Artist Leader Sreelatha Vinod shares perspectives on balancing creativity, discipline and strategic planning

Artist Leader Sreelatha Vinod shares perspectives on balancing creativity, discipline and strategic planning

Featuring: Sreelatha Vinod
Dancer, Researcher & Founder of The Sruti Foundation

Curated By: Chandrani Datta

You have been an artist and how is it that art basically shaped you to become a leader?

When I started training in the art form, I never thought that I would take it up as a profession. It began as something I was asked to learn, and I found it to be a strength within me that allowed me to express myself. At that time, it was simply a means of expression. Later, as it became a profession or career option, I began using it as an important tool for communication and to reflect the world around me. I explored different ideas and methods to take it forward.

During this time, I did not hold any leadership position. It was only when I started performing that I saw the need for leadership. When I opened my own dance school, I took full responsibility for my actions and had to make decisions that would benefit the organization. I also had to train others to follow the same regimen. The discipline I learned in training as an artist came in handy when it came to leadership.

The second most important aspect of leadership is to improve the art form by looking at people’s strengths and limitations and tapping into the right inputs from each of them. This happened in my training unit, where every person in the cast had their own strengths and limitations, and we had to bring out the best in each person through creative endeavours and choreography.

In summary, when it comes to leadership, discipline and the ability to tap into the right inputs from each person to improve the art form are essential, whether it be in parallel art or traditional art.

If creativity underpins everything that an artist does, how can leaders build creativity? With technology doing pretty much most of the things that the logical brain can do, is the differentiator going to be building more creativity?

Yes, creativity is very important, as it is the bedrock for any artistic growth. Without it, the art would stagnate, and become as repetitive as a parrot repeating itself. This is true. When it comes to choreography, creativity can be present at the conceptual stage or in the way the choreography is executed, from the segments to the mode of presentation. It can be present at the cerebral level, the kinesthetic level, or when it touches the audience. However, when it comes to hardcore choreography, the actual content of the matter, after the creative input has been implemented, the rest of it becomes strategic planning. This involves breaking down the choreography into smaller portions, delegating tasks such as settings, lighting, costuming, and jewelry, and overseeing them while dedicating time and effort to the choreographic data. At some point, one has to take the reins again and execute the strategy. It is essential to plan how much emphasis will be put on lighting, costuming, or body movement. The execution requires hardcore discipline and strategic planning, which underpins the creativity. Without this planning, creativity would have no room to shine. If, for example, I designed a particular choreography and allowed creativity entirely to the costumer, each one would come up with a different thing. I have to lead them to what I want from them.

How do artists address conflicts that arise during project execution — relying on natural human ways or through training?

I believe that experience has taught me an important lesson applicable in all spheres of life. My father would always advise me to have a backup plan and be prepared for any situation. I have found this advice to be invaluable, and it has become my first line of criticism. When something does not work as expected, I try to understand why it failed and learn from it. By doing so, I can overcome the initial obstacles and face any challenges that come my way.

In my career as a performing artist, I have encountered situations where I had to justify my choices. For instance, during the 50th year of Indian independence, I participated in a festival where each artist was assigned a poet as a resource person. We were tasked with creating a contemporary poem on the freedom struggle. The experience raised questions on whether we were treating liberty and freedom in the most appropriate manner. My assigned poet, Abdul Rahman, inspired me with a beautiful poem that reminded us to rise above petty differences like caste and creed. The arts provide an avenue to showcase how we can overcome such challenges and think beyond them.

Being an artist does not make one immune to criticism. However, through my training in performing arts, I have learned to understand and deal with conflicts. I have learned to judge people, accept their perspective, and justify my choices. Every person’s training and circumstance are unique, and it is up to them to use their tools to face the unknown.

How do artists who can work boundaryless also thrive in boundaries?

