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Remembering Protima Gauri (Bedi)
Photos: Sushma Veerappa

August 27, 2017

Protima passed away on 18th August in 1998 in a land slide enroute Mansarovar yatra. She had left Nrityagram in charge of lights designer Lynne Fernandez and her disciples Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy. They arrange an annual event every year in memory of Protima. Some close friends of Protima invariably attend it.

This year Surupa who choreographs new numbers, could not on account of performances and travels. Therefore it was decided to have brief performances by the students, children and elders some of whom had studied for more than 8 years and some who were learning recently, but had mastered few numbers.

The Yoga Mandapa has a shrine with Shivalinga and on the back on the wall is Protima's face in bas relief and also on either side are Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's poses in bas relief. The Yoga Mandapa was the first to be completed when Nrityagram was being built and had a circular roof. During the inauguration there were performances staged by Kalanidhi Narayanan, Kalavati Devi and Kum Kum Mohanty to an ashtapadi which they had danced together in the styles in which they were proficient. Also present were Manipuri Guru Bipin Singh and Kathakali asan Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and his wife Mohiniattam guru and performer Kalyanikutty Amma. The roof had collapsed after a few years and was not built again on account of some technical problem. Therefore the performance was to be held in the open air. They had taken into account the possibility of rains as the previous day it had rained cats and dogs!

Few couches and chairs were placed at the back and in front, few mats so the dancers and their parents from Bangalore could be accommodated. It was sunshine at 4pm when Surupa introduced the program beginning with prayer in praise of Jagannath swami, whose idol was placed in the temple facing which audience was sitting. Akshiti Roy Chowdhary, the bright young dancer now a part of the repertory offered arati dancing to the prayer and the rain gods started participating with little drizzle so before it became a heavy shower the artists and the audience moved to the Raymond Odissi Gurukul, some to the office and some to the dining hall.

After half an hour when the sun started shining and the Yoga Mandapa floor was dry we all assembled again. The performance was resumed. After the prayer, the senior and junior dancers got together and performed Namami Vighnaraja prayer with choreographed version, which showed in the centre one dancer as Lord Ganapati, behind her another dancer stood with arms spread heavenwards, two other dancers sat on either side praying and one in front as mouse, vehicle of Ganesha. The central figure raising one arm as trunk of the lord completed the sculptural image of Ganapati. As the prayer moved other images of Umaputra and Mahakaya were enacted by other dancers and all performed together for benediction of siddhi buddhi, the intelligence. The dance movements merged seamlessly creating exquisite frontal patterns with basic chauka position and bhramaris, spins, with Bhumi Pranam woven in it.

Then young dancers from age of five to ten, demonstrated pataka hasta with viniyogas, its usages in dance, one group reciting the hasta in Sanskrit and its usages, and the other group demonstrating the usages explaining in English. Very imaginatively choreographed as the dancers can take many roles and pataka hasta's usage being described appropriately. The very pedagogy of training was presented in an interesting manner, and how it works when performed in dance in various contexts.

Mohana Pallavi had eight dancers in a group presentation. At times, they were divided into two groups, four on either side, dancing four with back to the audience and other four facing the audience, creating patterns. At times, creating mirror images with sculptural poses. Sometimes, two dancers freezing in parshva mardala pose, playing on one side of the drum with other arm upwards and suddenly coming back to life and dancing with others. It had a magical effect. The movements in circle, then diagonal, and in the end with speed reaching climax revealed several possibilities of choreography. By the time they completed the dance, the rains started and the evening came to a close creating magic, with images lingering in one's memory.

The celebrations were on with Mr. Jena, father of one of the dancers, sponsoring the feast. All assembled in the dining hall, animatedly discussing the dance numbers and the exquisite beauty of Odissi. At Nrityagram the dance seems to be practiced for 24 x 7, barring holiday on Monday. Else from early morning with Yoga and body warming exercises and various arasas, basic dance units, or rehearsal of choreographed numbers, the place is all agog with sound of mardala and accompanying music. Being away from the madding crowd at Nrityagram has shown excellent results. On Sundays, children from nearby area come to learn Bharatanatyam also. Their reciting shlokas fill the air with joy. Parents and friends meet at leisure and a feeling of community living is experienced by all.

For past five years, there has been an addition of Kula, some ten rooms with double beds for residencies for workshops on writing, seminars on arts and education. When free the visiting dancers and friends are accommodated there. The weather is bracing and sitting in the verandah one watches the rain, the trees and the green grass, inhaling silence and enjoying solitude. Friends catch up and invariably marvel at the vision of Protima to have gurukul training, earlier quite ambitious to have seven classical forms and also martial art like Kalaripayattu of Kerala.

On account of financial constraints and lack of sponsors, Vasanta Habba was discontinued. They were amazing all night events with great masters like Birju Maharaj and Kelucharan Mohapatra, musicians like Amjad Ali Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, dancers from Kolkata like Manjushri Chaki Sircar and her Dancers' Guild troupe with her daughter Ranjabati Sircar presenting Tagore's dance-drama Tomari Matir Kanya, Astad Deboo's contemporary dance, and local Bangalore based dancers like Prathibha Prahlad in Bharatanatyam performing at open air theatre under the canopy of stars - those were the most memorable nights!

One recalls Protima for her vision and the excellence which Surupa, Bijayini, Pavithra Reddy, and recent entrants young Akshiti, Prithvi and others have achieved. The progressive evolution of Odissi form, the creative inputs from Surupa and Bijayini, the body of work that over the years Surupa has choreographed, all speak volumes for Nrityagram. Lynne taking over the responsibility of entire administration and nitty gritty of running the organization, national and international tours and her superb light designing, evokes admiration. Nrityagram has by now developed its own bani, style and stamp. One savors it with delight and looks forward to watching new choreographic works.

I was told that Surupa is working on a new choreographic work for December season. Recently Nrityagram dancers and Sri Lanka's Chitrasena Dance Company had revived Samhara choreographic work which had wowed the audiences at Royal Opera House and in Sri Lanka, with a performance in Bangalore. One looks forward to watching new choreographic work by Surupa in December.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi.

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