A picture of Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy has been captured by Nan Melville, which can be seen above.
It’s almost showtime, and Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy–the primary performers of the Indian troupe Nrityagram–are preparing in their open-air studio situated in the vicinity of Bangalore, India. The sun has set, however, the heat hasn’t yet died down.
This is a brain-melting temperature. As the guru, Sen does not have to put up with the heat.
After concluding her warm-up with a series of leaps and heel strikes, she calls over her three teenage apprentices and speaks her displeasure.
They all laugh, one of the apprentices using the hem of her kurta to fan her guru. Sen’s attempts to protest the ineffectiveness of this method were futile as the girls ran off and came back with a few magazines.
She then folded herself in half and enjoyed the breeze. She then swatted a mosquito. One of the apprentices grabbed a bottle of repellent, put some in her palms, and passed it to another one. They both massaged the lotion into their guru’s arms while the third apprentice continued to fan her.
Satpathy is busy ensuring that the dance floor is emptied of any unwanted bugs, such as beetles. Despite the availability of a broom and helpers, she chooses to pick up the insect with her own hands and then gently place it outside the windowless openings in the stone walls.
The sound of joyous laughter could be heard as the crowd of onlookers drew closer. Sen and Satpathy typically perform in front of hundreds or even thousands of people at prestigious venues and festivals.
The New Yorker has described them as “probably the Indian dance company most beloved by American audiences right now (maybe ever),” and The New York Times concluded a 2015 review with “The only proper response to dancers this amazing is worship.”
However, this performance had a much smaller audience; only a couple dozen schoolchildren were spending the week in their village. Sen and Satpathy had opted to wear cotton saris over cholis and leggings instead of their usual brocade silks and jewels and crowns of jasmine bulbs.
The music was provided by a CD instead of live accompaniment, and I was the only critic in attendance.
The children eagerly entered the studio, but their enthusiasm was quickly quashed when Sen gave them a stern look.
They settled onto the mats and Sen unveiled the topic of the night: Lord Shiva. She enquired as to what they knew of him and a flurry of hands were raised, voicing their understanding of the Hindu deity.
They described him as the one who makes the Ganges River flow from his head, wearing a necklace of skulls and five serpents, with three eyes and four arms; a figure who once drank a pot of poison to stop it from spreading across the universe.
The person exclaimed as they grasped their own neck, “That’s why his neck is blue!” Their wife had managed to hinder the poison from entering his stomach.
Yes, you can certainly agree, but is there something that they have overlooked?
The chubby kid wearing glasses inquired, “Do you have a pet tiger?”
Sen declared that Lord Shiva was half-female!
The impressive features of Hindu gods make it easy to miss the double gender in them. Ganesh has an elephant’s body, Hanuman is mostly ape, and Krishna is completely blue. Even Shiva’s androgynous version with a single breast and pec is not as remarkable. But it resonates with Sen and Satpathy who explain to the children that they will see a demonstration of yin and yang this evening. It will be a celebration of the male and female within them, “like a love song, where one half sings to the other.”
Satpathy and Sen take the center stage, hands clasped in anjali mudra, a prayer position over their hearts.
As the apprentice switches on the boom box, a mix of percussion and vocals fill the room. The dancers then twirl away from each other in a flurry of hand and feet movements, only to freeze again at opposite sides of the stage in a windswept manner.
Every part of their body is curled and they maintain these extraordinary positions as if they were sculptures. Then they transform into another graceful pose, and another and another, astounding their audience with every turn.
The Odissi dance style is rooted in the sensuous pictures sculpted into the walls of Hindu temples ages ago. Every gesture, from the flicking of the wrist to the arching of the brow, is symbolically linked to a specific word.
As the dancers transition from one move to the next, they are able to construct sentences that, when combined, tell the tales of India’s most cherished legends. It can be likened to a theater of miming, yet Sen and Satpathy have pushed the boundaries and taken it to a higher level.
Satpathy and Sen have been dancing together for over two decades, and even though Satpathy lives outside the village, she rehearses and teaches with Sen from dawn to dusk, every day. Whenever they go on tour, they spend months together, dancing and resting, in that order. The countless hours of companionship they have shared allows them to almost predict each other’s movements and when they are on the stage, they appear as one single being.