Everything is enclosed or engulfed by one singular factor – time. However, you want to put it, time can be linear, as we commonly view it today, or it can be an abstract concept. Nonetheless, time is a parameter and it is beyond what technology can buy today. Sometimes time is warped. For instance, when you’re sleeping and dreaming, sometimes you think of something, and it seems to extend long and long, like a yawn. Then you wake up and realize that only a few hours have passed since you went to bed. Time is brought down to that fraction. Other times, when you’re watching an interesting show and it comes to an end, you feel like it’s over in no time. This idea of time seems bound, yet it has no boundary. That’s why time is the best parallel to math creativity. Creativity happens at a point; it doesn’t come when you say “yes, 123 creativity”. It happens at the most unexpected moments, and sometimes there is a burst, as if something else is guiding, not you at all. Sometimes you even feel like that. Other times you feel a structured way of looking at it. It happens in all these ways, but it happens in a rush. Sometimes it happens in a flash. Sometimes it is just there as a lucky little sliver, and then you have to catch it and hold onto it for dear life. But that moment seems stretched. Sometimes it seems too short. Nonetheless, it is bound by time. You need to engulf that boundary-less thing into the time capsule that you want for your creative endeavor. You create a particular framework for which you want to give it some shape and form. When you express a thought, it doesn’t have a boundary, but you give it a boundary when you give it some form and shape through a prose line, through poetry, or through speech. Something or some form of expression has a boundary. Creativity will happen like that, and you have to take it from there.

Like you rightly said, creativity comes in, and you should be able to see it. It may come and go, but unless you are aware of that streak, you can’t bring it. So, that’s how the mind of an artist works in this intuitive space, and how can others learn from it?

I believe that intuition is an important factor in achieving success, especially for people who are focused on their craft. Sportspeople, for example, follow a rigorous training regime, and there are times when they need to overcome certain limitations to get an edge over others. This is where intuition comes in. I also believe in the concept of collective memory or “Massena,” which suggests that we have memories from past lives that influence our present. Even if you don’t believe in this, there is still a collective memory of experiences that we’ve had in our lives. Sometimes, something from the past that we have not yet understood keeps coming back to us, and if we see it in the right way, it can help us overcome our limitations.

However, to develop intuition, we must have discipline in training ourselves. Even when we’ve reached the performing stage, we must continue to train ourselves to avoid stagnation. This training does not necessarily involve dancing for hours every day. It could include singing, practicing solfeggio, or following a particular regime. By doing this, we create a dynamic environment that allows intuition to spark and guide us at the right moment. We must also be open to intuition and allow it to surface and be seen. Only then can we truly understand and catch it.

How do you balance the conflicting feelings of passing on the stage to your students and the desire to continue performing at your best as an artist? How do you approach succession and leave a legacy, while ensuring you maintain your level of discipline beyond just practicing for two hours a day?

One thing we have to face is reality — our bodies won’t be the same as we grow older. Every performing artist has their peak, but there is also a point where performance declines. However, there is a truth that we must acknowledge – no matter how much we achieve, someone else will eventually surpass us. It’s a joy to nurture someone who surpasses us, just like a parent feels when their child outdoes them. As we mature, we gain the sensibility and sensitivity to understand the importance of teaching generously, sharing all we know so that our students can outdo us. Technology and knowledge continue to increase, giving future generations an advantage over us. If we can pass on our best, they will surpass us, and we can proudly say we mentored them. There is no conflict unless we believe we are eternal and can be there forever – which is not true.

Have you faced challenges on your journey as a performing artist? How have you grown personally from those experiences?

