Dr. Sneha Chakradhar balances training with individuality as Guru Geeta Chandran’s uttaradhikari

Dr. Sneha Chakradhar

Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher Dr. Sneha Chakradhar is a senior disciple of Guru Geeta Chandran. She initially trained under Kalaimamani Guru K.N. Dakshinamoorthy, under whom she presented her arangetram in 2000 (source: Sneha’s website). She is part of Geeta ji’s Natya Vriksha Dance Company and works in the field of arts education in Delhi. She is also the daughter of celebrated poet and author Ashok Chakradhar.

Sneha presented a dance recital at the IIC last year under her guru as part of the Uttaradhikar series. She was rightly presented as the uttaradhikari, or inheritor, of her guru; she exhibits all the attributes of her guru’s tutelage while maintaining a style of her own. She has admirable command over the technique and is very graceful and expressive in her abhinaya. After a brief Ganesh and Saraswati vandana, Sneha began her recital.

Talking about the performance, Geeta ji said, ‘Choosing an uttaradhikari is a daunting task. Students pick different aspects from their gurus. Sneha has imbibed the most in all these years. She has taken dance into sociology and arts into education. She is totally passionate about dance. A solo performance is a small aspect of the teaching-learning process. It is the philosophy that you transmit further down to your disciples. Sneha can sing, dance, teach, conduct, write and put dance in context. Performance is just a race for instant gratification and spectacle. We need to educate our disciples. Today, the Thanjavur quartet has been chosen for her to delve deep into and present her interpretation.’

The first piece Sneha presented was from ‘Saundarya Lahari’, ‘Shive shringarardra’, which celebrates the devi in her navarasa as she adores Shiva. She is the goddess, and yet there is an enduring human quality in what she feels for Shiva. Sneha wore a magenta and green aharyam for this. This item was in ragamallika, and choreographed by Geeta Chandran. The violin by Raghavendra Prasath provided a mood-setter to every piece.

Shringara is the rasa that the devi feels as she looks at Shiva adoringly. The devi was depicted as being adorned by her sakhis. They string garlands for her, she admires herself in the mirror and then carries the thali for puja for Shiva. Her red lips are beautiful like the bimba phal and she dislikes other men in comparison to her Shiva, looking condescendingly at them. Jealousy is what she feels for Ganga in his matted locks. Annoyed she is, or sarosha, as she brushes away the water and sends the Ganga away.

Ravana, arrogant about his powers, lifts the Kailash with great effort and Shiva, with just a tap of his foot, presses it down. The devi is filled with vismaya. She experiences fear in the Lord’s embrace as she sees the snakes on his body so close to her. She feels the veer rasa as she dresses up as a warrior. Her heart is filled with vatsalya as she admires her children Kartikeya and Ganesha. The mother in her comes to the fore as she offers modak to Ganesha. As she plays hide and seek with her sakhis, she experiences laughter and joy. The devi holds up her karuna hasta as she showers her bhaktas with affection.

Sneha executed the piece with very precise technique in her hastas and footwork. Her movements were very expansive. Her gestures and abhinaya conveyed the emotions of the navarasa and were quite impressive.

The varnam, the central piece, was in raag Kamboji, aditalam. It is a Thyagaraja varnam. The nayika wants to unite with her lord Brihadeeshwara, and she addresses her sakhi as sarojakshi or the lotus-eyed one, asking her to kindly help. She says that the time is ripe, the prakriti bountiful and beautiful, and she beseeches the lord to come to her and talk to her about her distress.

Sneha captured the mood of the nayika very expressively as she addresses her sakhi as the lotus-eyed one. The bhanvara roams and sits on every flower to draw the nectar and then leaves. My heart flutters like bees on his beautiful face, she says. There is ash on his forehead, the chandra on his head shines into my eyes, his entangled jatas disturb me as I go near him. So she gently gathers them and makes them into a bun on his head. Seeing his aparamurti or his roop, the nayika is struck by the arrows of Manmatha. The birds are together on the trees and their togetherness and the noise they make adds to her misery. So she begs her sakhi to approach her ishtadevta. She gets some flowers and asks him to put them in her hair, and he obliges.

Sneha did the jathis for Kamadeva, holding the arrows and the bow, taking stances for the injured and crestfallen nayika and Kamadeva enjoying taking aim at her. Again, beseechingly, the nayika asks her sakhi to please hurry and go to him immediately. The jathis in the piece had neck and eye movements, expansive nritta, side leg stretches, leaps and revolving footwork. Sneha executed it very gracefully and aesthetically, with great energy and without compromising the technique. With very delicate abhinaya, it was an experience to relish.