The dancers’ interpretation of Lord Shiva’s duality proves to be revelatory. They manage to fuse into a pose with only two feet firmly planted on the ground, and then move through the stage while maintaining the pose, using only the bottom of their feet and toes. When the dancers finally separate from the pose, it is like watching a cell divide. By the end of the performance, they have depicted the wide range of human potential: male and female, light and dark, creation and destruction, betrayal and allure, eroticism and holiness. “Dancing” does not even begin to explain it. The women are searching for something sacred, something pure.
Throughout their four decades, Sen and Satpathy have continually placed art above all else, disregarding societal and familial expectations. Seeing them dance is a powerful experience – they have risked much for this momentary joy, which makes it even more meaningful.
In the spring of 2014, I embarked on a journey to Nrityagram. Depending on traffic, the drive from Bangalore was between one and three hours. On the way there I saw a multitude of scenes, such as ladies selling flowers, worshippers going to temples, vendors hawking goods, dogs running around, men chewing paan , drivers jockeying for position, filled buses, boys splitting coconuts with machetes, monkeys scurrying on wires, families of five on one motorcycle, and cows crossing the street. Eventually, a field of amber-colored grassland came into view. A goatherd could be seen with a switch, an old man was napping beneath a nearby tree, and a dirt road led to the entrance of Nrityagram, marked by a wrought iron gate and a sign of hennaed hands in mudras.
Alastair Macaulay, a dance critic, has referred to Nrityagram as a “disciplined utopia.” When you arrive, the grounds seem like paradise. The gardens are cultivated by women wearing vibrant saris. The atmosphere is scented with the fragrance of plumeria. Trees are filled with fruit. The buildings are made of clay and stone. Doorsteps are decorated with chalk art. Hindu gods can be seen in many places, from entryways to windowsills and corners, and are adorned with flowers and candles.
The village stands out for its commitment to living in harmony with nature. Even though temperatures frequently reach very high levels, there is no air-conditioning. Instead, the ceiling fans are quite distant. The vegetarian meals are eaten with hands from metal plates while sitting on the floor. Hot water is available during two-hour intervals twice a day. As the many buildings are open-air and have no windowpanes, wildlife such as mosquitoes, crows, lizards, frogs, bats, and scorpions can move about freely. On one occasion, a spider of remarkable size and furriness was seen crawling up a doorstep, an animal that in Texas would have been shot with a pistol, but at Nrityagram, a woman wearing a sari simply brushed it away with a broom.
Macaulay’s “discipline” is evident in the way his apprentices are taught. They receive instruction in various aspects of the art form such as yoga, martial arts, meditation, Indian literature, Sanskrit, and mythology for up to twelve hours a day for six days a week for six years or more. They not only study but also live together, participating in the communal tasks of cooking, cleaning, and gardening before retiring at night. All “external commitments” are discouraged during the apprenticeship.
This system of learning, known as gurukul (with guru meaning “teacher” and kula meaning “extended family”), dates back to the Vedic period, thousands of years prior to Christ. But it was during colonial rule that this traditional way of learning began to fade away. It has made a resurgence as an ideal way to learn the ancient art form of Odissi – particularly due to its long history. Scholars believe the art form’s roots can be traced back to the first and second centuries BCE through the bas-reliefs carved on cave walls. Its early practitioners were devadasis , or young girls who devoted their whole life to worshiping God through dance and song. Gotipua , a form of dance featuring boys dressed as girls, was later introduced and performed in festivals and fairs. Odissi dancers enjoyed a privileged status for centuries, however, when the Mughal Empire took power, many of them were taken as concubines by the royal court. After British Raj outlawed “temple dancing” in the late nineteenth century, the art form nearly vanished as its practitioners resorted to prostitution in order to survive. It was not until India gained independence in 1947 that a few masters managed to revive the traditional dance form.
In 1975, Protima Bedi, who was known as a “party girl,” encountered an Odissi recital in Bombay. As recorded in her memoir, Timepass, she was “consumed by it, as a piece of wood is consumed by fire.” Upon approaching the guru, he noticed her attire–including her halter top and tight trousers, her unbound hair that contained specks of gold, and the cigarette hanging from her lips. He promptly declined her request to learn the art form. Nevertheless, Protima was a woman who had rebelled against the norms of society. She had eloped to become a model, streaked on beaches in full view, and lived in an open relationship with Kabir Bedi before marrying him and taking on other lovers. Consequently, it was not surprising that she refused to accept his rejection.
