When the history of this century of Indian dance is written, Protima Gauri Bedi’s name will be etched as the most dynamic dancer to have created an institution which outlived her.
It all started innocuously some twenty-five years ago, when bored with her bohemian Bombay life, she took to Odissi, triggered by a chance performance she saw of guru Kelucharan Mahapatra. Learning and performing was not enough, not for Protima whose appetite for life was larger than life itself. She created India’s first free gurukul for dance. In 1989, the Prime Minister of India, Mr. V.P. Singh, inaugurated her gurukul, simply called Nrityagram, a dance village or a village for dance.
Recalls Daksha Sheth, India’s leading contemporary dancer, who with her Australian husband Devissaro left Delhi to help Protima set-up this dance village : teachers came, students trained and the national press supported this unique dance village. Gurus (Kelubabu for Odissi, Kalanidhi Narayanan for Bharata Nathyam, Kumudini Lakhia for Kathak and Bharati Shivaji for Mohiniattam) came and taught there.
Protima soon realised what she had to offer was far more than any guru could – an environment to learn. Slowly she shifted the focus to create ensemble (group) works, short ballets and train new students herself. She arranged smashing debuts for her prized pupils Surupa Sen, Bijayini Satpathy, Bharat Rao and showed the world what was possible.
More importantly, Nrityagram became a must for every visitor from abroad, dance companies, choreographers and researchers in the tradition. Nrityagram was on road to becoming not merely a dance-training place but a meeting point for world dance communities. It took the shape of becoming the Jacob’s Pillow of India (Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Dennis, the pioneering dance-duo of America, nay its founding figures, took a barn outside New York and created Jacob’s Pillow in 1940s).
And soon a Woodstock too. For Protima hit upon the idea of holding an annual dance-music festival featuring the best names in the country. Done on first Saturday of February to coincide with the arrival of spring, it is called Vasanthabba. The Who’s Who of the dance and music world have performed for this festival. Its ultimate test and tribute came in 1999 when after Protima was no more, major gurus, artists and performers performed for free. So Protima’s dream for dance lives on at Nrityagram