Twenty years ago the life of a young freelance photographer took a dramatic turn. Her assignment in 1996 was to photograph the Indian dance company Nrityagram in their New York debut. That night, she fell under the spell of the all-female troupe: its charismatic founder, Protima Gauri Bedi, and their way of life, based in a remote nrityagram (dance village), where they live communally and devote themselves to the study of the 2,000-year-old tradition of Odissi dance. At Protima’s suggestion, Melville traveled to India and eventually made a short documentary film about the ensemble, which premiered in 2010.
Superfan: Nan Melville, New York–based freelance photographer
Hometown: New York City
My first experience: Nrityagram were doing their first tour here. It was a performance at the Kaye Playhouse and I was assigned by The New York Times to cover it. The whole audience was just enraptured, and being able to photograph them was a treat. They really sparkled. It was my first time photographing Indian dance—their gorgeous costumes, the wonderful music. I was totally into the visual aspect and the vibe that went with it.
How I got hooked: Protima, who was in charge and founded the ensemble, loved my pictures and asked if she could meet me. She came to a tiny little studio where I was staying and said, "You must come to India." And just about anything that Protima said, you found yourself doing; she had this incredible charisma, vision, and organizational skills. In the village, the ensemble has a very holistic approach. They grow their own vegetables, they do gardening, it’s a total experience. They are at Nrityagram to imbibe the spirit, not just to learn the dance. It’s an act of worship. Because of my relationship to the dancers, I was able to visit with them, eat with them, go to the rehearsals.
Beyond the lens: When I’m photographing, I have to be aware of the camera. When I’m just watching from an audience point of view, I can lose myself totally in the magic. Watching their performances is like entering another world, like a dream, a fantasy. And that’s appropriate, because much of their dance is based on mythology, and there's a devotional aspect that draws you in. Their devotion is so real and their performance is so precise and perfect. That is the vibe everybody can pick up on.
Proof that you’re a superfan: Well, I self-funded a documentary film about the ensemble. I was not commissioned to do it, but I felt impelled to do it. Protima and I had some very good conversations before she died (the year after I was there). One night she said to me, "I feel that I’ve set up this company, I’ve done it, it’s time for somebody else to take over." I felt that by doing the film, I was sort of giving closure to the project and at the same time opening it up, because there was no real documentary on them. I spent a lot of time. It was a labor of love.
One word to describe Nrityagram: Transporting!
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to nonprofit cultural organizations and former director of publications of the New York Philharmonic.