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Nrityagram, Lynne and Vasantahabba
- Lynne Fernandez shares her thoughts with Lalitha Venkat


March 18, 2004

Protima Gauri started learning dance late in life. She established Nrityagram in Hesaraghatta village, 30km outside Bangalore, with the aim to preserve and revive the Indian classical dance forms. It was during the tenure of the Chief Minister, late Ramakrishna Hegde that the 10-acre grant of land was given on lease to Protima. Nrityagram was inaugurated in 1990 by the then Prime Minister V P Singh.
Lynne Fernandez
Protima's vision for Nrityagram was an idyllic dance village with idealistic, hardworking, extremely talented and dedicated young dancers. She passed away in a landslide in August 1998 when on a trip to Manasarovar in Tibet. Even before the tragic accident, Protima had handed over the reins of administration legally on June 14th 1997 saying it was a pre-birthday gift for July 10th for her friend Lynne Fernandez who had been managing the affairs of Nrityagram for over two years when Protima was recovering from a mild stroke.

How did Lynne, who is not a dancer but a Delhi based psychologist who took to stage lighting because of an interest in the performing arts, get involved in Nrityagram?
I first came in February 1993 to see Vasantahabba - was totally bowled over; it was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen! I returned in July 1993 to start working with the Ensemble as Lighting Director. From that point on she got me to keep returning under some pretext or the other - her words - so that I may one day decide to stay on permanently - this was without my knowledge, she told me much later that this was the plan. I started living permanently at Nrityagram in January 1995. So, I was here when she had her TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack) - that was when I realized that I did not want to leave!

With the dedicated efforts of Protima's disciple Surupa Sen as artistic director and Lynne as the managing trustee, Nrityagram continues to flourish. With the exception of year 2000, Nrityagram has hosted the annual all night dance and music festival Vasantahabba, which falls on the first Saturday of every February. Dancers and musicians perform to a cosmopolitan audience, the number of which has risen phenomenally from an audience of 3,000 in 1990 to nearly 40,000 now.
Nrityagram, Photo: Lalitha Venkat
The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Photo: Abinav Munshi

Congratulations to you and your team on the successful organization of such a colossal show. It was a fabulous experience and I enjoyed it immensely. I have never seen such a huge crowd ever.
Thank you! I love it when people write back about Vasantahabba - specially good things!!!

From when do you start preparations for the Vasantahabba?
We start programming/planning etc in May.

What do you think is the number who turned up this year? I was there by 3pm and got the last of the lovely mattresses with a bolster!
At a rough estimate we have put the figure at just under 40,000, which was the number last year.

What are the selection procedures for artistes to perform at the Vasantahabba - is it by word of mouth or do you insist on CDs of their work?
We have to have seen/heard work by the person, else we insist on a CD or VHS Cassette.

By inviting world music bands, is Vasantahabba deviating from a festival originally dedicated to classical dance and music?
Actually, we deviated from our original plan many years ago - when Protima started Vasantahabba she wanted it to cover dance, music, theatre and handicrafts!!! A few years later we decided that it would be wonderful to focus on dance and music - classical, folk and experimental/fusion. The main focus remains classical dance and music.

How would you respond to the criticism that Vasantahabba is now becoming a hotspot for idle partygoers and not real art enthusiasts?
I imagine that there are some people who come for Vasantahabba who could be defined as "idle partygoers". However, the aim is to get the classical arts out to people and if an "idle partygoer" goes on to become an enthusiast (as has happened several times over the years) then more power to Vasantahabba! If we (dancers and musicians) restrict ourselves only to real art enthusiasts (who already exist) then how does this body/ audience grow? And, we all know that an audience is needed by all performers - without an audience there will be no performance - its time we snapped out of this mindset that classical arts must/can only be enjoyed by the educated elite - the successful performance is one that can excite even uninitiated laypeople and bring them back to explore further.

Having said that, I will add: If however "idle party goers" cause discomfort to others who have an interest (as happened at Vasantahabba 2004) then that's an issue that needs to be taken care of and we do plan to find a way around it.

Do you think charging some nominal entry fee will help you screen the crowd - to keep out some unruly elements?
I don't think so. Because some of the unruliness was because people were pushing to get inside the amphitheatre and this problem will be solved only once we figure out how to keep the crush down. Charging a fee will not help because, 1) a lot of the unruly elements are young kids who can afford it; 2) The problem with charging a fee is that everyone who pays even 10Rs will demand a seat INSIDE the amphitheatre (as happened some years ago when Protima decided to charge a fee) and you can imagine the problem that will cause. 3) Most importantly, even a nominal fee will be beyond the scope of the villagers - and Vasantahabba was begun to bring Dance and Music to them, since they don't have access to it.
A solution has to be found - what it will be, I do not know at the moment, but we will find it.

