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Cultural Heritage tour 2011
- Usha Raghavan, London

August 27, 2011

It all started as a casual chat over tea during a cold winter evening in London! I thought, "How nice would it be if only I could be in Madras now?" Visiting a temple in the calm evening, attending prayers amidst the priests' chants and the fragrance of jasmine filling the air is what my heart longed for. I asked Annalisa, my Italian student sitting next to me, "What if we both went to South India and visited just dance related places.... the temples, classes, shops...any place that is art related?" She jumped the next minute, "I am with you any day when you decide to go."

When I actually embarked on a cultural heritage tour in 2005 along with my students from Europe, I never imagined that more such tours would follow! What a pleasure it has been walking, probing, studying, analysing and debating for two weeks all about Bharatanatyam in its native land along with my students from the west!

This year, in the third such tour, I was in South India once again with some of my students from London, Rome and Riga to explore and enjoy the cultural heritage sights and some dance-related places in Tamilnadu and Kerala.

A visit to Chidambaram Natarajar temple at least once in her life time is always what every dancer would dream of. Dancing before the deity would absolutely be the ultimate 'Ananda' for a dancer. In the early '80s, I remember performing first in Chidambaram in the Natyanjali Festival. The pleasure one derives while and after dancing before the Lord Himself is indescribable. It is overwhelming and a sense of tranquility sets in as if you have been doing 'tapas' for ages. This year too, my students, as is the practice every time, performed before the deity. After that when we came to the temple tank and sat on the steps, I perceived that a sense of peace had set in within us. It was as if we all wanted the experience to go on and on forever.



The feeling was somewhat similar in Tanjavur Brhadeeswarar temple as well. We could not dance in front of the deity though. However, just singing and dancing as we sat on the bare ground in itself was a pleasure for us all. As the evening set in, a crowd gradually gathered around us, some among them even starting to sing along with me. My students and I were getting emotional. As we continued to dance well after sunset, the glorious temple gopuram and the gentle light set a very beautiful background for the dancing girls. As their teacher and dancer, it was an out-of-the world experience for me. Later, one of my students found a corridor for us to sit and talk about our experiences in Chidambaram and Tanjore temples. We wrote down the experiences and put them in dance narrative form.

I believe that knowledge of other classical dance forms makes a dancer understand and appreciate better her own chosen style of dancing. Kathakali has always fascinated me since the early '80s. I wanted my students too to experience Kathakali. It was a fulfilling experience hence both for me and my students, to get an opportunity to learn the basics of Kathakali in its original birthplace, Kerala.

At Kalatharangini

I had arranged for Kathakali workshop with Kalamandalam John and Mohiniattam workshop with Mary John of Kalatharangini in Cheruthuruthy. So, prior to it, I took my students for a Kathakali and Kalaripayattu performance in Thekkady to give them an idea of two of Kerala's superb art forms. My students however had no idea of what to expect in the workshop and they were somewhat apprehensive about their capacity to even try this physically demanding form. But as they started with the workshop, they were beaming with pleasure. Six to seven hours of dancing Kathakali and Mohiniattam each day seemed not enough for them. Watching them enjoy every minute of their lesson, completely immersed as they were in what they were learning, was overwhelming.

Driving past the tea estates and some beautiful waterfalls including Athirampalli falls, experiencing Periyar Tiger reserve forest and the stay in houseboat in Alappuzha along our journey from Tamilnadu to Kerala were some added pleasures during the trip.



Be it a visit to Tiruvarur temple where the devadasis danced or a visit to Kailasanadhar temple in Kanchi where you crawl-walk-crawl (implying childhood-youth-old age) during circumambulation or watching 'vilaku-pooja' or learning to string flowers, everything was a memorable experience. We wanted to experience, internalise and savour forever the flavour of incredible India.

For my students, the dance, the details and the traditions as performed in our ancient dance form now seemed to be more meaningful and beautiful. The experiences seemed to have opened their minds further to a richer and wider world that has so much more to offer. On our way back to London, we all felt, 'Wish the tour had been longer! When will the next tour be?"

Pictures taken during the tour

Usha Raghavan, Director, Kalasagara UK, hails from Chennai, India. She learnt Bharatanatyam under eminent gurus Adyar Lakshman and Kalanidhi Narayanan. A postgraduate in Indian Philosophy, Usha's great senses of pedagogy and sound knowledge of Indian dance and traditions have gained her the reputation as a dancer, choreographer and teacher of exemplary talent. She currently lives in London. Further details:

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