Panni Somi is a big name in Budapest, Hungary and a busy professional, running her own academy/dance school. She feels that Hungary is a dancing nation (and she is quite serious when she says this). She feels dance is in the blood of every Hungarian.
However she feels internally so deeply connected to Indian culture that she likes to call herself the interpreter of Indian classical dance in Hungary. She feels at home whenever she visits India. She feels art has no boundaries.
Her performances have been acclaimed by the National Dance Theatre of Hungary and the Hungarian Academy of Dance.
Panni Somi is a contemporary dance artist, but she wants to preserve the heritage of art as much as possible.
Hello Panni, a warm welcome to Blogcritics. Help us understand your journey towards excellence in Indian Classical Dance. At what age and how did you get connected to Indian Classical Dance? What fascinated you with Indian culture?
I didn’t start Indian dance very young. The reason is very understandable: in Hungary at that time there was no possibility to learn any form of Indian dance. Until the age of 18 I didn’t even hear about its existence.
In my childhood I did sports, mainly gymnastics, and I learnt some ballet and modern dance. I was fascinated by theatre and drama and I often went to watch performances of all kinds.
The first time I witnessed a full Indian dance performance was not even in Hungary but in Central Asia in Uzbekistan (then part of the Soviet Union) at Registan square. I was a tourist there and – as it happened so many times in my life – I found something in a most unexpected place that later altered the course of my life.
By that time I was a student of Sanskrit at ELTE University of Budapest. My main interest was centered around Sanskrit drama and its performance.
What form of dance did you choose for yourself and why?
When I got the possibility to go to India and study whatever I fancied, I decided to study something practical, something that is not available in my country but has some vague connection with my acadamic studies. I was the holder of a scholarship granted to me by the Government of India in 1989 and I decided to study Bharatanatyam in Chennai (then still Madras) at Kalakshetra, College of Fine Arts. It was 1989 and I was 22 years old.
How do you correlate sports and dance?
Sports are very good to start with. I am very grateful to my parents for sending me to do sports. Gymnastics gave me the strength, flexibility, and perseverance that helped me in my studies and that I can still rely on. Dance is an art but one can never be a real artist without learning the basics and without possessing the necessary tools. In the case of a dancer the tool one should possess is a well-trained body. And that can be obtained by doing sports for many years.
Very often when mothers ask me to teach bharatanatyam to their tiny daughters I suggest sports first. In Hungary there are many possibilities to do various sports that can train the body in a suitable way to provide the basis for learning dance later.
Why did you decide to conduct dance classes besides becoming a professional perfomer?
When I started performing and had lots of lecture demonstrations many people got interested in this strange and interesting new genre so I was asked to conduct workshops and short courses. But bharatanatyam is not a dance style that can be studied or even demonstrated in a short time so I decided to teach it properly to those who are really interested.
In the beginning my students were mainly dancers of other styles or artists and people fascinated by Indian culture. Later their number grew and in a few years I had many groups with many excellent students. I prefer teaching adults to children. While teaching – I have to confess – I was and still am searching for talented and interesting people who can become my dance partners and members of my dance company.
In what countries and festivals have you perfomed?
Most of my performances were held in Hungary since I was mostly needed here. But I have performed in the surrounding countries – Slovakia, Austria, Romania – and in India, too.
How do you see dance as a gateway on the search for spiritual enlightenment?
Anything can lead us to the gate of spiritual enlightment and even open that gate for us if that activity is done with ultimate dedication and with the search for perfection. We are all going to the same place but the length and roughness of our route is different. If we manage to find a vehicle that suits our personality in this spiritual travelling it makes our route easier. I feel dance is a suitable vehicle for me but it might not be for everyone.
Why did you make some changes in traditional dance dresses for yourself and your disciples in Hungary?
I am not Indian and my students are not Indians either. For practising and studying and rehearsing we use clothes that are comfortable and easily available here. I do not want a fashion show in my dance studio.
Being on stage it is a different story… if I dance classical Bharatanatyam I wear the so-called traditional dance costume (though I need to mention that the traditional Indian outfit we use today was designed about 50-60 years ago by Rukmini Devi and other reformers of the style). As far as my own choreographies and dance-theatre plays are concerned, I feel free to design the costume that suits them.
What are the key points to be taken care of while perfomring on stage?
To be honest and never copy anyone. A dancer who can find a way of performing that suits only his/her body and mind can be a success on stage. My wish has always been that when I am on stage the audience should feel content with my way of performing and not talk about whom I remind them of, or whom I resemble.
I am fascinated by people who can be dedicated to a genre or style of performing art making it their own without copying anyone. It always seems so out of place if a dancer is not honest on stage. I am not Indian and I do not want to be an Indian (though it is funny enough that on the basis of my looks I have always been thought to be of Indian origin. Sometimes it made my life easier but I always preferred insisting on being a foreigner…) Bharatanatyam is my means of communication but my personality has not become different since I started using it.
What are your future plans?
To enjoy the luxury of changes.
I started making my own dance-theatre plays a few years ago and I feel content doing so. I have many plays in my mind and in the years to come I am going to put them on stage. I have very good, talented, and creative dancers and I love working with them.
What is your message to your readers?
While having respect for the achievements of our ancestors we should also feel free to continue their way and on the basis of tradition build the contemporary art forms of the present day that can lead us to the future, ensuring the continuity of art.
Never want to be someone you are not, be honest to yourself, and feel free to find your own route and vehicle in life.