STEM Dance Kampni

BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA

Nestled amidst the verdant landscape of the traditional quarters of Malleshwaram of Bengaluru is the STEM Dance Kampni, which beckons the first-time visitor with an old world charm of an open courtyard, small benches, tiled roof shed and a sturdy iron-clad staircase.

As one walks up the flight of stairs one arrives at a landing with two rooms, wooden-frame windows and doors which opens up into the Studio or a ‘Space’.  It was a ‘SPACE’ indeed which reverberated for me with energy, enthusiasm and vibrations of a magical world of dance and aesthetics.

I felt as a rugged connoisseur of dance and music being invited to a whole new world of rhythms which needed to be experienced and explored.

The STEM dance Kampni is led by the dynamic, affable Madhu Natraj who epitomises the elegance, sophistication and charm of the traditional Indian arts, dance and aesthetics. 

Madhu is a trained and highly talented Indian classical danseuse yet her work has moved beyond the contours of traditional teaching and performing of Indian classical dance; experimenting with cross-cultural dance forms like blending flamenco with classical Indian dance forms.

A slice of this cross-cultural experimentation I had the good fortune of witnessing at a recent dance performance at the Bangalore Club, and it can be termed as being truly avant-garde.

Madhu is a graduate of Commerce, Journalism and Choreography, trained in Kathak under the tutelage of her mother, the legendary Guru Dr Maya Rao and with Guru Chitra Venugopal. Subsequently she pursued studies in Contemporary dance in New York.  

She is a recipient of several distinguished awards and accolades like ‘India Today’’s 50 Young Achievers, ‘Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar’ from the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, Government of India, FICCI Women’s achievers and an Ananta Aspen Global Leadership Fellow. 

STEM dance Kampni over the past decade under her leadership has globalised its offerings through exchanges with artists from across the world including the UK, US and Europe. Having toured over 36 countries and with over 200 choreographies under the tutelage of the danseuse Director Madhu Nataraj it can be safely stated that Kampni has managed to create a new discourse of dance which ‘explores the limitless possibilities of the human form’ as stated in their mission statement.

I would posit that Madhu’s work transcends the performing arts and explores and shapes a whole new understanding of aesthetics.  Aesthetics is when the creative output of an academy or school or an artist touch upon a deeper sensibility and is not limited merely to the craft or technicalities of the art form. 

Aesthetics operates when their work holds a much wider appeal for the audience stirring emotions and feelings of being enchanted with a new and deeper meaning. For instance, when a painter through her canvas reminds one of their ancestral homeland or makes them nostalgic about their grandparents’ place often deploying new and unconventional techniques.

In the specific case of Madhu, her blending of traditional Indian and diverse contemporary dance forms along with that of Western variety generate a new understanding of celebration of life.

For me personally this meaning conveyed through art forms is very important and is a sine qua non for assessing any art form since for most untrained eyes and ears it’s this captured sentiment of a new meaning which is what inures them to the world of arts.

Adjoining to the studio is the Director’s chamber or office and it’s where my tour began which most certainly held for me an appeal of dignity, gravitas and ‘sacred’ and would earn awe and respect from any first-time visitor.

The office was simple, spartan with good old-fashioned sturdy wooden furniture of teak-wood chair, table, rows of books lined on shelves along with telephones, computers and printers which lends a unique blend of modernity and deep tradition to the place.

The walls are adorned with portraits including that of her guru and mother Guru Maya Rao. Mounted on the wall is a small altar where flowers are offered to Lord Shiva, the God of dancing or Nritya in the Indian language. This altar is fascinating when one observes the pantheon of Holy icons, which includes the Infant Jesus, Lord Buddha and Sufi Saints thus encompassing sacred icons from diverse faiths who shower blessings on the dancers and artists. It left me wondering how this fascinating multi-faith pantheon of Holy icons betrays the old adage that an artist knows no boundaries of faith, creed, caste, colour or community and are all united in their quest for the Divine unknown force through their creative work.

The Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography is the forbearer of STEM Dance Kampni.  

Guru Maya Rao along with Shrimati Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, one of the India’s foremost Cultural notables, were the founders of Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography. I wish to mention a few words about Guru Maya Rao; Guru Maya Rao was one of the finest, brilliant exponents of Indian Classical dance, a trained Kathak dancer, choreographer par excellence and can be truly defined as the Grand Dame of Indian Classical Dance and Music.

The studio can be defined as a cosy, enticing and enchanting space endowed with excellent modern acoustics, lighting and other high-tech gadgetry with a rolling metal partition. 

The walls are adorned with paintings, portraiture, artefacts and memorabilia along with a few quaint, sacred wooden altars replete with aromatic incense sticks and icons.

The genteel aroma of the incense wafting through the air along with the vibrant rhythms of an ancient living past reverberating through the dance and music adds generously to the enchanting ‘aura’ of the place.

The studio is strewn with beautifully sculpted brass lamps known as ‘Diyas’ with glowing tealights enriching the ambiance of the studio.

In the very heart of the studio is an artwork with a gigantic presence which is rather intriguing and ingenious in its concept. There is a painting on a canvas drawn by a well-known artist, KK Raghava, which was created by having the dancers prance around on the canvas leaving their feet impressions and then was blended with a painted face sketched by the artist capturing the energy and passion of the danseuse.

