It was at the tender age of five that Geeta Chandran, the acclaimed Bharat Natyam dancer, began learning the art from the traditional teachers of the form- the Devadasis. Her first teacher, Swarna Saraswathy taught her the “sampradaya shuddha” (pristine) Bharatanatyam, as she prefers to call it. Under Swarna, she learnt that every movement has a bhava (expression).
She had her arangetram (first on-stage performance of a student of Indian classical dance and music) in 1974. Since then, she continued learning Bharat Natyam from a number of eminent gurus.
Reminiscing her teacher’s forms, Geeta says, “It was a classical language of communication. It also let the art form survive without being corrupted. My most valuable training in Bharatanatyam was under Swarna Saraswathy.”
As her learning continued over the years, her passion for Bharat Natyam grew deeper. It was in her early college days, at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, that she heard her true calling and realised she wanted to become a dancer in life.
Her college provided a highly empowering environment which eventually shaped her ideologies and helped her become a more sensitive human being. She grew closer to her environment and everything around her. By that time, she had realised what destiny had in store for her.
After having gained a fair share of knowledge in the dance form, Geeta decided to take the legacy of the Devadasi-art ahead. With immense dedication for her art, she started Natya Vriksha, a Bharat Natyam academy in 1991. She had only a handful of students then.
The institute grew over the years, as it continued to impart the pristine education in Bharat Natyam. The institute is unique as all dancers have been entirely trained in Bharatanatyam by the danseuse. Her sincerity and hard work made the institute a brand in itself. Today, the institute has completed over 25 years in imparting the knowledge of art and enshrines the best philosophies of Indian classical culture.
Having completed four decades in the field of classical dance and being a teacher herself, Geeta feels that a guru has incredible responsibilities. ‘As a role model and as one who knows, it is up to the Guru to enlighten disciples’, she says. “The Guru leads the way and shows the path. And most importantly, awakens in disciples the ability to gauge between right and wrong, between good and bad.”
The dancer states that her institute showcases the aesthetics of Bharatanatyam and its history. Through dance, Ms Chandran makes her students comprehend the complex inter-linkages between the classical dance tradition and its strict grammar with other disciplines: Philosophy, Ritual, Religion, Myths, Ancient texts, Poetry, Literature, Art (Painting and Sculpture), Cultural Studies, Yoga, Handicrafts & Handlooms and Beauty & Aesthetics.
Coming from an environment where feminist ideologies moulded her thinking, Geeta connects with deep-rooted issues of gender justice. She brings out the same in her dance choreographies.
As a performer, she feels that dance has evolved her and made her a better and sensitive human being.
She says, “The physical environment I operate in has to enable me. I need to be assured that the art and craft I am surrounded with offer deeper meanings to me. The handlooms I wear are resonant with meaning from different regions of India. So dance has made me an artist. It has awakened so many sensitivities in me.”
Her dance is known to amplify issues regarding gender and environment. Geeta strongly believes in dance. Whatever issues are dear to her, she attempts to give them an artistic response. She feels that the cause should move her from within and propel her to respond artistically. For her, the performance of art and its expression is more important and critical than bald issue she showcases.
Through her dance, she brings out the emotional aspect and raises her artistic voice against deep-rooted issues and concerns like female foeticide or the marginalisation of women in war (based on Draupadi’s dilemma in the Mahabharata or Kaikeyi’s battle against being discriminated against). Several women-oriented themes have become her choice for performances. Her training in communication helped her to mix dance skills to articulate the deepest gender anxieties.
Apart from mythological and feminist interests, issues like drugs and environment are also dear to her. However, performances built around those themes have been specially commissioned by organisations. But she chose to pick them up in her dance as those issues bothered her.
The danseuse has never been associated with any particular NGO. However, she is consistent in the causes she promotes. She strives to work for a better deal for women and the girl child in our society. She has partnered innumerable national and international organisations in presenting a variety of performances looking at the gender theme through various windows: women and peace, female foeticide, the issue of dowry, the issue of equal space for women, etc.
Her contribution to Bharat Natyam won her the honorary national award, the Padma Shri in 2007. She is also a recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for 2016-17.
Not many people know that besides being a Bharat Natyam exponent, Geeta is also a trained vocalist in Carnatic music. She is active in works of theatre, choreography, music, dance activism and dance-issue journalism as well.
To promote awareness about the health concerns in India, she has also worked with the WHO, the Heartcare Foundation, the CanSupport and the Cancer Society of India.
Geeta has authored ‘So Many Journeys’, a personal collection of her memories of her association with Bharat Natyam. An eminent spokesperson of Indian classical dances, the Padma Shree awardee regularly pens down columns in prominent dailies of the country in her aim to promote art.