Here is the unabridged text of Soumya Tilak’s interview with Navia Natarajan Menon . An edited version of the interview was published at Carnatic Darbar
In this day and age, when a lot of students of dance are lost to the IT industry or some other demanding careers, there are a handful of them who realize what they’re truly meant to pursue, and take the brave step toward it.
Navia Natarajan is one such student, who realized her real calling, literally while performing laboratory experiments as a research assistant. In her own words, “I would sit in front of an experiment and start to think of an item.” This isn’t surprising coming from someone who was attracted to the divine art form of Bharatnatyam at the age of 3 and was on stage at 4, although her formal training began while she was 7, under the tutelage of Smt. Radhika Kalyani, in Chennai. In just 3 years, she was on the dais, performing her maiden solo dance performance – “Arangetram”. The year after that, she was awarded the CCRT (Center for Cultural Resources and Training) scholarship in recognition of her talent. Later on, she trained under Smt. Padmini Ramachandran, in Bangalore, while pursuing her Master’s degree in Microbiology at the same time.
After her move to the United States, her bond with Bharatnatyam only grew stronger. She started the Navia Dance Academy to instill this pristine art form into other young students and bring out the wonderful dancers within them. She has given numerous performances in India, United States, United Kingdom, as well as the Middle East. She visits India every year to continue her advance training under Guru A. Lakshmanan and Bragha G. Bessell, as well as give performances.
The Department of Culture, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India awarded her a scholarship in the field of Bharatnatyam in 1998. Following that, she won the top prize in Bharatnatyam at the Yuva Sangeet Nritya Mahotsava conducted by South Central Zone Cultural Center in Belgaum, Karnataka. In recognition of her talent and efforts to elevate the cultural standard, she was awarded the Kalakusuma Award by the Aryabhata Cultural Organization, Bangalore, in 2000. In 2002, she won the competition held by Tamil Nadu Eyal Esai Nadagamandram, Government of Tamil Nadu, which gave her the opportunity to perform at several prestigious dance festivals in Tamil Nadu. She was upgraded to a top-grade auditioned artist in the “A+” category at Prasar Bharathi, Doordarshan, New Delhi in 2004. She is an empaneled artist of ICCR (India Council for Cultural Relations), New Delhi, since 2007.
Read along to know what Navia has to say in our tête-à-tête.
BN and WWW: When, where and how did your dance lessons begin?
Navia Natarajan: I was formally initiated into dancing at the age of 7 under the guidance of Smt Radhika Kalyani in Chennai. But it was at the age of 3 in Cochin, when I apparently saw our family friends taking dance lessons. I believe I was so mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it, that I asked my mother if I could also take classes. This is what my mother told me. That’s how I embarked on this journey. I was 4 when I first took to the stage for a folk number. We then moved to Chennai when I was four.
BN: Nowadays the dance field is losing a lot of students to the IT Industry or some other demanding career. You hold a Masters degree in Microbiology and have also worked as a Research Associate for a Scientific Research Foundation in Bangalore. How did dance fit into your schedule amidst all that? What would you tell students of dance who want to pursue or are pursuing a professional degree as well?
NN: Frankly speaking I have never analyzed all that. The reason being ever since I was a school going student, I was also a student of dance. Dance classes and classes at school went parallel to each other. This was possible only because my parents backed me and supported me thro and thro. There was no room for excuses for not having fared well in studies or dance. All of it was meant to be a part and parcel of my life. I doubt if during my early school days I was even aware of the intrinsic meaning of the word “dedication” or for that matter “passion”. I probably went about it like a normal chore. After I performed my arengetram in Chennai. My father got transferred to Hosur.
Hosur is approximately an hour away from Bangalore. He and my mother used to drive me to Bangalore every weekend for my dance classes with Guru Smt Padmini Ramachandran. We then moved to Bangalore.
During my high school days, ones the day ends I would rush to the dance class looking forward to doing the adavus or learning an item. While in college I would do the same except that at times I would be exhausted after all the experiments that had to be conducted. Even while at work the routine was the same, but the approach started to change. I was beginning to feel a tug at my heart. An emotional bonding that was surfacing towards my conscious level.
But even then, I used to only treat it as a hobby. It was during my days as a research assistant that I felt a deep urge to take dancing seriously. I would sit in front of an experiment and start to think of an item. That was an eye opener. That is when I decide to take dancing seriously.
So all that I would like to tell students of dance who want to pursue a professional degree is that, try to handle both and do justice to both. Never confine yourself, never limit yourself with self-inflicted “it is tough” thoughts.
I was able to juggle all this solely because of the constant encouragement and support of my father Mr. M. Natarajan and my mother Varada. They served and still serve as an impetus to fuel my passion and goals. After marriage, I also have my husband Rupesh who is a pillar of support, though he [is] still in the process of understanding the significance of dance in my life.
