One lovely evening at the Nishagandhi Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram, Protima Bedi introduced a young, petite dancer to the audience. “This is my first disciple, Surupa Sen,” the seasoned Odissi danseuse said. The young Surupa proceeded to mesmerise the spectators with her grace, abhinaya, and stage presence, and her spark of genius was evident to all. That was 17 years ago. Today, Surupa is not just one of the leading exponents of Odissi, but a superb choreographer as well. ‘Vibhakta,' a piece she choreographed on Adi Sankaracharya's stotram on Ardhanareeswara, was chosen as one of the top 10 dance performances of 2008 by The New Yorker magazine. Surupa was the only Asian dancer in that list. of dancers, which included the likes of Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, and Christopher Wheeldon, to name a few. Since Protima's demise in 1998, Surupa has headed Nrityagram, the dance school founded by the late danseuse, and is today its lead dancer and choreographer. Surupa was in Kozhikode recently to lead Nrityagram's performance at the annual Soorya Festival. After the spectacular show, the artiste spoke at length to Friday Review about her dance. Excerpts from the interview…
Initiation into dance
I began dancing when I was four years old. I learnt Bharatanatyam first because we were living in South India at that time. I performed Bharatanatyam for eight years and then I stopped dancing completely for the next eight years. I was good at academics, so I concentrated on my studies. But when I completed my B.A. (Honours) in Economics from Delhi University, I felt I had to make a choice: whether I wanted to be a rich businesswoman or a dancer. I decided that dancing was better for me and joined Protima Bedi at Nrityagram as the institution's first-ever student.
Taking to Odissi
I fell in love with Odissi after watching a performance by one of Madhavi Mudgal's students. I believe Odissi is the most complete and lyrical of all our dance forms. I feel it is much closer to Natya Sastra than other classical dances of India. Odissi has the right mix of lasya and thandava. It is feminine till the waist; from waist down, it is rather masculine. And Odissi's tribhangi makes it one of the most distinctive and demanding of all classical Indian dances.
On working with Protima
Gaurima – as I called her – was more than just a guru to me. I enjoyed every minute with her, learning and dancing with her on stage.
On Nrityagram and carrying on Protima's legacy
Gaurima had to work hard to set up Nrityagram. In her own words, she had to beg in order to run it. I am glad it has become self-sustainable now. She would have been happy. I took over from Gaurima as far as all the dance activities of Nrityagram are concerned. I am very proud to be associated with the institution. We have a gurukul tradition and ours is a small community. We give scholarships every year to six students, who stay with us. We have more than 300 students.
On Odissi's popularity
I think Odissi is fast becoming the most popular classical Indian dance form after Bharatanatyam. There is lot of exposure for Odissi nowadays. The feedback we get, especially when we perform abroad, is amazing. Nrityagram has danced in about 40 States in the United States (U.S.). Our first show in the U.S. in 1996 proved to be the turning point for both Nrityagram and me. The show was held at Kaye Playhouse in New York. Gaurima had not been able to make it for that tour, so we students had to do the show ourselves. We danced some traditional pieces and there was a standing ovation for around 10 minutes. The New York Times gave us a fantastic review. What's interesting is that the show happened out of the blue. Jonathan and Jennifer Soros, an American couple, had come to stay at Nrityagram. We were not aware that Jonathan was the son of George Soros, a well-known financier and philanthropist. It was Jonathan who took us to the U.S. and helped us get that stage in New York.
On dance scene in India
I wish we had some proper stages for dance here! Just the other day, Lynne Fernandez, who manages everything for us at Nrityagram, had to sweep the stage herself so that it could be fit for a dance performance. Our attitude towards art and artistes has to change.
It is something I enjoy immensely. I try to do things differently, such as presenting traditional solo items as duets – as I often do with Bijayini Satpathy.
It is a segment in our production ‘Sacred Space.' It has been well received across the world. In it, the male half of the Ardhanareeshwara describes the beauty of the female half and vice versa.
On new productions
I am currently working on a joint production with Kandyan dancers from Sri Lankan. Kandyan dance is an amazingly masculine tradition and I feel it will complement Odissi.