Learning Bharathanatyam in and outside India – Varying Perspectives

Shilpa KrishnanShilpa Krishnan was born in New Delhi, but moved to Nairobi, Kenya at less than one year of age and spent her entire childhood there. Her mother is also her Guru – Natya Ratna Smt. Gita Umesh. Her father is in the finacial field and he was the reason they moved to Kenya. Her mother has been running a dance school in the Pandanalloor style of BhrataNatyam since 1978 called Nrtiyalaya. She moved to the USA in 1996 at the age of 19 and she is married, with 2 young daughters aged 4 and 6 and based in South Florida, USA.

Oxana Banshikova, grew up in Kazakhstan in the beautiful city of Almaty. Currently she resides and works in Hong Kong.

Here is an excerpt of the email interview with Oxana and Shilpa (that was exclusively given to me :)) :-

1. How did you start learning Bharathanatyam?

Oxana : Since I remember, I was always interested in dance and always knew it would be my career. At the same time “magic” India also captivated my mind with its traditions and culture, its bright colors, beautiful music and its mystique image. I had no idea that one day I would be able to join two passions together.

It was after my first trip to India, when I witnessed dance performance at Mahabalipuram; a beautiful dancer, live orchestra and ancient temple as a background, was an unforgettable experience for me!

When I came back to Amaty, I could not believe my luck of finding the opportunity to learn this beautiful art form in my own city.The first ever Bharatanatyam steps I started learning at the Indian Cultural center of Indian Embassy in Almaty under Akmaral Kainazarova (She is the graduate of Kalakshetra).

Just in a couple of months, I got an opportunity to apply for the 4 -year scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to learn Bharatantyam at Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts. Even at an early stage of my learning, I was so passionate about this art that I took a risk and left my country, parents and friends in order to learn this beautiful dance art.

Shilpa: Since my mother was also my guru, I really had no choice in the matter of whether or not I wanted to learn BharathaNatyam. My mother was very determined that I would and I am very thankful for her persistance, determination and patience in teaching me and guiding me. I was very reluctant at an early age but I got drawn in once I saw that my friends were also learning dance and they got to wear wonderful costumes and jewelry and perform on stage.

Once I started learning and really got into the swing of it, I found that dance gave me a sense of peace and also a thrill. It was wonderful to perform as a teenager and see how the rasikas really enjoyed the performance. It was even nicer learning that there was so much in it of itself. The mythology was fascinating and I was thrilled that one could tell stories from the great epics using mudras and abhinaya.

As I have mentioned, my foremost Guru is my mother. Once I reached a certain level of maturity, she felt it would help to take some classes from a well reknowned Guru in India. She thought this would give me a more well rounded feel for the art form. She could not have been more correct. We approached one of the maestros of BharathaNatyam Swamimalai Sri S K Rajarathnam Pillai. I spent a few months under his tutelage where he imparted a tremenduous amount of dance (one full margam) in order for me to perform my Arangetram. I must say, it was one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life so far. First of all, I learnt that BharathaNatyam is a method of implementing and showcasing one’s creativity; and each of us has a different way of doing that.

2. How different do you think it was to learn Bharthanatyam outside India?

Oxana: It is difficult for me to say, because I had the major part of my learning experience in India. I would say that Bharatanatyam is one of the best examples of Indian Culture and one should fully accept and experience Indian devotional aspect, its traditions and every day life to be able to understand the depth of this dance form. Devotion and traditions – these are what this dance is about.

So, a student learning Bharatnatyam outside India would get a lot of pressure trying to understand the devotional aspect and historical background of this art form. Non – Indian students usually have difficulty accepting and executing abhinaya, they are merely attracted by the technical beauty of Bharatantyam.

But at the end of the day it is a good way to introduce people to the new art form and the more student learns about the art the more he/she want to know about it and after student develops interest it all depends on a teacher.

Shilpa: I felt that the method of learning either in Kenya or India was pretty much the same. In Kenya we depended on pre-recorded tapes that were already in the stores to choreograph new items since live musicians were not available. In India, live music is the norm. However, learning dance in itself remained the same. You had to respect your Guru and follow his/her instruction with dedication and hard-work.

Peer-pressure was another game altogether. Growing up, it was totally NOT cool to be stuck in dance class and rehearsals while all my friends were out hanging out at the mall/cinema or any other location of choice. However, at the end of high school, when they saw me perform, they understood that I had something of value for the rest of my life. So I treasure that.

The environment outside of India is certainly different. I was raised by parents who spent thier lives in India and were new immigrants into Kenya. They held on tight to their rites, rituals and beleifs. So while most of India progressed and moved into more cool and new things, we stayed steeped in the cutlure and heritage our parents grew up in – they wanted to replicate thier experiences for us.

3.You advanced training or how did you pursue it further?

Oxana: There is no limit to learning this art form. At the moment I know little but enough to spread the word and attract people to the “magic” Bharatanatyam. I was very fortunate to spend almost 5 years studying this dance form at Kalakshetra and would spend 10 more years, but unfortunately life has its own way and I can only go back to India from time to time to get more knowledge and brush up things I learned before.

