AS: How familiar were you with Odissi before you started learning it? What has been your journey like?
SB: When I started learning Odissi, I was not familiar with it at all! I was seven and would copy classical dances shown on Doordarshan. My parents realized I was inclined towards the classical arts and chose Odissi as they felt it was an extremely graceful and lyrical dance form. I came to truly appreciate Odissi, its technique, history and culture much later in life. This happened when I stopped taking it for granted. While in school, I enjoyed and focused only on the practical aspects of the dance, only forcing myself to learn the theory for exams. It was when I went to study Computer Engineering abroad, isolated and totally cut off from regular classes and a Guru’s guidance did I realize, this was not just a hobby, it was my friend, my companion, my refuge, it was my very soul. In those years of isolation, when I performed I would get a lot appreciation from professors, their wives and fellow students. I realized that dance was a universal language which cut across cultures. On coming back to India, my
old classes with Guru Khuntia were getting difficult to commute to and I decided to ask Guruji and Didi if they would take me as a student. Unfortunately my company (Pricewaterhouse Coopers) sent me to the UK after just a year with Guruji, but this time I knew how to deal with the isolation. And now every time I come to India I try to learn something new about Odissi. Odissi has been my companion through my studies, career, marriage and kids. I get asked a lot how I manage to keep up with my dance despite having to manage other areas of my life. I manage other areas of my life because of Odissi, not despite of it. In these modern times, kids are considered a hindrance to career and life in general, but for me I thank god for my little ones because they have made me a much better person than what I was, and this has only helped me as a dancer.
AS: What do you find in Guruji’s classroom?
SB: A sense of peace, calm and happiness! Guruji’s classroom is such a rare thing for me that I make sure I enjoy every moment of it. If there is an item which needs to be done again I will do it. If there are exercises and steps, even those I do because there is nothing more empowering as a dancer than dancing in a group in front of your Guru.
AS: Has anyone around you picked up a classical art form after watching your involvement with Odissi?
SB: While I was studying in college, I performed at all the cultural festivals and eventually many of my seniors expressed interest in learning parts of it, but not formally. There was an Indian professor’s wife who wished that her daughter learned it from me and I taught her for a month or so. Another lady whom I remember quite fondly is Sara Ziarani, wife of an Iranian professor. She loved Indian culture and insisted on learning formally. She loved Odissi and I did my best to teach her during my busy schedule. In fact she later came with her family to visit me in Delhi and even attended a class as a visitor.
AS: Which dance piece do you enjoy doing the most and why?
SB: The dance pieces I enjoy have evolved over time. I used to enjoy learning pallavis, and still do. Earlier I loved doing dances with tandav and chhau influences like Dasavataar, but for the past few years I have preferred dances with more spirituality and gentleness. Perhaps because I have become more aware of what a violent place this world is. I find dances like Nachanti, or the ashtapadis centered on the love of Radha and Krishna more calming. I have certainly shifted from tandav to lasya because spiritually, it is highly nuanced and subtle.
AS: Any memorable dance performances?
SB: My first solo performance when I did manglacharan at the age of 9 for a local society event. The other was when I competed in solo classical dance category at Maharani Gayatri Devi school in class X. I got the third prize which eventually gave me the confidence that I had it in me to be a good solo dancer. It helped me shed my inhibitions on stage and become a performer. It also taught me the importance of fitness, because as a high school student, I was totally focusing on studies and had become pleasantly plump. Had I been lighter I may have danced better and got a higher position. It also fueled my desire to do better. Recently my most exciting performance was the lecture demonstration at Wellesley College, the top women’s college in the US and the alma mater of Mrs. Hillary Clinton.
AS: How did your family respond to your love for Odissi?
SB: They have been exceedingly supportive. My mother would ferry me from school to FIITJEE coaching and then to my dance classes and even to this day, my parents realize my love for Odissi and make sure I get to my class even if I am in Delhi for a short visit. Without their love, support and blessing my pursuit for Odissi would not be possible.
AS: You’ve given so many years of your life to Odissi and Mayadhar Raut School of Odissi dance which espouses the Guru-Shishya Parampara. What does Guru-Shishya Parampara mean to you? How important is it to retain it while learning a performative art form? Can a classical dance form be learnt from outside the framework of Guru-Shishya Parampara?
