A painfully honest self-appraisal on what it was like to learn the age-old art form of Bharatanatyam in a diaspora, fall through the cracks, and pick oneself up bruised but more battle-ready than ever.
Grovelling in the dark
With my body erect, chest puffed up but not in pride, and fingers configured purposefully into codified gestures to depict a bow and an arrow, I cautiously assumed the pose of the regal Lord Rama, the heroic protagonist of the ancient Indian epic— the Ramayana. Intense concentration to keep count of the beat translated itself into a look of worry on my face. With furrowed brows, my countenance betrayed the faux confidence displayed in my standing posture.
‘Walk in talam,’ my dance teacher had gently commanded after pressing the play button on the stereo system. Mellifluous sounds of the flute filled the entire dance studio but I felt small standing in the corner waiting to make my entrance as the distraught but restrained Lord Rama, who had lost his wife Sita, to the demon-king Ravana in the keerthanam ‘Nee Uraipai Hanumane’.
This was one of the items that I was rehearsing as part of a repertoire, which was to be presented as a solo thematic dance recital. In the parlance of Bharatanatyam, an arangetram marks an important milestone in the dancer’s pursuit of this art form as she ascends the stage as a debutante and signals to the dance fraternity that she is committed to honing her craft, and growing with it. Traditionally, one would perform her arangetram after years of seriously studying various elements such as stylised hand gestures, neck and head movements, rhythmic cycles and the permutations its combinations allowed for in the form of tricky, intricate jathis and much more. What Bharatanatyam offered was encyclopaedic in content; it still remains to be an expansive and intriguing world of strictures, ambiguities, and therefore a myriad of possibilities too. Traditionally, a dancer should have also completed learning an entire margam in the format set out by the Tanjore quartet, who were authorities on the art form and established this format in the 18th century. However, my dance journey was anything but conventional, much less traditional. Traditional, to say the least, is a problematic word, and altogether a different ballgame, which I am sure, holds court in the learned discussions of researchers and scholars, but not me for I was a dilettante-dancer in the dark.
Discovering the language of dance
My late dance guru, Smt. Neila Sathyalingam had given me some autonomy in deciding what I would like to explore thematically for my arangetram. It was not a debut performance in the strictest sense for me as I had just about amassed 11 years of experience performing intensively and extensively under the Apsaras Arts banner masquerading as a company dancer with no real credentials by then. Of course, I had not seen myself that way until fairly recently when the realisation of not having learnt nor understood sufficient theory on rhythmic patterns hit me like a brick while I was preparing for my solo dance performance. However, ironically enough, I have to admit that it was during this process of preparing and training for ‘Mrigadaya’ that I began to understand the hastas and appreciate abhinaya in a manner that I was not able to before. I felt as if some divine force above was shining light on my learning and gently guiding me to experience intimately from within what an enchanting and effective language Bharatanatyam was. In spite of my own limitations perceived and otherwise, I had always striven to give the best of myself in every single performance. Every role in a production was something I took seriously and I tried my best to dig deep from within to give more in terms of tangible technical precision and emote from a place of unsettling unfamiliarity. I had always been rather inhibited as a person but Bharatanatyam constantly and relentlessly challenged me to open myself up to the world of unbridled and yet measured emotions. Nevertheless, the roles in the productions became somewhat perfunctory in nature for me as I had not been offered, not even a bit of intellectual nor creative space to grow into a truly thinking performing artist.
Training for ‘Mrigadaya’ was a refreshing change. Maami entertained my idea of wanting to explore this theme, encouraged me to press on and persevere even though I suffered frequently from episodes of chronic arthritic pain, and most importantly, she saw me as a creative being and gave me room to choreograph sections within dance items to flex my artistic muscle. This did not mean that the entire journey was a smooth sailing endeavour. My weaknesses as a dancer were highlighted and amplified under the well-meaning scrutiny of my dance guru, Maami and my dancer teacher-friend, Priyan, whom I affectionately called my ‘thambi–master’. My own insecurities too became more pronounced and wreaked havoc in my mind. It was during this process, that I realised that I was operating on the premise that I was disadvantaged as a dancer on many levels without concrete theoretical understanding of components such as bhavam, ragam, and talam. To be honest, I was overwhelmed having to suddenly confront and come to terms with all the gaps in my learning of the art form thus far. I recoiled and reeled in shock but resolutely chose to rise to the occasion. I was going to show up to every rehearsal by putting on a brave front, soldiering on because I knew that this show had to go on. Every dance step was a step closer towards a source of powerful light, which I knew contained many illuminating truths for me at a personal level. Every time I danced, I understood myself and my place in the world a little better, a little more authentically each time.
Riding out the bumps
I had just turned 19 when I joined Apsaras Arts and my dance experience up until then had only comprised of learning adavus, undergoing one theory and practical examination and performing one item for Navarathri. On hindsight, I have tried to reflect as objectively as I could on how bumpy a ride my journey in dance had been. I had lost 7 years only learning adavus at a particular dance school. I did learn a couple of wonderful things there though. For instance, we began the class by doing warm-up exercises, Surya Namaskar and other yogasanas for a good half an hour. Naturally, the intention to prepare our young bodies for the rigours of the art form was present. It cannot be denied that that it was a well-considered initiative but that did nothing for the fact that I remained largely invisible as a student for all those years. I was one of the handful of 10 year olds in a sea of 5 year olds, for whom the steps had to be repeated ever so frequently on a weekly basis. I lost interest as it became a weekly ritual for me to repeat what I had learnt the weeks before week in and week out. Boredom crept up on me quickly and I went missing for months only to return and learn the same old adavus without any real progress. Clearly, I did not feel challenged. I could not articulate this then so I was only able to rationalise why my positive learning attitude in the beginning had disintegrated into wilful rebellion in my late teens. However, I can appreciate this low point without which I would not have had the impetus to give myself one more chance to learn Bharatanatyam.
