Twice a month, Rijutha Garimella, 9, and Sumidha Katti, 10, take part in a 2,000-year-old Indian tradition. They’re learning the art of Bharatanatyam, an ancient style of dance deeply rooted in Hindu spirituality.
The most orthodox definitions of Bharatanatyam say it’s a means of achieving spiritual catharsis. But the students come for a variety of reasons: to learn about Indian heritage, to make friends and, of course, to dance.
During a recent lesson held in a private home, Rijutha and Sumidha, dressed in T-shirts and sweatpants, rehearsed for a group dance to be performed April 9 to celebrate the Hindu festival of Ugadi. The performance requires the girls to hold positions and form facial expressions evocative of classical Indian sculpture.
Both agree the dance is a difficult one to learn.
“There are a lot of fast beats,” Rijutha says. “It takes a long time to get coordinated.”
The girls are beginning to discover the degree of devotion needed to master Bharatanatyam. Their instructor, Asha Prem, says she understands that commitment well.
“It has been with me for as long as I can remember,” she says. “It has always been my love to dance.”
Prem started dancing when she was very young but did not begin to perform professionally until she moved to the United States from India. She travels around the state and the country, performing in schools, universities and onstage. For almost 30 years, Prem has taught Bharatanatyam, along with some other forms of classical Indian dance, at her St. Louis studio, Dances of India.
When Prem first came to Missouri, classical Indian dance was almost unknown in the state. Even some Indians who attended her classes initially expected to learn the Bollywood-style dancing that is prevalent in Indian pop culture.
“Many people thought it was belly dancing,” she says. “It has been an uphill battle to make people understand what classical Indian dancing is.”
Traditional Bharatanatyam performances involve dances of purely rhythmic and abstract movement, as well as those in which stories and emotions are conveyed by facial expressions, pantomime and symbolic gestures. Prem and some of her students say the rich expressive language of Bharatanatyam is even more difficult to learn than the often complicated and athletic footwork.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to master is to think of it as more of a story than a dance,” Pranita Katwa says.
Rajni Chandrasekhar, 18, says skill in the expressive aspects classical Indian dance comes with maturity.
“Doing expressions involves being comfortable with yourself,” Rajni says. “It was hard for us to get over. When you’re younger, you feel silly.”
Rajni and her sister Indu say that while the rhythmic sections of a performance provide the most immediate gratification to dancer and audience, the heart of Bharatanatyam is bringing Hindu mythology to life.
The art of “natya,” or dance, is fundamental to the foundations of Hindu religion and philosophy. The Hindu god Shiva is often portrayed in the nataraja form, performing a supreme dance that represents all cosmic activity. Shiva’s
familiar pose is often reflected in modern Bharatanatyam.
Classical Indian dance was initially performed by “devadasis,” a class of musicians and dancers who created art in the service of god. Many temples built in southern India between the 10th and 17th centuries display sculptures of classical dancers.
By the 19th century, however, the decline of traditional Hindu dynasties and the Victorian British mores that accompanied colonialism sullied the reputation of classical Indian dance. Devadasis were regarded as courtesans, and dance was no longer considered a respectable activity for young Indian women.
The campaign for Indian independence inspired a resurgence of interest in traditional Indian arts, and classical dance made a comeback in the 20th century. Bharatanatyam in particular was championed by luminaries such as Rukmini Devi Arundale and T. Balasaraswati.
Arundale, who had met and was influenced by the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, caused a scandal with her decision take up Bharatanatyam in the early 1930s. She crusaded, successfully, to revive spiritual and intellectual interest in the dance form.
Balasaraswati made her debut public performance in 1925 at the age of 7 and is considered one of the greatest dancers of 20th century. Unlike Arundale, she was not a deliberate reformer, but her devotion to and skill in Bharatanatyam did much to make the public aware of the depth and beauty of the dance.
For nine years, Prem has been making the bimonthly trip to Columbia to teach private lessons in a sunny room at the house of Meera and Chandra Chandrasekhar. Meera Chandrasekhar met Prem in 1993 when Prem was a guest instructor at Stephens College.
Meera says she and her husband, who are natives of southern India, feel a particular connection to classical Indian music and dance. Although typically language is what connects first-generation immigrants to the cultures of their native countries, this is not always the case for Indians, who are often brought up speaking English and who raise their children as English speakers.
Chandra says he thinks classical music and dance are important fundamental expressions of the culture for Indian children raised in the United States.
Bharatanatyam classes teach students about Indian language, mythology, religion, music and moral values, Meera says. They’re also a form of aerobic exercise and a way for people to meet each other.
“It’s really a nicely integrated form,” she says.
Many of Prem’s older students say learning Bharatanatyam has brought them closer to their Indian heritage. Sucheta Thekkedam’s father is Indian, but she has lived primarily with her mother, who is Caucasian. She began taking Bharatanatyam classes at the age of 7.
“I did feel like dancing was a way I was in touch with my Indian culture,” Thekkedam says.
Katwa, who has taken classes with Prem since 1996, says the lessons helped bridge the cultural gap between her and her parents.
“I love dance,” she says. “I see it more as a release to whatever else is going on in my life.”
Both Thekkedam, 21, and Katwa, 20, spend much of their time with Prem preparing for their “arangetram,” a sort of graduation performance. It is the first time a dancer is formally presented to an audience, and it demonstrates that she has mastered a new level in the art. The ceremony follows a strict format and requires at least a year of preparation. Thekkedam’s arangetram will be on July 30, and Katwa is planning on holding hers in 2006.
The arangetram traditionally signifies a dancer’s passage from amateur to professional and the completion of her training, but that is generally not the case for students in Prem’s classes. Indu and Rajni Chandrasekhar had their arangetram in August 2002, and though they do not plan on becoming professional dancers, they continue to take classes and still enjoy performing.
“It’s a really important part of your life, and it stays that way,” Rajni says.
Some of Prem’s students enjoy performing for audiences who are unfamiliar with Indian culture and with Bharatanatyam. One of Indu and Rajni’s most memorable experiences involved dancing for a troop of Girl Scouts. In Thekkedam’s experience, first-time viewers are often awed by how strikingly different the dance is from anything they’ve seen before. Students also enjoy presenting their Bharatanatyam skills to their friends, many of whom are not Indian.
“The really nice part is sharing it with your peers,” Indu says. “It just kind of means more when people your age are impressed by it.”