In spite of the protests, the guru finally consented to accept Bedi as his student if she was present at the station in Orissa (the birthplace of Odissi) when the train arrived in three days. This decision resulted in the termination of her marriage and having to send her two little children to boarding school, but she made it on time. For three months, she practiced dancing for up to fourteen hours a day, enduring being screamed at, ridiculed, and even smacked. As she wrote in Timepass, she eventually learned “to breathe the song of dance into the instrument of the body.” Paparazzi swarmed to her first open performance, hoping to witness a new sensational event by “India’s queen of outrage.” To their joy, she moved like an animated statue. The viewers loved her too, filling up every venue. On the contrary, dance pundits denied her the opportunity to take part in certain programs and festivals due to her controversial past.
For the next ten years, Bedi’s ambition was to create “a world of dance, where you live, breathe, eat, sleep, converse, and imagine–all through dance”. With her contacts and her undeniable charisma, she was able to obtain a 30-year lease on a 10-acre piece of deserted land located near Bangalore. Then, she set up a tent amidst the cobras and scorpions, attracted a group of devoted followers, changed her name to Gauri, the Hindu goddess of love, and made her gurukul a reality.
When Nrityagram opened its doors in May of 1990, an economics student from Delhi, Sen, arrived shortly after. Upon seeing the columns of the new amphitheater that were being built from the rusty earth, she was filled with a sense of possibility. Gauri informed her of the strict practice schedule, manual labor, and the requirement that she would need to give up all other commitments, including her studies at university. She then invited Sen to start that day, but Sen asked for ten days to go back home to Delhi and notify her parents, pack her belongings and her mosquito net, and move in to Nrityagram. In the end, she moved in during the month of June in 1990, and has remained ever since. A few years later, Satpathy auditioned and Sen fought hard for her.
Gauri gathered some of Odissi’s most renowned gurus to her village along with experts of the classical dances Kathak and Mohiniattam, chhau martial arts, and yoga. People from India and even Japan came to learn from them. Nevertheless, there were several difficulties. One guru wielded his authority like an autocrat and spread slanderous gossip to the press when Gauri stood her ground. Local artists also opposed her as they were envious that the government was providing land to a foreigner. Securing funding was also a struggle, with grants mired in bureaucracy and everyone expecting a payoff or a share. In the hope that it would be a dependable source of income, Gauri opened a nearby tourist resort, but this only increased her stress. She started getting sharp pains in her chest and feeling numbness in her arms. She wrote in Timepass: “The office work and fund-raising was draining the joy from my soul and I was scared of becoming ordinary, of losing the spirit within me, of becoming too serious about life, of not recognizing beauty, love and laughter.”
Five years after establishing Nrityagram, Gauri felt the need for greater serenity. Her students, Sen and Satpathy, were gaining recognition nationally and internationally; she knew they would ensure the gurukul‘s success. She thus traveled to Tirupati, one of India’s holiest places, and had her head shaved in order to signify the start of a new phase of life. Timepass refers to this as her sanyas, the point of renunciation of all worldly possessions and interests, to concentrate on the spiritual. Gauri wished to pray for her son, Siddharth, who had schizophrenia and had been recently admitted to a psychiatric facility in Los Angeles. He had been found wandering the streets of Montreal and was telling everyone he wanted to “go into the blue”. In a blue robe, Gauri made further pilgrimages, taking a dip in the Ganges and meditating in ashrams for extended periods. While her mind improved, her health worsened and she had two minor heart attacks, three weeks apart. Siddharth’s condition also worsened until he committed suicide in July 1997. After this Gauri would spend hours wailing in Nrityagram’s amphitheater, then determined to take a pilgrimage to Kailash-Mansarovar, the Himalayan residence of Lord Shiva, which requires a difficult journey to altitudes of 19,500 feet.
“Where is life leading me? Will I have an enlightened death?” she wrote in Timepass. “I hope I meet my end bravely, with an alert and composed mind.”
Sen was taught the final dances that Gauri knew and gave her successor, Lynne Fernandez, Nrityagram’s checkbook. In August 1998, she left for the Himalayas in the company of a man who had forsaken his family to be with her. During their journey, they stayed at a friend’s residence who remembered Gauri getting up in the middle of the night, in tears, claiming she was unable to breathe. She had a nightmare of being submerged in mud and sand. However, the next morning, she was set to go trekking.
