Aswati Sreedhar - the rising star of Powai 
by  K Gopinath, Mumbai 

July 1, 2004    

Attending a Bharatanatyam recital by teenage protégé Aswati Sreedhar at the picturesque IIT campus in Bombay was like transporting oneself to an altogether different world through a cultural plane right in the middle of the hustles and bustles of the metropolitan city. 
Aswati Sreedhar staged her Bharatanatyam Arangetram with a sublime performance at the Convocation Hall in IIT Powai, Mumbai, in the evening of Sunday, 07 March 2004, which was attended by a discerning audience of over 600.  Aswati is a regular in the cultural arena of Powai in Mumbai, the fast developing suburb hitherto known as the Switzerland of Bombay, and looking at her performance, this teenager may well be the new rising star.  
In each dance item, Aswati displayed Nritta, Nritya and Abhinaya with brilliance, fluid movements and grace casting an enduring spell on the audience.  Her facial expressions and eye movements were remarkable.  Even those who did not understand the intrinsic form of classical dance could enjoy her performance - before each performance a short synopsis of the dance recital was narrated which made it easier to follow. 
Bharatanatyam is the leading dance form of contemporary India.  The first references to the Bharatanatyam dance form are to be found in Silapadikaram, an epic poetry composed during the early Golden Age of the Tamil culture, which extends from 500 BC to 500 AD.  Bharatanatyam is a 2500-year-old dance form rooted in classical literature, especially poetry, and most especially, poetry set to music.  Indian culture endorses a holistic approach with a philosophical view on how to live your life.  The philosophy of the dance has a physical part (which you practice) and, as with yoga, a philosophical part.  The structure creates a mandala of conceptual form, which inspires Indian architecture, especially the architecture of temples, and, it gives a worldview.  The dance reduces philosophical concepts to practice.  It is made up of Tala and Laya.  Tala is the beat, usually given by hand, but sometimes by drum; Laya is the rhythm, the basis of movements in time and space.  In the Classical form of dance, you disassociate yourself to find the language of the dance, which is universal.  The dance uses a repertoire of gestures.  You don’t need to understand the words to know what the dancers are saying. 
The Bharatanatyam recital is structured like a great temple.  You enter through the gopuram or outer hall of alarippu.  The first piece prepares you to cross into the ardhamandapam or halfway hall of jatiswaram.  Melody is added to rhythm to reach the great hall, the mandapam of shabdam.  In response to the dance, you enter the holy precinct of the deity in the varnam, the heart of the temple.  Dancing to the padam is akin to the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drumbeats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of sacred verses in the closeness of god.  The tillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by a measure of din and bustle.  In conclusion, the devotee takes to her heart the god she has so far glorified outside; and the dancer completes the traditional order by dancing to a simple devotional verse. 
Aswati sailed through the Bharatanatyam recital in the traditional order, which carefully prepares the dancer as well as the audience with its gradual increase in tempo and challenge.  She started off with Anjali, Devi Stuti and Natesha Kautuvam  (an invocatory dance performed at the beginning of the recital), stepped into Alaripu (blossoming of the body and limbs in expressive gestures), entered into Jatiswaram (pure Nritta in rhythmic syllables set to variegated, complex designs within the framework of Tala), flowed into Shabdam (introducing Abhinaya for the first time in the recital with intricate footwork and climaxing in sensitive facial expressions), graduated into Varnam (the central, most elaborate and difficult item in a Bharatanatyam recital, bringing out the best in pure dance and Abhinaya depicting the changing moods of love and the various aspects of love situations), conquered with Padam (expressing the variegated sentiments and shades of emotions in a leisurely tempo and with exquisite raga bhava of the human soul represented by the beloved Nayika yearning for the supreme being) and finally dominating the stage with Tillana (considered to be the most beautiful piece of dance in Bharatanatyam with a number of alluringly sculpturesque poses and variegated patterns of movements executed with grace and elegance bringing out the beauty of poses and scintillating teermanams). 
