Geeta Chandran: Dancing in devotion

Refreshing stance: Geeta Chandran in performance

Refreshing stance: Geeta Chandran in performance  


In ‘Samagama Leela’, Geeta Chandran gives us a glimpse of her evolving relationship with bhakti

Bhakti has been the central theme of several Bharatanatyam presentations, yet it is rare to see a performer’s story unfold through this lens. In ‘Samagama Leela’, the recent production by dancer, choreographer and guru, Geeta Chandran, bhakti emerges as the thematic foundation for reflection into her own life journey. The autobiographical solo performance takes a refreshing stance by delving into the deeply personal. It braids the artistic and spiritual journeys together to step away from a routine recital and present a margam of life.

Conceptualised by Geeta Chandran and Sudhamahi Regunathan, the performance moves through six compositions, most of which may be familiar to a discerning audience, and have been hand-picked carefully to mark milestones in the dancer’s life. The audience get a glimpse of the artist’s evolving relationship with bhakti through subtle story-telling before each composition, narrated by Rajiv Chandran.

“Everybody’s journey in dance is very different,” says Geeta Chandran, “to talk about bhakti through my own life journey is the most simple and personal connection.” She developed the performance when invited to participate in the international conference on Bhakti at Yale, New Haven, United States, earlier this year. While the scholars speaking at the conference focused on the historical and aesthetic aspects of bhakti, the idea to present an autobiographical take emerged as a way of exploring the topic more experientially as an artist.

Early impressions

For Chandran, bhakti has been a way of life since childhood. The opening invocatory shlokam ‘Kripa samudram’ is also symbolic of her initiation into the world of dance at the age of five. Deeply impacted by the iconography at the Nataraja Temple in Chidambram, the dancer reflects that her early moorings established both dance and spirituality as the essential pillars of life. “My first guru (Swarna Saraswathy) belonged to the temple tradition. For her, dance was an offering. At home as well, the environment was ritualistic and spiritual, forming a continuum of sorts where my artistic and spiritual understanding started evolving together.”

The experience of devotion and engagement with bhakti transformed over time for the dancer. “Initially, it was about imitating my teachers, seeing them soaked in a certain tradition,” recounts Chandran. At this point, music played a major role in leading her into the nuances of the bhakti tradition. “I enter dance through music.

Sense of peace

As a student and practitioner of Carnatic music it is ingrained in my life and I was able to access the lyrics, poetry and multiple meanings through music.” She recalls the strains of Bhakti compositions rendered by great maestros playing at home all the time, since her father was a devoted music connoisseur. “The music used to make me emotionally charged and I would feel it intensely.” The powerful “Shiva Mahapanchakshara Shlokam” signified this discovery of form and content of bhakti through dance and poetry in the dancer’s life.

Reflecting on the experience of bhakti during the early days as a student of music and dance, Chandran says, “I used to feel a sense of peace after listening to, dancing to or singing an intense bhakti composition. It was difficult to capture the essence of what bhakti was, but it was experienced in certain moments – where I left aside thoughts about daily life, and felt deeply connected, vulnerable and charged.”

Artistic search

Moving further in her journey, as a young artist, bhakti emerged as a tool for aesthetic exploration, curiosity and critical thinking. Texts, stories and narratives posed the primary artistic challenge for Chandran. Her interpretation of various characters from epics and mythology also placed her at a precarious position, poised at the brink of traditional training and discovery of her own individuality as a choreographer. Marking this shift, she presented a Haveli Sangeet rendition. The ‘Govinda Vandana’ depicts the twin sides of Vishnu – as Jishnu, the invincible, and Trishnu, the fearless one.

“Historically, bhakti has also been deeply political and subversive,” Chandran points out. Eventually, she began exploring the primary texts, studying the myriad interpretations of various scholars and delineating her own perspective through new works. Citing one of her landmark productions, ‘Kaikeyi’, Chandran reflects, “It is really important to question. Mostly, Kaikeyi has been seen as a uni-dimensionally dark character. When I read the Ramayana, I felt there was a lot more to her and decided to explore another dimension of her character.”

The oft-performed and well-known composition “Krishna nee begane baro” was presented in the evening’s performance in this vein – of questioning, exploring, and arriving at a different interpretation. Mostly the composition is essayed through the eyes of Yashoda, searching, calling and cajoling mischievous child-Krishna. “Who is really calling out to Krishna here?” asks the dancer. “Why, only a mother calling out to her son? It could also be Radha seeking her lover, or the devotee searching for their lord,” she says. The composition was presented with Chandran portraying all three roles, one after the other, the most riveting one being the devotee where she lays out an ambit of emotion, from restlessness, curiosity and fervour to devotion and gratitude.

New paths

The penultimate Kabir bhajan resonated with shifting ideologies and coming of age as an artist – a journey towards interiority and quietude. Reflecting on her artistic experiments over the years, she says, “Interpretations are just perspectives. We must keep approaching and discovering them in different ways that suit our rational, contemporary minds. Context is most important, it keeps changing and provides new insights for understanding human nature.”

When Chandran set up Natya Vriksha, her dance institute in Delhi, she was mostly teaching first-generation learners whose home environment was vastly different from her own early initiation into dance.

This called for new methods of teaching. Synthesising the artistic search with a commitment to pedagogy, Chandran opines, “Dance has changed so much in the present scenario, but pedagogy has not changed to that degree. For instance, we see a lot more group choreographies these days as opposed to the solo performances that dominated earlier. As artists, students and also as teachers, it is important to learn and unlearn.”

The performance concluded with a Sankeertan, evoking the dancer’s present focus of devotion – regular visits to Vrindavan to pay reverence to her spiritual guru. Aesthetically and spiritually, presenting dance as a sewa, is also where Chandran arrives back to her own beginnings, where dance was seen as an offering in the vast ocean of devotion.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 1:50:03 PM |

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