Yes. When I look at choreographic endeavors, in terms of dance productions, perhaps speaking from my experience as a dancer, I compare dance productions of yesteryears to those of today, and what I see as the trend today. Now, there have always been good and bad productions, then and now, but that’s not what I really want to comment on. By and large, even if the content was the same then and now, it’s the frills around it that really matter, the packaging. The marketing used to promote it and the hype it creates in the general public almost ensure its success. I’m not undermining the factor of content, as it is censored, but it almost ensures success. Even if there is a little content, blast, it’s gone. But if you have the same kind of content, hate the content, but that person is not able to manage the packaging and promotion, then they fall short in the eyes of the general public. That is such a disadvantage because for the NHS, it must be only because of economics that it was not possible. So in that sense, it’s the same content, if not more, that has been a disturbing factor from then and now. Because when you look at productions done 15 years ago, we did not have this much of packaging and presentational requisites like we do now. No matter what you’re doing, all of this is absolutely essential, you cannot do a production without the help of social media. You cannot do it without all the extra paraphernalia that is required, like fancy lighting, extraordinary buildups, and heights that are necessary for a production. So it’s not only the content that you’re looking at but the absolute presentation, and you have to be able to garner all of this. So in that sense, I feel it’s like the competition or if you look at any production value, most of them go back with just the glitz and glamour of it, rather than analyzing whether it has left a message. If a production has left a message, I have a thing about it. If you listen to music or you’re used to dance performance or production, if you go to bed, and it haunts you, and you wake up with the first thought of that, then it has somehow touched a chord, and it is good. If it doesn’t, it can disturb you or engulf you, both are equally good, but if it does not, and it’s gone the moment you finished it, then it hasn’t done justice to what it’s supposed to.

Do you see a lot of people like your colleagues in the artistic space who are creating memorable moments? Is it happening more frequently when you’re with people who have similar levels of training and experience? And has the collective reached a point where they’re only creating excellence now that you’re grooming others?

Not only are we creating excellence, but I’ve also seen some amazing pieces of work put up by my contemporaries, seniors, and juniors. It’s been incredible to see the thought-provoking work that has come out – sometimes very abstract concepts are taken so beautifully and rendered so well. It leaves you speechless to see how they translate it into a visual medium. Of course, there are productions that are just done for the sake of production and don’t leave a lasting impression. But quite a few have been very sustained and memorable. I wouldn’t say that some people only do a few productions and each one is a gem in its own right. There are quite a few choreographers bursting with ideas who have brought out many productions back-to-back, each one extremely good. It’s not just about bringing a few productions that are the best or bringing out a lot. It’s all about the final outcome.

Lessons on Art & Leadership

Lessons on Art Leadership Sreelatha Vinod

How can artists bring abstract ideas to a level that is understandable for everyone? This skill is not only valuable in art but also in organizations where clarity is important. How can people outside of the artistic world learn to bring abstract ideas into form and shape?

We can always address the unknown with only what we know. For instance, I’m looking at the idea of honesty as an abstract concept that I have to bring out through a visual medium. So, what do I know about honesty? Who do I know from the past who has been honest and is worthy of being chosen as an example to speak about? In what period of time did they exist, and do they not exist now? All of these questions will come up when you think of that concept. As an art form, you will immediately draw parallels from various periods of time and look at people who were worth emulating and who embodied the principle of honesty. So, that itself gives you a known factor from the abstract to get a concrete person who embodies that quality. At that point, it’s just like a symbol, and then you can quantify it by finding the pattern in a person, an episode, or perhaps an entire storyline. Then, that abstract idea is concretized through that story, perhaps through a character or characters, and then the abstract idea is understood as what we are trying to deal with or what we are trying to point your attention towards. Okay, so that way the abstract becomes concrete. But as an artist, that is not enough. It’s not enough that an abstract idea becomes concretized. A school teacher at an elementary level can also say, “Well, how do you show the sun? You feel the heat, and then you show it through a mirror or some other apparatus and say this is the facade.” But beyond that, you have to glorify it. There’s a point of glorification. It cannot be just taking that reflection and showing you an imitation. You have to glorify it, and only poetic glorification will last over a period of time. Otherwise, it’s just that, and then it’s gone. When you glorify that thing, and say, for instance, in honesty, or most immediately, Harishchandra, who went through all those struggles, at the end of it, what is the thing? Are we learning from that? Was he right in what he did, asking those questions and turning it around to a point of time where you address it to the spectator and say, “Are you learning something out of it? Is there a Harishchandra in every one of us? Are we, at a twist, fighting some battles like Harishchandra?” That kind of question is only plausible through art forms. If you just reflect it in the story and leave it at that, it doesn’t do justice to what it meant to convey.

Execution requires hardcore discipline and strategic planning, which underpins the creativity. Without this planning, creativity would have no room to shine.

As an artist, how does innovation and risk-taking sound to you and the work that you do?

