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You are just as good as your last performance: Geeta Chandran
-Shveta Arora
Photos: Anoop Arora

March 12, 2018

Bharatanatyam exponent Geeta Chandran has won many accolades and awards in her career, the latest being the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Grateful for the honour, the dancer says that the attention and impact of awards is nevertheless temporary, and that a dancer is only as good as his/her last performance. The real award, she says, is when audiences can be moved by classical arts, and when education begins to include the arts. Excerpts from a chat...

Your thoughts on receiving the SNA award...
Every award comes with a sense of responsibility. Youngsters start looking up to you. Everything you say or perform becomes like a sponge that they absorb from. So you have to raise the bar because then it becomes the yardstick. Secondly, there is the joy of getting it exactly 50 years after my first guru, Swarna Saraswati amma, got it. It is really prestigious that you are in the same list as your guru. And when you read the list of artists that you have grown up watching, being inspired by, now you are also a part of that erudite list.

Do national awards make you feel that you have arrived or do they push you to work harder?
As I said, it means that you have to raise the bar of your performance, and you have to be very conscientious about how your students perform. We have always been very particular about the quality of our performances and how the presentation has evolved. We have been very aware of the evolution of the performance with time. We have to be very slick about it and cannot afford to be lackadaisical. It has to be very professional. The company has always been known for that, whether it is the lighting, the music, the costumes, the content - we always go into all these things. We have always been very aware that dance must change with the times, with the changing scenario, and adapt.

Awards come and go, but the work continues at its pace. There is a trajectory that goes on - creating work for myself, my solo students, groups, my younger dancers... It is a very exciting time and I am enjoying it, and I hope to contribute more to dance. Of course, my second love is education through the arts, which remains very dear to me - that the arts are taught in a more inclusive way, in a more interdisciplinary way, so that they are not limited to just the arts period, and are integrated more into what children are taught otherwise. This is what we are working at. My students are also working at the curriculum in many schools. That is the second aspect I would like to work on as a challenge. Of course, I cannot give too much time to it, but I can push my students into it so that they proceed with it and come to me with feedback and ask for my help. The government is not doing much about it and we are trying to pitch in so that students can benefit.

How do you persuade people to take up dance as a profession and give a boost to their careers?
We are working on that aspect. We are making them study things that are allied to dance. Amritha Sruthi Radhakrishnan, my senior disciple, has done her Masters in Performance Studies from Ambedkar University. Many of them are teaching in my own institute and making money and performing with the company. Some of them are taking it up full-time and teaching in schools, which is a good thing - they are coming directly from the schools for their classes here. And schools are definitely paying better than before.

Sneha Chakradhar has got into curriculum development and activity coordination and has an understanding with the school that she will work only 12 days in a month, with flexible time. These are children who have already done academics - she is a doctorate in sociology - and can contribute their skills to dance. Doing your academics is also important. You should never exclude academics since it makes you a complete person. My students have learnt to question everything. It gives you a wider canvas - they are going to lectures, attending seminars, learning to analyse why certain things are done in a certain way. We don't stop at dance being a performance art, since the learning-teaching process here is different. It gives them an intellectual insight.

Do you think the award should have come a little earlier in your career?
When we started there were no awards for youngsters, all these came much later. I got my Padma Shri when I was 45, which was pretty young. For the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, people say that it has come late. There is no yardstick for it coming early or late in life. I have not lobbied for any award. If it comes, fine, if it does not, then even better - it makes you work harder. And when I got the SNA award, it was gratifying since it comes from artists. When I got the first award, the general feeling was that it is early, and now they say it is late. I have been in the committee for the Sangeet Natak Akademi and there is so much backlog. The older artists have still not received it, and if the younger artists are awarded, there is a question on that. So we have to strike a balance between the young and old. So one year it has to be the older artists and one year, the new ones.

The awards were started only in 1950. There was already such a backlog, the older artists were given the awards and there was no question of giving it to the younger ones. The people sitting in the committee have to factor all this in, not just seniority or excellence. There are many categories too. There are gurus who have to be awarded, and then there are performers. The gurus get recognition only after producing a certain number of disciples. A performer gets noticed faster. Plus, there are so many forms, so many regions, remote areas; it is only when you are a part of the committee that you realize it. People in the metros have a different exposure and challenges than those in the rural areas. In fact, when I get an award, I just pray to thakurji and work harder.

Does the award get your work recognition?
It brings a lot of responsibility. The fame is momentary, for a few days. After that, the awards are forgotten. The governments also forget about your awards. You are just as good as your last performance and you should be able to put your hand on your heart and say how good I am. The gurus have always taught us to introspect and do what is best within us. We recently performed in a small temple in Mount Abu. It was so refreshing and rewarding. It's the only Ram temple there - it's a swayambhu vigraham there, and it's Rama alone, young Rama, no Sita or Lakshman. It's a very beautiful temple, and there were just a few committed local people there who had never seen Bharatanatyam before; they had tears in their eyes. What more does one want?

Last week, we performed for the Russians, and they couldn't stop clapping for 15 minutes, and they speak such good Hindi. They told us, "Hamare aankhon mein aansu aa gayi aapki dance dekh ke" (Seeing your dance brought tears to our eyes). Dance has the potential to move people, to really connect them with themselves. I think that is the reward for the dancer, ultimately. These politics and all, award, no award… temporarily, one might be gratified, but the next minute, you are on the stage and you forget everything. It's just the beautiful world of you and the art.
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