Bharatnatyam, me and India

By ASHNI “Flowers open in the hands of the dancer, and birds fly off from the tips of fingers, each muscle of the face is transformed, the eyes move in
22 Apr 2012 10:52

Ashni (second from left) doing the 6th tai ya tai hi.


“Flowers open in the hands of the dancer, and birds fly off from the tips of fingers, each muscle of the face is transformed, the eyes move in blandishments of scorn, and the eyebrows express horror or suspicion, even as the whole face expresses different and often contrary feelings in the same breath such as dance drama, performed according to the most delicate nuances of a musical piece, or a poem, through the vehicle of one body, is surely unmatched in any art.”

A person indeed feels and looks different when they dance especially if it’s a dance form like Bharatnatyam where you have a kind of direct connection with the devdasis, where you have really understood them to express a certain mood or to draw out a certain posture.
I got this opportunity in 2001 when my parents enrolled me in the TISI Sangam Indian Cultural Centre.
At first I was a nervous wreck performing the dance routines but once I started learning, I really got into the swing of it.
I found that dancing gave me a sense of peace and it was also thrilling. It was wonderful to perform as a teenager and see how the audience really enjoyed the performance.
It was even better learning that there was so much in it. The mythology was fascinating and I was inspired that I could tell stories from the great epics using mudras and abhinaya.
Soon it was 2009 when I had to decide my career and I was very confused on what to do after my completing Form Seven.
Then my dance teacher, Chandrani Pillay, advised me to apply for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) scholarship.
It was extraordinary to hear this because I never thought I would come to India. Learning the Bharatnatyam dance was a great pleasure for me.
I never thought it would turn into a career but it did. The doors to the magic world of India started opening and I went along.
I still remember the day when Kamal Mishra told me over the telephone that I was the first candidate from Fiji to be selected for the ICCR scholarship.
I was filled with excitement and felt that I was on top of the world.
Without thinking much I took the risk and left my parents and friends behind; I was on a mission to learn this beautiful dance art.
Arriving in India, things were a little different in the sense that the weather, the environment and the food was a contrast to back home.
Here I came to ShriramBharatya Kala Kendra; one of the finest institute in fine arts.
I got myself enrolled and decided to stay in the hostel. The environment was wonderful here. The Kendra is situated almost five minutes away from the India gate and the parliament.
In the hostel, the men and women who come from very different backgrounds come to study the dance and music.
My first class in India was on July 9, 2010 when I met my guru Justin McCarthy; an American and who has been an ICCR scholar. He’s been in India for the past 20 years and was a big encouragement for me.
In India I faced many challenges and it was interesting for me to see and learn Bharatnatyam in depth.
Bharatnatyam in India is treated so differently back home. Here you get to see the live musicians and the performer performing on stage together, which in itself, comes out so beautifully and naturally; keeping in mind the day and night practice.
Bharatnatyam without knowledge of the basic Adavus and co-ordination with the mudras would not give flavours and nuance to the performer. So my classes here were even tiring and painful but as the classes continued I began to enjoy my stay in India.
I would sit for hours and think about why this is different here. Or why is it done this way.
Then I started watching more performances and tried to interact closely with my guru and I think it did wonders.
Learning hand gestures and memorising was easy but knowing the actual meaning and how to express or use it in choreography was a little difficult, yet enjoyable.
Learning such a pure dance form in such a devoted and magical country is wonderful, only if you go down and understand things from its roots.
Each day in India brings new experiences and teachings. It is like a new flower bud opening up to brighten the day.
As our guru says: “Bharatnatyam cannot be done just like that you have to stretch each part of your body muscles from your toes to the tips of your finger, then only you can show or express the beauty of any art.”
A major difference that one can notice is that in India we are told to wear a half sari (mostly used for Bharatnatyam practice) with a salwaar and a blouse.
Our dance guru uses the natwanggam while a man plays the mridaggam – a dholk type of instrument used in Bharatnatyam.
The mridaggam man plays whatever we are doing. The reason behind all this is to let the student use to the taal and rhythm, which as a performer, is very important.
Learning to dance in India has made me understand many things such as stretching and warming up your body before you do the adavus or the dance steps.
One has to really feel each body muscle and where a current exercise will help and how.
Like at the beginning of the class we do pranayam. This is one of the basics of yoga, but doing this relaxes the entire body and you feel fresh.
We also do eye exercises to stretch the inner muscles. Each pose has a name whether it’s our hands, feet, palms, eyes or our mood.
One really has to understand his or her body to standout and progress in such an art form.
You cannot be tense and dance; you have to be fresh and free to understand what you are doing.
Back in Fiji we just start our dance routines as soon as we learn three or four adavus because we keep on performing in temples or at special functions.
In India, one does not perform unless they are well versed with the movements and the theoretical part of the art form.
Even if you learn the dance, you first learn in the own set taals like trishram, allaripu where every movement will be in three beats (of ta kitah).
After the students are well versed with the movements then the dance guru makes them practice with the normal words where the guru sings and the student practices in the class.
This is not the end after the student is ready to perform according to the guru.
A time is taken out for the Arangetram where the Aranga means raised stage and Etram means climbing in Tamil.
Ideally this should be the first public appearance of the Bharatnatyam artist.
This is the occasion for the guru to present his/her disciple to the public. This is the testing time for both the guru and the shishya (disciple) as the guru’s knowledge and the disciple’s talent both are judged by the public.
Hence, the guru will decide when the disciple is ready for public graduation. Usually, at least 10-12 years of training is necessary before a Bharatnatyam dancer is ready for Arangetram.
There is no limit to learning and talking about this art form. At the moment I know little but enough to spread the word and attract people to the “magic” of Bharatnatyam.
I’m very fortunate to study this dance form. Apart from all this many other things are so pleasant and sweet here in India.
The food is so tasty and there is a variety. The historical places in India are beautiful and there are so many deep stories behind them.
India is truly incredible. I am fortunate to get the ICCR scholarship and I hope I will live up to the expectations.
India is giving me one of the best memories of my life and I will treasure it always and forever with the enriching traditions and culture.
Thanking the ‘Incredible India’.


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