At Nrityagram, Sen and Satpathy had just concluded their inaugural event with the first team of students when a worker rushed up, flustered. Every media outlet in the country was trying to get in touch with them. A catastrophic landslide had taken place in the Himalayas, precisely where the two had been camping. Two hundred individuals were unaccounted for, one of whom was Protima Gauri Bedi. Her passport was found, but not her body.
As I am about to enter my fourth decade, I am in a contemplative state of mind when I travel to Nrityagram. Since the age of twenty-two, I have devoted myself to artistic pursuits, even living a nomadic lifestyle for three years to avoid paying rent. I have reaped the rewards of this dedication: four books in print and a fifth one under contract. Yet, I cannot help but feel uneasy about the things I have given up: a home, a partner, a child, and a sense of belonging. Can art really serve as a replacement for all these?
When I first arrived, both Sen and Satpathy were away on tour, yet their portraits were visible in every room of the colony. Above my bed was a picture of them entwined together, wearing bejeweled garments and glistening with sweat. Everybody referred to them as the “goddesses,” and while I don’t usually think of people in such terms, by the fifth day in India, when I ventured out to nearby villages by bicycle, I began to comprehend why. Two men on a motorcycle came up next to me and, seemingly offended by my female, foreign presence, they spat at me. Their saliva missed me, but their message was clear. Nrityagram appeared to be a refuge after that; a place of safety with women at the helm.
As writers-in-residence, our typical day consists of spending most of the time in our respective rooms typing away on our laptops, but come lunchtime we join the dancers. One day, I entered the dining facility late and noticed a change in the atmosphere. Usually, the apprentices were lively and filled everyone’s plates with dal, but today they were standing against the wall, almost as if they were standing to attention. Even my fellow writers seemed more subdued. I then saw why: Sen, one of the goddesses who had just arrived from an international flight, was sitting on a pillow near a column. Her posture was so straight that her long black hair and billowing harem pants seemed to flow from her body. She was wearing vermilion on her third eye and had a jewel studded nose with silver rings on her toes. Even though she was simply eating lunch, she exuded an air of regality that made the rest of us feel like her servants. The apprentices took turns bringing her water and hot chapatis while the writers ate and left soon after.
It was then that I comprehended the purpose of my journey to India: to have a conversation with these ladies about the essence of artistic fervor.
Sen’s house, made of wood and stone, features a stairwell without a banister and windows without panes. Hanging from the walls are tapestries, with devotional statues placed in lines. There are people busily ironing and cleaning. Sen takes me into the living room, with white futons and cushions. In the middle of the table stands a lotus flower. She has changed into a new sari, a violet and red one with gold accents, and plans to switch into another one after the interview. Compared to her, my T-shirt and capris appear quite unkempt.
I began by inquiring about her journey to her art form. Her mother was a classical dancer before she married Sen’s father, an army officer. “It wasn’t a usual choice for females in India when my mother was young,” she says in a soothing voice, uttering each word with purpose as if it were set to music. “In the past, only people from the elite class, or a family with a tradition of singing and dancing, could make a career in the arts.” Her family was of middle-class status and encouraged her to appreciate the arts, though making a career out of it was not a path they supported.
At four years old, they enrolled her in dance classes and required her to practice for hours daily. “I didn’t enjoy it,” Sen shares, but she persisted until her teenage years and began to move towards choreography. A longer break allowed her to recognize the place of dance in her life, and she decided to fully dedicate herself to it. “I don’t do anything half-heartedly,” she says, turning her head from left to right.
In Gauri’s gurukul, she discovered a group of people who had the same focus as her. Every morning they started at 5 a.m. with a 5K run followed by three hours of exercises and basic dance steps before breakfast. They would sleep for only five or six hours in a day and she felt like her feet were going to break every day. But for the first time, she was completely dedicated.
I understand the importance of discipline, as I have done fourteen-hour workdays while writing my first book. What I don’t comprehend is how to handle the residue of such intense concentration. When I ask Sen about it, her right eyebrow rises.
