Entertainment

A great Odissi dancer conjures gods and demons alone

On a memorable night a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the classical Indian dancers Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen performed a duet in front of the great sandstone Temple of Dendur. Time stood still, every detail of their partnering so seamless that they appeared almost as one body, moving in harmony with the music.

That fusion of shape and musicality was the fruit of a long collaboration — the women had danced together for more than two decades. Until late last year, they created work at their home base at Nrityagram, a company and dance school near Bangalore in southern India. Sen was the choreographer, and Satpathy the star dancer and teacher.

But as she approached 40, Satpathy said recently, she felt a new desire — to test herself by carrying an evening on her own. She had “a strong urge to push into an untouched and underexplored dimension” of her artistry “before it was too late,” she said over tea in Brooklyn, where she was staying with friends.

Last year, when she turned 45, she told Sen that she would be taking some time away from Nrityagram to explore. She quit her position as director of the school and senior dancer in the company.

This new phase of discovery has brought her back to New York, where she will be performing an evening of solos at Drive East, a yearly festival of Indian classical music and dance. It is a rare opportunity to see one of the finest proponents of the classical Indian dance style Odissi. This dance form has existed since at least the 10th century in Odisha, a state on the eastern coast of India, where its harmonious poses are depicted on the walls of temples.

Bijayini Satpathy, one of the finest proponents of the classical Indian dance style Odissi, at Navatman Studios in New York, Jun 23, 2019. Satpathy will be performing an evening of solos in August at Drive East, a yearly festival of Indian classical music and dance. The New York Times Bijayini Satpathy, one of the finest proponents of the classical Indian dance style Odissi, at Navatman Studios in New York, Jun 23, 2019. Satpathy will be performing an evening of solos in August at Drive East, a yearly festival of Indian classical music and dance. The New York Times Satpathy was born in Odisha’s capital; like many girls in the area, she studied Odissi at the local dance academy, where she was the best in her class. But the idea of dedicating her life to dance didn’t cross her mind. She went to college and earned a degree in education, with plans to become a teacher. An audition for Nrityagram, which was then recruiting new dancers, got in the way.
“As soon as I walked into that place,” she told me, “I knew, this is what I want to do.” Despite family disapproval — “my parents didn’t speak to me for three years” — she persisted. Eventually, she became the head of the school, developing a rigorous conditioning programme that includes elements of yoga, martial arts, exercises found in the Natya Shastra — a surprisingly detailed ancient Sanskrit treatise laying out the principles of the classical performing arts — and even some ballet and Pilates. This summer, she has been teaching conditioning workshops across the United States.

She was also the star of the dance ensemble, the finest proponent of Sen’s choreography besides Sen herself. “She’s easily among the top five dancers I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” choreographer Mark Morris, who has been watching her for over 20 years, said.

Leaving Nrityagram has been hard. At first, Satpathy said, she felt desolate: “I experienced this shocking sense of loss of my hold on dance.” It has taken months to find it again, working alone for six hours a day in the rooftop studio of the home she shares with her husband, a photographer, just down the road from Nrityagram.

Bit by bit, she said, she has built herself up, almost from scratch. “I’ve struggled and I’m still struggling to find my solo being,” she said. “But I’ve begun to feel I’m moving differently. I feel a sense of expansiveness — literally, I own the stage.”

Working alone has also allowed her to think differently about the Odissi choreography she has been performing for so long. At Drive East, she will dance solos created by Sen, as well as more traditional works by Kelucharan Mohapatra, the teacher and choreographer who is considered responsible for reviving Odissi in the 20th century.

Though its basic poses and technique have been passed down over generations, there is room for expressive variety within the form. No two dancers, or choreographers, are alike.

“I find myself questioning things,” Satpathy said. “Sometimes I feel, hmm, maybe I could do something different here.” Whereas before she laboured to complete someone else’s ideas, now, for the first time, she has found herself wondering what it would be like to create a piece of her own.

“I have the urge to choreograph, but I’m petrified,” she said, her eyes widening dramatically. Even so, she has given herself permission to try. She is now working on a solo inspired by a poem from “The Gita Govinda,” a 12th-century Sanskrit text that recounts the vagaries of the love between the god Krishna and the milkmaid Radha. In this particular song, Krishna expresses his longing for Radha, who refuses to see him.

“It’s about the wrenching pain of separation,” Satpathy said, a subject particularly on her mind these days. In the solo, she moves slowly, heavily, low to the ground, her body weighted with sadness. A new dancer, distinct from the one who performed with Nrityagram, is emerging. “The way I’m moving, I haven’t seen Surupa move,” she said, referring to Sen. The solo, she added, is to debut in December at the Margazhi Dance and Music Festival in Chennai.

Like the works she will be dancing in New York, the new solo reveals Satpathy’s remarkable ability to transform herself through movement and the mimed expression known in Indian dance as abhinaya. In one of the pieces on the Drive East programme, “Sita Haran” — an episode from the epic poem “The Ramayana,” choreographed by the guru Mohapatra — she embodies no fewer than six characters.

As the lord Rama, she elongates her spine and holds out her arms in a taut, muscular gesture, as if shooting an arrow from a bow. Then her spine softens into an S-curve, and she tilts her head slightly. Now she is Sita, Rama’s consort, watching in delight as a deer cavorts in the forest. In an instant, she becomes the deer, jumping and skittering in intricate patterns across the stage. As she shifts from one character to the next, everything about her changes, from her gait to the expression in her eyes, as well as her relation to the floor and even the air around her.

In another solo, “Sakhi He,” choreographed by Sen, she depicts Radha confiding in a friend about the sexual ecstasy she has experienced in the arms of Krishna. “My waist chain loosened, Krishna caught my hair, kissed me, and fulfilled my desire,” the lyrics say, as the steps illustrate the chain flying and hair loosening. “She’s knowingly in character because she’s a great dancer and an adult, passionate woman with really good taste,” said Morris of Satpathy’s ability to portray erotic emotion.

Satpathy is as frank about what this dance means to her as she is about the other stories she depicts. When she’s dancing them, they are real, even though she is not a religious person. “I am an agnostic, if not an atheist,” she told me, but onstage she feels the emotions and urges of the gods and goddesses as if they were her own. “I’m able to tap into Radha,” she said, “because the dance form holds that feeling within it, and I’ve completely given myself over to the dance form. It’s the dance that contains within itself the belief. That is my religion.”

It is this desire to lose herself in the movement, and in the stories that it embodies, that drives her, and, in turn, makes her dancing so riveting to watch. It’s no coincidence that the title of the show at Drive East is “Kalpana,” the Sanskrit word for imagination. Alone onstage, Satpathy is finally free to live within the world she has conjured in her mind. “It’s a luxury,” she said, “to live in this world you create as if it’s real. In this way, my inner experience seeks completion.

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