Daily Bytes

A Conversation with Chitrakaavya Guest Choreographer Bijayini Satpathy

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down over Zoom with Bijayini Satpathy, a dance artist from India, who recently finished staging a new show, Pranati, An Obeisance, commisioned by Utah’s Chitrakaavya Dance, whose artistic director Srilatha Singh is a frequent contributor to loveDANCEmore.

Satpathy has been called, “a performer of exquisite grace,” by the New Yorker. She was a principal dancer and soloist with Nrityagram Dance Ensemble for over twenty years and has performed, taught and choreographed all over the world.

Pranati was an incredible experience. It’s certainly among my favorite viewing experiences of the last year or so. Despite my lack of deep knowledge of Indian classical dance in general and Odissi in particular, there was much to appreciate— movement that marries abstraction, narrative and technical rigor, excellent music, and innovative ways of using the camera to simulate and even interrogate the vicissitudes of a live viewing experience. My conversation with Satpathy (which has been edited for clarity) only deepened my appreciation.

Bijayini Satpathy in a photo by Mahesh Bhat

Bijayini Satpathy: I was in Utah in August, 2019, to present my solo performance, Kalpana, the realm of the imagination. Malavika Singh, from Utah, used to learn ballet at Ballet West; together we did a presentation and a master class there, in August 2019. She joined the school in India in 2016 where I was teacher, principal dancer and also director for training. She’s been coming in summers and winters. In 2020 June, she started training with me online.

Samuel Hanson: How does that work?

Bijayini: You know, even I was a little snobbish about learning from a medium that is not in-person, not having the teacher in front of you. But actually, in 2019, I was doing a workshop in Atlanta, Georgia, and in my class, I had this dancer. He came from the Bahamas, and, he — oh my God — moved so beautifully. He said that he had learned a little bit of Odissi before. So I asked who he learned from and he said, “I don’t know who to call my teacher because it’s mostly from YouTube … and then I realized he’d learned two forms — I went and looked him up and I found that he was dancing Bharatanatyam and Odissi. And both very distinctly — with their very specific elements, so, from that day I changed my mind. He was my turning point.

I find I teach very differently online. I don’t teach on Zoom, that’s a necessity because I live in the very rural outskirts of Bangalore where the internet is really poor. I can’t hold a five-minute Zoom conversation.

But a lot of students were interested in learning [during COVID] and so I thought very hard. Also, I had separated from the school I was working with for twenty-five years. I was practicing alone without community and eyes on me for the very first time and I was very nervous about what my body was doing. And then I found a way to look at myself. I was videoing myself constantly. From that came the idea, oh, why don’t I video myself doing the basics, everything, the conditioning, everything that is in the training? So I took two months and just recorded my practice and then I devised a method of planning lessons with excerpts from my own practice. Basically I sent a few videos to students as one lesson, along with a very detailed PDF supporting the learning. And then I let them learn — study and imitate digitally, cross-checking with the PDF — and I’ve realized that it’s actually a much better way of teaching. I feel like the students are very invested and they’re investigating the movements and discovering for themselves the intricacies. In Zoom, I don’t know how it works. I feel a limit to the quantity that can be learned in an hour — in the way I want to explain all the details — it would take a lot of time. So, in this video transmission method, I find that if the student takes one week to ten days — investigates, learns, practices and then submits to me — I find a lot of learning has already taken place. Dance learning is embodied. What they learn from one class in this method they can never forget. They’ve put their mind, body, and practice into it before they submit, and so they always remember it. The mind will always retain this.

Sam: Wow, that’s inspiring…

Bijayini: I enjoy it because it brings me as close to the experience as I get when I teach. I have been teaching very very intensively for a long time — twenty-five years — I’ve had residential students who dedicate their lives to learning our art form. So there is a way of teaching that I’ve been used to and this comes very close.

Sam: So you were never in Utah for this process at all?

Bijayini: No, absolutely not. The two dancers [Prithvi Nayak and Akshiti Roychowdhury, seen below] who do the duets, they have trained some with me. But all three of their pieces [in Pranati] have been in lockdown time.

Sam: Yes, these are the two dancers in India. [The show was shot there and in Salt Lake City.]