It has been said that dancing is akin a jealous husband – once you have found something so meaningful, it can be hard to accept anything less. However, selecting a career in the dance world is a tough choice socially and financially. Every time I make a decision, I know it might not turn out well. Occasionally, it can feel like a lonely road.
Bending forward, she continues: “All of the work we do is put back into the organization, however, it isn’t ours. It’s a non-profit arts institute, and the government could take it away from us whenever they want. I’m 44 years old and this is all I have, but when my time here is done, I won’t have anything. I’m replaceable.”
After a long pause, she turns her head. “But this is my journey.”
Have you considered if the result will have been worth all the effort in the long run?
In order to reply to that, she must first talk about the essence of her activity. She said, “Odissi is based on a philosophy of dedication. You must let go of your ego and make room for others to come in. This enables a relationship with a greater being. Art is all about that. You become a part of it.”
The lady then mentions the concept of rasa, which is the emotion that is communicated to the audience by an artist through their work- be it love, surprise, anger, fear, valor, or joy. This concept is relatively unfamiliar to the Western arts, yet is the foundation of Indian performance, and is especially vivid in Odissi.
She declares that to evoke rasa in an audience is akin to feeling it oneself. It is a journey, she explains, that culminates in a kind of salvation that binds us all together. “It is like a spiritual climax,” she continues. “Your body vibrates; your emotional energy is suspended; you have no sense of the separation between the observer and the performer. Achieving this equilibrium is what we live for – a quest for all living things to find a harmony between personal gratification and spiritual satisfaction.
She takes a few moments to process this. “It’s challenging to be an artist. Over the last two decades, I’ve come to terms with how little I understand. There’s nothing I’ve discerned yet, and it’s frustrating, but I’m still driven to uncover the answers.”
Given that she’s reaching a more senior age, the need for a successful search is becoming increasingly urgent. Sen has already gone beyond the regular retirement age for professional dancers in the United States by a full 10 years. I inquire as to how her body is managing the exhausting demands of her job.
She explains that her body informs her of its capabilities and limitations. Taking care of it is necessary to make it last, unless it is out of her control. There is no room for being idle; it’s not an option to give herself a respite and relax, as it has its own rewards. She admits that it is a battle for her and she is forced to make a decision each day, but her love for it is strong enough to make that decision. She finds joy and comfort in dancing.
A worker then comes in the room. It is almost time for Sen to go to Bangalore to instruct a class. Standing up from the futon, she offers one last thought: “If you knew the mystery of all life, you wouldn’t attempt to pursue it. It is in the doing that you become, and to be one with something bigger than yourself, that is supreme knowledge.”
Do you believe you will recognize it when you locate it?
Her lips curl into a smile. “I wish that the second I find it is the instant that either my life ends or truly commences. Do they amount to the same thing? If you locate it, why carry on living?”
She then led me to the exit.
I ran into Satpathy in a courtyard before the nightfall. The locusts were creating a loud noise and the sweet aroma of jasmine filled the air. I attempted to look presentable by putting on a skirt and a scarf, but I was not able to match her poise. Even in her plain kurta, she looked like a star with her lovely heart-shaped face and her prominent cheekbones. While she was talking to me, ants were crawling around her feet, but she paid them no attention. She spoke in a very precise manner, as if every sentence had an exact number of syllables. She was seated in a low chair and leaned forward on her elbows, always maintaining eye contact with me.
When I mention my struggle with an artistic fixation, she lowers her eyelids and displays a range of emotions. Then she gives a half-smile and says, “All I ever wanted was to be able to dance every day, and now I can.”
Satpathy was born to a dancer in the birthplace of Odissi, but pursuing this vocation was met with ostracism. People in her village still viewed it as a courtesan dance form, and her mother had become so conservative since giving up dancing herself that it was best not to mention any performances where Satpathy was dancing. After twelve years of training, she auditioned for Nrityagram and accepted Gauri’s invitation to join, even though it would make her more isolated from her family. During the first three years, she would go home and no one would question her about where she had spent those months. Additionally, for ten years she was considered a “teacher-traitor” by her former dance community because they felt she had abandoned her guru when she joined Nrityagram. As a result, she was banned from performing in Orissa for a decade.
