Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A dance odyssey at a gurukul

By Violaine Bhawana

It is wonderful to meet people who see the best in you and want you to achieve it. They believe in you when you yourself don’t. In order to help access the best in us, we need someone demanding, uncompromising and compassionate. I guess that is what a guru means to me. And that is exactly what I found in our teacher Ramaa Bharadvaj.

What led me to her was an interesting announcement on the web about a week-long dance intensive with the theme ‘Abhinaya & Improvisation’. It was to be held from 15 to 21 December 2013 at Chinmaya Naada Bindu (CNB), an arts ashram/gurukul in Kolwan village near Pune in India.

My journey began on a Sunday morning in December. “We are supposed to meet for tea before heading for the temple” – that is all the information I managed to get from my roommate who could not speak English but who was kind enough to wait for me to arrive in the middle of the night.

Morning dawned and it was cold. After many years in Chennai’s impossible mixture of heat, humidity and pollution, the crisp mountain air, wide-open spaces and the abundant greenery at the ashram had a purifying effect on me. I met our teacher whom we aptly named Ramaa Amma, and the other members of the dance group who were to become a wonderful team of co-explorers in the journey ahead. Our group of ten consisted of dancers from the U.S.A., Tamil Nadu (Chennai), Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra, Mumbai and New Delhi.

We trekked up the hill to the splendid Ganesa temple, to offer prayers for the auspicious start of a week that was fittingly qualified as “intense”. Under the guidance of our expert teacher we were about to embark on a colourful exploration of new dimensions in dance, movement and meditation.

The whole group jelled really well and I was relieved that my French-alien-ness did not come in the way. Whether a foreigner can do justice to an Indian art form is a question that unfailingly pops up. At the gurukul the reaction I got was support and not suspicion. From the kitchen staff to the administrators, teachers and fellow students, I time and again saw only dedicated people, friendly, helpful and supportive.

Learning is fun

‘Learning is fun’ is what the Natya Sastra says, and one of the first things that Ramaa pointed out to us. The modern concept of ‘edutainment’ has ancient roots and that is probably one of the things that impressed me the most: learning is the ultimate fun! The impromptu dance steps performed in the dining hall and the reaction they triggered was one of the many illustrations. After watching the video discourses of Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Tejomayananda, and the non-stop laughter they generated in the audience, I realised that laughing is almost the most powerful tool in the learning and creative process. Our teacher Ramaa’s classes too followed suit. I found that diving into something as obscure as the Vedas or the traditional art forms can be fun.

It was seven hours of dancing a day! Each class commenced with prayers and slokas, and somewhere in the background, there was always music to inspire us, thanks to the music students. Every moment was precious in Ramaa’s classes. She constantly reminded us not to take anything she said for granted but to always experiment for ourselves, because only what is validated by personal experience can eventually make sense. She urged us not to fake or be apologetic about ourselves, and if there was something we disagreed with or could not understand, to speak up loud and clear. She advised us never to be satisfied with the comfort zone of our muscle memory but to reach beyond movements and expressions that have become mechanical instead of seeming natural. She asked us to use the body in a very different way, be more aware, more in control and at the same time more free. Expression is not limited to gesturing. How articulate we are with words will reflect in other mediums of communication – emotions, movements, even silence. Thus we learnt the art of developing what she called “micro-dialogues”. There were so many interesting explorative exercises for us to experience.

Ramaa involved us in the creative process, showing us how a choreographer’s mind works. We were asked to comment on the performances of our classmates with positive feedback (yes, criticism can be positive). The creation of the dance to the Tamil song (a padam about tender love) was, from beginning to end, a collaborative effort. At no point in time were we told to copy and paste what we were taught. And understanding what is relevant from what is not (viveka) was one of the many challenges that she threw at us.

Ramaa told us many things about the physical body connected to the ground, the emotional body connected to the heart, and the spiritual body connected to the head and above. She gave us insights into the dynamics of energy, the intricacies of rhythm, Sanskrit texts, Tamil lyrics and much more. What she proposed was a multi-dimensional exploration of dance that is not limited to dance alone, and to my knowledge (and unfortunately, I can say I have come through a long list of dance teachers in Chennai) a unique experience in the field of Bharatanatyam. For all the participants it was a life-transforming experience, way beyond the scope of learning dance.

In addition to dancing, we revelled in music meditation mornings, watched screenings of other dancers, video documented our own experiences on abhinaya, danced in the waters at the private lake, performed Arudra Darsanam worship to Nataraja in class and attended guest lectures and concerts. We enjoyed a live performance by our teachers, lit by candles and filled with reverence for the artists who have made their art a tool to reach divine dimensions. Indeed, a world away from the ego-trip of stage performers looking for name and fame. A rarity, to say the least. The best environment, some of the best teachers: clearly, the focus was on quality. I believe being creative is what brings us closer to the Creator and this experience did much to awaken our creative selves.

It was humbling and inspiring to meet my teacher Ramaa Bharadvaj, the staff of Chinmaya Naada Bindu, and my classmates. Chinmaya Naada Bindu is dedicated to fostering classical music and dance forms of India through education, research and performance. Established as a project of the Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, it is inspired by the vision to propagate India’s Vedic heritage through the performing arts. CNB regularly conducts residential workshops and intensives in Hindustani vocal, flute and Bharatanatyam, in addition to presenting an annual performing arts festival.

The week I spent at the gurukul was an odyssey, and a landmark in a learning process that has no end but offers an endless exploration, new dimensions that are ours for the taking. Words fail me, but the blessings I received from this experience will live in me for a long time.

Violaine Bhawana hails from France but has made Chennai her home since 2009, learning Bharatanatyam, Carnatic vocal music, Yoga and Sanskrit. She is a dance teacher volunteering with slum children through Speed Trust Chennai.

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