On the eve of their performance, Melbourne-based classical dancers Roshni Vellore and Uthra Ramachandran and their guru Dr Chandrabhanu OAM talk about Parampara: The Making of Dance, which bridges classical and newly-developed contemporary works.
Chandrabhanu is no stranger to the classical dance scene in Melbourne. His school Bharatalaya Academy on Richmond’s Swan Street was founded in 1973 and today continues to produce a new generation of dancers who have formed a new youth company the Jambudvipa. Chandrabhanu has created over 40 full length works in the Bharatnatyam, Odissi and contemporary dance genres. His ability lies in very conscious awareness of the development of Bharatnatyam and Odissi within the Australian context, and also drawing from the traditions that were transplanted from India to Australia. Nowadays he spends more time choreographing and Parampara is one among the many that he is involved in.
With over 14 years’ experience in dancing, Roshni studied Bharatanatyam at the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Academy. In 2007, she commenced Odissi training and performed her Manch Pravesh (a culminating event for students of Odissi dance) in 2012. She has performed in several productions over the years and has jointly received the Natya Kala Best Overall Performance award in 2015 with Uthra Ramachandran for Geeta Govinda Part 1, and received Odissi class awards in 2007 and 2018.
Uthra commenced training in the Vazhuvoor style of Bharathanatyam at the age of five in Botswana, Africa. She presented Arangetram, which is the debut performance for Bharatanatyam in 1998 before migrating to Australia with her family in 1999. In 2001 she joined the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Academy and continued training in Bharatanatyam. Since 2007 she has focused solely on Odissi and has had the opportunity to perform in several shows and productions.
Their upcoming performance at the MTC also has Spanish Flamenco dancer Laura Uhe, herself an accomplished and experienced performer and teacher, and the audience will be given a chance to see the merging of cultures in dance.
In conversation with Roshni, Uthra and Chandrabhanu.
How did the collaboration for Parampara come about?
Uthra and Roshni: As his students, we knew Chandrabhanu had to be our creative director. His choreography and artistic vision are unmatched along with his passion and ability to create amazing new works. We are truly fortunate and blessed to have a guru who inspires us and brings out the best in us.
What was the inspiration behind Parampara?
Uthra & Roshni: We wanted to raise money for JAIA (Jambudvipa Youth Association of Indian Arts). JAIA is the non-profit part of the school which stages professional level productions for senior dancers. It is our way to continue to connect and share with our heritage. Profits from Parampara will go to support future performances by dancers of the academy. Since its founding under the guidance of Chandrabhanu, JAIA has staged a number of major productions in both styles of dance with professional-level dancers including “Mariamman” (2013), “Ras Leela” (2013), “Geeta Govinda Part 1” (2014), “Geeta Govinda Parts 2 and 3” (2017) and now “Parampara – The Making of Dance” (2019).
How does it bridge classical and newly-developed contemporary works?
Chandrabhanu: I’ve wanted to do this program as an example of the fact that choreographers and people who actually make dance sometimes get overlooked, because people think it is “traditional” dance. That word “traditional” in India is a curse really because we say “by tradition, this is the way we have to do it”. I am looking at the genius of people in the past who have been gurus and have choreographed. I am very lucky in the sense that I have had very good gurus who were encouraging me to choreograph work. And so throughout my whole time in Australia I’ve been observing the general dance community where there is always this emphasis on innovation, particularly in Western dance.
From the fact that I started performing in stages in the West, and I’m also known for my ability to communicate the language of dance to the lay person, that is already innovative. But in Western terms, when they look at Indian dance they think, “Oh that’s traditional dance.” That’s why I decided to emphasise “creative choreography”.
One just doesn’t dance. You have to look at your system of training, the discipline and then of course the teachers (gurus) in Odissi. Originally in the 1950s, there were four gurus who made new work. They are called the jeevantikas because they gave life to Odissi. Before that there was no Odissi, there was not even that word. But today, when we talk about those four gurus, they say, ‘Oh that’s traditional. That’s the way it has to be done, you must not make any more new work because they had created the new works’. So, I feel that there were four different choreographers, as I see it – not four different banis or parampara (the lineage of teachers). That is why this show is called Parampara. What is the parampara here? The parampara is to do with me. I ask my students to be creative, look at new ways of doing things, learn the basics and then you have got the freedom to express yourself. Like learning language, whatever you want to say is up to you.
