A visit to the ‘dance village’ at Hesaraghatta, India

This is Nrityagram, literally ‘dance village’, 30km from Bangalore, near Hesaraghatta Lake. It was quiet when we visited it, as (sadly for us) the company was away touring the United States. However, I was particularly interested to see the architecture, since the village was designed specifically to support the dance education taking place there. Remembering Hellerau and the relationship of the architecture to the dance institute there, I was curious as to how this relationship might operate in a very different time, place and context.

We were kindly welcomed by Mrs. June Fernandez, whose daughter, Lynne, is the General Manager. We were also led round by another member of staff and permitted to take photographs.

Well, being curious is to become increasingly aware of how much one doesn’t know. I was to encounter a mesh of (to me) baffling reference points, as this visit and subsequent research brought me into contact with ideas about the principles of temple architecture; the materials of Indian ‘vernacular’ architecture; different dance traditions and their development; the geographical origins, historical roots and contemporary political contexts for these. I am grateful for this introduction to an unfamiliar set of starting points, without wishing to over-emphasise their ‘otherness’, because there are also moments of recognition.

Let’s start with these. The village lives with the natural world in a way that makes sense and touches senses:

The generous vegetable gardens that provide food for the residents.

The cascading blossoms of a tree – the colour, we said, of bluebells (we were thinking wistfully of the English spring, not least because it had failed to put in an appearance at home).

The shivalinga flowers, whose snakes heads flickered tongues of sweet scent.

The heat of red earth under bare feet. The rough texture of stone.

A bird with a glockenspiel voice.

And movement – we were led through paths that meandered through courtyards and circular enclosures. While they have precedents in architectural styles, the many circling movements of the buildings, archways, walls and amphitheatre hint at the circling movements of dance, as well as offering a half embrace to the dancers and dwellers within.

The village was the vision and project of the late Odissi dancer Protima Gauri Bedi, who established it in the 1990s. Her dream, as articulated on the Nrityagram website, refers to the Indian tradition of the Gurukul, where the dancers live and train with the Guru (teacher), almost as extended family:

‘I dream of building a community of dancers in a forsaken place amidst nature. A place where nothing exists, except dance. A place where you breathe, eat, sleep, dream, talk, imagine – dance. A place where all the five senses can be refined to perfection. A place where dancers drop negative qualities such as jealousy, small-mindedness, greed and malice to embrace their colleagues as sisters and support each other in their journey towards becoming dancers of merit.’

The institution is best known for Odissi dance, but also teaches other dance forms: Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi and Kathak. While there are only a small number of students undertaking the full six years of training (3+3), the school also runs a large number of workshop activities, including classes for the village children. There are several Gurus (Surupa Sen is the Artistic Director), but it is made clear that the institution itself represents the Guru who should be served through the practical work of all those present, tending the land, preparing food, cleaning and earning money through dance performances. In my ignorance, I had wondered whether Bedi was influenced by Tagore’s establishment of a school at Shantiniketan, but in fact this is not the case; nevertheless, there are ideas in common, not least that nature is also a teacher.

The architecture here is predominantly designed by Gerard da Cunha, and it reflects the ideals of the place in its valuing of vernacular tradition, its reference to sacred rituals and its ecologically sensitive use of local materials.

According to an article in The Sunday Tribune, the layout of the village was partly determined by Bedi’s instinctive feeling for space and movement:

‘[Lynne] Fernandes narrates how the village came up: “Gerard D’Cunha, the architect was inspecting the land with Protima. She walked with a stereo player and wherever she felt a strong desire to dance, she struck a pose and dropped a stone to mark the place. Trees were then planted there.’ (Pandey 2001)

Da Cunha, now based in Goa, studied architecture in Delhi, then trained with British-born, Keralan-based architect Laurie Baker, who was renowned for low-cost architecture, drawing on vernacular styles and methods and natural materials. The use of natural materials is reflected in Da Cunha’s work, and at Nrityagram, this includes, for instance, the use of red earth to make the clay floor of the amphitheatre as well as the use of local granite in archways constructed without mortar.

In an interview for AIDEC World, Da Cunha comments of Nrityagram:

‘When I was starting work there, I had a site that was flat. No trees, no view, nothing. I had to create vistas. It was an isolated area, so I had to bring a sense of security. For the few students living in isolation with the teacher,it had to be compact.’ He grouped his buildings around the three courtyards that he built. ‘When you got into the building you felt secure.’ (AIDEC World 2012)

The buildings offer reference points to local vernacular architecture, but also to other forms such as Tibetan houses, Roman theatres and Orissan temples. Inside the entrance to the Odissi Gurukul, there are carved dancers – alasakanyas – echoes of the figures carved into temples, which record early Odissi dance, and which were ‘decorative charms to attract the soul of the created towards the creator’ (Hejmadi and Patnaik 2007:13).

