‘Art is an imitation of life, and life is an imitation of art’.
I never fully understood this until I began travelling within India and internationally while also collecting stories. These are the stories that I share in turn, through my performances as, what I call myself, a dancer-storyteller.
Equipped with a graduate and post-graduate degree in Bharatanatyam in India, my international travels began in 2014 for an MA in Dance Knowledge, Practice, and Heritage, an Erasmus Mundus Masters programme for which I was the first Indian to receive a scholarship and I travelled to Norway, France, Hungary, and United Kingdom while interacting and getting a taste of various cultures and societies. It is during this time that I began questioning the global relevance of Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance that I have been learning for the past 23 years under the tutelage of some of India’s most revered teachers and Gurus – are only Indians or South Indians supposed to enjoy it? Does the audience have to know the stories being enacted, or appreciate Carnatic music to enjoy the performance? Does an international audience appreciate it only because of its ‘exotic’ nature – the silk costumes, beautiful jewellery, elaborate eye make-up, or the attami (side-to-side gliding movements of the neck)?
As these questions arose in my mind, I began finding answers based on my experiences and understanding. For me, Bharatanatyam is a mode of telling stories – stories that are impactful, stories that have morals, stories give voice to things and people that do not or cannot often speak, stories that give life to ways of living, culture, philosophies, and emotions. These stories are ways of knowing the world. This understanding has helped me conceptualise performances that are both traditional and not-so-traditional in terms of presentation. By traditional, I mean the use of Indian classical music, Indian based stories, and the very obvious Bharatanatyam costume. I am a strong believer in this traditional system, but I am also excited about the not-so-traditional presentation where I fuse different forms of expression into the performance – music, dance, theatre, mime, narration, as well as work with different techniques of production and choreography, and create collaborative works with artists of different performance genres, be it music, dance, theatre, circus, or puppetry. I feel this has helped increase the accessibility of Bharatanatyam to a larger audience.
Art (used here to indicate the creative process and presentation) is empowering in more ways than one. It lets you live better in this world, but also lets you live in a parallel universe full of beauty and ethereal experiences. What use is art if it is not shared? It is for this reason that I enjoy the process of transmission, be it in the form of dance-classes, lecture-demonstrations, or workshops. It is indeed an extremely satisfying feeling to see students grow and become beautiful dancers, but even more exhilarating to know that they are not just dancers, but thinking dancers, questioning, contemplating, and assimilating all aspects of the dance. In this digital age, I believe it is essential to be abreast with technology, and fuse it in the best possible way with various aspects of performance and its transmission, and it is with this intention that I began teaching Bharatanatyam via videoconferencing over the internet to students across two continents for the past five years, and have been quite satisfied and successful.
Through my website and blog I wish to share my stories, experiences, thoughts as a student, performer, educator, facilitator, cultural anthropologist, and most importantly a very curious mind! Bouquets and brickbats always welcome!