DEVOTED TO DANCE

RAY MEEKER GIVES EXPRESSION TO PROTIMA´S PARTING GIFT, A FIRED TEMPLE AT NRITYAGRAM

By Anupama Kundoo, Architect, Auroville

One evening three years ago I dropped in at Ray Meeker’s house in Pondicherry. He handed me a set of drawings that he had just finished on his laptop saying, “here, have a look”, and I had flipped through the plan, elevation and section of a small, simple--almost classical--square plan and catenary domed crown that was obviously a temple. Protima, the dancer, had visited his pottery while she had been in Pondicherry and left him a message that she would like him to design a temple for her dance village, Nrityagram, and to visit the site when he was next in Bangalore to discuss it further. Six months went by before Ray and Deborah were in Bangalore and dropped in at Nrityagram. Protima had shown him the existing plinth on which she wanted to raise a temple that had always been part of the total vision. Ray says, “I mentioned the fact that I was not quite up on the relevant Shastra, to which she gave her most dismissive wave of the hand”, and recalls, “the existing plinth looked `Shastra-ish´--full of number nines”--assuming Gerard D´Cunha had incorporated all that, “and I did maintain that much in dimensional integrity”. These drawings, printed on rice paper with a title illustration Ray had spontaneously painted, of a cupped hand holding a flaming temple were the outcome of that visit, and Ray was about to send them off to her. “Are you planning another fired construction?”, I had inquired to which Ray had nodded.

Ray Meeker, has been widely acclaimed for developing the `fired-house´ construction technique over a series of experimental buildings. Basically a potter with a background in architecture, Ray had been quite taken up with the idea of building mud houses and baking them to stabilize the structures and make them water resistant. He has built some 30 houses in mud brick and mud mortar, with vaults and domes for roofs also built in mud. The raw structures once finished were treated as kilns, and stacked with other clay products to be fired, and then set ablaze. Wood was used to fire the products inside this house-kiln and the house was fired as a consequence. The “waste” heat that is normally absorbed by kiln walls would yield a strong fired earth structure. Sale of the product recovered the cost of firing the mud structure. The mud bricks transformed thus into fired brick avoided the use of cement mortar, thereby realizing a strong structure by relying on mud alone. .
The elements of earth, water, fire and air came together to create the element of space.

Six months after Ray had sent off the drawings Protima contacted him, “Where the _ _ _ _ are you?…”

Ray recalls the time when he, Protima and her dog went scouting around for local brick-makers and his discovery that the bricks in this area were fired by the incorporation of a percentage of coal dust into the clay mixture. “Oh my God! This is it! This might make the whole thing viable…” he had exclaimed. The clay mass burnt with its own fuel and only needed wood to start the fire. This gave Ray the real enthusiasm to further experiment, as he was sure that this was a way to save a lot of wood, and energy. In fact he had tried this method--with limited success--in a small test structure in the pottery compound at Pondicherry, but when the brick maker Govindaswamy agreed to supply the sun dried bricks--coal filled--as well as mud and coal dust for mortar and coal for the firing itself, Ray was confident that a stable structure could be achieved.

“I don't think Protima had a clue what I was going to do,” Ray realized, when she asked him when the granite would arrive, and then, “how are you going to make that hand?” Ray laughs as he narrates Protima’s impression that the temple would look like his cover sketch of a symbolic hand that carried fire, even though he had sent her detailed plans.

Protima was quite specific that she wanted a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, and Ray did conceive it as a Shiva temple. However, this was left open to discussion with the dance students and for one reason or another the idea of a central lingam was discarded. But in fact, Ray explains, “the whole structure is a series of lingams expanded around the lingam that would have been in the center, lingam/ sculpture arch/ door arch/ door frame/ whole structure. And from early to mid-morning a lingam of light falls on the central stone cast by the sun through the arch of the door.

Then over several months and visits to Nrityagram, Ray and Protima usually passing each other at the gate with a wave, the temple gradually took shape and was ready to be fired. It was then that I myself visited the site, having offered to help Ray in the firing stage and in supervising the finishing of the civil work. We talked about this article in the seven hour long taxi drive, discussed ceramics, sculpture, dance, Odissi in particular, and how the temple was to be finished. As we reached Nrityagram, which was full of visiting dance students, including the Kathak group of Kumudini Lakhia, we heard that Protima had just had a stroke. And that was the same evening we had scheduled our Pooja to set the temple ablaze. While each and every Nrityagram resident was away at the hospital with Protima, we the guests, had our ceremony in the backdrop of a stunning Khatak offering dance, spontaneously organized for the occaision by Kumadini’s group. The burning camphor spread the flame and amidst the twirling skirts of the many chakkars they performed and the music that climaxed, the whole base of the temple caught fire. Protima, yet again had been absent.

