A renowned artist, Geeta Chandran, is celebrated not only for her composite understanding of Bharatanatyam, but also for her Carnatic music, her work in television, video and film, theatre, choreography and dance education and is founder-president of dance academy Natya-Vriksha. The Padma Shree awardee talked to Manisha Singh of Zee Media Corp about her journey as a successful dancer, the challenges she faced and much more. Following are excerpts from the conversation.
You are a renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and have been performing for four decades now. Tell us a bit about your journey?
On 25 October 1974, my late Guru Smt Swarna Saaswathy gave me the opportunity for my first solo performance. So now it's forty years since my arangetram. I think it's been an interesting, creative journey with significant phases that get wrapped into each decade.
The first decade was a decade of comfort and dedication to my devadasi Guru, Smt Swarna Saraswathy. Her word was law, and I just seeped it all in. The vast repertoire she bestowed on my - several varnams and padams - truly prepared me for an entire life in dance.
The second decade was difficult. With Swarna Saraswathy ageing and unable to teach, I had to find new teachers. I found my Guru in KN Dakshinamurthi who gave me performance craft. He taught me to emerge from Swarna's inwardly moored technique to be more performance oriented.
The third decade was all about further soaking in all that one had learnt, Enjoying my traditional repertoire, unearthing something special each time you perform or rehearse a piece. Traveling came as a great learning process. Performing for diverse audiences was a challenge. Recognition came and with it came responsibility to raise the bar of each performance for myself.
The fourth decade was stretching my wings in new directions. Seeking out unusual artistic collaborations and working with a plethora of other artists - dancers, musicians, crafts-persons, authors, writers, poets, painters, theatre-personalities, academicians, philosophers, linguists and costume and fashion designers.
Is it true that behind every successful artist is a Guru who shapes his/her career and life? Who was the one in your case who motivated you to become who you are today?
I completely believe in the sanctity and validity of the Guru-Shishya parampara. My first Guru who hailed from the devadasi parampara was a unique mentor. She gave knowledge of dance but beyond that she gave me a valuable approach to the arts that I cherish. My second Guru KN Dakshinamurthi was a total extrovert who taught me how to truly enjoy a performance. He unburdened me from the onerous feelings towards dance that I had received from my first Guru. Its between these two opposites that my own dance personality was crafted.
You are known to innovate. How challenging was trying contemporary themes with classical art? Also is there a dichotomy between contemporary and classical in Bharatanatyam?
I think all of us are schizophrenic - part of us operates as contemporary individuals devoid of the hocus-pocus of our inherited baggage, yet all of us at some point are also believers in the past and in some form of tradition that we create for ourselves. We all ping pong-between those two poles. So too in dance, I believe in my fabulous classical learning and heritage, but, as a modern citizen, I also use my art to change circumstances and the broader template.
Not only Bharatanatyam, but you also have a deep understanding of Carnatic music and are a trained vocalist. Did that help you become a more complete dancer?
My first Guru was an accomplished dancer, a concert-level vocalist and a professional veena player. To me all the arts were interconnected. And dance and music moved with the same motivation. Even till this day my dance is dictated by music. The same piece when I dance to is being sung by different musicians becomes a different experience. And I love to experiment with different genres of music - I have even used Hindustani music traditions like dhrupad, haveli sangeet and bhajans to see how the dance flexes. To me music and dance emanate from a single creative source.
Social causes appear to be close to your heart and you have through your choreographies highlighted menace like drugs and female foeticide, among other things, in the society. Can you throw some light on them?
I believe in dance. Not in propaganda. So whatever issues are dear, it is more important that they find an artistic response – and not just remain a poster or slogan. To me the cause has to move me from within and propel me to respond artistically. So whether it is her voice on the issue for women and war, or Kaikeyi that dealt with the complex issue of stigma, or Gandhi that deals with the burden of the caste system, for me the art of performance is more critical than the bold issue I showcase.
Do you feel a diminishing audience for Indian classical art in modern times? If yes, what in your view can be done can be done to reach out to new and young audiences?
The classical is an acquired taste. It is sipped gently and suffuses that rasika with a delicious warmth and glow. It is also eternal. I think that the audience for the classical has grown, though it can surely accelerate more. Artists need to invest time with youth catalysing them and explaining the larger classical values to them.
You train young artists too and your Natya-Vriksha endeavours to promote Bharatanatyam. What would your message be to the next generation who wants to pursue Indian classical art?
Recently I have enrolled a new batch of disciples, they will grow to be the batch of 2025. It takes at least a decade to craft a dancer. I am grateful to their parents for choosing to lead their wards into the classical maze. It will transform them forever. Because, that is what the classical arts do. It changes us all from within and makes us finer human beings.