Young India's vision of the classical dance form Bharatanatyam
In the last year, the Indian classical dance form of bharatanatyam offered many a visual feast, and found audiences hopping from one concert hall to another, to witness performances of acclaimed
as well as up-and-coming artistes — not just from South India, but across the world. Dance outreach programmes were held in schools and villages, apart from chamber concerts for intimate audiences, learning workshops, experimental collaborations, and research-based presentations —
all of which beautifully painted the bharatanatyam arena.
For classical dance enthusiasts, the annual calendar of events wrapped up last year with the Margazhi festival in the Chennai Music and Dance Season, held from December to January, and hailed as the world’s largest cultural extravaganza. For around six weeks, the festival attracts connoisseurs, scholars and artistes who traverse the globe to soak themselves in the splendour of our classical art forms. The festival is held in multiple venues, including the premises of well-known temples, featuring thousands of eminent artistes. Conferences, panel discussions, lecture demonstrations, and seminars in sabhas like the Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha and Krishna Gana Sabha provide a dynamic platform for dissertations on subjects pertaining to dance, to broaden the discourse around dance in India and beyond.
In the midst of all this, young and dynamic torchbearers of bharatanatyam are leaving no stone unturned to preserve and propagate our cultural heritage. They are thinking differently and courageously exploring unchartered territories. Young India has a new vision for dance. Indulge gains an insight into their perspectives in conversations with a handful of dancers.
The audience thought process
Lakshmi Parthasarathy Athreya, disciple of Padmashri Guru Chitra Visweswaran, is a rare talent, whose impeccable technique and soulful abhinaya has enthralled rasikas. “The musicality in Chitra’s style, and her ability to merge and become one with the music has hugely inspired me,” reveals Lakshmi, who received the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in 2013.
“My efforts have been streamlined towards using the approach in yoga, as the basis to understand and energise the body for bharatanatyam,” says the danseuse, who performed two of her new choreographies this season. For Dakshina Vaidhyanathan, grand-daughter of Padma Bhushan Dr Saroja Vaidhyanathan, and daughter of Nrithya Choodamani awardee Rama Vaidhyanathan, dance runs in her blood. “I feel extremely fortunate to be born in such an illustrious family. It’s a rare privilege to be guided and mentored by them. Although, it is a huge challenge to live up to the family name, the
set benchmarks have motivated me to strive harder and achieve higher proficiency,” says Dakshina. The zealous dancer went on to enthrall her fans at the Music Academy, presenting an array of her mother’s and her own choreography.
For Divya Ravi, the focus has always been to connect with both the connoisseurs as well as the uninitiated, through dance. “I am intrigued to work on concepts that stir the thought process of the audience,” says the versatile danseuse, who also dons a corporate role in Branding and Marketing Communications. “For me, one career drives the other. Dance has always been the single most powerful force in my life,” she says.
‘Dance... an inner journey’
So, how relevant is bharatanatyam in the modern era? What benefit does one derive by undergoing years of arduous training? These are common questions that one comes across. Surely, it’s an art form that has stood the test of time, through changing social and political climes. From being a purely ritual art confined to the temples, today it is acknowledged as one of the most popular classical dance forms of India, with respect to its beauty of technique, and themes conveyed. It has the inherent power to counter the effects of popular entertainment, and indeed, to aid the evolution of a healthy society. It also infuses in a child precious life lessons like discipline, dedication and time management.“Dance is a visceral experience… an inner journey. It is not just performed or intellectually considered, but felt,” says Navia Natarajan, an accomplished bharatanatyam danseuse based in California. She aspires to work with hospitals administering terminally ill patients, and children with special needs, as she believes dance is also a form of therapy, which relaxes the mind and recuperates the body.
Classical arts reflect the society we live in. They serve the emotional and spiritual needs of society — needs that will never cease to exist, irrespective of changes in lifestyle or socio-economic conditions. Hence, it is imperative to nurture the essence and transcendental substance of the traditions. The biggest deterrent in pursuing a career in the performing arts is economics. “A career is a professional choice that needs to be monetarily viable,” emphasises Keerthana Ravi, the enterprising brain behind India’s first ever crowd-funded classical dance festival. Her pioneering efforts in bridging the gap between the artistes, platforms and audiences deserve a big shout-out.
Knowledge for posterity
Practitioners of bharatanatyam are cultural ambassadors who are vested with the responsibility of preserving and nurturing the traditional framework, without dilution, for posterity. Hence, the role of a guru in imparting this knowledge is pivotal. Mithun Shyam, one of the few performing young male dancers in the circuit, conferred with many accolades including the Young Natyacharya Award for excellence in teaching, is the founder of Vaishnavi Natyashala, which provides holistic training to over 500 students. It also brings out the international magazine Nrithyam, to provide a medium of discussion for artistic ideas across the globe.
“The pros of being a teacher and performer simultaneously outweigh the cons,” enunciates Mithun. “The existing system of dance education needs a revamp, and it must be ensured that dance is a part of school curriculum from the very beginning,” affirms Shirisha Shashank, wife of Grammy-nominated, internationally acclaimed flautist Shashank Subramanyam. Shirisha aspires to work on a production featuring women who have been the most empowering force in our shastras and puranas (scriptures).
Traditions, fusion & modernity
Dilution of tradition by fusion and other innovative concepts, the effects of institutional learning versus the guru-shisya parampara of training, diminishing interest and attention spans of audiences, and problems of sustaining a career in dance in a market-driven economy — all these are factors that pose a threat to the very survival of the art form.The dancing duo of Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon, who awe viewers with the magic they create through movement, wish to create a space where art will flourish holistically. “Our day begins and ends with dance. Whether it is choreography sessions, classes, travel, or performances. Even our little daughter Bhadra has adapted to our lifestyle,” shares Parvathy. Soul-stirring performer, versatile choreographer, teacher par excellence and queen of
abhinaya, Indira Kadambi is one of the better-known exponents today of bharata-natyam. Her pioneering efforts, with her husband, the esteemed Carnatic vocalist TV Ramprasad, to establish eAmbalam — the world’s first e-learning community portal offering online classes for Carnatic music, performing arts, bharatanatyam, as well as Indian instrumental and Hindustani music — deserve a big salute.
The online platform provides access to distinguished teachers and provides learning opportunities to students all over the globe. “The youth in dance need to understand that they need to set sail on a deeper journey, to understand, absorb and internalise the substance of the art form. The number of performances is inconsequential. Quality is what ultimately matters,” says Indira. She went on to present a breathtaking performance, titled ‘Paripoorna Margaha’, earlier this month at the Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. The show was a visual feast, allowing viewers to soak in the magnificence of a complete ‘margam’. The youth need stalwarts like Indira Kadambi to witness, and draw inspiration from.
No easy shortcuts
So, what are the secrets to achieve success in dance? “There are no easy shortcuts. Years of focused, disciplined hard work under the guidance of a guru, is itself a reward enough for a lifetime. Reaping the benefits as a performer afterwards is only the icing on the cake,” offers Sumitra Nitin, a senior artiste with a performing career spanning three decades in bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Sumitra recently premiered her work, Paalaya Jataadhara, for which she composed music, sang and performed nattuvangam, and worked the choreography as well. “Since both are so intertwined, it is a rewarding experience for me to perform and teach both these art forms,” says a beaming Sumitra. Ultimately, it is the artistes who make us realise what a great blessing it is to live in a country where the classical arts enjoy wonderful patronage, and allow us to witness art with great depth and dignity. Thanks to these young stars of the dance form, we can contend — a life without art is no life at all!