Anjali, Devi Stuti and Natesha Kautuvam were set to Raga Ragamalika and Tala Tala-Malika, and Kautuvam sung with Jatis and Sahitya alternately.  Alaripu was set to Raga Mohana and Tala Chatushra and through this item the dancer welcomed the audience to the performance by offering flowers.  Jatiswaram was set to Raga Vasanta and Tala Adi, with rhythmic syllables set to musical notations.  Shabdam was set to Raga Raga-Malika and Tala Mishra chapu, recited in praise of the glory of God.  Varnam was set to Raga Karaharapriya and Tala Adi, with the exposition of Sanchari Bhava (spontaneous improvisations) depicting the fascinating aspects of love situations and changing moods.  Padam/Abhinaya was set to Raga Todi and Tala Adi, a love lyric recited in praise of Lord Krishna with immense scope for the expression of sentiments and emotions.  Tillana was set to Raga Faraz and Tala Adi, and almost every Adavu (dance unit) was rendered in two or three tempos enthralling the audience. 
The final enactment of Kuchipudi bringing out the best in Aswati was also a test for the training and practice (Sadhana) the dancer had undergone.  Captivating the audience this dance, lasting about 30 minutes, rendered in the Kuchipudi style (Raga Mohana and Tala Tala-Malika) depicted the childhood pranks of Lord Krishna and the highlight was the execution of complex rhythmic patterns balancing on a brass plate with a pot of water on the head and a lamp in each hand.  In spite of the uneven flooring of the stage Aswati held on to the delicate balancing acts, and this clearly showed her commitment to master the art and her presence of mind.  A long applause of appreciation greeted her. 
The exquisite voice of Guru Shailaja Madhusoodan and her sister Sandhya Keshava Rao, a noted exponent of Bharatanatyam from Bangalore, provided nattungam and vocal to the accompaniment of mridangam by P R Chandran, violin by Rajani Natarajan and flute by Hema Balasubramanyan; and the evening was made truly memorable.  The programme was compèred by Rashmi Rao, a dancer and disciple of Shailaja Madhusoodan.  The stage was aptly decorated and the big Nataraja on a pedestal with the traditional tall bronze lamps on either side provided a majestic backdrop to the artiste and the performance as a whole, and with the supportive audience the ambience was just right through out.  
Earlier, at a brief interval, the Chief Guest Rev. Fr. George Athaide, Principal of Powai's St. Xavier’s High School & Junior College, who had witnessed Aswati blossoming from a child into a flowering artiste at the school, complimented Aswati and wished her the D(evotion, Dedication, Determination), A(rtistry),  N(atyam, Novelty), C(onfidence) and E(xcitement) of DANCE.  Aswati is a product of St. Xavier’s (she has been Head Girl, House Captain and Best Student of the Year), and now a fresher at Somaiya College, Vidyavihar, Mumbai. 
Aswati started training in Bharatanatyam at the age of five under the illustrious Lalitha Kasthuri (during her research stay in Powai) in her distinctive style of pure classics.  Under the able guidance of Shailaja Madhusoodan (Nritya Vidya Nilaya, Bhandup) for the last five years, her talents have come to the fore and she has been moulded into a natural artist.  Shailaja Madhusoodan, her present Guru, is the daughter of the illustrious guru U S Krishna Rao of Bangalore and has been running her dance institute in Bhandup since 1986. 
Aswati’s passion for dancing was all too evident throughout the three-hour programme.  Said Aswati: "I have taken Biology at the college and I aspire to become a doctor but at the same time I am passionate about music and dance.  Bharatanatyam dance places rhythm, melody, mood, movement, and music together in one continuous structure, which leads to self-fulfilment in the fullest scope.  It is creativity through interpretation.  I have a lot more to learn and I continue to go for my dance classes and practice with my supportive Guru Shailaja." 

An all round student, besides being a dancer and yoga practitioner (which compliments each other), Aswati has shown a keen interest in music (both vocal & instrumental, learnt initially under Lalitha Kasthuri and later under V Sreenivasan of Indian Music & Dance Academy), drawing and painting, besides other cultural activities.  She has participated in many competitions and events at school and other institutional levels and won several prizes.  She is fluent in Malayalam, English, Hindi and Marathi. 

She has a reservoir of talent, which needs to be nurtured and taken to higher levels.

K Gopinath works in IIT Bombay, Powai.