A Dance Odyssey at a Gurukul in India

By – Violaine Bhawana
France/Chennai

It’s always been a wonder to meet people who see the best in you and simply want you to achieve it, and believe in you when you yourself don’t.  But in order to access that best in us, we need someone demanding, someone uncompromising and more than any other talent, someone compassionate. I guess that’s what a guru means to me.  And that’s exactly what I found in our teacher Smt. Ramaa Bharadvaj.

Ramaa explaining a gesture - evening class by the lake

Ramaa explaining a gesture – evening class by the lake

What led me to her was an interesting announcement on the web about a week-long dance Intensive with a theme – Abhinaya & Improvisation.  It was to be held from Dec 15 to 21, 2013 at Chinmaya Naada Bindu (CNB), an arts ashram/gurukul in the village of Kolwan near Pune, India.  As thrilled as I was on being selected, little did I imagine the numerous discoveries just waiting to unveil at this beautiful venue.

My journey began on a Sunday morning in December.  “We are supposed to meet for tea before heading to the temple”. That’s all the information I managed to get from my roommate who couldn’t speak English but who had been kind enough to wait for me to come in the middle of the night to tell me that much.

Morning dawned and it was cold. After many years in Chennai’s impossible mixture of heat, humidity and pollution, the crisp mountain air, wide-open spaces and the abundant greenery at the ashram had a purifying effect on me.  I met our teacher Smt. Ramaa Bharadvaj (who we aptly named Ramaa Amma) and the other members of the dance group who were to become a wonderful team of co-explorers in the journey ahead.   Our group of 10 consisted of dancers from USA, Chennai, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra, Mumbai and New Delhi.

We trekked up the hill to the splendid Ganesha temple, offering prayers to an auspicious start of a week that was fittingly qualified as INTENSE.  Guided by our expert teacher we were all about to embark on a colorful exploration of new dimensions in dance, in movement, and in meditation.

The whole group gelled well and I was relieved that my French-alien-ness didn’t come in the way.  Can a foreigner do justice to an Indian art-form? This is a question that unfailingly pops up.  At CNB, the reaction I got was support and not suspicion at all.  Right from the kitchen staff to the administrators, teachers, and fellow students; I saw time and again only dedicated people, friendly, helpful and supportive.

Students with Ramaa in the CNB classroom

Students with Ramaa in the CNB classroom

Learning is FUN!!!

That’s what the Natya Sastra says and that was one of the first things that Ramaa Amma pointed out to us. The modern concept of edutainment has ancient roots and that’s probably one of the things that impressed me the most: learning is the ultimate fun!  The impromptu dance steps performed in the dining hall and the reaction it triggered was an illustration of it.  After watching the video discourses of Swami Chinmayananda & Swami Tejomayananda, and the non-stop laughing it created in the audience, it became clear to me that laughing is not only a therapy in itself, it is almost the most powerful tool in the learning & creative process. Ramaa Amma’s classes too followed suit and I found that diving into something as obscure as the Vedas or the traditional art-forms can be fun – a dimension that I again and again experienced at CNB.

It was 7 hours of dancing a day! 

Every class commenced with prayers and slokams, and somewhere in the background music was heard to inspire us, thanks to the music students.

The class atmosphere with Ramaa Amma was precious in every one of its moments.  She continually reminded us not take for granted anything she said and to always experiment by ourselves, because until validated by personal experience it cannot make sense, eventually. She demanded that we be true to ourselves and not be apologetic and if there was something we disagreed with or couldn’t understand we should speak up loud and clear.

She also insisted that we never be satisfied with the comfort zone of our muscle memory but to reach beyond movements/expressions that have become mechanical.  She asked us to use our body in a very different way, more aware, more in control and at the same time more free.  Expression is not limited to gesturing.   How articulate we can be with words will reflect how precise a language we can speak with other mediums – emotions, movements, and even silence.  Thus we learnt the art of developing what she called micro-dialogues.  Like these, there were so many interesting explorative exercises for us to experience.

"Bodies never lie" exercise explained by Ramaa and demonstrated by student Ganesh Kumar

“Bodies never lie” exercise explained by Ramaa and demonstrated by student Ganesh Kumar

Ramaa Amma involved us in the creative process, showing us how a choreographer’s mind works.  For this, we were asked to comment on the performances of our fellow classmates with positive feedback (yep … criticism can be positive!). The choreography for the Tamil song (a padam about tender love) was, from beginning to end, a collaborative effort. At no point in time were we told to copy and paste what we were taught. Distinguishing what is relevant from what is not (Viveka) was one of the many challenges that she threw at us.

Ramaa Amma told us many things about:

  • the physical body connected to the ground, the emotional body connected to the heart and the spiritual body connected to the head and above,
  • the dynamics of energy,
  • the intricacies of rhythm,
  • Sanskrit texts, Tamil lyrics and much more.

What she proposed was a multi-dimensional exploration of dance that is not limited to dance and to my knowledge (and unfortunately, I can say I’ve come through a long list of dance teachers in Chennai) a unique experience in the field of Bharata Natyam. I can certify it has been for each one of us a life-transforming experience, way beyond the scope of learning dance.

Dance adventures on the lake in campus - Ramaa and the 2013 Winter Arts Intensive students

Dance adventures on the lake in campus – Ramaa and the 2013 Winter Arts Intensive students

In addition to dancing, we reveled in music meditation in the mornings; watched screenings of other dancers; documented by video our own experiences on Abhinaya; danced in the waters at the private lake; performed Arudra Darshan worship to Nataraja in the class; and attended guest lectures and concerts.  We enjoyed a live performance by our teachers, lit by candles and we were filled with reverence for the artists who have made their arts a tool to reach the divine dimensions.  Indeed, a world away from the ego trip of stage performers looking for name and fame.  A rarity, to say the least!

The best people, the best environment, and the best teachers

Clearly, the focus was on quality.  The desire to learn was what drove us all to CNB, though learning was one of the things we got from that experience.  I believe being creative is what brings us closer to the Creator and this experience did much to awaken our creative selves.

It was an intense, rare, precious, humbling, and inspiring to meet my teacher Ramaa Bharadvaj, the CNB staff and my classmates. The week was an odyssey, and a landmark in a learning process that had no end but offered an endless exploration, new dimensions that were ours for the taking.

Words fail me to express my gratitude. I feel blessed and the blessings I got from this experience will live in me for a long time.

###

Violaine Bhawana hails from France but has made Chennai her home since 2009 learning Bharata Natyam, Carnatic vocals, Yoga & Sanskrit. She is a happy and blessed dance teacher volunteering with slum children through Speed Trust Chennai.

Chinmaya Naada Bindu (CNB) is a Gurukul for Indian Performing Arts dedicated to fostering classical music and dance forms of India through education, research and performance. Situated in a spiritual ashram at the foothills of the Sahyadri mountains inKolwan, Pune, CNB is inspired by the vision to propagate India’s Vedic heritage through the Performing Arts. Visit http://www.chinmayanaadabindu.org for further details.

Note: Read two other reports about the Winter Arts Initiative here and here.

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