In the evenings that followed, I had waited and watched the tongues of flame emerging from the small gaps in the structure, from higher and higher progressively, transforming the earth. And while keeping an eye on the structure, I had witnessed many many mangalacharans, pallavis and abhinayas. The campus was fully immersed in dance, and the temple was fired, cooled and progressively plastered amidst the dance and music, absorbing all the Odissi, Kathak and Mohiniatam, as if it had a parallel life of its own. Protima was soon better and returned to Nrityagram. One evening she told me, “lets walk to the temple,” and while we sat on the steps in a reflective mood she told me about her plans of gradually distancing herself from Nrityagram, watching it stand on its own feet, as a mother gazing at her child that had now come of age. ‘Gaurima,’ as she was now known here, felt that her role was that of a creator, she had the vision and the power of its manifestation, but she was not the one to continue its running. She wanted to build her house a little away and keep in contact, but from outside. She was ready to move on to the next thing.

When I heard the news of Protima´s sudden and mysterious departure, (Protima died in a landslide during her pilgrimage in the Himalayas) I visited Ray´s studio again and was most surprised to discover that Ray had been working on large scale murals of Kelucharan Mohapatra and Protima herself. “I had no idea that you were a sculptor, Ray!”, I had remarked, to which Ray calmly replied “Neither had I!”. That the temple would include terracotta cladding, Ray had known, but till the very end he had no idea what he would really do. Except the spines on the corners of the dome and the cornice, that was obvious. But he had never really done sculpture--nothing serious--and the resemblance was remarkable.

Ray decided to depict the five senses in terracotta on the outer faces of the dome. The preparation for the dance--the make-up--with the face reflected in five oval mirrors with accompanying hand mudras, the conch for sound, a bee landing on a lotus for taste, putting jasmine in the hair for smell, applying the bindi on the forehead for touch and applying kajal in the eyes for sight. The patterns on the Odissi saree borders influenced the design of the spines of the dome and jasmine as used to borer the base of the shikhara and the space between the cornices. When Ray heard of Protima’s death he had been working in the last of the “mirrors of the five senses,” and in response to the landslide he added the water, mountain and cloud to the already shaved head in a kind of “out of this world” headdress to try to incorporate a feeling of that pilgrimage.

Apart from these, there were two large reliefs--full figures. Originally the one on Kelucharan was to go inside of the temple and the one of Protima on the outside. “Kelucharan representing more or less the soul and/or revival of the Odissi form and Protima the propagator”. It seemed to Ray appropriate to reverse this with the death of Protima, emphasizing the temple as Protima´s parting gift to Nrityagram and to her many friends and well-wishers.

Recently as I visited Nrityagram again, to see the finished temple, Lynne Fernandes, the manager expressed along with her appreciation of this temple, her concern about the possible “deification of Protima” as the powerful life-size figure of her in the small interior space may lead to “worship” of the clay relief of her. Lynne is sure that Protima would never have found that appropriate. In a letter to Lynne, Ray, explained that in either case, of Kelucharan or Protima inside the temple, the dancing figure was not intended as the deity, but as dancing for the deity, which is quite consistent with the Odissi tradition. “ So we need a focus for the dance. The figure is too powerful. Very much like Protima, bigger than life, dominating whatever space she found herself in.” The focus is presently a natural granite bowl containing water and an oil lamp. And Ray suggests them to install an even stronger focus such as a lingam, so that the sculpture of the dancer is no longer mistaken as the deity. Even if the temple is dedicated to dance, it leads right back to the lord of cosmic dance, Shiva.

“Protima was clearly stepping out of the day-to-day running of Nrityagram and probably thinking about an even greater distancing from the project. I think this was one reason she was so keen on getting the temple finished, as a sort of parting gesture--perhaps not quite as final as death--but she was definitely looking way beyond Nrityagram (the pilgrimage) when I met her.”

Ray had been looking at hundreds of photos of Protima in practically every pose in the Odissi lexicon. Photos at the sea, and posed in front of the Temple at Konark where the stone became flesh, but the series he liked best were from the stage—posture in action. He selected what to him seemed to represent a vibrant expression of offering. “It could as well be supplication, I suppose, but to me it seemed to represent Protima´s parting gift. And that was not only dance. It was to say that anything is possible, that you can realize your dreams.”