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Beyond the Stage: With Chitra Shankar

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: August 4, 2015, 11:49 AM IST
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My connection with the Indian classical dance was never very distinct. In my growing up years, I saw my friends in school performing Kathak and Bharatanatyam in annual functions, when I kept my interests loyal to vocal classical music. The dance programmes on Doordarshan on Sundays and occasional shows of Yamini Krishnamurthy, Thankamani Kutty, Manjusri Chaki Sarkar, Mallika Sarabhai, Shobana kept me mesmerised. In that tender age what attracted me most was the elaborate costumes, the make-up, the elegant stretches of the body, heavenly music of the foot ornaments, the hair do, all of which made the dancer look like a divine princess; or a Goddess. What I fundamentally deciphered as a child was that Indian classical dance makes the dancer look beautiful and express gracefully. I thought, anyone who is beautiful must be a dancer!

Subconsciously I nurtured this innocent ideology for many years till I met Chitra Shankar through social media and started discussing the grammar and technicalities of the art in detail. I had then just started conceptualising my third book, an art fiction again, where Indian Classical Dance should play a pivotal role. Chitra helped open my horizon to the tri-attributes of Nritta (technic), Nrittya (the dance), and Naatya (acting). It is the Naatya or Abhinaya of the performers which had kept me engaged through all these years as I perceived its beauty in the grace of those expressions and costumes. Through Chitra a heavy dose of learning and unlearning started as I explored both grammar and literature of the art, without physically involving myself to its rhythms.

Based in Singapore, Chitra’s personal journey is intriguing as much as it conveys the inherent strength of an artist. But what I find really interesting is her success in managing a profession as an Indian classical dancer, even when she doesn’t reside in the country. But Chitra says she would probably never have taken up dance so seriously, had she remained in India! “In India, I was more accustomed to being a textile designer and I had a ready set up, which would probably never have allowed me to quit and pursue dance as a full time profession. Singapore has its own advantages and disadvantages. When I moved here, my options as a textile designer back then was very limited. Labour is very expensive here and setting up an entire system was next to impossible. So I decided to continue with dance which was always an integral part of my life. But I never thought I’ll do it at such a large scale with about 100 students rolling.”
Chitrakala Arts, founded by Chitra Shankar in 1998 is a premier dance institution in Singapore with students from Singapore and many other countries including India, Japan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, UK, USA and Australia, pursuing their passion for Indian Classical Dance. The school provides training in two styles of dance and provides opportunities to perform in numerous events and festivals across multiple stages in Asia and America. Chitra is among the select empanelled artistes with the ICCR (Indian Council of Cultural Relations) and in Dec 2014, she has been recognized and honoured as the Ambassador of Odissi in Singapore by Odissi International, Bhubaneshwar, India.

Over the past many years, Chitra and her students have performed widely within Singapore and beyond, across wide spectrum of stages from small community centers and temples to the very prestigious Esplanade Theater, the Tokyo Indian Dance Festival, Bali Arts Festival and the Cervantino Dance Festival, Mexico, several Arts and Dance Festivals in India, etc. Says the dancer, “Today Chitrakala is a big institution with thousands of performances to our credit. In December 2014, I performed in India after almost 20 years with six performances in Delhi and Bhubaneshwar. In Jan 2015, we travelled as a group to Vientaine, Laos to perform at the Republic Day celebrations organised by the Indian embassy. It was a memorable trip for all of us.”

Though dance is her primary profession, Chitra juggles with different roles throughout the day. Within the broad definition of being a dance professional, she has multiple departments to work upon. A creative artist, a dancer, a teacher, heading an institution, the admin work, etc. influence different hats for her throughout the day. “Take for example, choreography,” explains Chitra. “There are many aspects that go into the choreography. Some of the factors include music, the event, the theme (if any), what kind of production styles we have to work with etc. If the music is a pure classical piece, like, say a Jatiswaram or a Thillana, then we stick to the pure grammar of Bharatanatyam. However, if the music piece is a semi classical or fusion piece, then we experiment with the choreography. But, whatever we do, we stick within the grammar of the dance form. When the event theme is an interpretation of some classical piece of work, we stick to the technics of pure classical dance. If we are creating a presentation that represents a modern theme, then we again interpret with an amalgamation of different styles. Certain themes are better interpreted when we are less rigid about the style and explore the movements and use the space for a better presentation. The rule is that we never compromise on identifying the style with the performance. The audience, the stage, the music all determine what we present. Thus when I am trying to choreograph, I am simultaneously being a researcher!”

