“I dream of building a community of dancers in a forsaken place amidst nature. A place where nothing exists, except dance. A place where you can breathe, eat, sleep, dream, talk, imagine – dance.”
Protima Gauri sculpted her dream from red earth, scooped out with grit and persistence. But for those who knew her, it would not have come as a surprise – she was a woman who did not let life or her own self come in the way of what she deemed was her destiny.
Though born into a conservative family, she chose to step into the limelight. She became a model, and challenged norms set by patriarchs of all hues, a story well documented by magazines of yore.
Then one day she wandered into an auditorium seeking a rock show, and instead ended up at an Odissi performance. Captivated, in tears, she went backstage and declared to Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra that she wanted to learn his art form. He laughed. She persisted. And she challenged him – if she reached Cuttack before he did, he would accept her as a student. He brushed away those words, assuming they would take flight and so would she.
When he reached Cuttack, he found her waiting at his doorstep, and thus began a journey where Protima became Gauri, the nurturer. At 27, she studied Odissi, and conquered stages in India and abroad, and audiences flocked to see her, first intrigued by her past, and then riveted by her performance.
“That is how I always remember her! Dancing Odissi. With the Gods.
A perfect sculpture coming alive. At once, sensuous and sensual.
Riveting in performance, she danced as if that was all she was
meant to do and as if she was the most beautiful woman alive. A
perfect performer, she was in her life and on the stage much the
same. Always the centre of attraction. People gathered around her
to be touched by her warmth, her laughter, her passion and her
Surupa Sen, disciple
The tale of such a metamorphosis is sufficient to fill a book, but Protima Gauri was not one to remain content with ordinary achievements. She was restless, and keen to give back to dance, the art that had given her so much. She envisioned a place that would be a haven for dancers, where they could pursue their art with a focus unsullied by the mundane, and hone their art and craft to reach unimaginable shores. The question was where would such a sanctuary be? She wrote to different state governments, and Ramakrishna Hegde, who was Chief Minister of Karnataka, wrote back.
Around 35 kilometers from Bangalore was 10 acres of wild isolation, where Protima Gauri arrived in a caravan with some supplies and set-up a camp. Fascinated by her determination, Shankar and Arundhati Nag visited her, only to become lifelong friends. So did many others, who came, curious, drawn to this woman of infectious laughter and irrepressible enthusiasm, and before they knew it they became teachers, students, donors, and devotees. Everyone whose life she touched has a ‘when I met her for the first time’ story. They recall her 70 mm eyes, her laughter, or a delectably outrageous comment.
Slowly, the Gurukul took shape. Teachers came, students joined, and Nrityagram forged an Ensemble that captivated audiences across the world. Just as her creation was embarking on a path to reach its full potential, she had to contend with a personal tragedy, the untimely demise of Siddharth, her son. Her journey became directed inward, and she began a spiritual quest.
What about Nrityagram? She believed, “Nrityagram has its own destiny and will find the people most suited to carry out its will.” She handed over the reins of the institution to Lynne Fernandez, and her oldest disciple Surupa Sen. Soon after, she planned a pilgrimage to the mountains. One friend recollects that just before leaving, she said, “The future looks so bright and dazzling. I am just going to walk away into it, and all of you will have to come and search for me.” These words were prophetic. There was a landslide, and this world lost her.
Her legacy lives on, in Nrityagram, in riotous incidents recalled over community lunches, in memories that friends from all over the world share with laughter and gratitude.
“Life chooses its special children to do its bidding. Not everyone is fortunate to work for a cause, not everyone is given the opportunity to create something for posterity. Not everyone is given the passion and fire to make a success of their cause. I am blessed. I am grateful.”