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Gayatri Sriram: Samarpana Festival in Singapore
- Tapati Chowdurie

October 15, 2015

Gayatri Sriram, artistic director of Sruti Laya, recently celebrated Samarpana - The Asian Festival of Classical Dance in Singapore at the prestigious Esplanade Theatre. Samarpana has taken long strides in a very short time. In the very fourth year of its existence, Samarpana has been helped by Jyoti Ramesh of Jade Group International, Singapore and supported by National Arts Council Singapore.

Though she hails from a family of bankers, "My father's side was artistically inclined. My paternal grandfather, though a lawyer was a wonderful mridangist. I was introduced to Bharatanatyam at the age of five and Hindustani classical music as well. I think in a certain way my mother wanted to dance through me. I think it is her vision of me as a Bharatanatyam dancer that set the stage in some way. I also learnt the veena for several years. My interest in dance for the first few years were mostly driven by my mother's push," she said exuberantly, in an informal get-together.

After the beautiful rendition of your choreographic work "Devi-forms of the feminine" by your disciple Meenakshi Venkatraman, the natural question was who was her guru that gave her such a fine grounding?
"After learning from a few gurus in Mumbai, my mother, who always wanted me to learn the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam, heard of Minal Prabhu and that is when I finally met the person through whom the wonders of this beautiful dance would be revealed to me. Minal akka, as I call her, is an alumnus of Kalakshetra and a student of Kalanidhi Narayanan. She taught me Bharatanatyam and continues to do so. I met her when I was twelve years old and now after an association of more than two decades all I can say is that she is the wind beneath my wings and I have always remained the dust beneath her feet. I learnt to be a teacher as well. Her eye for detail and above all her ability to give without holding back anything is amazing. She is guru, friend, confidant, all rolled in one."

What made you choose dance as a profession?
"My call was when I was about twenty six. I danced alongside my conventional job but looked forward to rehearsals the whole day. I think that was a fairly a big sign that all my energies needed to shift in the direction of dance."

Why at Singapore?
"I got married to a banker who moved to Singapore so settling in Singapore happened. Singapore is amazing. The Arts scene here has grown from strength to strength. The government bodies that look after the promotion of the arts do everything they can to support us artists in every way. From grants to sponsorships to providing platforms to dance we have all benefitted from being part of Singapore's cultural fabric. Teaching, choreographing and performing are all an integral part of keeping the profession financially viable."

What is the secret of your success?
"The festival is slowly and steadily coming of age. This journey of being a dancer has led me to being a promoter of the arts and artists. Samarpana - the Asian Festival of Classical Dance was born out of the need to provide a platform for the 'thinking artist', one who works to stretch the boundaries of the classical art form without disturbing its grammar. I wanted to create a festival that would showcase new and exciting productions, discussions and debates about dance and create opportunities for artists who had so much to contribute to the field. My friend Jyoti Ramesh, director, Jade Group International and director of the Samarpana festival is equally, if not more responsible for the way the festival has grown.

Minal Akka, my guru, is also another person instrumental in this growth process as she has advised us on programming, quality and helped us approach our India partner Dr Raghavendra of the Ananya Foundation with whom Ananya Samarpana was launched. Over the past three years we have platformed seasoned dancers in collaboration with top musicians as the opening performance to bring out collaborations like never seen before. Saayujya, by Priyadarshini Govind and TM Krishna was our first collaborative production that paved the way for stalwarts like the Gundecha Brothers and Kumudini Lakhia-ji. We also have a focus on the emerging artist and a slot for the contemporary artists. We make it a point to invite speakers to talk of topics that are of interest to the dancer and the audience alike. I think our programming and curation has played a major role in this journey to the Esplanade. We still have miles to go and Samarpana is a team effort.

My school Sruti Laya is made up of highly talented students and amazing parent volunteers. I am thankful to my husband who has always supported every move of mine with encouragement. My daughters, budding dancers themselves are also very much a part of the whole process."

What is your forte - performing, teaching, choreographing?
"I love to perform, the stage calls out to me and each time I ascend it I learn something new, I feel closer to God. I also love to teach because I dance through each child, I learn from their mistakes and they push me to be a better person. I love choreographing too."

You seem to have turned out ace pupils?
"Each student is intelligent, creative, energetic and most of all eager to learn, perfect and perform. I think I am blessed to have such students. I am a strict teacher, but I insist on perfection. We take the student to India to Minal akka each year for master classes and endless practice. As for inculcating and nurturing interest in the students, in the first few years I follow the method of story-telling. Religion does not play an important role. Being spiritual is more important. Dancing in itself is a spiritual experience. Yagyaseni, was a solo production that I staged at the opening year of Samarpana. I used English sonnets from Pavan Verma's 'Yudhisthar and Draupadi' and that gave a contemporary feel in parts to a very traditional production. 'Trikon-The War Within' was an incredible production that involved Bharatanatyam and English Theatre with artists from India and Singapore. It explored the mechanics of the Mahabharata through the eyes of the three female protagonists, Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi. We staged this mammoth production in both Singapore and India in a contemporary view of the epic. In the next ten years from now, I hope to keep performing. I hope Samarpana becomes a major festival in Singapore's cultural calendar as well as that of India. Next year, one of Samarpana's productions will travel to The Hague to the prestigious Korzo Theatre showcasing one of our SG 50 productions choreographed by Kalpana Raghuraman of the Netherlands. It will give a great platform for Singaporean dancers. With more and more young dancers entering the circuit, it will be natural progression. I think the interest in dance is growing, with festivals like Samarpana."

The fourth year has been a memorable experience for Samarpana. The inaugural day saw the felicitation of Neila Sathyalingam, Artistic Director of Apsara Arts, also an alumnus of Kalakshetra (Chennai). Odissi dancer Sujata Mohapatra and singer Kavita Krishnamurthy enthralled the audience with their collaborative work. Contemporary dancer Kalpana Raghuraman's choreography 'Through the eyes of my city' marking the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence was premiered. Samarpana presented Aakash Odedra Company at Esplanade Theatre Studio. He performed 'Nritta' and 'In the shadow of the man' where the choreographer Akram Khan has explored his fascination with the animals that humans carry within themselves.

Tapati Chowdurie learnt dance for almost 10 years from Guru Gopinath in his dance institution Natana Niketan in Madras. For a brief period, she was with International Centre for Kathakali in New Delhi. Tapati has a Master's degree in English Literature and Bachelor's degree in Education. She is a freelance writer on dance and music.

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