Arts

Mudra Magic: The Global Charm of Indian Classical Dance Forms

From Bharatanatyam to Kathak and Mohiniattam, classical Indian dance forms remain a way for Indian community abroad to stay connected to their roots.
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A decade back, members of the small Indian community in Dunedin, New Zealand, would not have been able to sound remotely knowledgeable about Indian classical dance forms. The residents of the South Island’s southeast coast are now well-versed with the intricacies of classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam.

Dunedin is just one place where Indian classical dance is making deeper inroads into the lives of the Indian community settled on foreign shores, helping them stay connected to their culture and roots.

Swaroopa Unni, who set up the Natyaloka School of Indian Dance at Dunedin in 2011, started out with only two students in the spare room of her rented apartment. Today, she runs a dance studio with over 30 students. The dance school has contributed significantly in popularizing Indian dance forms in the region.

“When I moved to Dunedin in 2010, the Indian community was hardly visible because the numbers were low and there were not many people who knew what Indian dance forms were,” says Unni. “Bollywood was very popular then and most of the community was not aware about the diverse dance forms of India.” She took one step at a time and chose Bharatanatyam as it had a global appeal. The fact that she received intense training in Bharatanatyam during childhood, of course, helped.

Whether it was volunteer performances and workshops or using Bollywood as a bridge to cross over to the community, Unni tried everything to popularize classical dance. Eventually, the community did get curious, and the first pupils trooped in.

Increasing Following

Dance for many of them is not just an art form; it is one of the ways to help them stay connected to their roots. Besides Bharatnatyam, other Indian classical dances such as Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam and Odissi are also becoming popular abroad. Indian dance forms today have crossed boundaries and left an inedible mark on countries like New Zealand, Australia, Germany, United States and South Korea. So much so that they have become a significant part of celebrations organized by various Indian associations in the country.

Yamini Aluru and Raka Gupta of Yuva Bharathi, a non-profit organization based in Bay Area/Silicon Valley, California, say that the number of immigrants has risen, causing a surge in the demand for classical dances.

The duo also points out that Kathak has attracted a large number of foreign audiences as it is more interactive than other classical dance forms. However, it’s Bharatanatyam that has carved out a special place in the hearts of Americans of Indian origin, since most families from the Southern parts of India would like their children to learn the dance form or get trained in Carnatic music.

The popularity that classical dance forms have garnered in the Bay Area is evident from the rising number of performances conducted by Yuva Bharati since its inception in 2006. In a period spanning a decade, the organization has held 62 Indian classical dance concerts, and provided an opportunity to 35 professional dancers.

Adopting New Styles

The demand for classical dances is only growing, and it would not be possible if dancers were not open to tweaking the rigid structures of classical dance forms. It was important for them to introduce contemporary elements in order to keep up with the changing times, as the current generation is exposed to a number of dance styles such as contemporary, ballet, jazz, hip-hop and ballroom.

“Adapting classical themes and art forms to modern times and presenting stories that are more relatable in current times has, to an extent, helped prevent the decline of traditional dance forms,” say Aluru and Gupta. “Many Americans of Indian origin are etching out a separate path due to the rigidity of our forms and are incorporating Bollywood and some mainstream dance forms.”

There has been a shift from classical forms in India, too, feels Seema Nagendra of Bharathanatyanjali School of Dance located at Lyndhurst in Victoria, Australia. “Like everything else, the art form needs to adapt and evolve to keep up with the ever-changing world. I have noticed that it has already started to change both in India and elsewhere,” says Nagendra, who teaches Bharatanatyam to 70 students.

A performance by students of Bharathanatyanjali School of Dance at Lyndhurst in Victoria, Australia

Interestingly, it’s not just the Indian diaspora who are popularizing Indian dance forms abroad. Many foreigners who have learned Indian classical dance forms in the country have gone back to their homeland to spread their knowledge and love for the art. A number of dance schools are run by foreigners in Germany, France, Poland, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia that specialize in Indian classical dance forms. Through workshops, seminars and recitals, these dance aficionados are doing their bit to shed light on Indian culture. The Indian film industry also has a huge role to play in popularizing the classical dance forms abroad.

Challenges Remain

Despite the popularity of Indian classical dance forms, finding a good teacher usually remains a challenge. Sreeja Ramesh, a housewife based in Dubai, UAE, says that her 8-year-old daughter, Avni, had to discontinue her Bharatnatyam training when her teacher relocated.

Also, dance training is an expensive vocation in the Middle East, says Ramesh. “I wanted my daughter to train under one teacher, but even in the dance schools here it’s difficult to find a dedicated teacher who would be willing to stay for years and train children. On the other hand, teachers who are willing to come home and teach demand exorbitant fees,” she says.

Quality of training is another factor that needs to be considered, says Chandu Arjun, an accountant based at Umm Al Quwain in the UAE. “After being a Kalaprathibha in UAE, I got an opportunity to perform with a Kalaprathibha and Kalathilakam from Kerala. I have to admit there was a distinct difference in their techniques, as their performance was a bit more refined,” says Arjun.

The journey of classical dance forms is not without hurdles, but most followers feel there is a bright future ahead for them in the global arena. “Most immigrant parents feel if they put their kids in a dance or a music school, it will help them stay connected to their culture and roots,” say Aluru and Gupta. “Artists have adapted to modern times and have incorporated modern themes to keep the interest going.”

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