Bharatanatyam with a Texan twang

June 23, 2014

Learning Bharatanatyam can be arduous, taxing and not immediately rewarding. Many dance students go through the motions of learning the art form without ever fully appreciating its breadth and depth. To help young dance students enjoy, appreciate, and be involved and immersed in their arts education, Silambam Houston has developed a format to engage and involve them with the RASA event, held this year for the second time.

RASA 2014 packed several dimensions of arts education into one whirlwind, intense week. At the RASA 2014 dance intensive held from June 9th to 13th at the Sri Meenakshi temple in Pearland, fifteen Houston dance students were given the chance to interact with and practice alongside two virtuosos in the field - Priya Murle and Roja Kannan. The all-day, all-week camp focused on honing various skills required by this demanding art form and included technical skills boot camp, abhinaya workshop, choreography exercises, theory lessons, discussions on dance history, tradition and culture, dance video viewings, improv storytelling through abhinaya, research assignments, and much more. Students were also taught fundamental techniques such as finding and maintaining focus, core strength, stretches and meditation, which would help them in dance as well as in daily life. In addition, the students also learnt pieces to perform at the showcase on June 14th at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center where RASA 2014 offered another set of diverse experiences for the Houston dance community.

The afternoon began with Bharatanatyam Jeopardy! – a fun team event modeled after the game show – in which students tested their knowledge of natya history, theory, gestures, and general knowledge. Conducted by young, dynamic US-born dancer Preethi Ramaprasad, with able assistance from another young dancer recently arrived to the Houston arts scene Anusha Venkatramani, Bharatanatyam Jeopardy was an instant hit and showcased the impressive knowledge of young dancers from various Houston dance schools, including the Anjali Center, Abhinaya School, Silambam Houston, Darshi School of Dance, and students of Sandhya Raghuraman. The quiz was followed by a thought provoking panel discussion on experiences in teaching and performing Bharatanatyam in the US and India, moderated by Lavanya Rajagopalan (Founder and Artistic Director, Silambam Houston) and featuring Houston dance gurus Rathna Kumar, Padmini Chari and Indrani Parthasarathy, and the visiting gurus from Chennai Priya Murle and Roja Kannan. The final competition of the afternoon was a lively Abhinaya Charades, in which senior dance students attempted to convey to the audience – through abhinaya – the concept, title or story of popular books and movies, such as Harry Potter, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or a given contemporary situation.

After the competitions was a short performance by K Shanmugasundaram, a senior disciple of KJ Sarasa. From the opening Pushpanjali in Gambheeranattai, to the beautiful Thulasidas bhajan “Shri Ramachandra Kripalu Bhajamana” to the final number “Shankarashrigiri” in praise of Lord Shiva, Shanmughasundaram exhibited an effortless power in his dancing.

Following this was the evening’s feature performance by Priya Murle and Roja Kannan, who graciously shared their stage with their camp participants for an evening of outstanding artistry. Beginning with a Mallari in which the artistes were joined by all the camp students, the performance continued with a Subrahmanya Kauthuvam performed by the senior camp participants. The piece de resistance, the varnam, was performed touchingly by the visiting artistes and extolled the concept of the guru or mentor. Through the stories of Muruga expounding the meaning of the syllable ‘Om’ to his father Shiva, of Krishna explaining the concept of duty and righteousness to a confused Arjuna, of Ekalavya who gave up his right thumb at his teacher’s request, and of Swami Vivekananda who realized a divine vision at the touch of his teacher Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the varnam brought to life the sacred guru-shishya parampara that is a hallmark of Indian culture. The mesmerizing abhinaya continued through the padam “Enthati Kulukke” by Roja Kannan, and the javali “Samayam Idhuvallavo” by Priya Murle. A lighthearted kummi (folk number) by the younger camp participants was followed by a Thillana in ragam Hindolam performed by the visiting artistes along with the three senior-most camp students and Lavanya Rajagopalan.

The event concluded with an awards ceremony where the camp participants as well as the quiz, abhinaya, essay and drawing competition winners were recognized and awarded certificates and medals.

A large part of learning Bharatanatyam involves cultural and practical immersion, which is an opportunity not always given to students from the United States.  RASA has been created for the purpose of encouraging reflection among students of the arts. The novel format, concept and events are certain to have helped students make personal connections with the evolving tradition of Bharatanatyam and create an appreciative audience for future generations of dancers.