The ancient text of the Silpa Prakasa, which lays down the strict principles for temple architecture considers these figures ‘indispensible in architecture…without (the figure of) woman the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no fruit’ (Kaulacara 1966:46, l.392) Sixteen types are laid down in this text, and all sixteen appear in the Jagannath Temple at Puri, for instance (I think this one from Nrityagram is the Dalamalika, the young woman garlanding herself).

While Odissi dance appears to be secular in its origins (and may even be the oldest Indian dance form), it also developed from the dance in temples by Maharis (or Devadasis) from the Somavamsi period to the Ganga-Gajapati period (10th-12th C. AD). This custom of the ritual use of Devadasis later deteriorated due to poverty, prostitution and corruption, ceasing finally in the mid 20th century (Patra 2004:159 and 169). In the Ganga period, the custom was at its height, and dance spaces, Natamandapas, became a feature of temple architecture, in front of the porches (Patra 2004:160).

The Megheávar Temple Inscription of Bhubanešvar describes the dancing girls as those ‘whose eye-lashes constitute the very essence of captivating the whole world, whose very gait brings about a complete stillness in the activities of the three worlds, whose bangles bejewelled with precious stones serve as unarranged candles during the dance, those deer-eyed maidens are offered in devotion to Him, Lord Siva’ (Patra 2004:160)

The ‘deer-eyed maidens’ were rather scarce on our visit, but an image of Lord Jagannath appears in the studio spaces at Nrityagram. Jagannath is considered as a form of the Hindu God Vishnu, sometimes as an avatar, sometimes as Vishnu incarnate and the source of all avatars, though his worship does not conform to classical Hinduism and may have tribal origins (Joshi 2007). His most significant shrine is at Puri, where his worship has been ‘synonymous with human requirements and earthly things. It has all the ingredients of a human being like food, travel, sleep etc.’ (Patra 2004:163). The dancers lulled Jagannath to sleep at night, as well as taking part in other rituals (including the performance of Sanskrit dramas).

However, the ‘spirit of the Orissan temples’ rather than its actual practice animates the space of the Odissi Gurukul at Nrityagram (Nrityagram website) . Dancer Bijayini Satpathy’s description of the temple dancer’s task is active, rather than decorative or merely seductive – describing it as ‘a personal, devotional, passionate communication with the god’ (Melville documentary) and Sen’s choreography has been described as ‘feminist’ (Seibert 2013). The spaces are not laid down according to shastric principles, although we were told that local builders, called on to do repairs, commented that the architecture perhaps reflects them instinctively.

Despite the modern approach to building, and despite the many shifts in the development and the absolutely contemporary aspects of the dance, there remains a particular connection between contemporary Odissi dance and medieval temple architecture, not least because they provided its documentation when the form had all but disappeared. The Nrityagram website suggests that ‘Odissi creates an illusion of sculpture coming to life. Isolated torso movements, typical to the Odissi style only, help create these curves and therefore an eternal ‘S’ pattern is formed in the body and space.’

A reviewer from New York writes of a performance this year:

‘Developing the theme of unity, [Sen] has created a series of combined poses for the two women, perfectly balanced compositions one might see rendered on a temple wall or in a Mughal miniature. …. Carried along by the mellifluous sounds of the flute and the sharp, chirping  rhythms of the mardala drum, Sen and Satpathy created a universe.’ (Harss 2013)

Dance and its architecture. This is, for me, a new perspective on the way that architecture dances, and the dancer is architect of her universe.

AIDEC  World (2012) ‘Gerard d’Cunha: Architecture returns to nature’, found at http://www.aidecworld.com/people/gerard-dcunha-architecture-returns-to-nature/, accessed April 17th 2013.

Hejmadi, Priyambada Mohanty and Patnaik, Ahalya Hejmadi (2007), Odissi: An Indian Classical Dance Form, Aryan Books International: New Delhi.

Harss, Marina (2013), ‘A Good Week: Lil Buck, Mark Morris, Juillard Dance, Gabriel Misse and Nrityagram’  found at ttp://marinaharss.wordpress.com/ , accessed 17th April 2013.

Joshi, Dina Krishna (2007), ‘Lord Jagannath: The Tribal Deity’, Orissa Review, June-July, pp.80-84.

Kaulacara, Ramachandra (1966), Silpa Prakasa, trans. Alice Boner and Sadasiva Rath Sarma. Brill: Leiden.

Pandey, Priya (2001), ‘Keeping Protima’s dream alive’, The Sunday Tribune, July 22. Found at http://www.tribuneindia.com/2001/20010722/spectrum/main4.htm, accessed 17th April, 2013.

Patra, Benudhar (2004), ‘Devadasi System in Orissa: A Case Study of the Jagannatha Temple of Puri’ Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vo. 85, Jan 01

Seibert, Brian (2013), ‘Classic Idiom, Prodigious in its Variety’,  New York Times, April 9th, p.C7.

http://www.nrityagram.org/, Nrityagram website, accessed 17th April, 2013.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-b2zhm8TXw8 Excerpt from a documentary by Nan Melville, accessed 18th April 2013.