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The Joy of Indian Classical Dances

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When they talk, fingers flutter, eyebrows quiver, heads sway, and feet shift restlessly. Recipients of prestigious awards, they are generous in sharing the secrets of their excellence. They are India's most celebrated classical dancers and they are New Delhi's best dance teachers.

Who will learn Bharatnatyam or Kuchipudi instead of Salsa and Macarena in this rapidly westernizing society? How can the MTV Generation be lured to Kathak and Odissi when not even a single Indian television channel is dedicated to the Indian classical music? "In spite of the war on their psychology, people still opt for classical dances," Kathak danseuse Shovana Narayan declares. "They may enjoy the mall-multiplex dazzle, but there is a latent subconscious in many to know one's own culture."

Indian classical dancing is not merely about coming home to the roots. Any classical form, dance or music, is an intellectual domain with a very rational approach of transmission of knowledge from the guru (master) to the shishya (disciple). It combines science and art beautifully with the ultimate goal of attaining spiritual bliss.

Picture of a Delhi Dance School by Mayank Austen SoofiBirju Maharaj, Kathak's living legend, considers dancing to be a form of Yoga, where dhyan (meditation) could be reached through the path of anand (joy). Kuchipudi dance maestro Raja Reddy believes it makes one calm, focused, and at peace with oneself. Kaushalya, his dancer wife, shares the beauty tip that a regular dance practice keeps the body supple and the skin glowing. Anjana Ghosal, a young student in Delhi who learned Kathak from acclaimed dancer Vaswati Misra, finds it fascinating that although classical dances work within well-defined parameters, they give the artist freedom to create, innovate and experiment with the form.

While the training in these schools is priceless, the fees range from Rs. 200 ($5 USD) to Rs.1000 ($24 USD) each month. Such advantages must be exploited in a trying city like Delhi where mind is often stressed and body frequently tense. Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran discloses, "The day my students come to dance, they eat, study, and sleep better. Our dance forms help in dissipating the negative forces." Divya Morghode, a B.Com student enrolled in a Kathak class, says, "When I do riyaz (practice), all thoughts became pure. Besides dancing, our Guru also teaches us how to live life and confront problems."

A strong motivation drives these busy performers to invest time and effort in educating young artists. Apart from regular income, it provokes fresh insights into their seen-it-all mind. "By teaching, lots of nuances become clear as I struggle with a student's grasp and his potential," Odissi dancer Sonal Mansingh says. Birju Maharaj equates the joy of teaching to that of a gardener savouring the nurturing of a growing sapling.

The reputation of the artists need not intimidate amateurs from approaching them. "Not all aspire to be professionals," Shovana Narayan agrees. "I believe I'm preparing good seeds for the future generation. If nothing else, they would become keener audience." The dancers are selective in picking students, however. Interviews are held to find the student's aptitude as well as examining body expressions, hand gestures, and the flexibility of the face.

Those fortunate to be chosen are transported to a different world. With dedication and discipline, these students are filled with rasa (juice of art), which overflows and reaches the people around them, too.

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About Mayank Austen Soofi

  • Nancy

    I get a small taste of quasi-classical Indian dance when I watch the gorgeous Bollywood films; some of them are stunning, especially those featuring Ms. Rai, who I understand has considerable classical dance training. Can you recommend any particular movies or venues for non-Hindi-speakers to see more examples of this great art? Thanks.

  • Nancy

    P.S. I bought the Pasricha book but haven’t seen it yet. It looks very rich.

  • Mayank Austen Soofi

    Nancy, you must get a DVD of the film ‘Devdas’. There are many films of the same name but you get the one which stars Ms. Rai, Ms.Madhuri Dixit and Shahrukh Khan. You may also get another film – ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’.