Independent Spirit: My Journey as a Solo Artist

by Ayona Bhaduri

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Every competent artist, with a thirst for knowledge and a will to rid her art of parochialism and complacency, goes through a very significant and inevitable transitory phase from collective participation to individual pursuit; in case of a dancer, from working within an ensemble to venturing out as a soloist. I think a lot of it has to do with the dancer’s intellect. Beyond the physicality of the dance, when the mind begins to yearn for the ‘tripti’ or total satisfaction brought about by complete synergy of the mind, body and soul over and above the immediate trivial concerns of movement technique, when the ‘utsah’ of a movement stems from the emotion driving it so much so that the body feels just right at the said moment, in perfect harmony with the mind, in response to the ‘bhava’ initiating the movement, that is when the dancer intuitively knows that it is time and that she is ready to start her individual pursuit, searching both within and outside herself, to find her own personal vision that would define her art. Because every work of art ultimately becomes a true reflection of the artist herself.

One can never point out the exact moment when this transition starts, but when it does, the dancer invariably chooses solitude and moves away from the busyness of dance in order to introspect. And it is necessary to introspect. Because then, one begins to observe the subtle intricacies embedded in nature and life around us, to recognise and acknowledge one’s own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, to discard unnecessary inhibitions and obligations, all of which eventually giving birth to an aesthetic sensibility which is personal and is reflected not only in the kind of music, literature, poetry, texture, colour, movement, shapes and forms that she identifies herself with but also in the ordinary routine of her everyday life, such that an understated finesse inherent to our culture emanates from her manner, word and most importantly, her art.

I think that moment came to me five years back. I cannot tell exactly when in time, but I do remember this nagging feeling of restlessness which I couldn’t shake off, much as I tried, and it seemed to grow on me, compelling me to discard affiliations, drawing me towards empty spaces – both physically and emotionally – almost like starting all over again on an empty canvas.

My training in Protima Bedi’s Nrityagram, living in an isolated rural setting, where one would breathe, sleep, eat, think dance, practising eight to ten hours every day, not only exposed me to the nuances typical to Odissi as a dance form, but also broadened my mind to the diverse possibilities in terms of movement technique and kinaesthetic which Odissi could, if applied appropriately, imbibe and integrate into itself. This was made possible through interaction with great masters of varied movement forms from whom I imbibed the technique and finer aspects of yoga, martial art forms, Graham & Limon’s modern dance technique, use of voice and gesture in theatre and in dance, contact improvisation and much more.

So, as I was training, practising and performing Odissi in Nrityagram, each day I was witness to the assimilation of these new elements into the traditional form and experienced firsthand how very subtly but surely the modification in the form took place, breathing a fresh approach, traditional yet modern, into its ancient and apparently unchangeable predecessor.

After eight years, during which time having traveled and performed extensively across USA and India in group choreographic works as part of the Nrityagram ensemble, I moved back to Kolkata, my hometown, and started working at Odissi Vision and Movement Centre. I was in a completely new set up, coping with a new lifestyle that was not only urban, but also and more significantly, one in which home/family and work/dance coexisted. This was very new to the dancer in me who was so accustomed to the rural Nrityagram way of life where one practised in isolation, free from not only family obligations but also other mundane worldly realities. At first, I felt like a fish out of water and even though I decided and somewhat convinced myself to go with the current flow of change, over time I came to realise that no matter how much I try, I can never really erase the muscle memory which dancing and living in Nrityagram had so deeply ingrained in me. Gradually my body refused to listen to me, refused to adjust and my mind started screaming at me, “How long are you going to continue to speak in someone else’s language, how long will you go on telling stories written by others? FIND YOUR OWN LANGUAGE, WRITE YOUR OWN STORIES”

As Abraham Maslow very aptly points out, “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.”

I remember struggling to fight this overwhelming need to break free until finally, unable to hold back, I took a giant leap of faith into the unknown, to discover the new and rediscover the old, to assimilate and incorporate, in search of my own vision of Odissi which would eventually help fulfill my creative aspirations not merely as a dazzling performer on stage but as an individual artist of refined sensibilities with a distinct language of her own. In Chandralekha’s words, “For me, to be able to respond to the realities of life is as crucial as to remain alive and tuned to sensuality and cultural wealth. I have struggled to harmonise, to integrate these diverging directions in order to remain sensitive and whole.”

With classical dances being increasingly represented as group choreographies, perhaps I am moving against the current. But because I firmly believe that the soul of Indian classical dances rests within the solo form rather than its group manifestations, the choice of an independent path seemed inevitable.

I conclude with Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan’s insightful words –

It is the nature of the classical forms of Indian dancing that while they remain ancient and unchangeable on one level, they continue to grow or decline and certainly modify and assimilate new elements everyday

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