A lifetime in 7 days: Dance intensive with Ramaa Bharadvaj
- Radhika Kathal, New Delhi

January 5, 2014
I was one of the 10 privileged students selected to attend the Abhinaya and Improvisation Intensive in a real gurukul under the guidance of dancer and teacher Ramaa Bharadvaj.  Termed ‘Winter Arts Intensive,’ this week-long training was to be held from December 15 to December 21, 2013 at Chinmaya Naada Bindu, a beautiful, expansive gurukul in the village of Kolwan near Pune. There would be flute students training under Himanshu Nanda, Hindustani vocal students guided by Pramodini Rao and dancers mentored by Ramaa Bharadvaj.
Set amidst the monumental Sahyadri hills, Chinmaya Naada Bindu’s campus welcomed me.   Even as I entered, a wave of positivity and energy rushed through me assuring me of one of the best experiences of my life.  Right from conveyance to accommodation to food, everything was well planned. Our gurukul experience started with an informal post-dinner introduction with the gurus on 14th December. Here, I also met my fellow travelers on this journey of self-exploration through dance.  We were a diverse group from Gujarat, Delhi, Mumbai, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Chennai, USA and France. I was curious to see how different their style was from mine.  And I didn’t have to wait long. 
Ramaa Bharadvaj gave us the first assignment that night itself.  Every student was given a line from the Ganapathy Atharva Sirsham to choreograph for presentation the next morning to Lord Ganesha. This was my first step towards choreographing. I was excited and also nervous. The next day at dawn, with our guru leading, we began our trek up the hill to the stunning Pranav Ganesh temple. There sat the majestic white marble Ganesha – so serene and peaceful.  Ramaa had thoughtfully arranged a special puja for us.  At the end, as she sang the slokas, we danced our choreography as final benediction to the smiling Ganesha.  Thus began our week with an auspicious start.  

Bodies do not lie - Ramaa guides a characterisation exercise by student Ganesh

Class by the lake
The very first class held in the temple began with a unique lesson. The basic thing taught in any classical dance form is the “namaskar” to Earth. But here, the namaskar taught by Ramaa involved the invocation of all the five elements. I have never thought of this concept before. She explained that to create anything around us, we all use the five elements and hence we invoke them while commencing/creating. 
The daily schedule consisted of 1-hour musical meditation or pranayama followed by 6 hours of dance lessons focusing both on the practical and theoretical aspects of abhinaya.  My understanding broadened as I started learning the minute details of what abhinaya actually is.   Earlier, I used to think that it is sufficient if abhinaya is done by my face.  But it is during this intensive that I experienced how every limb of our body also is utilized to convey the appropriate bhava to create rasa. Ramaa devised many interesting explorative exercises that each day we created something new, something which was not taught but developed.
With every lesson, whether it was the navarasas with their appropriate bhavas, the sthanakas or mandala bhedas, Ramaa highlighted the use of posture. This posture is the “saushtavam” necessary for every dancer to create an impact for every movement.  Through demonstrating both the wrong and the right way she helped us understand what correctness of posture is.
Another important exercise was about holding attention on the flow of energy in the entire body. This energy is created by the mind and its intensity varies from movement to movement. We understood the technique of channelizing the energy at correct parts of the body in order to make it reach the audience. This was a new concept to us leading to many questions which were answered with clarity by Ramaa. We also focused on movement and how different characters influence the body to move and emote differently. “Bodies never lie,” she told us and as an illustration of this concept she guided us through several exercises one of which involved a specific floor pattern that was given to us. This had to be interpreted through portrayal of different characters such as the hunted, the hunter, the dancer etc. Each time we changed character, the floor pattern took on new meaning as we physically “felt” the meaning of majesty, vanity, grace or stealth according to the inherent nature of the character.  
“Think outside of the box,” Ramaa Bharadvaj reminded us constantly and each of her exercises gave us the opportunity to do so through improvisation.  We had the freedom to share our thought processes with our teacher, who supported us and gave us better ideas to improve what we had created. All interactions were based on discussions, creativity and engaging the imagination.  Every class had assignments which were fun and which made us think and apply what we were learning.  The class atmosphere was that of a dance-lab.

Dancing at dusk, at the in-campus lake at CNB

Candle lit meditation

By day 3, we started working on a Tamil padam “Maalai pozhudinile” whose theme was sringara. This cute song had as its heroine, a mugdha nayika, i.e. a heroine who is young, innocent and inexperienced in love. It was a tough character to portray.  But Ramaa made us delve into the thought process of the nayika. Human psychology became an important part of this analyzation.  While learning an abhinaya padam is very exciting, it is also very challenging. Some of us were getting it, but some were not. The guidance from our teacher helped us work together to make the piece our own.
Finally on 21st December, we all came together for our showcase performance. It was an exciting and emotional experience.  Seven days! Calling this experience a mere workshop will not do justice to it.  It was rather a learning experience of a lifetime.  There were surprise live performances by teachers, candlelit meditations, video screenings of spiritual discourses, a dance session at sunset in the waters of our own lake and even an Arudra Darshan worship for Lord Nataraja right in our classroom.  Holistic learning in a gurukul setting seems to be rare these days. Due to commercialization, these types of opportunities to develop oneself are difficult to find.  I am deeply grateful to Chinmaya Naada Bindu for creating the environment and to our teacher Ramaa Bharadvaj for the knowledge she shared with us which she had gained through her innumerable years of experience. I am taking back with me some unforgettable moments from this gurukul experience, only to come back for the next intensive to experience this again.
Radhika Kathal is a Bharatanatyam performer and musician trained in both folk and classical dance forms.  A disciple of Geeta Chandran, Radhika is recipient of the ‘Scholarship for Young Artistes’ from the Ministry of Culture. She is pursuing a 2-year Diploma in Hindustani classical music from Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, University of Delhi.