As the video reels open on a terrace covered by a corrugated roof, a lithe figure in workout clothes can be seen putting herself through some crushing regimens: jumps, hops, cartwheels, yoga and dance, varied callisthenics, sometimes slow, at others, fast. To further discipline the body, she sometimes straps on ankle and wrists weights, or wields a pair of dumbbells.
To any follower of the figure on the roof, the Odissi dancer Bijayini Satpathy, the punishing conditioning routine should come as no surprise. Her artistic ground for nearly three decades was Nrityagram, the eclectic classical dance centre started by Protima Bedi, where a whole range of demanding disciplines informed training.
Five years ago, to the utter shock of the arts fraternity, Satpathy left Nrityagram to chart a solo career. The star performer of the centre, her collaborations with choreographer-dancer Surupa Sen had been the most eagerly awaited works of the arts calendar.
Satpathy’s new, lone quest into Odissi choreography is taking her into new uncharted territories. In her hands, Odissi, known for its languid, curvilinear liquidity, has become a deliberate, technically precise, spiralling and almost balletic form. Predictably, this agile neo-classicism has found her ardent followers, many of them young, but it is also drawing flak from traditionalists who find it too rehearsed, precise and shorn of spontaneity.
The dancer is not impervious to the debate but maintains that her radical interventions are invested with long introspection. “All my life I have danced as someone else wished me to,” said Satpathy. “I now want to dance and create without fear and my daily practice allows me to do this. And if in the process, I don’t break some rules, give myself the sanction to commit some sacrilege, I will never find any newness in my dance. Protima Bedi always said you should not regret having not done something to the extent possible.”
There is another anxiety she is honest enough to admit: at 50 and with an exacting standard for dance fitness, she wants to ensure that she has more years on the stage. “My body is ageing and changing and I enjoy the heightened experience of live spaces so I have to finetune my capacity to perform,” she said.
In December 2021, Satpathy presented her first big work as a soloist titled “Abhipsaa (the seeking)”. Unlike Bharatanatyam, which has had decades of experimentation to it, Odissi has mostly stayed true to its regionality and Abhipsaa’s departures from the norms were radical – it strayed into Carnatic territory with a Thillana of Lalgudi Jayaraman, used a Carnatic singer Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy for vocal accompaniment, and also ventured north with a nirguni composition of Kabir.
Anita Ratnam, a dancer, choreographer and a sharp observer of shifts in traditional practices, says Satpathy is a dancer of our times, at the right time and place. “Her dance is fully Odissi and beautiful,” Ratnam said. “But dance today is marked by demands of physicality and athleticism and if Bijayini chooses to reformat herself as a soloist, within the Odissi knowledge, then I say more power to her. There is no denying that Indian classical dance was traditionally never set to such a fixed choreography, where every moment is rehearsed and accounted for. There was room for a pause, for an extra line, time to nod appreciation at the musicians and, yes, for an out of shape, inelastic body, but that was another world.” As an example, Ratnam recalls the joy of watching Balasarswati’s dance in her later years – it was nowhere near modern ideas of bodily perfection.
Satpathy has been more than keen to share her work on the Odissi grammar through Instagram, where she has a dedicated following, and workshops, where she engages with young dancers. Sooraj Subramaniam, a Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer who was a part of these intensives, says that Satpathy’s work, far from being transgressive, marks her deep respect for the tradition. “She might break some conventions but I believe that her non-traditional movements actually honour the principles of Odissi, which has very few prescribed adavus (set movements) to begin with,” he pointed out. “I don’t find it obsessive at all – if you create a firm scaffolding you are free to wander without failing.”
Odissi is among the youngest of what are now defined as classical dances which were formalised in the early decades of the 20th century, incorporating various Devadasi legacies, the demands of nationalism in the decades around Independence, and the need to establish regional identities.
It was only in the late 1950s that Odissi came to crystallise as we now know it through the collaborative work of its old masters. It was drawn from the tradition of the Maharis employed in the state’s temples and from Gotipua, a ritual, acrobatic dance form performed only by pre-pubescent boys. The legends of the form such as Pankaj Charan Das, Deba Prasad Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra, and Mayadhar Raut collectivised along with researchers and dancers into a standardising body, Jayantika, to codify the newly minted Odissi form – how it should be presented, technique, stance and the standard performance repertoire.
The form still acquired multiple styles depending on the orientation of its gurus. But the most visible and popular face of Odissi was the great Kelucharan Mahapatra who trained Protima Bedi.