Bijayini: Their training has been both online and in-person when for a little while last year things were open. The commute is also difficult. They have to come a long way to me in the outskirts — fifty kilometers. But a lot of the training is online. Even for their final rehearsals, they were going to a studio in Bangalore city and sending videos to me every day.

Sam: That’s amazing. So did you find that stressful?

Bijayini: Stressful, very stressful in a way. Stressful because I don’t know this way of creating work. But at the same time, it was a relief that this was going to be on a screen. I was seeing the medium we were going to be presenting it in. So, you know the editing process was in that dimension. Sometimes what we see on video doesn’t work live and what you see in-person doesn’t work for the screen. But because these rehearsal and development processes were on screen, I could say, “Oh, this doesn’t work for the screen.” It’s in my head, the pattern works there, and maybe when I am watching these two dancers in front of me it might work, but not on the screen. So that also helped. But, I’ve never worked without seeing the dancers in front of me. That was nerve-wracking for me.

Sam: Tell me about the music.

Bijayini: The music was composed fifty or sixty years ago. These are traditional pieces. When Odissi developed into becoming a classical dance about seventy years ago, the guru whose lineage I am, Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra, created a whole body of work. So, he created the music with the composer then. But the music for this performance, I commissioned a group of musicians in Orissa and I went and recorded them there. Chitrakaavya’s commission funded it.

Sam: So these are dances that you learned from your teacher, and you performed them …

Bijayini: Yes, when I was a child I learned them within maybe four or five years. Students learn them. I don’t know how to give you a parallel in terms of say, ballet — maybe it’s something like Swan Lake?

All dancers of this lineage learn these as solo choreography. My students will teach it when they become teachers — it’s just a way of understanding how technique is applied in choreography in various flavors. One is a devotional dance, an invocation. The solo that Malavika Singh did, kind of embodies this idea of sculptures coming together to create movement vocabulary. That was the process of reconstruction of Odissi dance seventy years ago. The third piece explores how dance is subservient to melody. The fourth dance explores how dance develops in storytelling. How do you bring technique together with movement and facial expressions? What does it do to the body when you try to tell stories that are dramatic and epic in scope? Everyone learns these. In solo, they have a different flavor. When you bring it together in a duet — I have only gone so far as a duet in this choreography — it shifts. Also, when Mala does the solo, I have taken liberty to make the piece more interesting to the eye as a solo.

Sam: So, these dances had to be remembered from the sculptures, seventy or so years ago?

Bijayini: Yes, not all of them. Let me say this. The piece Mala presents is actually the embodied archive of the reconstruction and revival of Odissi dance. Odissi dance has existed, according to evidence we have in scriptures and cave paintings, for 2000 years in the land of Orissa, or extended Orissa at that time. It has been lost for many reasons, many times. You lose dance for fifty years and that means you lose the blood memory. There’s no trace of what the movement was like then. You have the reference of temple walls that date back to the first century AD. The temple walls are full of beautiful sculptures and reliefs — musicians, dancers and other figures in dancing postures and playing instruments.

And so the revival process was looking at these sculptural forms and embodying them and creating movement vocabulary — stringing them together. Mala’s solo is structured in a way that it shows that process of recovery. It becomes abstract. It’s a form. It stands alone by itself.  It has a pattern, a neuropathic way of moving. So that’s how Odissi has developed, but only for seventy years, so it’s a very modern form — though it has a lot of history — but it’s also a very new form.

I have done a lot of research cross-referencing the scriptures we have and the dance traditions that have existed in the land of Orissa and thinking, how can we expand the boundary? Because, there is call for that. It’s only existed for seventy years. We should take the liberty … the ways the neurons work in this, we start to move in this and follow the pattern. So, I have expanded the basic vocabulary based on that … Sometime sshe stops in a posture — a frieze — so you can see that.

Sam: I love the way the camera moved in that piece, having seen so much dance online this year, this was some of the best use of the camera I’ve seen …

Bijayini: Yes, this was my third recorded production. The first was created for Baryshnikov Arts Center early this year … By watching the post-production process — myself on the screen — I realized certain things I wanted to pay attention to. I guided what looks I wanted, what perspective I wished for, so the editing was to my taste … I feel like for anything online, it takes a lot more work. The energy from live interaction is absent. So what you put out there has to keep the audience’s attention, I would sit at the editing table and I would get bored. But the editing has to be subservient to the melodic and kinetic transitions, otherwise it can very quickly become about showmanship of editing — it has to be logical. I supervised everything through the end. Each take is edited through maybe six times over, with minute details.

