconian way as my first teacher was very strict and my mother would gang up with her. Back then, parents used to have complete faith in teachers, which is something that has changed today. Two to three things have changed very drastically from the time I took training.
Now parents believe only in their child. They never think their child could be at fault. If the teacher used to say something it was like the last word for my parents. My father was someone who could sell everything for my dance. Today, money is not the limit and when you give the money, you think you own the teacher. It’s like I have thrown the money and now you’d better deliver. They don’t intend to make a partnership with the teaching institutes. But my parents and teachers were very much in sync. It was a never a transaction of any sort. It was like a blossoming of an art form. Today’s parents pay Rs 1 lakh to the school and think their responsibility is over at home. Whatever I achieved is because of my home and teachers. Certain things like rising up to the expectation of your teacher is a beautiful aspect of the teaching and currently, that whole process is getting diluted.
Q. Do you think today’s generation follows the guru-shishya tradition?
A. It depends on the guru and the shishya. Teaching cannot be a business enterprise. So, I have very few students. The larger the group, the impersonal it becomes. Guru-shishya relationship can never be impersonal. So, how can we make it into an institutional form. One teacher and one student is what the guru-shishya tradition is about. Small is always beautiful and great people have come from small spaces like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Akbar Ali Khan and Annapurna Devi. It’s about individuals getting the attention they deserve. So when we consider institutionalising this tradition we need to think about how to translate this guru-shishya parampara. I still don’t have answers
Q. Do you think the younger generations are disinterested in classical dance forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathak, while being more conversant with Western forms? And how can young children be introduced to classical dance?
A. I don’t think that youngsters are not interested in classical forms. It is just that they are not given exposure at the right time in schools. Since they are not aware they feel they don’t like classical. This is not an informed choice or decision. It is something very unfortunate with our system. Although I have tried to correct this flaw for many years in various schools, colleges and teaching institutions by performing, talking, conducting workshops. We are doing all this, but there should be political will to introduce the arts as a subject. Unless you begin in schools, you really can’t expect them to develop that respect and love for the arts and music. Kids can be introduced to biographies through visual libraries, can be taught about the struggles of a dancer and the history of many dance forms. If it is mandated by the CBSE that one of the classical art forms should be taught in schools, nobody can oppose this.
Q. You were a member of the NCERT Steering Group, appointed to help add a cultural component to CBSE and state syllabi. Could you talk about the recommendations you made?
A. We made this syllabus for 4-5 years and worked on it by integrating dance, music, theatre, visual arts and so on for junior, middle and senior classes. We made this syllabus keeping the core syllabus in the mind. Lack of teachers is another problem in our schools. Again, that trend of anyone who failed in solo dance starting to teach. Teaching is not the first choice of such teachers. Since they are not doing anything they start teaching and that becomes a bit of a problem. There should be a proper teacher course, too, to teach these art forms. Basically, they should be taught how to appreciate these forms.
Q. Can art be used as a platform to promote socially-relevant issues?
A. No artist lives in the perfect society. Two issues that have been very close to my heart since college days were women and environment issues. Even if a woman is educated she is rarely allowed to make her own choices in life. There is always some power struggle going on in their lives. About environment, I can say that human beings are going against the natural phenomenon. So, as an artist I keep thinking about how to make our society more aware about these issues.
Q. How can classical dance be promoted in today’s context?
A. Our gurus never reached out. They felt that their art forms were so evolved that it needed certain kind of people to come and watch. They never made an effort to communicate to wider audience. But time has changed. So, I am on TED talk, Twitter, Facebook and on all social sites to communicate. We have to understand the lives of the younger generations and have to see where they spend their maximum time. There is no harm in adapting to modern technologies. Many gurus didn’t adapt to change and this has failed them. The ones who are successful are keeping abreast with current trends and trying to adapt their dance forms to the changing times.
Q. Tell us about your organisation Natya-Vriksha.
A. We just completed our 25 years. It’s a very small organisation but striving to excel through the work we do. We need artists to reach out to us and not just performers. India has a distinct colour and beauty which I integrate in my teaching. Dance is not just about moving your hands and legs; it’s about mythology, philosophy, yoga, history, aesthetics. It is a mix of many subjects. One who is teaching has to know a little bit of everything to teach these forms.
Q. What’s your book So Many Journeys about?
A. It’s pretty much old now [laughs]. It is a collection of all my personal experiences of learning from my great gurus, travelling, meeting different kinds of people. It is about how dance evolved in the last 30 years and how audiences have changed, and many other things essentially written for my students. It is an observation by me as a student, dancer and then a teacher. I am planning to write a sequel to my