She set up Nrityagram in 1990, imagining it as a unique centre for multiple classical arts. Training sessions for dancers included yoga, Chhau, Kalaripayattu, running, and even some western ballet and contemporary dance. In time, the centre came to be seen as a sort of outlier, far moved from the centres that practised “pure” Odissi.
“Whatever is popular tends to get standardised as ‘the right form’,” said Odissi dancer Madhur Gupta. “So, anything that does not conform to traditional practices or technique faces resistance and is branded ‘contemporary’. Nrityagram’s contribution towards extending the boundaries of Odissi with its very distinctive technique, qualifies it to be called a different bani (style).”
Satpathy joined the centre at 20 and went on to become its principal dancer and the driving force behind its unique body conditioning systems.
“We had a maintenance regime that was a mix of cardio and other movement disciplines,” she said. “This was apart from the Odissi conditioning through what we called ‘sound’ moves (stretching, standing) for building thigh and core strength, and ‘soundless’ moves (jumping and cardio) for stamina. I realised that I had a knack for these exercises – when I did, say, Kalaripayattu I found that my body became free and fluid to dance as I wished.”
Unlike western and modern dance practices, fitness training is unusual, not only in Odissi, but in the entire Indian classical ecosystem. In most dance schools, practice was – and still is – considered enough exercise. Until recently, when increased focus on injuries and body strengthening brought a shift in this thinking, few dancers incorporated a scientific fitness regimen into their training.
This unusual orientation got Nrityagram a rare and prized foothold in the West. The centre’s big productions – Samyoga, Pratima and Samhara among them – found huge audiences and backing, especially in the United States from bodies like the The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Nothing, it seemed, could shake the ensemble’s abiding core – Sen’s genius for choreography and Satpathy’s brilliance in executing it.
But the unthinkable happened in 2018. Satpathy walked out of the centre in pursuit of a soloist dream. The year that followed, she recalls, was hugely unsettling for her, filled with the fear of failing and frozen with anxiety about finding her feet.
“For 25 years, I only ever knew the safe environment of a company that took care of everything,” she said. “How was I going to manage a solo practice? So, for another year, I performed only what I had known but there was only so much material and soon it would be repetitive.”
Then the pandemic arrived, throwing the performance arts universe into total panic. Many dancers fought invisibility through video films, online classes and workshops. But in this gloom and isolation, Satpathy says, she found a way out of her creative angst.
“It forced me to step away at a time from the stage and the studio just when I was coming into my own,” she said. “For two and a half years, I just worked with my body and my knowledge, investigating myself. I began a quest to expand my training vocabulary. In Odissi, we are taught a few foundational movements and I found these tools inadequate to grapple with the complexities of the form.”
So, Satpathy set about working on deconstructing choreographies to find a “unique set of movements, patterns and aesthetics” through an expanded training regimen.
Odissi is believed to be one of the most demanding of forms: its signature stance, the tribhangi, is a twist that demands symmetry in asymmetry and a central axis that stays steady at all times between shifts. The emphasis on working the body into submission, Satpathy says, frees her body and gives her fearless control and range.
Ratnam has described Satpathy as “natyarina” on her website Narthaki. “Her dance is free and fierce…I watched the ease of her shoulder and back muscles, her legs and core strength with which she was able to lunge, lean, stretch, crouch, and extend - all within the visual aesthetics of the Odissi costume,” she said.
Rebutting the criticism of the old school that this body obsession takes away from the spiritual core idea of Indian dances, Satpathy says it makes her art more centred and meditative. “For years, before I struck out on my own, I had noticed the stillness I developed when I did conditioning work,” she said. “I am actually looking for stillness in movement, and the reverse too.” Fired by the isolation and separation of the pandemic years, her dance, she says, is more emotional than before.
The most visible effect of her body work is in the tremendous control she has developed in the use of her spine. Odissi, she points out, is based on infinite curves and she started seeing the constant spiralling of the spine in it. “There are many spirals interwoven in layers – sometimes the body stops and the eyes continue the spiral, then that finishes and a thought picks up the motion. I want to heighten this effect,” she said.
“Bijayinidi has extended the core sensibilities of Odissi beautifully with much thought and rigour,” said Gupta. “With a very unique understanding and application of body kinetics to traditional Odissi, she is ahead of her time. In a sense this is Bijyainidi’s Odissi, all her own.”
But how far can you push the boundaries of a tradition and still lay claim to it? That is the question that the dance community has always struggled with, as it sought – and seeks – to reimagine itself for a new world.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.