Sam: Can you talk a little bit about the dissolves and double images? I was surprised by how I felt like those served the experience …

Bijayini: Yes, but in some places the cross-dissolves, the double images don’t work … when I watch my work I feel detached from what I am doing … if I am not drawn to something, maybe it doesn’t work. I am not trying to be hypercritical. I investigate why it’s not holding my attention, why it’s not working. So, then I give up things I would be very attached to in a live performance, like, where is the curve of the body most highlighted? Is it this angle or another? Sometimes in the camera both angles don’t work. Sometimes I may want to go close to the face. I often say I only watch the eyes of the artists. I get glued to the face, even when I am watching, let’s say, Martha Graham Company. I don’t watch the body or the choreography — I am glued to somebody’s face.

So, sometimes, I thought, okay, we can zoom in on the eyes, like in the [show’s final] narrative piece, but then that doesn’t work. I feel like the fingertips and the toes of the dancers have to be in the frame. If they’re not in the frame, I’m not getting the whole picture of what the body’s conveying … I am still learning. It’s only my third production for online consumption, I hope that I don’t have to create a whole lot more for the screen.

Sam: Well, the good thing about it is that you get to see stuff from all over the world …

Bijayini: Yes, I just watched this delightful, amazing work by Israel Galván — a phenomenal flamenco artist who has broken all the traditional norms of the form. Have you watched it?

Sam: No, I haven’t…

Bijayini: Please watch, please watch it! Israel Galván’s Maestro de barra … It’s stunning.

Sam: That’s a great recommendation. What else have you been watching that you recommend?

Bijayini: Some people are really making dance films. Basically, this performance is dance, recorded. But some people are saying — and I agree to an extent — that it just doesn’t do it justice, recording it. So they instead are making films with dance. Some of the films by Aditi Mangaldas are very interesting if you want to watch her. She’s premiering a work tonight called “Lost in the Forest.” I’d love to see how she does it. She’s a Kathak dancer from India. Mark Morris is using his dancers in their own homes — he says something very interesting, he says, “I can’t separate the dancer from the background, which means, somebody has a certain colored couch, or drapes, you know, I can see the door behind and sometimes I ask, what’s behind that…” So, the way he uses those elements are also very interesting to me. I don’t know whether I would do it, but it becomes much more filmmaking with dance than a dance video. It’s a different concept, but I admire looking at it.

Sam: Yeah, I do too. I have one last question for you, I was wondering if you wanted to share some of the stories in these dances. For me, I guess, the last one was the most evidently narrative —

Bijayini: Dramatic!

Sam: Yes! There’s one moment where one of the dancers stops on a dime and her foot is out a very swift kick … She just stops there all of a sudden there and it’s very striking.

Bijayini: Oh yes, that one is the fourth [and final piece in the show] — it could be a whole volume of stories. This one’s about the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, his avatars. We believe Lord Vishnu is one of the holy trinity – there’s a creator, a preserver and a destroyer. And Lord Vishnu is the preserver. How does he preserve? When things go awry, when they go out of balance, the balance between good and evil — at least in a simplistic way we see it that way —Vishnu the preserver comes to set the balance right. So it is believed that until today, Vishnu has taken ten incarnations and come to save the world. The way I look at it, these reflect the evolution of life, the first incarnation is a fish, the second a tortoise, third is a wild boar, fourth is a dwarf, fifth is a half-lion half-man — that’s the balanced image of the dancer you are talking about — then comes a sage, but he also turns into a slayer, and then comes a nobleman, a noble king. Then comes a farmer, an agriculturist, then an enlightened soul — the buddha — and the last they say is yet to come, but it comes as a comet from the sky, on a white horse with double swords. Two swords in his hands and he destroys everything in his path. And for each of these incarnations — why did Vishnu come as this form? — there is a story. For me, it’s also a teaching about the way we have treated the environment … I mean, these are just stories, myths, why did someone feel a need to say God is in the fish? Or that God is in the tortoise? Or the boar? And then God is in a dwarf, a strange looking figure. These stories are asking us to treat everyone with equal respect. That’s my take. In a way, I feel the ancestors, through these legends, have tried to teach us to treat the entire creation with kindness and respect … with each episode we are reenacting the stories of why Vishnu came. So, in the case of  Meena the fish — in that age, there is a demon — there’s always a bad guy! The demon steals the Vedas holy books of knowledge. So, we’re talking about how knowledge is for everyone, it can’t be taken away into the hands of evil … It’s the same thing with these holy books, the Vedas, the secrets of how creation began. This one demon, who becomes extremely powerful, steals the books and hides them in the depths of the oceans. And so when something is in the depth of the ocean, you have to become a creature of the ocean to vanquish it. So Vishnu becomes a huge whale, and destroys and kills the demon and restores the books of knowledge.