SB: Through my initial years as a dancer, I was learning about the Guru Shishya parampara. I was in school and not very self-aware. I have learned briefly under Guru Sonal Mansingh ji and then for a number of years with Guru Khuntia before finally learning under Guruji and Guru Madhumita didi. In the initial years I only focused on technique without bothering with nuances, and yes, if you wish to learn items and technique, you can certainly learn outside of the Guru-Shishya Parampara. But I believe to excel, Guru-Shishya parampara is crucial, the blessings of one’s Guru is crucial to gain a deeper understanding of not just Odissi, but Life and one’s own self. A true Guru like Guruji is very rare and I am very lucky to have been associated with Guru Mayadhar Raut School of Odissi. One must choose one’s Guru with care. One who shall teach you the true meaning of Life and Dance. One should never ever forget one’s Guru. I am not a good dancer because of talent, that plays probably 5% part in my dance; it is the Guru, the music, and the choreography who are the true stars.
AS: How important is aaharya in classical dancing? Does it complete the art form or is it just external adornment?
SB: I love dancing when I am wearing the simplest of clothes. It’s in my daily practice that I feel spiritual. I love dancing without an audience. However, I do consider Aaharya to be extremely important especially in front of an audience. The saree, the tahiya, the jewelry all evoke the temple architecture of yore. The external adornments used in classical temple dances are used to make the body of the dancer the temple itself. It is a beautiful concept and enhances the performance tenfold. Even when I do not wear the full costume, the tahiya, ghungroos and the beautiful and distinctive belt are important. Proper shringar and aaharya is crucial for an exemplary performance. It gives a spiritual aura to a performance.
AS: How similar or different is your understanding of Odissi to that of Guruji’s?
SB: I would say my understanding of Odissi is just a fraction of Guruji’s or any of the masters. Guruji has devoted and dedicated his entire life to dance. I could never match that in this life time or the next. His struggle, talent and genius are without comparison and I can only keep learning from him and Didi about the nuances. Having said that, I do keep an open mind and enjoy watching not just different styles of Odissi, but other classical dance forms as well. They have over the years enhanced my concept of Odissi and made me more aware of my own likes and dislikes.
AS: Have you created compositions?
SB: Not yet but I hope to. I did wet my feet a little by choreographing a classical dance fusion of Bharatanatyam and Odissi with girls just starting out. It was a little daunting teaching little kids, two of them had ballet backgrounds but they did great and it was quite fulfilling! The main hurdle with composition for me is the music, I do not have as much musical knowledge to parlay with the musician nor do I have access to good Odissi musicians here.
AS: What was your journey like while learning an ashtapadi? How rigorous is it to learn, understand and perform an Odissi composition that ultimately aims at generating rasa?
SB: While they are definitely more technically and physically taxing dances, I have found ashtapadis to be the most challenging. The premise is simple, poetry is simple, understated and beautiful. The music and choreography is extremely intricate but looks simple to the untrained eye. It is only when one learns it that one can truly appreciate the difficulty and the beauty of an ashtapadi. To learn an ashtapadi, one has to understand the language, the spiritual intent and philosophy hidden in the poetry and then express it with great intricacy through dance. It is delving into the core of an emotion. It emotionally liberates the dancer. If the dancer is able to do the stated, the rasa shall surely be generated.
AS: To be an audience to an Indian Classical dance performance requires a knowledgeable, spiritually enlightened mind who can be a rasika in the truest sense. Can an abhinaya piece laden with sanchari bhava speak to an audience that is not that well versed with the nuances of classical dancing and philosophy? How do we bridge the gap?
SB: It is definitely very difficult, especially in this day and age where the attention span is just minutes, compared to an ashtapadi which elaborates for over 15 minutes. However, it is crucial to keep performing them so more and more people become aware of the intricacy and beauty of such pieces. There are efforts being made, some mime out and explain the dance before hand. I think it is okay to mime out the gist but sometimes it takes 10 minutes to explain an item which is of 15 minutes, I feel it ultimately detracts from the performance. The other option is to have broadcast on TV, or give subtitles in a video to explain the ashtapadi. While that is not ideal, I feel it is a beginning. The operas in the West never elaborate or translate on stage but give handouts instead. I feel perhaps that is a better way.