As one enters the studio there is a fascinating chair with a portrait of the founder garlanded with flowers along with an incense and I was told by one of the students that this happens to be the chair which belonged to the founder Guru Maya Rao and is kept there as an artefact of respect in her memory.   

Perhaps I thought this is a powerful motivation for the students who feel that their founder Guru is watching them and sending across wishes from beyond this planet.

At the very end of the studio is an enclave of a few small rooms which houses the library of the Kampni with a collection of about 1700 books, an incredibly enriched archive of documents.

Currently there are plans to digitize the archives and make them accessible online for wider access. There are cupboards with rows of shelves with an incredible, rich, fascinating collection of old documents, books, notes or in other words the archive of a lifetime of an artistic genius.

On the walls in one corner is the galaxy of photographs of its distinguished patrons or inspiring figures; Kamaladevi Chattopadhayay, one the most famous cultural Czarinas of post-Independence India; Guru Maya Rao; Anil Biswas, a very distinguished music director; Pandit Shambhunath Maharaj, one of the iconic gurus of Indian Classical dance; Pandit Sunder Prasad and Mr. Nataraj, the husband of Guru Maya Rao and father of the current director Madhu Nataraj. 

There is an attached pantry and I found it very intriguing how there is a modern high-tech Italian coffee machine jostling for space with traditional Indian earthenware cups reinforcing this blend of tradition and modernity. 

Many reading this article might be amused by my gaze on such minutiae or some would say trivial details but I believe that it’s in minutiae that powerful messages or coded messages are implicit and its through these observations we can construct the bigger picture.

I would add further it’s through these minutiae I can sense and understand the sincerity of the institution and individual, it reflects whether they really ‘walk the talk’ and in the case of STEM Dance Kampni it’s a living, breathing blend of traditional Indian culture and modernity.

At one point I decided to record impressions from the students and staff for what would be called in the modern media parlance as ‘sound bytes’. 

Ramya Nagaraj, the Head of the Faculty who had been engaged with the institution for over 25 years initially as a student and then staff member described the place as ‘enchanting, encouraging and enticing one into the field of dancing’.

The Kampni and institute together run 3 vertices of Training – India’s only diploma in Choreography, Performing Unit and Outreach/Art reach program.

My debut visit coincided with the event of ‘Kampni Konversations’, a program where artists and musicians are invited to share their journey and experiences of the aesthetics with the students and the wider community of artists.  

On this occasion it was the presentation of a Dusseldorf based German artist Björn Lengers who experiments with the intersection of arts and technology, specifically Internet, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR).

The program was titled ‘Space explorers: – Dance in Digital Realities: A Sharing’. 

Bjorn’s main focus in his work is the using of digital spaces for creating and generating new art forms and expressions.

He is part of an innovative Indo-German residency program where artists and creative professionals are invited to explore hybridity of cultural expressions.

There was a demonstration of a cyber ballet with really young dancers geared with VR handsets and joysticks elegantly moving to the tune of music and virtual images.

Here the attempt was to explore the combination of traditional Indian styled Kathak dancing and contemporary virtual spaces and technologies like AI.

My aesthetic rendezvous with the Dance Kampni would be incomplete sans the mention of Madame Anita Ratnam, the Lady Dowager of Indian performing arts and who happens to be a Member of the Board of Trustees of STEM Dance Kampni.

As a matter of fact, I was introduced to Dance Kampni and Madhu through my meeting with Anita. 

Anita is a classical danseuse, scholar of English literature, academic with a doctorate, cultural commentator, critic and blessed with plenty of aesthetic je ne sais quoi which is hard to be encapsulated here and would merit a distinct interview here.

Anita while paying tributes to Guru Maya Rao in her biography had this poignant and elegant statement:

“A compelling sutradharini, Maya Rao enchants us with her vivid recollections of how dance shaped her imagination and how she continues to care about the emerging generation of Indian dancers. This account of Maya Rao’s career reads like that of a passionate explorer and a keen cultural archivist who has experimented in performance, choreography, costume design, craft initiatives, education outreach, international collaborations and teaching”.

Yes surely it’s Anita who can articulate along these lines!!!

At this moment I reflected upon what Madhu remarked on our first meeting that “Dance has to break away from the shackless of rigidity in order to be meaningful” which seemed to capture the epistemic philosophy of her dance Kampni. Madhu truly believes in the transformative and expressive potency of Movement Arts and all her projects embody this belief including that of the ‘Digital Dance Realities’.

In retrospect I wish to take the indulgence, since I am writing for the exalted Country Squire publication, to cite the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who lamented that we live in age when few things are worthy of ‘sacred’ reverence. It’s here I found in Madhu’s dance Kampni epitomizing the very essence of being ‘sacred’ and learning in ‘sacral’ spaces. Particularly in the field of arts as Sir Scruton emphasized that we need to revoke and resuscitate the notion of ‘sacral’.

As for my personal impression as I drove through the heavy rush hour traffic, I thought that if one expression captures for me the raison d’etre of the Kampni it’s the blending of Indian tradition and global modernity and this is best embodied by the Director Madhu Nataraj. And yes they are doing a fantastic job.

All kudos to STEM Kampni and many more successes in the future.

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.

VAJRA