How easy has it been to balance budgets?
It's been a struggle sometimes - even through the years when Protima was around. But as time passes, the task has become easier - I guess maybe it has to do with the fact that the "product" is now there for people to see!

How do you juggle corporate sponsor demands, vis a vis the festival's own spirit and identity? Would you allow branding of the Vasantahabba with a corporate?
There are some things that we are not willing to do and we have to be sure that sponsors/potential sponsors know this in advance. It makes it difficult because, as you know, for most sponsors it's the total mileage that matters but we've held out and so far we're ok.

Yes, we would consider the branding of Vasantahabba with a corporate as long as it's someone we find acceptable to be associated with. Vasantahabba has almost become a brand on its own and most everyone know that Nrityagram is behind it- it won't matter whether someone else's name gets connected with it - it will always be clear that they are the sponsors.

Your marketing and publicity of the Vasantahabba has always been different. Do you hire a professional company, or do volunteers pitch in and do the designing, etc.
We have a professional design company - ESIGN - that handles all our design/publicity related work. But, there's a lovely story to it. It's headed by a very talented woman called Sonia Manchanda who met me in 1998 and said that she was interested in being involved with Nrityagram. We welcomed her on board and I am not sure that she knew exactly what she was getting into because we've pretty much taken over her life!! She does our photographs, brochures, flyers, media strategy, website work.... everything!! Actually she and her company are some of the most dedicated volunteers anyone could ever have. And the best part is, we never feel that we are second to anyone just because it's done free - in fact she treats our work like her own and lots of times ends up firing me because I mess up on some publicity/PR issue!!

Bangalore now seems to have so many arts festivals. Do you think Vasantahabba has been a trigger? Will it dilute your festival's impact?
I think Vasantahabba has definitely been a trigger and I think it's very heartening to have so much art and culture happening here. The more that happens, the greater likelihood there is that audiences will continue to grow and become more 'educated'. I do believe that there is no such thing as too much dance and music - it will always be good dance and music or bad dance and music.

What are the challenges that you have faced after Protima - in the context of Nrityagram as well as Vasantahabba?
Protima's passing has been a deep personal loss for us. Luckily a lot of the handing over was complete, well before she went, so administratively we were left more or less ok.

The biggest challenge has been to find the strength to match the magnitude of her dreams!

Which Vasantahabba has given you an emotional high and why?
Vasantahabba 1999 - it was the first Vasantahabba after Protima left us and it was the lowest point in our lives. We were in pain and since the festival was dedicated to her, there were constant reminders of her absence. The big question was, will we get through it? Will artists be as supportive? Will the audience come? The surge of goodwill we felt from everyone kept us afloat for months and truly gave us courage to keep going. It was like a blaze of hope and light in our darkest hour!

What are your comments on this year's festival, your feelings, your hopes?
The festival was a great success because we were able to implement further changes in the planning and execution of it. But there is still a way to go - unfortunately the huge jump in the number of people means we have to think about how to control the crowds in a far more disciplined manner so as to avoid overcrowding as happened at Vasantahabba 2004. This is something that will be a priority next year.

As always, I am pleased that we have made it through another successful festival and I hope that over the years Vasantahabba will become a benchmark of sorts for how popular classical events can become without compromising on content.

Some youngsters in Bangalore want to be volunteers next year. According to one of them, Vasantahabba is the ultimate and if he does not attend, he feels he has lost out on something wonderful.
I am delighted to hear this. It's specially fulfilling when young people become charged up about Vasantahabba! Please do tell him to email or call me.


Apart from own conveyance, or taxis, how does one get to Nrityagram for Vasantahabba?
Here are the details for those who wish to attend next year.

Buses are run by the BMTC through the night.
Bus numbers: 253, 253d, 253E, 253J, 253K and 266.
Timings:
From Bangalore City Market to Nrityagram: 1500Hrs, 1530 Hrs, 1600 Hrs, 1630 Hrs, 1700 Hrs, 1730 Hrs, 1830 Hrs and 1930 Hrs.
From Nrityagram to City Market: Midnight, 0100 Hrs, 0200 Hrs, 0300 Hrs, 0400 Hrs, 0500 Hrs, 0600 Hrs, 0700 Hrs, 0730 Hrs, 0800 Hrs and 0830 Hrs.


Contact:
Lynne Fernandez
Managing Trustee, Nrityagram
Hessaraghatta
Bangalore 560088
Ph: (91 - 80) - 28466313 / 28466314
Fax: (91 - 80 - 28466312
e-mail: nrityagram@vsnl.com