THE contradiction is stark, and at first seems a little cruel. At 56, Protima Gauri's gait is no less majestic than that of the retired black-brown stallion at Nrityagram, her dance village some 35 km outside Bangalore. She is unable to stop herself from doing some mudras for Patrick, a black dancer from Senegal camping in the village. The bounce in her step is matched by that in her voice as she flits around the 10-acre plot and praises the tadka dal cooked for lunch by her students. She even playfully flirts with Patrick, "the only male surrounded by all the women in Nrityagram". "I'm full of life," she says. "In fact, there's too much of it and the problem is how to control it."
Yet she is going away for a year, probably two. Recently she put her personal collection of paintings up for sale at a Bangalore art gallery, and it's now public news that Protima has decided to hand over charge and disassociate herself from the day-to-day running of the 21st century gurukul. But ask her about renunciation and she will pounce on you, her three heart-attacks notwithstanding: "Lynn Fernandes (her successor) was running the show for two years when I was unwell. It's just that it's public now. And it's time for me to take a break. I'll continue to give direction to the place."
Perhaps it's nature's solution to Protima's problem of controlling too much of life. For nearly 10 years now, Protima has been conceptualising, implementing, and learning to cope with the passion of her life. Seven of those 10 years were completely taken up with Nrityagram after the dream dance school took the shape of stone and mortar. And the time has come for her to move on and let the curtains fall on a well-applauded act. "As I said, I'm Brahma, only a creator. I don't know how to maintain the day-to-day administration. The stress of it is too much and my creative energies are warped," she says. "I need to replenish myself, refuel and come back."
In the life of an institution, seven years can vanish like popcorn during a movie show. But not for Nrityagram. In this short span, Nrityagram has produced the first set of professional dancers in India who are paying for the functioning of their alma mater out of their earnings and who are creating a reputation for themselves in the US and elsewhere. The world's best dancers—like Mark Morris, Paul Taylor or the Eugene Ballet—have made Nrityagram a place of creativity with a global flavour. Classical dance has penetrated the corporate and popular psyche as more companies queue up to book the Nrityagram dance ensemble for a performance and crowds trek in for the annual Vasantahabba (spring festival) celebration of dance and music. In the process, Nrityagram has been transformed from a dance village to a tourist destination.
But there is no sense of elation for Protima, or at least she is successful in masking it. "Nrityagram was something I had to do. It was like a call, something like the call of dance when I walked into the wrong hall and watched a dance performance in Bombay and wanted to learn dancing at 26," she philosophises. It's probably the age or the roller-coaster ride that her life has been, but philosophy and a strong belief in destiny has a place in every other sentence she says. "Nrityagram is life's longing for itself, the longing of the land. Every land has a memory of its own and I didn't choose this land, the land chose me. I'm here to fulfill its destiny and the land is not fulfilling my destiny."
THERE is a sense of enlightenment too: "I'm really grateful to life for giving me the opportunity to leave the silly little existence I had in Bombay. I would've just been one of the millions doing mundane things—modelling, being a socialite, parties, drinking, being a housewife, whatever. To me it was a great opportunity to create this." It wasn't an easy path though. "I learnt to manage, to teach, and to beg," she recalls. "It's difficult, being the kind of person I was, to put my hand out in front of a friend and ask for money. It's very humiliating. People would give Rs 50,000 even if they could give Rs 10 lakh. Of course, they had a reason because of the kind of reputation I had. People were not willing to give me credit for a dream that was only in my head."
And even the dream went way beyond expectations. Protima never expected solo dancing to give way to group choreography which threw up the highly popular ensemble. Or that the institution would run on the earnings of the girls. Or that the girls would take charge and make Nrityagram their home. Or that it would achieve international renown and a high level of commitment to dance in such a short span. "Or that I would become dispensable so soon."
The countdown has now begun. Last month the Taj group took over the running of Kuteeram, the restaurant-cum-retreat built by Protima on a plot adjoining Nrityagram. Protima had borrowed Rs 1.5 crore from the Karnataka State Financial Corporation to create Kuteeram and ran into a debt trap. "That's the reason for my heart-attacks and I'm very happy to have tied up with the Taj to take over my debts."
And then there are motherly and grandmotherly duties in the offing. Daughter Pooja Bedi, now in the US, is to deliver in November; son Siddarth is doing his masters in computers, also in the US. And the family will be complete when ex-husband Kabir Bedi joins them for a reunion. "It'll be a full circle back to my family. I'd like to give my grandchild the time I didn't give my children. My dance took me away and they have not had enough of me." But the life in the woman doesn't stop her from making plans and more plans. "I'll be in America till am satisfied," she says.
By the time she returns, she hopes to have distanced herself enough in terms of her health and her mind. And then she sees herself teaching pranayama and the Samaveda. Reason: "I'll live forever. There are too many things to do and I have so much energy it will be such a waste not to do anything." Add to this a strange premonition she can't explain: "I feel a lot is going to happen. I have no idea what it is but great things are coming. There's a lot of anticipation to do three times more stuff than Nrityagram. Give me a year or two's rest and I'll be back with a fantastic new project."