Chitrakala Arts houses students from different races and origins. Having been a visiting faculty in a leading art institute of Singapore called Nanyang academy of Fine Arts, Chitra trains students in a module called Asian Dance. Many students, who are predominantly from China and also from Indonesia, Srilanka, Thailand, Japanese and other places come back to her to learn further even after the module is over. Reminisces Chitra, “In fact the first student I started with in 1994 in Singapore was a Japanese girl who used to come down from Tokyo every couple of months to learn Odissi. She would stay in an inexpensive hotel here and take lessons from me very sincerely! That’s how I got started with teaching Odissi!” Someone somewhere must have said, art unites communities with a common religion called Art!
“As a performing artist and as a teacher, discipline is very essential. I have to work out regularly, to keep fit. I am an example that my students see and grow. So it’s important that I do the right stuff from which they learn from and practise regularly,” says Chitra as she gets talking about her students. “Learning dance is similar to learning a language or learning music. It is learnt first in small phrases and then these phrases are put together to create a few "jatis" (which are the equivalent of sentences) and finally the next step to create an item. When a new student comes in, I first introduce them to elementary dance, with some history of classical dance, different classical dance styles as well as music and its impact on dance.

Each class starts with a warm up and exercise to tone the muscles and then goes to steppings and revision and then new training. Basic training for Bharatanatyam is very regimented and disciplined, focussed towards building that stamina to carry a physically demanding performance. There are different levels of training including Adavaus, where the basic steps are categorised into groups comprising 8 to 12 different sub-steps, the total coming to 64 different steps. Besides this, there are eye exercises, neck and head exercises, foot positions, hand gestures etc. A lot of emphasis is laid on the basic Adavus training as that lays the foundation for developing the style the right way. Even at the advanced level of dance practice, the dancer still focuses on the basics and keeps those perfect. The final delivery is just a product of stringing together the Adavus into a message.”

The other important word in this profession is Experiment and the capacity to Innovate! Any art form is like a culture or a civilization. It needs to expand and increase its outreach if it has to grow. And for that, even the technical aspects, while retaining the basic purity of its style, must adapt to the changing needs of the consumer, the audience, the organizers and the artists. Otherwise, there is a danger for these forms to become irrelevant and extinct. Chitra talks about her vision towards experimenting and including new designs with her choreography. “I don’t limit myself in terms of what I wish to interpret with dance. I will interpret any idea that catches my attention, from current events to mythology or matters of historical importance. The interpretation in dance is based on the theme, the story line, the moods and the music. Interpretations can be classical or a mix of styles. In fact, I have done a couple of semi-classical choreographies fusing Bharatanatyam and Odissi to music that I just loved and wanted to choreograph. One of them is called Surya Shakti on the Sun God. However, Bharatanatyam or Odissi are not just dance forms. They are a form of penance, meditation, prayer, expression, liberation, and a platform for the divine emotional connect with the content and message”.

Beginning with a full time career as textile designer, it wasn’t easy for Chitra to keep alive her passion for dance. Rehearsals were often scheduled very early in the mornings or late in the nights to balance her dual engagement. Since she was actively performing at various festivals and travelled often for performances, life was strictly disciplined and no luxury! And this remained her routine for a long stretch of time, even when she was in college and at times out-station performances got scheduled just before the exams. Says Chitra, “Textile Designing isn’t a course that you can study for a night and appear for the papers on the day next. It required constant work all through the year. Often I had to stay up till late to complete projects and creative assignments”. Her training had started initially with Bharatanatyam as an extra-curricular activity and that continued till she was bowled over by an Odissi performance from Srimati Madhavi Mudgal. She decided to widen her horizon and started learning under Guru Shree Hare Krishna Behera. Later she trained under Srimati Madhavi Mudgal as well. Also Kelu Charan Mohapatra’s group “Srijan” came over to Singapore from time to time and she exposed herself to further training with Srijan.

When I try to understand the economic stabilities of being a dancer, I don’t hear much encouraging responses. Rather it points out once again, the futile battles of an artist when it comes to securing what she deserves and that constant personal turmoil while trading out self respect and giving in to accept an unfair fee because there isn’t another option! “To begin with, dance isn’t a well-to-do career unless we engage ourselves in teaching or are fortunate enough to possess inherited wealth. Sadly, event organisers don’t understand that when a dancer is invited to perform at an event, they need to be paid appropriately because that is their profession. Rather they always try to cut corners citing funding issues and repeating that budgets are tight. As a performing artist alone, you often can’t just survive with the money they offer. In these terms, it hasn’t been a smooth journey for me too. It has taken me many years to come this far where organisations are open to pay us what we deserve. But my Chitrakala being self-funded, it relies heavily on the fees that comes through teaching,” Chitra discloses.
Other than the encouragement of her family, Chitrakala didn’t ever depend on anyone for any kind of support. It never relied on funding bodies and had been conceived on a self-sufficient model right from the beginning. Unlike the general practices everywhere, the institution and its governing body has maintained good relations with many other dance institutions here in spite of the cut-throat competition each of them face in the market.

This brings us to probably the last few important terms that come subtly associated with art. Inclusiveness and sportsmanship enhances your capacity to absorb, accept and learn when others grow, and nurture within yourself the spirits of a healthy competition. This also makes you selfless enough to share your learning without bothering about returns, just like Chitra Shankar did with me, endlessly responding to my queries some of which were really novice and yet, she was always patient enough to clarify my doubts. My personal journey as an author and social journey as an art enthusiast will largely be indebted to her mentor-ship.
First Published: August 4, 2015, 11:49 AM IST
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