Natya Like A Man!

At first glance, 20-year-old ECD student Supreeth Karan can pass off as yet another nerd on campus, especially when he explains his unshaven, unkempt looks as an ‘offering’ for having been accepted at the Google Summer of Code. However, this Hyderabadi boy’s list of accomplishments in Bharatnatyam is atleast a few pages long: Limca Book of Records holder, India Book of Records holder, CCRT scholarship holder from the Central Govt of India, to name just a few. In conversation with this gender bender, we find out what it takes to perform and be an academic achiever at the same time. 

At the end of his first solo classical Bharatnatyam dance performance, five-year-old Supreeth Karan glanced nervously at his father who was sitting in the second row of the audience. When he saw a huge smile erupting on his father’s face, he was relieved. “From that day, my journey into dance began,” he says. Stereotypically, his father had frowned upon the idea of his only son learning what is widely considered to be a female art form. Until then, it was only his mother who was keen that he learn classical dance. She painstakingly took him to dance classes, and every day upon their return home, helped Supreeth practise his steps. “She used to hold my feet in place on the floor and helped me master the adavus or the ABCs of Bharatnatyam,” he reminisces fondly.

Eat.Sleep.Dance.Repeat

Under the tutelage of Gurus Sri V S Ramamoorthy and Srimathi Manjula Ramaswamy (a father-daughter duo) for over 15 years now, Supreeth has honed his skills in nrittanritya, and natyam. Despite his advancing age,  the senior guru who is currently 99-years old continues to be active at the Sri Rama Nataka Niketan where he teaches abhinaya or facial expressions. “He taught us facial expressions, and how to express them through rasas and bhavas (emotions). Guru Manjula Ramaswamy taught me the entire repertoire of Bharatanatyam from alarimpu, jatiswaram, shabdam, tillana and so on. This is the way we learn stepwise from the basics,” says Supreeth.

Growing up, Supreeth knew only one schedule – one that revolved around academic school and the dance school. “Till the time I entered 11th and 12th, I dedicated most of my time in the practise of dance. After school, I would go to dance class at 4 in the evening and return at 10.30-11pm. On Sundays, I used to leave home at 6 in the morning and return by 11 pm”. He was forced to apply the brakes on the discipline of dance and attend classes only on Sundays during his 11th grade. “And in the 12th, I didn’t attend any dance classes at all”. The focus on academics helped and by cracking the JEE Mains, he came to IIITH. The self-confessed pucca Hyderabadi was more elated that he wouldn’t have to leave his city. “I was so happy, I didn’t even check what branch I would be getting into!”, he quips. Initially, every time he visited home he would attend dance classes too, at least twice a month. Over the years, it has become progressively more difficult to keep in touch with dance, though it hasn’t stopped him from performing on campus. Notwithstanding the tight schedule, Supreeth has cleared all his exams in Bharatnatyam till Visharad, the final exam, from Akhila Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Mumbai. He has also completed a certificate course in Bharatnatyam from Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University.

Cognitive Science Lab

Trying to marry his prowess in the classical dance form with academic interests, he stepped into the Cognitive Science lab recently. Under Prof. Kavita Vemuri’s guidance, Supreeth is currently helping create a post-operative exercise regimen typically prescribed for patients, such as those who have undergone an open-heart surgery. But an extension to the ongoing project is the one close to his heart. With a disclaimer that it is still in the initial stages, Supreeth says, “I want to create a system that can conduct online dance classes where the trainer or teacher comes up live on TV like an avatar. This would be useful and save time that one spends commuting on traffic-logged roads to reach the destination,” says Supreeth. To do this, the first step for Supreeth is to capture all the body movements by wearing motion detection sensors himself while performing the dance moves. These movements will then be transferred to the avatar. The same system needs to be installed at the location where the person is learning the dance form. “So when you’re performing at home, the sensors will detect the perfect postures or angles, and the avatar will help in correcting the student accordingly,” according to Supreeth.

Fame Not Fear

Unfazed by the raised-eyebrows he attracts by virtue of being a male dancer, Supreeth shrugs and laughs saying the accolades he received from his early days distracted him from the nay-sayers. “It didn’t bother me at all. In fact, in school, everyone used to know me as …oh Supreeth? The classical dancer! It’s the same here in IIITH,” he says. He is an Advisory Member of the Cultural Committee Board. “I had originally applied to be a Cultural Secretary but In this post, I can give recommendations to the Cultural Secretary. Definitely less burden here!”, he exclaims. He doubles up as a teaching assistant (TA) under Jayachandran Surendran, the faculty member in charge of Presentational Movement at the Centre for Exact Humanities (CEH). While admitting that in the last 5 years since he has joined IIITH, Supreeth is the only male classical dancer he has seen on campus, Jayachandran says that he finds him very promising. “There is a lot of potential in him to imbibe more when it comes to dance. And knowing him, he is a very polite person and that lends to a lucrative learning in future as the art could demand. The idea here about politeness is not necessarily about being very quiet but there is a capacity for him to be very receptive about what we say.”

Where The Art Lies

When asked what he foresees in the future, Supreeth’s passion for Bharatnatyam is evident as he wistfully says he wishes he could continue dancing. “I don’t want to take up a job just for the sake of it – one that is hectic and meaningless. There were many programs that I missed out on due to the rigours of my current academic life. Like last year, on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanthi there was a program held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I would have had the chance to meet the President, our Prime Minister Modi and other dignitaries but I missed out on the opportunity thanks to my mid-term exams.” Jayachandran signs off with blessings that the rest of us would like to echo: “I wish him a long sustained energy because art by itself would demand many checks and balances. And I see that particular quotient in him which I see as a promising characteristic of an upcoming artist.”

 

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….

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