When her parents and teacher saw the amount of appreciation she received for her solo debut in Delhi, they became more accepting. This was followed by a two-page feature in the New York Times, which caused her guru to soften. Satpathy was finally invited back to her home state to perform in 2003 after winning the Mahari Award. Even today her mother sometimes remarks that she works hard for a small amount of money. To this Satpathy replies that she gets other things out of it that money can’t buy and that she is content.
For over two decades, her determination to pursue this intangible “else” has been at the heart of every choice she has made, even when it came to her marriage.
My husband was well aware that dancing was a priority for me and that Nrityagram would come before him. I didn’t need to explain it to him; my actions spoke for themselves. Many people have commented on how lucky I am to have a husband like him, but I knew what was important to me and never felt the need to apologize for it.
She is committed to her choice to stay childless: “I would want to devote all of my energy to parenting if I had a kid, and that would take me away from my passion for dance.”
At forty, she has started to take a look at her career, with her main focus being the training of the next generation of dancers for Nrityagram. Out of fifty trainees, however, only ten have achieved the level that Gauri aspired to and none seem apt for the job. When questioned about the other forty, she states that “they were not ready for it.” Describing the hard work and dedication required, she says that “the training is very, very hard here. There is no letting up. You do it again and again and again, and what should come out is inner joy. Usually there is a block and you have to cry it out. They would get frightened and leave and we would find a limb is gone. We were dreaming their dreams, so a lot of the time we were hurt.”
I then inquire about her dreams for herself, pondering how difficult it must be to accept her body’s changes when she nurtures it with such dedication.
Satpathy recognizes her physical abilities are diminishing, yet she still plans to practice Odissi for a further five years. After that, she wants to transition to a genre of dance she calls “expressional dance,” which she believes gets more and more meaningful with age. She states that it is more than just being youthful and spry; it is about having a deeper understanding as well as an ability to flow between various emotions.
Her eyelids fluttering in the fading light, she exclaimed: “I’m hoping I remain healthy enough to accomplish that.”
After nine months, I had the pleasure of meeting Sen, Satpathy, and their manager, Lynne Fernandez, at a Hilton in Durham, North Carolina. During their world tour, I took them out to lunch. Dressed differently than usual (jeans and a jacket) they appeared much smaller. I suggested several vegetarian restaurants, but they wanted to try barbecue, with a side of bourbon. We ended up at the Pit, an upscale joint with cleavers and hog images adorning the walls. When the server pointed to his chest to demonstrate the various cuts of meat, Sen and Satpathy looked aghast, while Fernandez laughed. Sen asked, with a crinkled nose, “This is a vegetable?” as she separated a collard green from the pork and grease.
Two days later, they held a master class at Duke University. In front of a full studio of twenty-year-old dancers, Satpathy demonstrated the unique stride of the Odissi dancer—a step, a gliding of one foot up the other at an angle, then a press back in the opposite direction that made the body sway.
“It gets easier when you envision it,” Sen urged as we tried the move. “It’s all curves.” We slithered on the hardwood floor as Sen nodded in approval. “If you’re ever angry,” she said with her hands on her hips, “just go out and dance. Physically, it will tire you; emotionally, it will deplete you; spiritually, it will uplift you. Take away everything else, but never the dance that is within you. Those of us who have only danced have a very happy life.”
The following night, I attended their sold-out performance at Reynolds Industries Theater. Entitled Songs of Love and Longing, it depicted the fabled affair of maiden Radha and god Krishna. Offstage, Sen recited ancient Sanskrit poems over the mesmerizing sound of mardala, harmonium, violin, and bamboo flute as Satpathy, donned in jasmine and jewels, entered the stage as Radha. His flute called out her name, as he wandered through the forest caressing the breeze for her touch. At first slow and searching, her movements grew in intensity when Sen/Krishna joined her on stage. They switched genders through gesture, with Satpathy at one moment strutting with the chest of Krishna and the next, slinking into the demure posture of Radha. Eventually, Sen/Radha was left alone. My bangles were like manacles, my jewels like a weight. The pain of separation crushed me. As the red spotlight glowed, her doubt in her lover’s return increased and she mourned. But Satpathy/Krishna returned. Stamp your footsteps on this bed of flowers and kiss me awake. She put her foot on Sen’s knee and soared above her, extending her arms as Sen threw her head back in delight. This moment is all that matters. Make me yours. The dance ended with something rarely seen in art or in life: a woman’s desire, fulfilled.
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