Article by Karishma B. Desai
With Indian Classical dance losing its appeal amongst mainstream generations on a global scale; there has been a rather recent and revolutionary movement to revive the dance style in the most unexpected of places – US university campuses. College campuses all over the US are emerging with competitive classical Indian dance teams that typically focus on Bharatanatyam, yet fuse elements from all Classical Indian dance styles.
One such team that pioneered the first inter-collegiate Classical Indian dance competition in the US East Coast, named Laasya; with the help of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Natya, was Boston University Dheem in 2010. Since then, other annually-held competitions and showcases have formed as a way for college-based teams to meet and help preserve a fading tradition. Today, BU Dheem continues to attend competitions and even produces their own semi-annual dance concerts. At University of Maryland-College Park’s 2013 competition, BU Dheem placed 2nd for their piece portraying the story of the Narasimha avatar and Prahlad’s unassuming devotion.
Much like the spirit of Boston, the ladies of BU Dheem, are always up for a challenge and decided to take a completely different direction by portraying the Greek myth of “Pandora’s Box”; during their recent annual fall show titled “Mahila”. “Pandora’s Box” is the story that helps explain how the world’s troubles started from a damsel named Pandora who opened a box full of “evils”, disobeying commands given otherwise from Zeus (the Greek King of Gods).
While the risk factor itself was high to portray such a dark yet realistic theme, BU Dheem captain, Samantha Venkatesh, said this about the team’s unique storyline: “Our main goal in enacting this piece, in particular, was to bridge the gap between the East and the West by depicting the universality of emotions…the emotions associated with the story could still be understood and appreciated through Indian Classical dance.” More than just desiring to portray such an Abhinaya-intensive piece with a refreshing twist, Venkatesh elaborated that she wanted “Audience members to glean the moral of the story, an ubiquitous human sentiment – that even in the darkest of times, hope will always act as a beacon of light.”
However, while teams like BU Dheem are multiplying in areas outside of the East Coast and continue to adapt with contemporary themes; there is still a noticeable and detrimental difference between the appreciation for Classical Indian dance teams versus Fusion and Bollywood-based teams. While the team keeps close relationships with their Fusion Indian dance team counterparts on BU’s campus, they admit that it is harder, in turn, to receive the same sort of support from the general student body on campus. BU Dheem President, Aisha Rawji, reasoned “It (Indian Classical Dance) is really rare and has more meaning behind it. So it is harder for people to really understand what we’re doing.”
NRI’s have to be willing to embrace their authentic cultural roots and value India’s rich artistic history, apart from Bollywood movies and chai lattes. BU Dheem wants all of India’s various facets to be promoted whether it be Bollywood, Bhangra, or Bharatanatyam…but most importantly, wants to be that voice for Classical Indian dance, so NRI’s can know the true roots of our culture and create awareness amongst other communities.
The team is already adapting the art form to the 21st century by using more modern music, in addition to portraying more abstract themes, with hopes of making the traditional dance appeal to today’s topics of interest. When performing at BU’s India Club events, the team draws from more mainstream semi-classical Bollywood songs such that the music is recognizable and catchy, yet more representative of traditional music. Conversely, in an effort to standardize college competitions; guidelines favor routines that incorporate simplistic Carnatic and Hindustani songs – typically being instrumental or including minimal sollu kattu. Indian Classical dance teams not only face difficulties in being able to cater and choreograph for more modern campus audiences, but also in being able to find music to best suit the guidelines in traditionally-judged competitions. BU Dheem has learned to balance the two feats by searching for music through every possible resource, with the occasion in mind (e.g.: Gurus’ suggestions, Music Library, SoundCloud, Spotify, etc.), and also mixes it up by supporting young US-based Carnatic musical artists.
Being a fresh transplant from Raleigh, North Carolina, myself, joining the team was a way for me to not only meet other students studying in Boston, but it helped me connect with fellow passionate Bharatanatyam dancers. Even for the Boston locals on BU Dheem, dancing with the Classical Indian-based team is a way to also form that special bond from rigorous rehearsals to performing under the stage lights. Agreeing with my own sentiments, Emily Ghosh, a returning teammate; cited that she liked “being in a community of other Indian girls with the same interest and love of dance while educating the public about the beauty of Indian Classical Dance.” Fellow newcomer, Pooja Kalapurakkel added in by saying “Working on a team helps you to understand that people aren’t that different from each other–as dancers, we all want to perform well, and as Indian classical dancers, we want to become the characters that we’re playing.”
While Boston is renowned as a hub for the arts, especially that of the prestigious Boston Ballet; it seems like teams such as BU Dheem, are putting Boston on the map for Bharatanatyam as well. BU Dheem includes the following ladies: Aisha Rawji, Samantha Venkatesh, Emily Ghosh, Shruthi Rengarajan, Anashya Srinivasan, Karishma Desai, Pooja Kalapurakkel and Savi Racha; and hopes to continue generating interest, as well as increasing awareness regarding Bharatanatyam to people of all cultural backgrounds. Like the resonant sound of their dancing bells, these Bharatanatyam-dancing belles are not fading out anytime soon and hope to revive the Classical grace of the art-form, all while promoting contemporary-based issues and stories to audiences all over America.
If you have any questions or would like more information about BU Dheem and college Indian Classical dance competitions, you can contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org and browse through their Facebook Page.
Note: The author is a newly auditioned member of BU Dheem as well and is taking graduate classes in Scientific Journalism. She recently moved to Boston from Raleigh, NC where her family resides. Having learned Bharatanatyam formally for the past 16 years, she credits her mother and guru, Karnataka Kalashree Supriya Desai for the solid training she has today. Her mother is currently the Artistic Director of Payal Dance Academy; Cary, NC.
Photography Credit: Nirupama V.