(May 12, 2022) Many Indian dancers would agree that Indian classical dance forms find its roots in yoga. From the mudras to the various position and alignment, there’s a lot in common between Indian classical dance forms and yoga. However, over the period of time, people have forgotten this strong connection between the two. And now eminent Odissi dancer Rekha Tandon has taken upon herself to re-bridge the gap between Indian classical dance and yoga.
Living in a quaint house in Auroville, near Puducherry, the Odissi dancer hosts artistes from across the globe for residencies and workshops. She has performed at various festivals in different parts of the world, including the Quay Theatre, The Lowry, Manchester (2007), Mary’s Gallery, Sydney (2012), Tantrutsav, Kalarigram (2018) and Pondicherry Heritage Festival (2019).
The author of Dance as Yoga: The Spirit and Technique of Odissi, Rekha explains how yoga has been the fundamental building block of Indian art for centuries. “Yoga is the union of matter and spirit. The process of refining any body movement skills and aspiring for excellence, is by itself very naturally ‘yogic’,” shares the artiste during a conversation with Global Indian, adding, “Yoga has made such a strong impact on global consciousness, and all Indian classical dance forms embody yoga. This integral connection will acquire more widespread acknowledgment and as it does, I am sure more people will gravitate towards them.”
Born to dance
Born in Karachi, Pakistan to an IFS (Indian Foreign Services) father, Rekha lived across the globe including Germany, Belgium and Egypt. While hopping from one country to another, one thing that stuck with her was dancing. “I loved to dance even as a child,” shares the artiste, adding, “I was introduced to various Indian classical dance forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathak and Kathakali in school. In fact, when I lived in Cairo, I even learnt western ballet.”
However, tragedy struck when her father passed away in a glider crash in 1981. Her mother, who was a housewife until then, pulled herself together and started working with the India Tourism Development Corporation, and later went onto work for the former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. The family moved to Delhi, and it was in the capital that Rekha fell in love with Odissi.
“I was about 15 when during an event I saw eminent dancer Kiran Segal perform. Although, I had been dancing for about six-seven years by then, I was transfixed by the lyrical quality of her performance. It seemed to combine contrasts effortlessly — strong, defined lower body footwork with a very fluid curvilinear upper body that was perfectly amalgamated,” shares the dancer, who soon started learning Odissi under Guru Surendra Nath Jena – whose dance style incorporated the various aspects of Indian culture, such as temple sculpture, ancient dance, Sanskrit and vernacular literature, yoga, traditional painting, manuscripts, and philosophy.
“Initially it was more like something I did in the afternoons, after my school. But slowly my focus changed and dancing became much more than just a hobby for me,” shares the artiste, who pursued a bachelor’s degree in planning and architecture.
A dance academician
After six years of practice under Guru Surendra Nath Jena, a 23-year-old Rekha started rehearsing at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya under Padma Shri Madhavi Mudgal. “Though my mother was very supportive, I still had a lot of pressure to look for a job. After my graduation in 1985, I apprenticed under an architect, who was working with noted designer Rajeev Sethi. We worked on the event Festivals of India. However, I think dancing was where my soul was,” laughs the dancer, who later did master’s in history of art from the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology between 1990 and 1994.
While Rekha had been practicing Odissi and presenting solo performances across the world since 1985, she had the urge to learn the history of Indian dance forms and understand the culture better. This took her to the UK in 1995 where she started pursuing a PhD in Dance Studies from the Trinity Laban – UK’s only conservatoire of music and contemporary dance. It was here that she met her now-husband, Michael Weston, who is a musician.
As she studied and researched about the connection between Indian dance forms and temples, yoga and philosophy, Rekha also started working with kids trained in Gotipua dance in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. In 1997, she co-founded Dance Routes with her husband, to help these kids learn new choreography.
Explaining her work with the Gotipua dancers, Rekha shares, “Gotipua is a traditional dance form, which is precursor of Odissi. Young men, who dress as women to praise Lord Jagannath and Krishna, have been performing in the courtyards of the Hindu temples in Odhisa since the 16th century. Once they become mature at the age of 14 or 15, they stop dancing. So much skill was invested in 10 years of their life. However, they eventually were jettisoned from this tradition and had to find alternative sources of income. Our work involved developing their skills further and creating productions that could be staged in cities.”
Living in the lap of nature
The dancer first visited the beautiful Auroville – which she now calls home – for a workshop, along with her husband. “It was during our third visit to Auroville that we decided to make it our base. We have beautiful rooms for foreign visitors, who come for the residencies. I also have a few students from Auroville, and Puducherry, whom I teach Odissi,” says the dancer.
Over the last few years, Rekha has documented, researched and produced DVDs in connection with the art form. “We have this interesting history folk tradition being revised as classical tradition. And, it would be tragic to just tap into the final product of Odissi and not look back at the elements that went into it. The focus of the hour is while learning Odissi, being aware of the resources that went into building it right from the beginning.”
Giving an insight into her world, Rekha reveals that she works from “studio-residence in Skandavan which is a beautiful two-acre garden near Auroville, with my husband, Michael, two dogs, a cat, several chicken and two big fish ponds.” Being busy with her craft most of the time, she loves unwinding with movies, reading or just being with her animals.