I had a taste of it again as a member of the Indian Dance Club in National Junior College. If not for our dance instructor Maalika Girish Panicker’s innovative choreography and encouragement, I would not have realised how much dance meant to me. I was even elected to be President of the club and I loved how my fellow dance peers were intelligent and hardworking young ladies and men, who motivated me offstage and on. The Singapore Youth Festival gave us the opportunity to be driven. We worked hard to receive the accolade of Gold with Honours in 2001. It was a big deal to us and the school.
A couple of years later, in my first year at the National University of Singapore, I joined Apsaras Arts of my own accord. It was one of my first adult decisions. It did not strike me back then that I was already more than a good ten years too late but I remained unfazed. More so than anything else, I was hungry to learn Bharatanatyam. The vigour of my age helped whet my voracious appetite to know more about this mysterious art form. Even the sphinx seemed less mysterious to me. My first introduction to Hindu mythology was through these dance lessons. Bharatanatyam paved the way for me to pick up nuggets of information about a cultural heritage that I had never really taken ownership of. I did not grow up on diet of Hindu mythology and Indian classical literature; this meant that stories from epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana were alien to me. My family hardly visited temples either. I was merely passing off as a Hindu with no real understanding of Vedic knowledge nor its practices. My parents may not have known the importance of a traditional arts education or how invaluable mentorships of a personal nature in this field were, but they were my cheerleaders, my pillars of support. Even if I had been dancing on shaky grounds all along, they were immovable columns of encouragement, who built me up time and time again.
Making peace with pieces of the past
I cannot surely say what avatars Apsaras Arts had assumed as an institution prior to my joining it but I had come in at the time when the swift tidal wave of change for it to transition and transform into a premier performing arts company was already set in motion. Maami, as my late dance guru was affectionately called, asked me to show her what I had previously learnt in my fragmented dance journey fraught with frustration. I showed her some adavus and perhaps, some raw talent was detected but more so than that, my dance teacher did sense a copious amount of enthusiasm and eagerness that was too palpable to ignore. Within a matter of months, I was thrust onto the stage for a performance and while rehearsing for it, I was fortunately singled out for an overseas dance trip within a year of my joining. As much as I remain thankful for all the chances I have had to perform over the years, the truth remains that I had learnt dance without a proper syllabus. For Maami, the real examination was about how well we were able to perform under pressure. I was and am by no means technically brilliant but I tried my best to ape with finesse. I am not here to debate if this was the right approach or not. Neither am I here to play victim but rather liberate myself from the shackles of my own thoughts and debilitating doubts.
Life would have it that I should stumble into the vast world of Bharatanatyam and be besotted with certain aspects of it and so, I must traverse this world to make sense of my place in it. Who is anybody to deny anybody an opportunity to take his or her place in this expansive ocean? I am here and I will carve myself a space as I take agency of my learning.
Lessons from Lord Hanuman and liberation
In ‘Nee Uraipai Hanumane’, Hanuman was preparing himself to embark on his mission to save Sita from Ashokavanam. I, too, am making myself ready to set off on my own journey to learn and understand Bharatanatyam better. Just as Hanuman was devoted to Lord Rama, I, too, am devoted to making it a part of my life and the lives of others. Although, I am not completely sure in what capacity I will be able to fulfil this mission, I do hold onto the belief that like Hanuman, I will find the strength from within and be guided by it.
When I reinitiated myself into this art form at the age of 19, I had already come from a household and a culture that was divorced from the socio-cultural and political context which Bharatanatyam had originated from. Today, I am a 33-year-old woman, who has her feet planted firmly on foreign soil. I am further away from the proverbial Motherland whose historical and intellectual fecundity gave birth to Bharatanatyam but I am more emotionally connected to her than I have ever been before. The only way forward is for this self-confessed dilettante to stamp her right foot with a thaiya, her left on a thai, and dance herself out of this darkness.
Note: The views expressed above are based solely on the personal experiences of the author. She speaks for herself and scribes to unearth her truths hoping to grow for the better in her own time and space.
Bharatanatyam: a well-known south Indian traditional dance form
talam: cyclic rhythms/recurring unit of rhythm
keerthanam: a form of musical composition
Nee Uraipai Hanumane: one of the many songs in Rama Natakam, a musical drama based on the Ramayana
arangetram: debut performance, first appearance on a public platform after completion of a prescribed course of study
jathis: a combination of steps set to different rhythmic patterns
margam: a formatted repertoire
Mrigadaya: A thematic performance centred on the role and symbolic significance of animals in Hinduism, art and culture performed by the author
hastas: hand gestures
abhinaya: the technique of communicating a message to the audience
thambi: younger brother in Tamil
bhavam: a state of mind
ragam: a melodic mode in Indian classical music
adavus: basic units of dance
Navarathri: a festival devoted to the worship of Goddesses in Hinduism
Surya Namaskar: A Sun Salutation, which acts as a warm up routine in Yoga
yogasanas: Yoga poses
Lord Hanuman: the monkey deity in Hinduism known for his loyalty to Lord Rama
Ashokavanam: a historical site in the Ramayana
thaiya thai: rhythmic syllables