Shilpa: I came to the USA to attend college. There, I enrolled in a modern dance class – first to get a feel of the dance community and second to learn something new that I may be able to assimilate into my repetoire. I also started to collaborate with other artists local to the area. Last year, we put together a contemporary production titled “A Woman Speaks” for a non-profit organization called Sahara to raise funds for Asian Women in distress. I feel these are ways to integrate a classical and sometimes mis-interpreted dance form into something that everyone can relate to.

4. Do you teach currently?

Oxana: I do teach Bharatantyam at the moment and lucky to have very devoted and interested students. It is not an easy art form to learn, especially for non-Indians. My experience of learning is still very fresh in my mind and I am trying to be more encouraging and understanding. What I understood recently is that teaching is the best way of learning.

Here is a video of Oxana’s performance…

Shilpa: I do currently teach a small group of children (my daughers included) as well as some ladies. I teach because it gives me pleasure to impart the knowledge and share the wealth that is BharathaNatyam. It is an artform that can enrich lives and give joy.

5.Do you feel that any difference in the approach would improve comprehension and enhance learning outside India?

Oxana: There should be a different approach in teaching and presenting Bharatanatyam outside India. First of all, it is difficult to get people interested without giving a proper explanation and background of this dance form. So, presentation of full margam solo performance rarely gets full appreciation from the audience outside India. I think, there should be more dancers involved in dance productions or the new
innovations of the visual art may be used in order to make Indian Classical Dance more approachable.

Even after attracting people and getting students, it is difficult to keep their interest – teaching of one or two tattadavus per lesson will not gain the interest of a student. So, there is a big pressure on a teacher of Indian Classical Dance abroad of keeping it a pure and at the same time entertaining art form.

Shilpa: The most boring part of learning BharathaNatyam has got to be learning the basics. Its like learning the alphabet. Its wonderful to read, but if you don’t know your letters, what will you read? In the same token, without knowledge of the basic adavus and coordination with the mudras, how can you dance an entire repertoire? How will you understand the flavors and nuances? Children in the USA definitely ask more questions than we ever did of our Guru. I think it is important to be able to answer those questions. In my experience as a student, I felt that learning in Kenya or learning in India were very similar.The Guru was the source of knowledge and you had to respect him/her.

6. What does Bharathanatyam mean to you today?

Oxana: Bharatanatyam is a big part of my life, I made it happen and there is no escape. It is not only a matter of always practicing in order to stay in good physical shape, there is always the mental pressure of remembering hundred of dance routines and choreographing new songs in a short period of time but in the end it makes me happy.

Shilpa:BharataNatyam is my sanctuary, my passion, my prayer and my energy. I love being able to perform and see the joy in the audience be it 400 or 4 people. I love to teach and see the joy in my studetns eyes when they understand how it all comes together. BharataNatyam has enriched my life in a way that I cannot quantify and I wish every human on earth had something they treasured this much.

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7 responses to “Learning Bharathanatyam in and outside India – Varying Perspectives

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  2. I have seen Shilpa perform live and she’s awesome. Her expressions are great. She is a beautiful dancer. Her dance movements are very graceful. She is a master in her art form.

  3. Dear Sangeetha,
    My sincere thanks to Shilpa for sending the link to this interview. Your blog on Bharata Natyam not only approaches the essence of this art but also keeps the readers informed with what is going on around us in the field of Bharata Natyam. I am also a Bharata Natyam dancer and teacher living in the same area as Shilpa’s – South Florida, USA. Reading your blog is going not only going to be very informative, exciting but also educational. After all an artist needs all of these and much more to keep the ARTIST in him or her alive. You are doing a fantastic job!!! Kudos to you!!
    Regards,
    Aparna Matange

    Dear Aparna,
    It’s a pleasure to get to know you! I am happy you like this blog. This blog started off as a personal communication, of a log of what I read and learnt, to my friends. With so many more passionate souls pitching in it has grown since then.
    Keep in touch! Lets us know whats happening at your end…
    Best Wishes,
    Sangeetha

  4. Thank you for this blog.
    I’m happy to see Oxana again, we was neighbors in Chennai for some time…
    good memories…

    Nancy

    My Pleasure Nancy! I have let Oxana know.. Happy to play a part in your reunion! Looks like a pleasant offshoot of this blog:) Will visit your website pretty soon!
    Regards,
    Sangeetha

  5. Pingback: Welcome to Bharat Natyam Indian Classical Dance « Bharat Natyam·

  6. I am just going to join this type of Indian dance, and hope I will succes. It is really a wonderful dance, and I oay my respect for people who are involved in it here in Kazakhstan, and are making their contribution. I never heard about Oxana, but I am going to be a student of Akmaral Kainazarova. I do wish everybody to get to know more about this dance.

    Ainur

    Dear Ainur,
    Welcome to the world of Bharathanatyam..
    Best Wishes,
    Sangeetha

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