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Nritya Uphaar: The gift of dance
- Nandini Krishna

October 19, 2013

(First published in Pulse, South Asian Dance and Music, UK)

Was it possible to experience classical dance in one's lifetime? This lament echoed around me repeatedly in the mid 90's, often by my dance students' parents and then others in their thirties or more. They felt doomed that perhaps this unfulfilled dream would have to be taken into another lifetime as they had crossed the requisite age bracket. It rankled me no end - this thought of carrying something over for another lifetime. It seemed like the beautiful art of classical dancing and Bharatanatyam was like a far away world or planet that was inaccessible to them. One began to feel then, was it not possible to build a bridge somehow, or create a chink space in the door for this 'marginalized section'? They did not ask be to be donned in glorious costumes, they did not ask for a performance platform, they did not seek applause, they only wanted to 'experience' moving in the classical dance way!

Shubhada, Nandini & Keka

'Nritya Uphaar - The Gift of Dance' was thus born as a via media, a workshop first tried out in 1999. It was to make possible a way to fulfill this desire of simply experiencing classical dance. So in order to bring closer this hallowed world of classical dance to this 'marginalized section,' I approached my colleagues late Bireshwar Gautam in Kathak and Shubhada Varadkar in Odissi. Together, we let the kite fly in the open sky. The perceived age barrier was surmounted. We announced it as 'open to all from age ten to sixty' in our trial workshop. A local college was kind enough to donate its hall space for nearly next to nothing.

To our amazement, enthusiastic learners from far flung areas of the city trudged everyday to the workshop for three weeks, males and females including those above fifty and children about ten years and all others in-between. The test run was an eye opener. For most, it was a life's dream fulfilled. It touched our hearts and convinced us that there was a need for this. Three dance styles in three weeks when it took a lifetime to learn a single style! The workshop continues to receive this mixed response of joy and disbelief. Joyful on the one hand for that rare chance to 'experience' each classical style in a short time - the gamut of pure movements, expressions, language of hand gestures; its variation and similarity from one style to the next offering the student a wide lens, a wide perspective. On the other hand, disbelief and doubt. Could this be possible?

Team with Astad Deboo & vocalist Shampa Pakrashi

Mother & daughter in yellow

'Nritya Uphaar - The Gift of Dance' first in 1999, then 2002 and then after a hiatus from 2010 sees batches of students ecstatic on the last day when they present these three dance styles before an intimate audience. Astad Deboo - modern dance pioneer, Shanta Gokhale - culture columnist, Terence D'Souza - Ex-director, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Mumbai, Indu Raman -senior dancer/writer have all been witness to this encouraging effort. In these times of fast use and throw, this via media, comes as a necessity and a boon to a 'marginalized section' of the public. This section that lost an opportunity in childhood or did not find a teacher or had a nomadic life or for any other reason continued to harbor the unfulfilled desire. There comes a stage when desires tend to keep revisiting. Yet, they desisted from going to the regular class knowing they may have to face looks of disdain or maybe just feel out of place. 'Nritya Uphaar' came like manna.

Not all learners are interested in becoming performers. It's a desire that needs expression. A desire to experience and understand. Not all have the time commitment to master a form. This 'marginalized section' can comprise of the future audience, to say the least. They can become connoisseurs, if not practitioners. Support from some corporate entities keeps this mission going apart from the enthusiasm of the students themselves and the continued support of esteemed colleagues Keka Sinha for Kathak and Shubhada Varadkar for Odissi, who themselves are busy in their own spheres as performer-teachers.

Class in progress

Presentation day

Shanta Ghokhale handing over certificate

As the Internet revolution swept in during the eighties, mindsets began closing up towards classical dance. Western dance and specially Shiamak Davar took over cities like Mumbai and made it a trend of the hip and happening; classical dance training appeared long and arduous in comparison. Even if a student wanted to only barely begin to understand it, like simply getting a dip into a swimming pool, there was just no scope to do that; it had to be none or all, it seemed. The regular classical dance class dealt with hard basics at the outset itself. That made the student scamper away. Dance related cultural contexts needed to be spelt out to this new breed of students, who seemed to be aligned and living an alien culture on home turf. The cultural shift brought a gap in the student-teacher equation. The student was armed with modern language, technology, global outlook, while the teacher seemed to have been caught in a time warp. There were questions that could not be answered, attitudes that could not be understood. Things became convoluted. Some ideas suddenly seemed warped and outdated. Yet, how to make a traditional movement language relevant or package it or present it, was a question that raged a battle and continues to do so.

In this mire of confusion, the viewer or audience seemed to have drifted further. Classical dance continued to be pushed into the background. Audience allegiance shifted rapidly. Soon the lament of 'no audience' could be heard. 'Nritya Uphaar - The Gift of Dance' seemed to now offer a potent manna for the uninitiated audience too. Recently, a student who completed the workshop wrote in to thank that she enjoyed a classical dance performance where previously she had felt alienated and had even shied away from attending. She was able to follow some of the hand gestural interpretations easily. Thus a new door had opened for those who completed the workshop. They felt better informed with the door now opened to a whole new world of classical dance which with technology and like means at hand they could explore further in their own way, enjoying the process along the way and in their time.

Nandini Krishna is a Bharatanatyam artiste, dance educator, freelance journalist and Arts administrator based in Mumbai. 'Nritya Uphaar- The Gift of Dance' is conceived and executed by her.

Namaskaram. It's so refreshing to know that you have devoted so much time, effort and compassion to teach those who have no external stimulus, past their prime age. Nowhere is it mentioned the therapeutic healing values of learning music and dance especially in cases needing emotional healing urgently.
- Balaji. (Aug 11, 2014)

Congratulations. Just read this article. This is a good effort to reach out to people who missed learning dance in their early ages. I do not understand what exactly is being taught in three weeks, but I guage enough knowhow of the art to make people enjoy and appreciate classical dance is disbursed. It is very much needed that such successful workshops get regularly to maintain and sustain followers of the classical tradition.
- Anon (Sept 8, 2014)

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