Similarly, in the second one with the tortoise — and I won’t tell you all the stories — it begins with the Gods and demons churning the oceans of life — it’s about man’s curiosity — we are still working to become immortal, and also finding our way to the moon and Mars, expanding ourselves to the whole universe. So here, the gods and demons have a sense that if they churn the ocean, magical objects will come out of the ocean, one of which will be the nectar of immortality. So they use a huge snake as the churning rope — this is physical churning, not mechanical churning. God’s on one side, demons on the other, they use a mountain as the churning rod, and in the middle of the milky ocean, as they are churning, the mountain begins to sink into the depths of the earth. But for the process to complete, the churning must go on. So Vishnu comes as a giant tortoise and holds on his back shell the whole mountain, so that the work can be completed. They say the octagons on the tortoise shell are from the churning — that’s the legend.

And then the one you noticed — half-man, half-lion. It’s talking about religious equality. The father does not believe in a certain deity and the son worships that deity. It’s akin to asking, “If my father is Muslim can I worship Jesus,” can that freedom and integration happen? That is still relevant today. So, the father doesn’t accept the son’s deity and asks, “Who is this God you worship. Where is he?” And the son replies, “My God lives everywhere.” And so the father says, “Does he also live in this pillar, this inanimate pillar?” And he says, “Yeah, of course, He lives everywhere.” So the demon-father breaks open the pillar and out comes Vishnu as half-man, half-lion. The father-demon though he is — has obtained a boon that he can’t be killed by bare hands or weapons, he can be killed neither indoors nor outdoors, by neither animal nor man, neither in the day nor at night. So Vishnu comes out at twilight, as half-man, half-lion, he holds the demon on his lap at the threshold — neither outside nor inside — and tears his stomach out with his nails — neither weapon nor bare hand. It is in this manner that he is destroyed.

Sam: Wow …

Bijayini: And in the dance, it’s very quick, a minute or a half-minute per story. So it’s very important for the dancers to understand the context and how we’re interpreting the stories … I find the relevance of these stories — they were simply told as Grandma tells stories to us — in finding respect for the creation, for the universe. Retelling these stories from our perspective is very very important. The dancers need to understand them, everything they learn is technique — they have to practice for years to get comfortable — to be convincing. To emerge as this fierce being, the superhero, we don’t know what this being might feel like with a half-lion human body — just to embody that. It goes on. It would be a long session if I told you all of these stories…

Sam: Well, I appreciate hearing them. They add to my appreciation of the dances. In that last piece I almost felt like I was watching a song or a ballad, with choruses that repeated certain elements and verses that told different stories…

Bijayini: You’re right, there is a chorus, it comes back to saying “Praise of Lord Vishnu…” and in rhythmic punctuation between the stories the dancers continue the theme of the prior story. So, if it was the half-man half lion, the dance that follows carries the resonance of that narrative…and then it transitions to the next incarnation and the next and the next.

Sam: Thank you so much. I hope we get to talk again. I learned so much.

Bijayini: Thank you, thank you for taking the time.

The show we discussed above, Pranati, closed May 21 — although we are told by artistic director Srilatha Singh that the company may reopen the viewing experience at a later date. To donate to the company’s COVID relief effort in India, click here. You can see Chitrakaavya perform in-person this Saturday at the opening of the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center, which is worth checking out in and of itself.


This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.

Categories: Daily Bytes

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