It involves technique-mastery before the body can melt and move, emphasizing curves and intricate rhythms. His choreography heightens Odissi’s sensuality by adopting themes related to nayikas (maidens), the famous Krishna-Radha story, and love poems in Gita Govinda.”
Geetha Shankaran-Lam is a Temple of Fine Arts’s Odissi teacher and dancer from Kuala Lumpur.
Twn years ago, she sparkled in the spotlight in many of Ramli Ibrahim's major productions. But today, Geetha Shankaran-Lam is on a different journey, devoted to healing the soul through the intrinsic beauty and grace of the classical Indian dance form, Odissi.
GEETHA Shankaran-Lam likens her relationship with her father to the historic bond between Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and his daughter Indira Gandhi.
She attributes her dancing career and the direction her life has taken to the values her father instilled in her. He had insisted she take time to “listen to music” and let go of her troubles to the “feel of her body swaying to music”.
Her father came from a poor background, Geetha reveals, but his life in contrast was rich with experience.
A seeker by nature, he believed that “man could improve himself only through culture, education and spirituality”. Thus he set about making sure his children had as many experiences as possible. He enrolled his nine-year-old daughter for formal training in the South Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam so that she could get a healthy dose of culture and arts.
All her brothers went on to become national-level hockey players. Geetha reveals that she too was an athlete in school.
Geetha, 31, maintains the highest respect for her teachers who shaped her into the dancer and person she is today.
Her first teacher, Krishna Kumari, was instrumental in instilling the concepts of discipline and hard work. Geetha trained in Bharat-anatyam under her for seven and a half years.
It was through her that Geetha first met Ramli Ibrahim and started attending his classes to learn another classical Indian dance form called Odissi. Within three months, she was asked by Ramli to partner him in a dance production held at the Vivekananda Secondary School.
This was to be the beginning of what Geetha refers to as “the best years of my life” and an association that lasted close to five years. She was only 16- years-old when Sutra Productions –– now known as the Sutra Dance Theatre –– was formed in partnership with Ramli Ibrahim and Amu Tharmarajah.
There they held Bharatanatyam and Odissi classes besides putting up major dance productions. Though she was young, Geetha believes her father’s grooming helped ready her for the responsibilities that came with the partnership.
With their first production Kusumanjali (“Kusuma” meaning buds in Odissi), they went down in Malaysian history as being the first batch of Odissi-trained dancers. Geetha has only praise for Ramli Ibrahim who, she says, “has the tremendous ability to bring out the inherent spark in each individual.”
“Though all six dancers in the first batch had come from completely different backgrounds, Ramli had the patience to nurture us and we all just danced and danced and danced”.
It was a time of dizzying excitement, sheer hard work, professional fulfilment and recognition beyond her wildest dreams. Dance performances continued show after show, season after season. It was a golden era for Sutra Productions, and with every performance Ramli Ibrahim and Geetha Shankaran became household names.
But this also proved to be the most tumultuous time in Geetha’s young life as she came to terms with the fact that being a star was not all it was made out to be. She began to question everything –– her star status, the ultimate aim of her dancing talent and more.
Says Geetha, “There came a point in my life when I began to search within myself for answers to questions like who am I? What am I doing all this for?
“This talent I have, that was giving so many people such joy was surely but steadily draining the joy out of my life. In the beginning, I started learning to dance because of the beauty inherent in dance, its association with tradition and culture, but more because of the immense joy it brought me.
“But now suddenly nothing was clear anymore. The joy of dancing was being replaced by the stress of constant travelling, endless rehearsals and juggling the demands of patrons.”
Geetha insists she always wanted to dance as an offering to God, as a means of healing the soul in both dancer and audience.
It was not about doing 20 shows a month and being happy with the earnings from every show. But it had become just that.
In order to keep her vision of being a dancer with a difference alive, and her belief that dance had the ability to heal, she felt she needed a complete break from professional dancing and parted ways with Sutra Productions. It was 1990 and she was only 20 years old.
Through this very uncertain time in her life, the one person who stood by her and gave her a shoulder to cry on was Lam Ghooi Ket, a dancer with the Temple of Fine Arts.
“Besides Ramli, Lam is one of the sweetest people I know and one of the very few who cared about me as a person. He was a perfect gentleman and he cared not about my star status but my soul,” she says.
Support blossomed into love and when he proposed, Geetha accepted. Soon she had a son whom she named Hariraam.
Geetha gave up performing completely and believed that she had reached the end of the road. She swears she never missed it one bit.
She re-emerged for the spotlight in 1992 when Swami Shantananda of the Temple of Fine Arts asked her to choreograph a scene in Odissi for his Ramayana production. After that, she began to formally teach Odissi at the Temple of Fine Arts for advanced and senior dancers.
One thing led to another and she and her husband became fully involved in the Temple of Fine Arts’ productions. They have helped organise and choreograph several major productions like Ashoka where Lam played Ashoka, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taj Mahal, Buddham Saranam Gacchaami etc.
But Geetha never took to the stage until one of her dancers couldn’t make it to a performance in Singapore and she was forced to stand in. Since then Geetha has danced from time to time, including giving a solo performance as Mohini, the celestial being and the embodiment of beauty and passion who seduces the demon Bhasmasura in Sundara Keralam.
Now Geetha’s scope as a dancer has changed dramatically and besides dancing and teaching dance, she also choreographs entire dance productions, writes scripts, does marketing and public relations, handles publicity and is part of the team that manages the Temple of Fine Arts office.
She emphasises that the Temple of Fine Arts is not just any dance school. “It is more a healing ground where people can come and revive their spirits through dance.”
When Geetha teaches dance, she concentrates more on making the person comfortable with his/her body and in tune with its natural rhythm rather than on mere technique. That, she believes, is the most essential aspect of dance, the part that heals, revives and inspires joy both in the dancer and in the audience.
Through the Temple of Fine Arts, Geetha hopes to enhance her creativity and spread the joy and healing she has experienced personally through Odissi to as many people as possible.
Geetha’s 10-year-old son learns Bharatanatyam at the Temple of Fine Arts while her second son, Arunagiri, only 20-months-old, accompanies her to class and rehearsals. Geetha and Lam continue to work together be it watching the children and sharing chores at home or outlining scripts and discussing scenes at the Temple of Fine Arts.
The Temple of Fine Arts has a fresh intake in October for those interested in learning Bharatanatyam and Odissi. The fee is RM50 a month.
Temple of Fine Arts
116, Jalan Berhala,
50470 Kuala Lumpur,
Geetha Shankaran-Lam can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org