AS: What is your take on technological intervention in dance? (special lighting effects, projectors, other visual aids) Do these add to a performance or are they distractions? Does a classical dance recital need these external elements?
SB: I am not too fond of technological intervention, especially large pictures in the background or annoying sounds/lights, although I have used slides depicting Goddess Saraswati and the Dashavtar in the background while performing Manikya Veena and Dashavtar. This was because I was presenting to a completely American audience at Wellesley and it helped. However, I would have preferred if the slide projector had been to the side and not been looming behind me, taking the focus away from my dance, but I couldn’t control the circumstances or the venue. I think special effects, if used intelligently and sparingly make a difference, but too much of it, it takes away from the dance. we are getting more technologically advanced, so it is good to critically think of it’s use in dance. However, overuse can detract from the dance form, especially a form like Odissi which depends on connecting spiritually and emotionally with the audience.
AS: Is classical dancing an economically viable profession today? You’ve performed in many countries, what is the scenario abroad? How is Odissi received?
SB: I am afraid I cannot answer that. I have been trying to get my school up and running and it has been tough, especially since I have a full time job and kids. I will be able to answer in a few years perhaps. Those who have made it have done pretty well over here as there is a lack of expert classical teachers. Some have kept their professions side by side and taught dance. I was paid for 2 performances only last year by Wellesley College and a dance festival where I performed, this was without me even having to ask which was a pleasant surprise. But it was more like pocket money than anything else. However, every town has an arts council and one can apply for grants and money on a yearly basis from them.
AS: Is Odissi only limited to devotional or spiritual offerings or does it have the capacity to be a catalyst for social change- to convey messages that are of social relevance in the 21st century?
SB: I believe it can certainly be both. One can see spirituality in everyday living, in caring for people, family, in art, and in science. Odissi ,because it is such a subtle and emotionally compelling dance can help discover the beauty even in the seemingly mundane, and to show the beauty (the uncomfortable or sweet truths) of life is more crucial than ever in this day and age.
AS: Why did you choose dance as a form of artistic expression ?
SB: Quite frankly I don’t think I really chose, I was quite little and it was just my way of expressing myself. I guess dance really chose me, not the other way around.
AS: Is art divorced from life? Has Odissi in any manner enriched your life, your personality, your daily living?
SB: Art is life, that is why we have the poetic and potent image of the Nataraj dancing and play his damru, representing the dance of the universe. Art can never be divorced from life. I feel it is what makes me centered in my day-to-day interactions and keeps me balanced. It has helped me overcome the bad times and strengthened me in my good times.
AS: Dance is a form of storytelling and is a reflection of human trials and tribulations and aspirations. Did you ever feel that moments from your life were being unfolded on stage as you performed a dance piece?
SB: While I have had trials and tribulations as well as success, I am afraid my life has not been as dramatic as the ashtapadis! But just enacting out the events helps me to empathize better and just going out into the world has helped me emote better on stage.
AS: What are your dreams and aspirations as an Odissi dancer?
SB: While I have many dreams, my main reason to dance is my love for Odissi. I hope to spread its message as much as I can. I hope to teach children and have mini productions in the future. But whenever I feel I am carried away trying to get the next opportunity to dance or obsess about not getting opportunities, I ask myself will I stop dancing if I can never dance in public and each time I answer back, Never! So I dance first and foremost for myself, and everything else will follow. I shall fulfill whatever dreams I deserve to have fulfilled.
AS: What message would you like to give to the aspiring Odissi dancers?
SB: To be patient, to practice and be humble.
AS: Srabonti didi shared with me a poem she wrote last year.
You are my only refuge
Closer to me than my own self
Submersed am I in your soul
When the daily humdrum life ceases
I am left with you alone
In my mind’s eye
I dance for no apparent reason
Thoughtless, feeling only you coursing
When ensnared in a parched desert,
devoid of warm emotions,
You provide life giving ambrosia,
In a paradise like phase
You are my constant companion
Making it heaven.
Surely the day I am released
from your spell
Will be the day I breathe my last,
For my love, you are my very self
I dedicate this to you, my own sharanya,
my own refuge, my Dance.