FACE TO FACE – Prasanta J Baruah

Indira PP Bora is an internationally renowned Indian classical dance exponent specializing in Bharat Natyam, Kuchipudi and Sattriya dance. She has extensively performed in India and abroad. She is an awardee of Sangeet Natak Akademi (1996), an empanelled Sattriya dance artiste of ICCR (1992), a member of the Expert Committee of Performing Arts (for grants) of Ministry of Culture, Govt of India and a top grade dance artiste of Doordarshan. As one of the first female pioneers, she has revived and developed Sattriya traditional dance form of monasteries into a recognised Indian classical dance form and give exposures nationally and internationally over the last four decades.

You have been recently honoured with the Kerala government's highest cultural award. What is the significance of this award to you?

I am extremely happy to receive the guru Gopinath  award. It is the highest national award from Government of Kerala. The Chief Minister and the Cultural Minister gave me this award through online ceremony for which I received a standing ovation from Kerala audiences. The most significant thing about this honour is that Kerala Government has given me and my state of Assam the highest award for my contribution to popularising Sattriya dance as a classical solo art form nationally and globally. In their official memento they have recognised my lifelong contribution as “epitome of Sattriya and a pioneer in Sattriya female dancers to redefine and elevate the traditional Sattriya identitified with various sattras in Assam.”

My contribution was recognised at par with legendary Guru Gopinath of Kerala who transformed Kathakali dance into a redefined popular form called Keralanatanam. They have understood my contribution extremely well and that is the greatest blessing for an artiste to be recognised by a state like Kerala which is very rich in cultural affairs and gives top awards to international artistes.

You have a strong connection with Chennai and South India . You left Assam at the age of 15 to train with the legendary Rukmini Arundale. What was their influence on you as a dancer?

I was very lucky to get exposure as a direct disciple of my great Guru Rukmini Devi Arundale at the world renowned Kalakshetra. Being trained by some of the best Gurus in Classical dance, Tamil and Sanskrit language and Carnatic Vocal Music gave me a very strong foundation.

I was touring as a soloist dancer in her dance repertoires in many countries of Europe where I performed lead roles in dance dramas and introduced Sattriya as a “major national dance form” way back in 1960s and 1970s as part of Kalakshetra dance company. I was exposed to Western classical forms like Opera and Ballet dance and I learnt the key similarities and differences between Eastern and Western art forms from a very young age.  And through this classical lense I was able to identify and redefine the essence of traditional Sattriya dance and popularised it as a classical solo art form nationally and globally.

As a child you learnt Sattriya . Who were the people who guided you and encouraged you to take up dancing as a career?

In the 1960s the cultural scene in Assam was not much exposed to classical music and dance. My maternal Uncle, Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Pradip Chaliha introduced me to Classical dance training in Golaghat while I was studying in high school.

Through his dance academy Ajanta Kala Mandal in Golaghat I learnt basics of Sattriya   dance which was then not codified as a classical form in the national dance map of India. My father Kamakhya Prasad Baruva, a prolific tea planter and philanthropist, encouraged me to take up dance as a serious profession at a time when dancing was not considered respectable in India for young women belonging to high class families.

Coming back to Assam after completing your dance training and education in Chennai , how did you find the cultural scenario in Assam during that time?

Nothing had changed much in the cultural scene of Assam since I left for Chennai. Avenues for training classical and folk dances were not there. When I returned to Assam it was still the same scene and that is when I and my husband, my long term collaborator Prafulla Prasad Bora saw the real opportunity to establish our centre called Kalabhumi in 1982 which is considered the first centre for dance, art and culture to create awareness about classical dance and sow the seeds for dance talent promotion in north east India. We were the first to establish Bharata Natyam in north east India and the first to establish Sattriya dance as a “world dance form” through our research activities with various gurus, scholars and musicians at key national and global venues and universities  in India.

Besides, in various districts of Assam we performed and taught classical Bharata Natyam to younger generation of Assamese youth through popular songs of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnu Rabha.

Sattriya dance at that time was not scientifically developed in form and content. As a brand ambassador of Sattriya dance form how did you promote it in India and abroad?

In the global exposure of Sattriya dance I was the first dancer to perform Sattriya and Devadasi dance on BBC TV in London in 1985, first Indian dancer to archive my Sattriya dance compositions in the world renowned Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in New York City, USA in 1985.

In a rarified artistic field, where dance and drama was considered a taboo for women, I made a bold revival move for women in dance and music. Sattriya, which started under the patronage of Srimanta Sankaradeva, was brought out to a larger audience in the late 1955. The structure of the dance repertoire was strengthened through my initiatives with the introduction of solo choreographies, encompassing spatial dimensions, visual design and classical body language suitable for modern day proscenium and cosmopolitan audiences without altering the fundamental framework of the dance form and thus conforming to the Assamese arts.

Dr Bhupen Hazarika as chairman of Sangeet Natak Kala Academy, acclaimed dance critic Sunil Kothari and others were instrumental in getting recognition for Sattriya as a classical dance form.

Cultural meets during your time were limited . How did the annual All Assam Sangeet Sanmillani organised by Singhapurush Radha Govinda Baruah help in keeping alive  the musical tradition in Assam?

As a young performer of Sattriya dance I was the winner of Best Man Trophies in Sattriya Dance for three consecutive years late in 1950s in All Assam Music Conferences that was organised by the late legendary R. G. Baruah of The Assam Tribune Group. My judges were great legendaries like Bishnu Rabha, Pradip Chaliha who directly encouraged me to take up dance as my profession. Very few people today know that R. G. Baruah was the one and only patron in Assam in those days to promote Assamese culture though All India Music Conferences in Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Jorhat where eminent classical dancers and musicians were invited to perform and create awareness about high culture in Assam.

Who were your contemporary dancers and how did you all try to make Sattriya and other dance forms popular in the State?

It was mainly my good friends like Garima Hazarika who played their own parts as reputed classical dancers in the field of Odissi and creative choreography.

What is your advice to aspiring young dancers in the State?

There  is no short cut to get fame, name and achievements. One must adopt a very thorough approach with heaps of hard work and dedication as I have gone through myself and one must be one tracked minded to achieve long term sustainability in the competitive arts world today.

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