Surupa Sen: A question of choices by Madhuri KrishnanSurupa Sen: A question of choices by Madhuri KrishnanSurupa Sen: A question of choices by Madhuri Krishnan

An undulating road. Narrow in parts. A signboard of hands, below which is scripted Nrityagram. Red mud, green kerosene lanterns. Maithaili comes, thumping her tail on the ground. Jaya, the girl with the long hair, smiles.

The clouds darken as we approach the mud and granite portals of India's first and only dance village, Nrityagram, set up six years ago, on the outskirts of Bangalore. Created to preserve the seven classical dance forms, three of which are already in existence at Nrityagram, and two martial art forms, the dance village follows the guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition).

After the initial namaste from Jaya, the girl with the long hair, we are asked to wait for the successor of this dance school, the mysterious Surupa (pronounced Shu-rupa) Sen.

Of course, we all know Protima Gauri Bedi, iconoclast and an Odissi dancer, who, unbelievably for most, succeeded in funding and starting her dream school. But her sudden announcement in May 1997 of her retirement and subsequent takeover by a certain Surupa Sen raised a few eyebrows. Lynn Fernandes was slated to take over administration affairs while Surupa was to be artistic director of the three dance forms -- Mohiniattam, Odissi and Kathak.

Protima had then said: "My vision of an idyllic dance village was peopled with idealistic, hardworking, extremely talented and dedicated young dancers. Girls with a dream in their hearts and the courage to go through fire to achieve their objective. Surupa Sen is that ideal dancer."

The twilight hour. Sounds of the mridangam echo in the open. Big, fat mosquitoes feast on our ankles. A mug of tea spills over the table. A young girl in a crisp, cotton, flaming orange Bengali sari makes her way towards us. Surupa Sen.

"Hi," she smiles. "Is Maitha (aka Maithali, the dog) bothering you?" And purposefully moves to mop the spilled tea with a tissue. She laughs when you inadvertently blurt out that she looks young. "I'm touching 30 -- well almost!"

Surupa Sen has been lucky. She took to dance as easily as a duck to water. "If you can move your body uninhibitedly, without the self-consciousness that affects most girls conditioned in the Indian way of life, it's half your battle won."

Surupa Sen The other half was enhanced by the deft masterly touch of the gurus. Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra and Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena who taught her the essence of movement and showed her a love of the art, while Protima worked both as a role model and source of inspiration in teaching her to lose herself completely in dance. Surupa has a special soft corner for her first guru who taught her Bharatnatyam, Guru V S Ramamurthy of Hyderabad.

"I had to unlearn Bharatnatyam to learn Odissi," she says. Why? "Because the vocabulary of each dance form is distinct. For instance, a Bharatnatyam dancer normally makes straight lines, right angles, pyramidical structures in space while, in Odissi, the movements are circular patterns in space. The movement is like an `S', it is sensuous and lyrical. Bharatnatyam is more geometrical, and looks grandiose. So, unless you unlearn one language, you cannot faithfully master another form -- one form pattern can interfere with another."

As a person, dance becomes part of your personality or vice-versa. Protima had once described Surupa as, "a petite, frightened, intense, nondescript 20-year old who came to Nrityagram in 1990. She made all the wrong remarks in her eagerness to be accepted. But in the years that followed, it was clear that she was born to be a leader, one who was brutally honest, and worked herself to exhaustion and insisted that others in her group follow her example."

Surupa more or less agrees with the definition. "When you are young, you are ridden with silly complexes, such as `I'm not pretty enough, or good enough, or your smile is lopsided. But dance teaches you, it has made me the confident person I am today.

"I'm intensely critical of myself, my art. I criticise myself the most and those around me in terms of the art. I'm also a perfectionist, hypersensitive, but I'm compassionate, I care tremendously for people."

Protima has observed a change in Surupa since she first came. It was a transformation from a duckling into an exquisite swan, and a very confident one, too.

Probably, the last quality, that of showing compassion is what Surupa does most generously. She and a few dancers from the school visit neighbouring village schools and teach the children dance. She introduces us to Bharat, a gangling lad of 16, one of her students.

Male dancers are uncommon in India and Surupa says: "It's because our culture does not permit a man to pursue a vocation like dance, he's meant to be a breadwinner. Besides, there are few dance forms for which the male form is suitable."

Page design: Lynette Menezes                                                                                 More...

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