In Step

A trip down memory lane since I am going to Nrityagram next week. This was one of the first pieces I wrote after leaving university. I remember taking a day’s leave from work to travel to Kolwan, a village near Pune, to interview Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy and watch them perform. After the performance, I took a midnight train back, sleeping on the platform and in the train so that I wouldn’t fall asleep in office the next day.

First published in The Hindu Friday Review, September 2010

Cover photo: Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy photographed by Nan Melville, sourced from


For Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, dance and life are as intertwined as their own symbiotic choreographic partnership.

The first time they danced together, Protima Gauri remarked that they danced like carbon copies of each other. In an enriching artistic partnership that has almost spanned two decades, Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy have wowed world audiences with their symbiotic understanding of dance. Their sparkling chemistry can make many a passionate couple feel woefully inadequate in love. Dance is a means to self-discovery, they say, and it is necessary to create and choreograph in the same way that you live, for dance and life are two parallel processes. Recently at the Naada Bindu Festival for the Arts in Pune, they presented a mixed bill of pure dance and abhinaya from the Gita Govinda and other texts. Excerpts from a conversation with the duo:

On choreography

Surupa: Choreography is an instinctive process. I made up dances even as a child. The creative process is a very alone process, not lonely. Protima Gauri, whom I call Gaurima, gave me the support; for an artiste, to be able to create and dance is an extraordinary thing.

Choreography has been a natural part of my evolution. I believe in keeping one foot firmly in tradition while being able to step forward, because all choreographic works must have depth. And it has taken me 20 years to find that depth. All my productions have grown in a certain moment. I cannot pick a random theme and come up with a dance. Each idea is processed internally, bubbling and fermenting within me as I think about it and read. And then when it comes out, it flows naturally. It is extremely important to allow things to happen, even as you are in control of where they are going.

Bijayini: I think Vibhakta, the final section of Sacred Space, is Surupa’s best piece of choreography. Based on the concept of Ardhanariswara, it is usually taken to be devotional, with one dancer or a group of dancers doing the same thing frontally, involving the audience as co-worshippers. Surupa chose to turn it into a love song where Shiva and Parvati are addressing each other. It becomes more interactive; also, our relationship with the audience changes because they relate to the story differently.

On sringara and their relationship with dance

Bijayini: The mood of Odissi is driven by the Gita Govinda, with its emphasis on the Vaishnav idea of longing in separation. This is a spiritual longing, one with a higher purpose. However, irrespective of the age we live in, there is a truth to desire, to being human, with the bodies we have. You have to go from out to in; just indulge in the one thing that you have till you don’t want it anymore, Osho says. You strip down the walls of a temple till you are ensconced in darkness by the bare-walled garbhagriha. Our telling of the divine is based on love, because it is understood by everybody. We relate to god by creating a story around real life. Everyone has been through love and can relate to it. Jayadeva probably thought like that — he has included all the critical human elements, the passion; finally, there is only the longing to be united. Unity between atma, Radha, and parmatma, Krishna, the male godhead — who is of feminine energy. That is why Vaishnavism talks about vipralambha srngara — of longing, instead of sambhoga sringara, which is about being together. There is only one ashtapadi in the Gita Govinda where Radha and Krishna are together, “Kisalaya Shayana”; otherwise, the underlying sentiment is always the yearning to be united.

Surupa: What goes in also comes out, which is why it is necessary to expose oneself to certain experiences. To me, dance is just an expression of my love for life. I yearn to be better at what I do. I am quite incompetent, sometimes I feel helpless. When I dance, I experience something that transcends the mundane. I am always seeking that infinitesimal moment of truth, trying to find the god that is dance. To practise dance is to practise living, because both require discipline.

I like Odissi because it is young; I like being young.

On On defining a vocabulary

Bijayini: When we met in 1993, we found similarities in the way we thought about dance, related to it and understood it. I was deeply influenced by Surupa’s way of thinking about movement, line, form and context. Odissi has derived elements from the style of the maharis and gotipuas and from sculpture; we know that. But there are thousands of sculptures. And then there is Jagannath, who is the culmination of so many religious and philosophical beliefs. Odissi, as we see it, has had connections with Vaishnavism, Tantrism and even Jainism. A lot of our vocabulary has emerged from a study of these schools of thought.

Having a larger body of vocabulary increases one’s movement possibilities. We went back to the Natya Sastra and feel it is conceivable there may have been a mother dance style common to the entire area known as Jambudvipa. The sculpture found across South and South-East Asia is often so similar, and after all, it is very likely that the sculptors of yore were not imagining the poses they depicted; they must have been inspired by the dances of their times.

Our exposure to western technique has impressed upon us the importance of the body as an instrument. We dance eight to ten hours a day. Working with physiotherapists, we have tried to study the anatomy and architecture of the body so that our training is more harmonious; it emerges from our understanding of the body.

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