The risk is present in an artist’s journey, but it’s more about critique than risk. At a certain point in a creative endeavour, there is an accepted right and wrong way of doing things. For example, a dance presentation like a Varnam has a specific structure that must be followed. But when we ask why we cannot tweak the Varnam to look a little different, that’s when we take a risk. Dhananjay Master’s choreography in a metal Amina genre was heavily criticized for stepping out of the boundary of how a Varanam should be treated. However, the same Varanam was appreciated later, saying that he stretched the boundaries. To stretch the boundaries, you have to take a risk at every point in time. But there is one factor that we cannot lose sight of – the art form and the structure of the art form itself. You cannot lose out on that; otherwise, it will cease to be that particular art form. You can keep stretching the boundaries, and it will allow you to do that because things change with time, and we have to allow for that. That is a risk worth taking, but it comes with the same intuition for which you need to practice.

How do we nurture this ecosystem that spans from the ancient to the modern to the future and fulfill our responsibility to shape the future of these young learners?

We are all links of the same chain. At this point, and it’s because I believe in this collective memory, I will go in this form, but I will come in another. So in that sense, it is never-ending — I came, then I went, I am now, I will go, and I will come and go again. In that sense, whatever has been transmitted to me, it is my duty and my right to pass it on. But when I do that, I have to do it with absolute honesty, commitment, and generosity.

Is there a story that has transformed or deeply inspired you, and will continue to do so even 20 or 30 years down the line?

There is one. Several years ago, when I moved into Dhananjay’s Bharatakananjalli, I felt kind of let down because I was almost like a prima donna over there. I had the best roles and was treated like a queen because I had learned a lot from masters and performed beautiful choreographies even as a child. That was a period when I came over to Dhananjay Sir’s, and of course, he himself had passed away, and I was here. But when I came here, I had to start all over again, and I felt completely wretched. All these years, and I’m up there, and they’ve asked me to start from scratch. Little did I realize the importance of doing that. One day, the master told me, “I’m just in the middle of doing a particular dance drama, and I have this particular role that I want you to be doing.” So I was delighted that finally, somebody had realized that I can do something. And I was quite pleased with myself and was ready to do what I was supposed to do.

The next day, the musicians were there, my seniors were there, and they were doing one particular small sequence of dance while the master was busy choreographing. There was a scene where they showed two girls being attacked by dacoits and how a Buddhist monk intervenes and rescues them. At which point in time, the master looked at me and said, “Yeah, you will be doing that village girl.” I thought I was going to do the main role. Of course, I didn’t say anything to him, but my face fell, and I was so disappointed. So very disappointed. I went up, and he told me what to do over there, and then I went through it. The physique was there, but mentally I was not in it at all. I just did it and went, and he said, “Okay, let’s finish it for today. We’ll see tomorrow.” He stopped abruptly. We all did our Namaskaran, and then we went home. I was waiting at the entrance for my father to come and pick me up. Master didn’t come from the main hall, nor did the musicians. They were talking still, and all the dancers left. After which, the musicians left, and finally, the master was still there, and he saw me still waiting near the steps.

He was almost going into the house when he stepped back and said, “You disappointed me. I thought if I gave you any piece, you would turn it around and make it the most memorable one. But you disappointed me.” I truly believe that was when I was born. No role is unimportant or small in life. That was the biggest lesson I learned, and I keep telling this to my students or whoever is around me. That is when I realized what humility is all about. It’s not humility to oneself, but it’s the humility to the art form. Nothing is bigger than that. You are so small in front of that, and that’s when I was truly born that day. I will never forget that. That is my true entry.

Sreelatha Vinod

Sreelatha Vinod

Dancer, Researcher & Founder of The Sruti Foundation

Sreelatha Vinod is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, and teacher from India. She is the founder of The Sruti Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Indian classical arts. Sreelatha has performed extensively in India and around the world, including at prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the United Nations headquarters in New York. She has received numerous awards and accolades for her contributions to the field of dance, including the Natya Shiromani Award and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Sreelatha is also actively involved in mentoring and training the next generation of dancers.

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