Living through dance

Bhakti is the route to liberation, says Bharatanatyam dancer Gayatri Sriram, who presented her production, Mukti Marga recently

September 24, 2015 05:00 pm | Updated 05:00 pm IST - Bengaluru

KARNATAKA - BENGALURU -12/09/2015: Bharatanatyam dancer Gayatri Sriram at an interaction with The Hindu-Metro Plus  on 12,September 2015.  Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

KARNATAKA - BENGALURU -12/09/2015: Bharatanatyam dancer Gayatri Sriram at an interaction with The Hindu-Metro Plus on 12,September 2015. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

In her demeanour both on and off stage, Bharatanatyam dancer Gayatri Sriram exudes a sense of optimism and confidence that is hard to overlook. I got a glimpse of her assured disposition during a conversation I had with her recently about her latest production, Mukti Marga , a margam which offers an insight into the multifarious routes to the idea of liberation. Whether it was about the production or her love for Bharatanatyam, in her speech, there was a sense of resoluteness accompanied by a feeling of humility towards everythingshe has been blessed with. Incidentally, I saw snatches of the same confident and content Gayatri in Krishna, Kuchela, Radha and the myriad other roles she played during her recital of Mukti Marga the next day. There was little doubt that Gayatri became the protagonists of the different compositions she performed but what was more beautiful was the fact that she breathed her individuality into those roles simultaneously.

Mukti Marga was a production that premiered at the Musee Guimet at Paris last year. I’ve been studying the Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad Gita quite deeply for the past three years and through my studies, the concept of mukti being a follower of bhakti became very real . One can chase liberation and aspire for it, but what is the route to liberation, according to the scriptures? It is unflinching devotion. So, this production is about the path to liberation,” she explained. Gayatri began the recital with a Surya kautvam, a prayer to sun god, one who offers liberation from darkness. This was followed by a varnam which showcased a variety of episodes from the story of Krishna, each of which offered a unique interpretation of the idea of mukti tied to the concept of devotion to Krishna. Then came Kuru Yadunandana , from the Gita Govinda in which Gayatri interpreted salvation differently, this time through love poetry. The recital ended with a thillana which grappled with ideas of war and peace - again a reading of war as being something that is waged to seek a release from inner torment.

The beauty of Mukti Marga was in the diverse and layered perspectives it offered to a single theme. Gayatri did not stop with identifying devotion as the route to liberation. She went a step ahead and interpreted devotion too in various ways. For instance, she used rati shringara in both the varnam and the Jayadeva piece as a reading of bhakti . Kuru Yadunandana, especially, stood out in this regard. Can you seek the affection of the lord even after a union with him, asked Gayatri during the composition, almost as if to ask if there is an end-point to devotion at all.

Accompanied by Balasubramanya Sharma on the vocals, G. Gurumurthy on the mridangam, Prasanna Kumar on the rhythm pad and her teacher, Minal Prabhu on the nattuvangam- each of whom essayed their roles to perfection- Gayatri performed in the most assured and competent manner. As I walked away from the performance, what struck me was the fact that the strength and clarity in Gayatri’s dancing and the joy that emanated from it was indeed an extension of who Gayatri was, as a person.

The previous day, Gayatri had told me that the roots of her optimistic demeanour lie with her teacher, her parents and her husband. “They are all very satisfied people. I think that is where I get my sense of contentment from,” she said.

Gayatri’s tryst with Bharatanatyam began at the age of 12. “I owe my discovery of dance to Guru Minal Prabhu. She came into my life very early on and I was the first among her students to do an arangetram,” she said. An education in life sciences and Bharatanatyam went hand-in-hand and after marriage, Gayatri moved to Singapore. There too, she continued to dance and eventually set up her own dance school called Shruti Laya. “When you teach, you automatically become a better dancer. This is purely because you cannot make the mistakes that you correct,” she confessed. So, while being a student and a teacher of dance simultaneously, Gayatri then went on to also don another role: that of a connoisseur of dance. She founded Samarpana, the Asian Festival of Classical Dance, conducted annually in Singapore where Gayatri invites dancers- both established and emerging- to collaborate with other dancers and present pieces during a three-day long festival. “I started Samarpana because I noticed that there were so many artists that I had seen that I would love to platform. I also noticed that an emerging artist has to struggle a lot to find a platform and it is such a chicken and egg situation. Everyone wants to know where you’ve danced before they give you an opportunity to perform but how do you get that first performance to begin with?” she asked.

So is it necessary for a dancer to juggle all these different roles today? “No. Building a platform for other dancers is tough. In a field like Bharatanatyam, where there are so many of us trying to make a headway, it is very difficult to pick and choose dancers based on who is a better dancer...I love my practise, my school but I love other people’s work as well. I guess that is why I choose to run Samarpana- so I can get to see my favourite dancers,” she chuckled.

Gayatri’s dictum both for herself and her students is that dance is not a hobby and should never be done half-heartedly. “I tell my students that they shouldn’t join my class if they are not ready to treat their dance at par with their academics. Dance is too all encompassing,” she added.

Having said that, it is not like her idealism is not rooted in reality. Gayatri does not shy away from describing a life in dance as a struggle. “There are lots of platforms today. But there are also that many dancers. So the challenges are plenty. But that is the nature of the beast. If you don’t have the wherewithal to handle the nature of the beast, may be dance is not meant for you,” she added.

“An education in dance is never-complete. It is an on-going journey. The only question that dancers must ask themselves is do you live through dance so that dance can live through you?” she said finally.

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