Can we call this bridging of the classical and contemporary forms fusion?
Chandrabhanu: I wouldn’t call it fusion so much in the sense that it is an exploration into the making of dance. Some people don’t understand how dance is made or choreographed. There are so many different elements – you need to have an understanding of the discipline and the technique, you need to be innovative, you need to look at possibilities that the tradition has. Sometimes we don’t look at those possibilities because we are so geared towards tradition and think we must follow that.
Then there is the element of music. The fact that Krushna Chandra Ray (music director for Parampara) has composed all new music for me over the past 20 years and with works such as the Keerwani Pallavi and Saptamatrika which will be performed in Parampara – it is all innovation.
In this program, the innovative element is central. I wouldn’t call it fusion because I am still working within a certain kind of discipline – the basic foundations. I am just drawing it further, pushing it further to see how the two dancers (Roshni and Uthra) will work and move. They have been trained by me so they know and understand what I want. But if they had not been trained by me, it would have been very difficult for me to teach them. There are certain things that I have developed over 45 years of teaching, and the work for instance with Keerwani Pallavi (also to be presented at Parampara) is not easy. Keerwani was inspired by Flamenco. When I returned from my travels in Spain, I asked Krushna to compose Keerwani and the dance is a very innovative piece.
What about the Flamenco piece in Parampara?
Chandrabhanu: I wouldn’t still call the Flamenco piece fusion. Dance is dance. Too many people think if you do Bharatanatyam, you don’t do Odissi or Kathak. It’s all dance and just different ways of moving. The human body loves to move and express itself. I have been to Spain five years in a row, listened to a lot of Spanish music and watched a lot of Spanish dance. Like Indian dance, they have their own issues with different schools and regional differences. But they are still very proud of their lineage of teachers, their parampara. What I find about Flamenco is that it is very innovative. Each generation has its own way of expressing themselves through dance. Flamenco is said to have an Indian origin from gypsies who came from northern India to Spain. Also, when the Jews were expelled during the Reconquista period, they came to India, and then they went back to Spain. So, there are already different cultural elements in Flamenco, and Indian dance is the same.
We can’t say that it’s been traditional for 2000 years, it has changed. For instance, the Tanjore quartet in classical terms were influenced by Dikshitar, who was very innovative. Dikshitar revolutionised Carnatic music by introducing the Melakarta raga system. Today, from an academic point of view, we think Dikshitar was a very contemporary composer. In the same sense, there is a kind of merging of cultures within Flamenco and I want to make that connection with Indian dance as well. With Odissi or Bharatnatyam, our rhythms are a little bit more complex than Flamenco, but there’s always the bravado, the quality of performance, showmanship and passion the dancers have. What I like about Flamenco most of all is the improvisations, and each artist just gets up and just improvises. That’s why I thought it would be a good thing for my dancers to look beyond what they’ve been trained in and see the possibilities. For me it is the possibilities of choreography, how to actually merge cultures. I’ve been involved with dance and experiencing dance from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. But for a lot of people in Australia, Indian dance is still foreign. Working with Laura (the guest Flamenco artist) is a bridge we have formed to understand Spanish dance and for her to understand Indian dance.
Do you feel Indian classical dance has isolated itself from the wider cultural community?
Chandrabhanu: I’m very sceptical of what has happened to the arts generally in Australia. The last few governments have not encouraged the arts at all, so you will find that arts funding has gone down. You only find mainstream funding for the big companies. In terms of grassroots level, it is really low. We are now in a position where we are seen as “ethnic” dancers rather than being part of the cultural exploration of Australia. In the 90s, Bharatam Dance Company was a major company funded by the government, and we had our shows at the arts centre and people didn’t just think “it’s Indian dance”. We had an audience that kept coming for every season because in a way I educated them because of my ability to communicate what the dance is all about.
The dance culture of Australia is under threat because mainstream professional companies are getting all the grants, but the general dance culture – small ballet schools, Indian dance schools are not. It also worries me that there are no regulations for Indian dance. There are Indian dance schools everywhere now with no set curriculum and that is a concern. My emphasis has always been on a professional standard from day one. We have to make sure people understand that this is theatre – a convention of theatre.
(The show is being held on July 26, 27 at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler. Ticket link to the show www.mtc.com.au/parampara)
(As told to The Indian Weekly)