Bijayini Satpathy@Nrityagram: Classical Dance in a Contemporary Context

Photo Courtesy: Kartik Venkataraman

Photo Courtesy: Kartik Venkataraman

When Bijayini Satpathy first set foot in Nrityagram, the Odissi dance institute founded by the Late Protima Gauri Bedi, she knew there was no turning back. In her twenty-plus years at Nrityagram, she, along with famed dancer-choreographer Surupa Sen, have successfully crossed cultural and linguistic barriers to carve a niche for themselves in the international dance arena. Arguably one of the most sought after dance ensembles in the world, Nrityagram has worked extensively to explore and expand the pedagogy and dance vocabulary of Odissi, drawing upon various movement disciplines to inform their process and approach. Bijayini Satpathy, currently serving as Director of Training, shares with us her own personal journey at Nrityagram, her thoughts on Odissi, and Nrityagram’s approach to dance education.

GR: Can you describe what it was it about Nrityagram’s approach to dance and movement that made such a lasting impression during your first experience as a visiting artist?
BS: I arrived in Nrityagram after having trained in Odissi in Odisha [the birthplace of Odissi] for nearly 12 years. The first thing that struck me about Nrityagram was the sheer rustic beauty of the 10 acre school grounds, multiple open large studios, unconditional access to music, and a packed routine of activities starting from morning to night.

The next and the most important thing that truly clicked for me was the constant analysis of each and every small movement and gesture in relation to the timing of its placement in the choreography, in relation to the music and rhythm. Endless, interesting discussions on how Guruji [Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra] might have thought about each movement, and how it fit justifiably in the choreography. Technically, small movements were broken down and deconstructed to identify common patterns, singling out specific nuances that made them seem different. We discussed geometry of movements and spatial patterns, energy flow of every move, points of effort and release, where we needed to breathe out and relax and where we needed to stay extended, and how we related to one another other in group choreography, even when the dance is devoid of an emotional context.

Hours and days were spent synchronizing one movement – not only in the physical execution of the particular movement, but also in intent.

These concepts were completely new to me and came from Surupa. For me they were like theorems that I could apply to everything I had learned up until then, and suddenly volumes of newness surfaced in my dance. There was so much new learning that my excitement of finding them started calming down only after three years.

GR: Coming from a rather conservative dance background, how did you integrate these new ideas of Nrityagram into your own approach to dance? Do you find it difficult for your students coming from similar backgrounds to understand and integrate these philosophies into their practice?
BS: I had begun to find the traditional approach [to dance] repetitive and limiting, and was looking for a change, or perhaps even quit dance altogether. I didn’t know what I was looking for or where to find it, I was just aware that I was seeking some sort of change. So at Nrityagram, where it was right in front of me, there was only readiness to encompass it all, there was never ever any resistance. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

Yes, I spend a lot of time with new students or apprentices with long experience in Odissi explaining all of this. I tell them that it is not hard to adapt these new ideas, but there has to be an open mind to start with. I often ask them why they want to change from where they came from. I tell them in great detail as to how frustrating it will be to what may seem like starting all over again. This is only to make them realize their inner resistance when it surfaces.

Habits are difficult to break. Even harder is to transcend mental barriers. It is interesting to see how learning a dance technique differently can require one to change from inside out. This is where the most resistance comes from. However much we prepare our students, unless he/she is completely ready, eager and hungry for it [change], it can be very hard.

GS: Odissi is considered by many to be a very ‘regionalist’ dance style. How important to you think regional identity in the dance form? And how does Nrityagram’s proximity [away from Odisha] affect their approach and presentation of Odissi?
BS: All classical dance forms of India carry within the cultural ethos of the region they are born out of. Similar is the case with Odissi. I do not believe that one has to be an Oriya, Indian, Asian or live in Orissa to relate to this ethos better. The dance embodies it all in its physicality, expression and in spirit. If one surrenders one’s self/ego completely to the form, nothing matters. The pure movements repeated with complete truth and honesty in the

moment lead us to the original state of mind. Yes, a certain level of exposure to the culture helps understand certain nuances better – for example, by watching village women or growing up listening to mythological stories etc. But how many urban kids of India truly have these experiences? How may know one tree from the other? How many have ever worked with their hands on the soil? As true to any acting methodology, one has to watch and learn. For example, I had to observe birds for days and months to perform Jatayu. It simply requires true motivation.

However, the advantage of being physically far from Orissa has helped us learn, research, experiment and grow with complete freedom without the pressure of staunch traditionalism and conservative ideas, which a lot of times can be limiting. We have enjoyed this freedom while working with a sincere sense of responsibility to the great sacred tradition.

GR: Nrityagram is one of few dance institutes that has adapted the Gurukul system of learning where the student stays with the Guru for a specified time period to imbibe the training in an environment that is conducive to the learning process. How have you adapted this system to suit the needs of he 21st century?
BS: Gurukulas were essentially isolated and simplistic. Learning in this system is a complete way of life, with great emphasis on learning both in and outside the classroom in equal measure. The learning of values, truth, dilemma, and inner conflict of a profession, is an inherent and natural part of training in a Gurukula system and that is where imbibing the spirit of the teacher comes to play an important role in the process.

All of this happens in Nrityagram, except living conditions are relatively modern and comfortable. When students come here, they come with the identity of a 21st century individual. So we relate to each other at that level. While learning the 2000 year old art of Odissi, we articulate in a way that is accessible to this generation and at the same time have to be very careful about the cultural essence of this tradition not getting diffused.