Next, she did a Meera bhajan in Mishra Kedar, aditalam, ‘Baso mere nainan mein nandalal’, depicting Krishna’s bansuri, lakuti, the sakhas and taking the cows out for grazing, through stances and freezes. She elaborated the Kaliya daman leela in nritya, the Giridhari leela, describing Krishna as ghanasundar, eyes like the meen, and then finally, beseeching Krishna to enter her soul through her sahasrara chakra and settle into her heart.

Sneha, through her abhinaya, brought out very subtle gestures for adhara sudha ras, Krishna’s attributes and gait, the romanch in her body as she hears the tinkle of the shudra ghantika. Sneha depicted nayika tying her veni when she hears the sound of the bells of Krishna, and how she becomes ecstatic after hearing the sound. The singing of the entire bhajan was calming and melodious and so was Sneha’s abhinaya and dance. It was an ethereal experience.

Sneha ended her performance with a thillana in raag Yamuna Kalyan, mishrachapu. The thillana is a special celebration of kinetic energy. It was dedicated to Lord Krishna. There were five korvais in five different jathis, all rendered very aesthetically by Sneha.

Mridangam was by Manohar Balatchandirane, light design was by Sharad Kulshreshtha and costumes by Sandhya Raman.

Later, I spoke to Sneha about being her guru’s uttaradhikari and her presentation that evening.

Q: Your dance was very graceful and subtle. Your guru has put you up as her uttaradhikari. How has she mentored and moulded you?
Sneha: Classical dance is a long journey. It’s like Birbal ki khichdi. It takes a long time to brew and cook. It needs consistent work, it can’t be crammed overnight, like for an exam. It has taken me a long time to understand what she wants from me, and also to understand myself, my body, my facial expressions. I don’t know about others, but for me, initially, when you are looking at your guru, it is all about imitating. Even today, when I watch and practise, and I am not looking in a mirror – in my imagination is my guru’s face, not mine, since I am imitating her. And it is a long process when you start understanding that what looks good on her may not look good on you. She is tall, has a broader frame, and I am a totally different body type from her. To understand what works for you that is a journey that requires consistency and maturity. That kind of maturity is important at the stage I am at. I have seen many young dancers who have learnt and trained a lot but do not have the mentorship of a guru. They are working hard and trying to work on their own with new ideas, but that objective eye of someone who tells you good from bad is missing. I am fortunate to have that mentorship from my guru, whether it is the kind of costume I am wearing or the makeup I do, and, of course, on the technique of the dance and how to execute ideas. Plus, it is also your own aptitude and understanding of the form. It takes many years to figure out what works for you, which movements are best for you and what kind of content you want to present.

Q: You did quite a long varnam. What do you do hold the audience’s attention?
Sneha: These days, performances are short and you hardly get the opoprtunity to perform a whole 40-minute varnam. In a festival, you get only 40 minutes in total to show and prove yourself. So you try to put in the maximum into that time. The dance form is moving towards so much acrobatics and physicality, so the scope for the abhinaya is narrowing. There are many ideas and sancharis in abhinaya because you want to show all that you know. I have worked very hard to learn it. I have spent months, letting it slowly to grow on me. I started separate classes with Akka in the mornings. It needs time. You cannot learn it overnight. In a classroom-like set-up, you can make notes, you choreograph the adavus, but if 5 people do it, it will have 5 interpretations. That much time you have to give it. You really enjoy the first time you do it on stage. I really enjoyed doing it and was very comfortable. Mujhe jo aata hai main comfortably kar rahi hoon. I consider this a victory. I gave up all inhibitions and thought this is my guru’s programme, I will give it my best. And I gave up all the other thoughts, who’s watching and who is going to write what, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was time on our side and we kind of simmered it. And it is not only the dance that we learn from her, jeevan jeene ki shaili seekhni padti hai. You learn about philosophy, literature and so many other things, like music. Dance is just one thing; dance itself is made up so many other things. And it is a two-way thing, both have to be receptive to the other. The guru has to put her trust in the shishya and the shishya has to surrender.

Q: I also noticed that you had a new vocalist which worked for you, since her stylized singing matched your grace.
Sneha: I have worked with Sudha ji once before for Divya Pushp. We are conditioned to work with only a few familiar vocalists. But it was challenging for both of us to work out of our conditioning.