It may seem absolutely impossible, but it has possibilities as Nelson Mandela rightly put it “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” There will be a point when, they will be able to decide with conviction if they want to take up dance as their career or some other field.
BN: You have worked with dancers from different styles. Your initial training was in Vazhuvoor Bhani, you have collaborated with Madurai Sri. R. Muralidharan, you have worked with Malathi Iyengar and you continue advanced training with A Lakshmanan, who runs the Nrithyalakshana School in Chennai and Bragha G Bessell. Tell us about your working experiences.
NN: It is interesting, when one collaborates with artist of exceptional caliber. One gets to understand another artists working method, how their experiences mould their expression and vision, the kind of hard work they put in to produce and launch their productions. It has been a very enriching experience and I feel deeply honored to have worked them.
My advance training with Lakshman sir and Bragha akka has been extremely gratifying. While with Lakshman sir I am learning how to understand the body, the precision of body lines, how an amalgamation of grace and energy can enhance a performance, with bragha akka I am learning ways of interpreting a line, a passage, the kind of episodes that can be used to articulate, how even a slightest movement of the hand or a small twitch of a facial muscle can change the color and context of the item.
I derive a lot of inspiration from them, their attention to details and above all their total commitment and dedication to the art forms.
BN: Was it difficult for you to move to US as a dancer?
NN: Interestingly, it was actually after reaching this land that my personality underwent a progressive change. My dormant senses were aroused. Things that would have never crossed my mind earlier where all making their presence felt.
As initially I was unable to work here, I would spend a lot of hours contemplating. In India my life was fraught with activities I never had the time nor the inclination to spend some quality moments with myself. It was here that I actually became sensitive to my own personality, my needs and interests. So I would say that, it is this land, which, has actually been instrumental in the process of metamorphoses.
But having said that I do go to India every year to learn and to perform. I do miss India, its vibrant, energetic life. I often look forward to going to India, absorbing and basking in its rich cultural tapestry. Rushing for programmes amidst rehearsals, trying to understand another artists approach to art, themes, and interpretation without any bias. I savor the whole process of rejuvenating ones senses in India.
BN: You currently teach in US. Do you find a need for a different teaching strategy or adaptation of the teaching methods used to train students in Bharathnatyam students in India, while teaching at US? How about the difference in teaching Indian students vs. NRI students in US vs. Foreign National students, especially because the latter are not that aware of our traditions?
NN: To be candid, I began teaching only couple of years back. I was in Denver initially and with in a couple of years I moved to California. So basically I have been dealing with students who have just been initiated into Bharathanatyam. They all are still learning the steps /adavus. So right now I am not employing any strategy. But yes I have heard other teachers expressing difficulty while trying to teach them interpretive dancing. I am yet to face it. Will cross the bridge when it comes.
BN: You have performed both in India and abroad. Generally, the conception is that in India, the audience is a bit more familiar or informed or knowledgeable about Bharathnatyam, than in other parts of the world i.e. a foreign audience. Do you think it is so? If yes, can you share with us how you experienced that difference?
NN: Yes, performing in other parts of the world is quite different. That is because our Indian classical dance forms are steeped in philosophy and mythology. We as Indians are able to relate to it, as all this has been a part of our growing up in India. It is a way of life for us. We take pride in being a part of its rich heritage.
While performing nayika oriented piece say a varnam, in India we can go ahead and perform it without a lot of hassles as to whether the audience understand it or not. But in other countries, I have experienced that one needs to explain the emotional plight that the woman is in, what thoughts or desires she is journeying thro, and how the plethora of gods such as Shiva, Rama or Krishna are just protagonists in the piece. Emotions be it love, hate, anger, humor are all universal, so when an artist presents these pieces to a foreign audience we just need to package them in away that they will be able to relate. For example I recently did a piece “indendhu vachitivira”, where in a kandhitha nayika rebuffs Lord Venkatesha for being unfaithful to her. Here the audience did not know about the lord but were able to see the turmoil in the nayika.
If we take our mythological stories, there are Protagonist who are not ideal characters to emulate, some characters have shades of grey in them, some are perfect to revere and theses shades of characters can be found in all and sundry irrespective of the age/ era their hail from.
Foreign audiences do appreciate neat lines, the geometry in the execution of our steps and our grand eloquent movements. So I personally believe our art forms have various layers of meanings and contents. It is how we use those layers skillfully to present it to foreign audience. Presenting our items to them also help us to sit back and reflect on our work.
Well with the limited exposure that I have had, this is what I have felt and perceived, but then again probably I would be able understand it more as and when the journey unfolds.
Therefore a lot of dilemmas and perplexities [exist] but then I guess that is the whole beauty of being an artist, coastally evolving.
To learn more about this promising dancer and her upcoming performances, visit www.navianatarajan.com