GR: Given the demands of contemporary society, do you think the Guru-Shishya parampara approach to classical dance is slowly fading away? How do you think this will affect the art form?
BS: I see new hope now in the name of ‘mentorship’ in India and abroad. This is a more fashionable thing to do, and is basically a teacher-student relationship. There will always be very few takers for the Guru-Shishya approach to learning because it requires a very high level of commitment, self-motivation, dedication and patience in the students to be on this path. Only the ones who have these key ingredients besides the gift of talent can pursue it as if it was a blessing and not some kind of sacrifice one is making with great hardship.

Photo Courtesy: Uma Dhanwatey

Photo Courtesy: Uma Dhanwatey

I feel it takes less time to build a deep personal relationship with one’s art in a Gurukula system, which makes a dancer different from another. In a Gurukula system it happens faster because of the sheer hours going into practice, the holistic approach, and the intensity of experience at all levels – physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. It is bound to happen.

GR: Can you tell us a bit about the training program at Nrityagram? What is the daily schedule for Nrityagram artists?
BS: A typical day of a student/dancer at Nrityagram starts very early at 6AM with walking/jogging. This is to wake up one’s senses gently and aesthetically to pure nature, and open one’s muscles and joints. Afterwards, everyone cleans their assigned space in the Gurukula. This is not only to inculcate a sense communal service, cleanliness and hygiene of one’s surroundings, but also to develop visual aesthetics, all very necessary for a dancer.

After this, everyone meets for a session of physical conditioning, generally as a dancer and specifically as an Odissi dancer. After a short gap for breakfast, everyone, regardless of their level of training, meets together to revisit and practice basics of Odissi as developed in Nrityagram, followed by practice of certain traditional choreography. This is a three hour supervised session by one of the faculty.

Post-practice session, there is a gap of a few hours where students will break for lunch, then rest, and then complete their assigned work in the office, kitchen, garden, maintenance etc. Students who pursue academic study through correspondence find time to study during this break too.

A session of one-to-one training begins early evening where students receive personal attention while learning advanced work, depending on their level. Post-session, students are required to do their own practice so that their study of the day is up-to-date. Afterwards, they observe the ensemble rehearse.

A typical day at Nrityagram ends at 9pm.

Classroom study includes study of rhythm, understanding music and history of Odissi, study of the texts like Abhinaya Darpana and Natyashastra, literature, poetry, understanding religious significance etc. Some of these studies are planned, and some happen as specific learning requires.

GR: How did you develop this program? Do you draw from other traditional practices/western forms, etc.?
BS: Gaurima – Protima Gauri emphasized and arranged cross-training which made it possible for us to be introduced to various movement disciplines from across the globe.

GR: Besides an intense physical regimen, rigorous study of dance is also an integral part of the training process. Can you discuss the curricula and how you came about developing this for your dancers?
BS: When mind is full of varied information, it is bound to be aware and apply this information while in practice. An interesting journey started long time ago in Nrityagram, first by Surupa Sen and then myself, which resulted in a very accessible, systematic and scientific approach to conditioning before training in Odissi, an expanded basic Odissi movement vocabulary and development of an injury-free, aware and healthy dancing body.
We continue to cross-train in techniques from within and outside of India to include [but not limited to]:  Yoga, Natyashastra, martial arts like Chau, Kalaripayattu, Aikido, and other western dance forms like Ballet, Modern, Contemporary etc.

GR: What is your definition of the ideal student?
BS: The ideal student should have the right proportion of talent, passion, patience, self-motivation, ambition, never-ending thirst and curiosity. But above all one needs to approach learning with complete humility and a state of egoless-ness but with great self -dignity.

GR: Do you think your training program is replicable or could serve as a model for other dance institutes in India?
BS: 100%

GR: For years, Nrityagram has expanded Odissi’s vocabulary and offered a very different aesthetic for the dance form. Is this something you hope to continue with Nrityagram’s future generations? And if so, how do you cultivate this skill in your students?
BS: As explained earlier, Nrityagram’s unique training and technique well-prepares the students for its expanded vocabulary. We give very specific and important attention to every detail of presentation and Surupa Sen’s choreography brings it all together into choreography that is contemporary within tradition. Our work will continue on this path.

A student living, learning, and practicing in this ecosystem is bound to absorb it all. It is a sensibility they will carry within themselves whether they are consciously aware of it or not. It feels good to hear “it was obvious that she trained in Nrityagram”…. about a student of ours.

Students learn to teach in our methododology. They are introduced very early on in the process to deconstruct movement, think about Abhinaya in terms of dialogue, and learn basic principles of choreography too. Some things become their habit, their blood memory, and ultimately their sensibility, while some of it may need to be worked at.

GR: What are your long-term goals for Nrityagram?
BS: There has been a lot of significant work so far. Nrityagram is entering its 25th year in May this year. We plan to start documenting all of our work and continue to strive for excellence in training, research and performance.

We have a very strong community outreach programme that has enriched the lives of hundreds of rural children around us, most of who come from below poverty line background. Our special technique to teach them Odissi is modeled after the technique of the National Dance Institute, NY. While the children learn through dance to find inner joy, freedom, beauty, a sense of achievement and success in the safe setting of their Sunday class sessions, they become more confident and empowered as individuals and carry a sense of excellence into whatever they do in their life. We hope to further expand this programme in the future.


To learn more about the programs/classes or other training opportunities at Nrityagram, please contact Bijayini at:


  1. Lovely! Much of what BijayniDi said, really resonated.
    Especially when she spoke about learning 40 seen in any part of the world. Absolutely, hundred percent agreed!

  2. Sorry for typo, see correction:-

    Lovely! Much of what BijayniDi said, really resonated.
    Especially when she spoke about learning Odissi in any part of the world. Absolutely, hundred percent agreed!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: