Interview with Nayantara Kurma Parpia

I know it has been a while, but academic pressures kept me occupied for the last 8 months. Nevertheless I’m back with renewed energy, and right in time for the North American “Kutcheri” season! I am back with a very exciting interview I had with a talented Kathak dancer from Pune, India! I was very excited to meet Nayantara Parpia in my hometown of Mississauga during her vacation. It is so lovely to meet people who hold their love for classical dance as close to their hearts as I do.

I know I teased a few questions on the Facebook live interview we did over coffee at the Gaanavarshini space, so without further ado here is the rest!

What interested you in Kathak? How old were you when you started?

Like many others, it was my mother who always wanted to learn Kathak and ended up encouraging me to start at the age of 8. However at first the strict method of teaching made it difficult to really love it at that young age. I really came to love the art form with a mind to pursue it seriously at the age of 16.

Do you think that the Indian government is taking good strides to encourage classical dance?

Well, there is certainly more that can be done! In New Delhi, there are these government funded festivals which means that they are completely free for people to attend. There are packed audiences for top-notch artists. It’s a wonderful experience!

However, art needs to be made a priority. But how can the government alone make it one? Corporates need to support art as well. There can be a mutually beneficial relationship achieved with more corporations supporting the arts. And not just for funding performances – we need spaces to practice and grow ourselves artistically.

What would you like to see improve in the world of classical dance?

(She had a look of “where do I start” before answering this question—us classical dancers always practice abhinaya in our daily lives)

First thing that comes to mind – festivals promoting solo dancers. But most importantly, to extend the time slot to more than 30 minutes. Classical dance has a certain set up, and with respect to Kathak each composition we present has a purpose which builds on each item. What can we really do in 30 minutes? It definitely not as bad as being asked to perform for 10 minutes though…Another thing would be discouraging the idea that artists pay to be a part of the festival. We have dedicated so many years to learning the art, it just does not sit right with me.

Secondly, people need to be encouraged to hone their own skills. It would be really interesting to see teacher-training modules in the future of classical dance. Right now we have the traditional way of waiting until our Guru recommends us to start helping teach their classes. But if you have been trained until then to be a performer—well, being a performer and being a teacher are two different things. I’m not looking to see only cookie-cutter teachers in the future, but what I have seen while being a teacher is that it requires a lot of communication and patience. It would be similar to professional development workshops in the corporate field if we have access to teacher training for classical dance.

I noticed on your Instagram that you place an importance on fitness. Could you speak to that a bit?

From a young age my family always motivated me to live an active lifestyle. I’ve come to see that to have the best stage look I must have a balance of Cardio, Strength training and Flexibility. Yoga is very important for me to achieve balance within myself as well as flexibility. I also train with weights but in a way to work out “lean.” A holistic approach will make fitness about more than just the dancing, but also about the stamina you have.

What are your views on collaboration?

Within Kathak? There are 3 different gharanas – Lucknow, Benares and Jaipur. There are subtle differences between each style of Kathak. They used to be geographically separated so the differences were more obvious. Nowadays the lines are getting blurred more. I believe that credit should be given where it is due with respect to each gharana if collaborating amongst each other.

Outside the boundaries of Kathak? I’m all for collaborating. But I’d say it’s challenging. You have got to be careful about whom you choose to work with because everyone will come to a project with their own creative ideas. Something as simple as picking the music will prove to be much harder when collaborating with different classical styles altogether.

What is your vision as an artist? What stories feel like they’re itching to be shared?

I don’t think I’m a very rebellious person or anything. However, I do sometimes wish to portray a nayika (heroine) who is not love lorn and tearing her hair out. I’m not saying that right now I want to go and find music and experiment with this idea but someday I’d like to depict a normal girl with different ambitions.

What do you wish to say/clarify anything about the misconstrued ideas regarding Kathak? About the versions on Bollywood and the sexualisation of Kathak?

Looking at the history of Kathak, it started as a religious mode of communication, worship and storytelling. It did not start in the courts, as people often misunderstand. The origin of Kathak is dated many centuries before the courts. During the Bhakti period the increased awareness of Hindu philosophy brought a heavy influence of storytelling surrounding Krishna and Raas Leela. Around the 16th century marks the time that Mughal invaders sought out Kathak dancers for entertainment. Emperors would be patrons and also challenge/ request dancers – sometimes asking for a certain beat cycle or to be creative in expressing some poetry they found. This developed the art form, and rulers also learned the art form from the dancers they hired. At this time the different gharanas developed in their geographical locations. For example, the Jaipur gharana is known for being able to execute many chakkars (spins) back to back, Benares gharana is known to be more acrobatic, and Lucknow gharana is known for grace and balance. Despite the British suppressing the arts, Kathak has survived and the subtle differences between styles are maintained.

When it comes to Bollywood there are many elements and aspects of Kathak which get drawn in for visual appeal. However I’d like to point out that Mujhra dancing is not Kathak. Umrao Jaan, whether it is the Rekha or Aishwarya version, showcases a Mujhra style of dancing. It is meant to be more suggestive and its purpose was to lure men for different purposes. It has some elements of Kathak but is not the same thing. In general when thinking about the sexualization of Indian Classical dance I think it’s because dance is so visually engaging. And some people can’t go beyond the visual component and get stuck in the physical element of it. I am sure you find it equally frustrating when people only say “wow you looked so beautiful” after you’ve given a rigorous performance! (I’m nodding along in agreement)

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A quick pic capturing two happy dancers amped up on filter kaapi, surrounded by a mix of traditional Tamil art and my attempts at abstract. 

Nayantara and I shared a wonderful afternoon sharing our ideas and opinions on classical dance. I can certainly say I found a kindred spirit in her and cannot wait for the day we will both be able to witness each other’s live performances. If she performs in a city near you, I highly recommend you attend!

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Commentary on Collaborative Efforts

Recently I have stumbled upon a wonderful group of artists and community builders in the Kitchener Waterloo (KW) region who have opened my eyes to the reality of collaboration. I find it interesting that collaboration is a word dropped by a lot of South Asian artists, but honestly, those collaborations are people helping their own cliques most of the time. Of course, this isn’t meant to be taken as a complaint but more of a general observation – and it is definitely not a commentary on quality of artistry. I’m definitely excited by the increased number of performances available for art connoisseurs to enjoy. However, I think my commentary is more to do with the groups higher on the totem pole staying within those boundaries and calling it progressive collaboration.

What I have observed in my very recent entry to the KW artistic community is a group of talented POCs and allies who have fought uphill battles to create opportunities for aspiring artists. I am honoured to have encountered the incredible Janice Jo Lee who founded the Kitchener Waterloo Poetry Slam group (KWPS). Due to her efforts to build a community and her input to several organizations advising them to remunerate artists for their work, several younger people are able to benefit from this network. For one, there is a community for young talent and a sense of belonging created for marginalized artist groups. Secondly, there is a wonderful policy of not turning anyone away from events – instead events have a recommended entry fee and a “pay what you can” option as well.

I guess my next question to my South Asian community is this – why is it that you are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to see a white celebrity perform or have a white person teach your child an instrument but there is hesitation to pay $15-$20 dollars to attend a performance by your own community artists? There is definitely some commentary to be made about the intrinsic value we place upon ourselves in this “post-colonial” world we live in but that will definitely require its own blog post. I think artists in the Greater Toronto Area would stand to gain by learning from communities like KW by advocating for remuneration for artistic pursuits.

If reading this has made you balk, take a moment and think about whether you are a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Often as immigrants we see being able to pursue an artistic career as a privilege because we need “professional” careers to justify moving away from our motherland. However, attending cultural programming by aspiring artists and encouraging your family and friends to join you further builds our connection to the countries we left behind. We need culture and we need arts – without it, our lives would be very dull!

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Ambition and Passion

During the past three months I have been working at the University of Waterloo for the Renison English Language Institute office in Student Engagement. It’s provided me with a unique opportunity to meet students of all age groups from around the world, and become better acquainted with my good old friend, perspective.

If you have met me you will know that I ask a lot of questions – it’s the reason my mother calls me a curious cat! Here’s one of the questions I asked my students who visited in June — what do the words “Ambition” and “Passion” meant to you? I figured that I had a fairly diverse group in terms of students from Mexico, China, Italy and Korea.

Interestingly enough, I heard a lot of the students say that Ambition reminded them of “keeners” in their respective university programs. Most of them mentioned the words “career” and “goals” and described ambitious people as those who were motivated. An interesting note however, was that a few of them said that ambition lead to feeling like nothing was ever enough, and that you often want more even after a goal has been achieved.

When discussing passion I received some of the most interesting answers. My Mexican students were a passionate bunch who used words like “love” and “reason to live.” I noticed that discussing the word “passion” brought out some energetic responses across the board! Passion was seen as more desirable and what these youngsters were yearning to incorporate in their lives. One of my friends in the dance community had a more succinct explanation: Ambition takes effort, while Passion feels effortless.

So why am I discussing Ambition and Passion on an arts blog?

Artists are generally seen as passionate people. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and seek out opportunities to share our art with others. However the value of ambition and passion are often confused by young artists. For example, specifically in the context of Indian Artists, it is considered prestigious to be chosen to perform at certain festivals and organizations around the world. It’s slowly becoming a bit of a contest as to which people perform at certain festivals and it becomes a benchmark to value the talent of an artist.

The truth is that real passion will drive us to attempt to master our crafts. Bharatanatyam and Music are the driving force behind everything I do daily, as is the case with my contemporaries. Sure, sometimes life gets in the way but ultimately performing and educating people about my passion is what pushes me out of bed every morning. I’m not saying one way is better than the other – of course I dream of performing in different cities just as much as any aspiring artist would. But by focussing on a checklist of things to be done, we might lose the organic exploration of our individual arts.

 

Follow your dreams and not the money trail. I’d like to think that if you are passionate and genuine enough about something, the success and fortunes will automatically follow.

Beyond a Debut

Arangetram or Rangapravesh is a concept unique to Indian Classical Dancing—It means “Ascending The Stage.” Traditionally it is symbolic of a teacher finding his or her student ready to perform alone for the first time. The closest parallel to draw would be in Ballet where the first performance on stage is referred to as a debut, however it does not mean that it would be a solo program.

According to Douglas M. Knight’s Book “Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life,” the traditional performing community would first invite respected artists within the family to view the dancer’s performance at the Guru’s behest. Only after achieving acclaim within the inner circle would the arangetram be scheduled, inviting dignitaries and esteemed members of the performing community. After this significant performance marking intensive learning, the student would then commence to give public performances. Since her time, things have definitely changed around the world.

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I highly recommend this book to the Indian Dance fraternity. Possibly the best gift I have ever received!

In order to keep our traditions alive, there are several community organizations in pockets around the world. Chances are, teachers are encouraged to gather several students to present Pushpanjalis, Thillanas or traditional folk dances to audiences. These students have likely not completed their arangetrams, yet they ascend the stage. I would say that for Non-Residential Indians (NRIs) these programs fulfill a vital need to keep motivation alive for children who are no longer living in an Indian context.

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A group dance I performed in as part of Dancing Damsels! Presented Keralanatanam, an ancient dance form from Kerala combining Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam and Kathakali elements.

But does that mean the significance of an arangetram is dead and gone?

Well, with the collection of arangetram brochures I have lying around my house, I can attest to saying the concept of the arangetram is not dead. But certainly the significance has altered in this century.

I am frequently asked with wonderment why I still learn dance after the completion of my arangetram. It baffles me because it’s members of our South Asian community that question this more than my Non-Indian friends. The pieces chosen for the arangetram are usually chosen according to performer’s strengths and what would be considered age-appropriate, and follow a traditional pattern of introductory items followed by challenging pieces.  I knew that when I completed my arangetram I would not be satisfied just knowing one of each kind of piece given that the repository of Bharatanatyam compositions is immense!

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A picture captured at my arangetram in 2008.

After my arangetram at the age of 14, I continued learning because it only made sense. I didn’t have a plan to necessarily become a performer, but it only seemed natural to continue learning and seeking performance opportunities. However this is where the NRI influence has changed matters. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, but people spend as much on an arangetram as a wedding making the experience a grandiose affair for all community members in attendance. This is certainly a departure from the temple setting where most arangetrams used to take place. By creating a finality with grandeur people have started associated Arangetram with Graduation, which is the exact opposite of the intended meaning.

On the other side of the coin, I have met very talented dancers who couldn’t perform their arangetram due to financial restrictions (again, refer to the above paragraph about financial restrictions). Or sometimes, there seems to be a lot of career and academic pressures, which make a student struggle to find a solid year to dedicate towards training for a solo recital. However, the performances these students present sometimes are of high caliber — It is not necessary that the best dancers who are dedicated to the art are ones who have completed the arangetram.

Moving forward, I wish people would encourage dance as a viable alternate career. Instead encourage dance students to nurture their art beyond performances. Encourage traditional performances alongside hip-hop/ bollywood performances at cultural events! Most importantly perpetuate the idea that learning never stops and hence there can never be a moment when you can “graduate” from learning dance forms so rich in heritage.

 

Music as a Common Vehicle


This week we have a guest post on the blog by Badrinarayan Murali a Journalism graduate from Ryerson University. These are his thoughts on a recent program I was a part of hosted by Gaanavarshini School of Music in Mississauga, Ontario. Hope you enjoy this departure from the norm!


Sandhya Srivatsan created school of music called Gaanavarshini in 2006 as a way to impart her knowledge of Carnatic music, a South Indian form of classical singing, to young Mississaugans. On May 8, she and her students celebrated the school’s ten-year anniversary at the Maja Prentice Theatre by presenting “Sangeeta Kala Utsav”, a three hour program of the songs and dances of South Indian culture and Indian film music.

Srivatsan, the show’s artistic director, gave brief explanations in between pieces to help the audience make connections between different art forms and their respective impacts on many Indian films’ musical scores. Some of the featured instruments of the show’s orchestra included the violin, the veena (a long stringed instrument), the mridangam (a double sided drum) and cymbals.

Srivatsan and her students presented traditional pieces from the Carnatic Music composition repertoire. Shradha Ganesh, an emerging artist in the Indian film music scene who attends the regional arts program at Cawthra Park Secondary School presented Bollywood film music that has been inspired by Carnatic Music. Another featured performer of the night was Srivatsan’s daughter, Sridaya. She performed six Bharatanatyam pieces, one of the traditional South Indian classical dance forms. Bharatanatyam as a dance form is used to tell stories from Hinduism; Sridaya chose her pieces for this performance based on the importance of the accompanying music. Sridaya’s pieces were choreographed by her dance teacher, Anuradha Jagannathan, who was also a member of the show’s orchestra.

The audience consisted of many people who were both familiar with South Indian culture and those who were not. One of the sponsors of the event, Kala Narayanan from Eurojets was pleased with the turn out at Sangeeta Kala Utsav. “I was spell bound by the performances. I am sure a lot of sincere coaching and patience was required to bring the students to that level of singing,” says Narayanan. “Equally note worthy was Sridaya’s dance performance with absolute confidence and poise.

 

For Sandhya Srivatsan, this was a night of celebration and education.

“This event was an artistic journey highlighting the symbiosis of Carnatic music with dance and other art forms,” said Srivatsan. “It was appreciated by all demographics in the audience which made this a gratifying experience.”


Follow Gaanavarshini on Facebook and Instagram @Gaanavarshini!

Follow Badri Murali on Twitter @BadriMurali

The South Asian Identity in North America

There’s a lot of cultural identity that is saved like a time capsule by families that move from their motherland to a new country. Specifically in Canada, this can be seen by the rampant South Asian immigrants who have made the voyage either through ships in the early 19th century or by modern British Airways flights in the early 2000s. While the motherland grows in a globalized world, it is often the generations that grow up as immigrants that hold on to cultural roots.

As an Indo-Canadian I have found myself sandwiched between Carnatic music lessons at home and being expected to know the Top 40 songs to be accepted in school. I am not alone in hiding my artistic talents in order to not draw attention to myself – the unspoken truth is that it’s easier to pretend that all the hours we spend learning Bharatanatyam and Carnatic sangeetham don’t exist. The Tamil movies and Bollywood movies I’d watch on weekends would not be brought up in school either. We have to blend in and hiding our heritage means we won’t have one more thing which makes us different from the norm.

Of course, as we grow into young adults and start to embrace our talents, our Non-Indian friends start to look upon us admiringly. They may have given up ballet at the age of nine, or stopped piano lessons before they left grade five. Once we are older, we realize that it is better to be different than to be like everyone else – we have more to talk about and share.

Establishing a South Asian identity is so very important in Canada. Recently, I’ve been volunteering my skills in Social Media and Content Creation at the International Film Festival of South Asia, Toronto (IFFSA) to explore the film-making spectrum of the arts. This experience has opened my eyes to a whole new world of film business. This week, before the Official Launch of the festival, I was working on gathering the materials with the other volunteers to create the booklets and website content. In this process I got to read the stories of what inspired directors to share a vision. It could be something as simple as a walk outdoors where someone gets an idea or a social issue they feel passionate about.

THE TEAM #LaunchReady #iffsaTO #piffTO

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The leads at IFFSA are some of the most passionate and fun people I’ve ever met. They aren’t necessarily filmmakers or actors themselves but they saw the need for South Asian representation in media and created a platform for budding talent. The IFFSA events bring all aspects of the subcontinent together – as we know there are several sub-cultures within South Asia that unfortunately are not always brought to light. The festival occurs during South Asian Heritage month, highlighting our  unique identity which hopefully creates a sense of cultural pride within the younger children in the community. I’m definitely looking forward to Festival Week (May 19th – May 23rd) and performing at IFFSA Toronto’s Fest in the Park to offer a little bit of Tamil Nadu heritage!

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The Social Media team with Rajiv Nayan, director of the Award Winning Mithila Makhaan

You might ask me what an Indian Classical Artist like myself has to do with Film-Making.

It’s simple really.

We are all artists who want to tell a story – it’s just the different mediums we choose.

 

Chidambaram

Bharatanatyam heritage is synonymous with Thillai Sthalam – Chidambaram. Home of both Nataraja and Govindrajan, this is one of the 108 Divyadeshams for Vaishnava followers as well as a prestigious temple for Shiva devotees. Some of the oldest parts of the temple are dated to be older than 3,000 years. Particularly, Nataraja, the form that Lord Shiva takes in his Cosmic dance is the patron God for all dancers and the idol at this temple is renowned.

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One of the grand entrances to the temple.

If you recollect my blog post covering Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam’s workshop in Toronto, you would remember that her research was focused on sculptures from temple walls, and she discovered  a system of poses called karanas. One of the major temples which contributed to Dr. Subrahmanyam’s research is the Chidambaram temple, hence I was insistent on visiting the temple before I left the country.

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Sridaya Srivatsan (me), doing what every dancer does next to a dance sculpture.

I visited Chidambaram close to the end of my trip to India; I traversed the landscape of South India moving from place to place and having no consistency to speak of. I am not going to glorify my travelling experience, as I was exhausted by the time the car pulled in front of the temple due to erratic sleep and body fatigue. However, setting foot into the temple premises, hearing the priests chanting around a homam (sacred fire) and the echoes cascading off the ancient stones instantly awakened my senses. The scent of jasmine in the air, the sound of devotees talking, older women gossiping about match making people in their families and my feet blistering while walking barefoot on the stones at noon – ahh yes, the atmosphere of a South Indian temple.

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A panel of sculptures behind the Sivakami sannidi

 

As I approached the inner sanctum where the idol of Lord Nataraja is housed, I could feel the heat of the day melt away. The architecture of temples were so brilliant even thousands of years ago—the materials used in construction as well as the intelligent design that channeled the air flow provided shelter and refuge from the sweltering heat which the area experiences. The tranquility I experienced gazing upon the form of Lord Nataraja illuminated by oil lamps and a small shaft of sunlight is incomparable. I haven’t been one to indulge in religious fervour but there is something intrinsically powerful about that moment in Thillai Sthalam for a dancer.

A unique aspect to the temple is the Nritta sabha where there are unique poses of Lord Shiva from the mythological story where he won a dance competition against Kaali. There, in front of the dwajastambham (Temple flag) you can see the outline of the inner sanctum where the idol is housed from a distance and artists can offer their talents to the Lord. As I did the traditional namaskar that Bharatanatyam dancers perform before and after dancing, I recognized the privilege I held by being able to stamp my feet on this holy ground. Dancers since the creation of the temple have offered their art and I was finally about to do so. If these pillars and stones could speak, what stories would they tell us? Who were the great dancers who were the designated devadasis to the temple years prior?

As I walked around the temple premises observing all the intricate carvings, the experience of actually dancing before the Lord of Dance himself left me feeling light and spiritually uplifted. I no longer felt travel worn, hungry or perturbed by daily annoyances. Of course such a feeling doesn’t last much longer than the hours of the visit, but now whenever I think back to my trip to Chidambaram I am filled a sense of serenity. I think I can conclude that Chidambaram isn’t merely a place on a map, but instead an experience.

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Call for Action on Collaboration

I have noticed a trend in the artistic community, whether it be in India or in North America. When people are talented and interested in being ambitious with their genetic gifts there’s a discomfort in sharing that with others. There are many like-minded individuals talented in similar ways but there’s a fear of sharing, giving and collaborating. I recently described it as everyone having a piece of the world’s most beautiful puzzle, but thinking that our piece is the best that we are going to get. However, if we combined our puzzle pieces we could create a wonderful tapestry together.

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I completely understand the fear of losing something when collaborating. It is a cut throat industry to be in, where you have to be seen at all the opportune events and it’s scary to share that opportunity with others because you worked hard to get to where you are. But really, instead of trying to battle amongst ourselves, it is possible to succeed together because really no two talented people are really comparable. Every artist, singer, dancer, photographer and designer has their own strengths that can move an audience. Instead we need to band together and stay a strong unit.

We can achieve a lot together. We can appeal to the organizations that lack an understanding of traditional arts to not just invite good performers for 15 minutes of stage time. We can help our photographer friends by actually paying them or trading services and lead by example to others. We can encourage local talent on our annual dance or music school days by inviting a few of them to perform alongside our very own students. We don’t need to be intimidated by talent, but inspired by it. The thing about artists is that we try to feed our souls through our art and are afraid of being known as “sell-outs,” but at the same time if we don’t try to stand up for what is rightfully our remuneration we are selling out to the establishment. And we must rise above that.

Below you can see the work of my fellow Toronto-based dancer, Yalini Rajakulasingam who collaborated with Jananie Baskaran, a photographer. I truly hope I can work with them in the future and expand upon the inspiration behind their photoseries.

Additionally, my friend Rokhsan who I met quite accidentally at an art exhibition in India is the physical embodiment of a collaborator. She helps bring attention to quite a few campaigns and helps her artistic friends out. I am constantly learning how to be a better human thanks to Rokhsan and I am very privileged to be a part of the circle of friends whom she helps. You can give us a helping hand by checking out her GoFundMe page – I can assure you that Rokhsan is an individual made of more heart than anyone else I know and this campaign will only bring the best of arts and culture to a city near you!

I thank you all for your continued support and for stopping me when you see me to tell me you enjoyed the latest blog post. As long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing!

The Female Energy

For those who know me, it doesn’t take long to realize I am all about equality and empowerment. Yes, you may even label me as a word everyone seems to be afraid of these days – Feminist. It is but natural that some of my personality would leak into this blog, leading to a crossover of Feminism and Art.

 

Such a crossover occurred when I attended a Bharatanatyam workshop by Smt. Vidhya Subramanian at Hyderabad a couple of weeks ago! After a stunning performance at CCRT to celebrate Hema Arangam’s first anniversary, Vidhya akka was at location ready to teach bright and early the very next morning. We started the day with warm ups and yogic stretches. Vidhya akka is known for her agility and speed in movement and explained that “Yoga is very important for dancers because it connects the mind to the body.”

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The attendees of the workshop arranged by Hema Arangam with the lovely Smt. Vidhya Subramanian (center)

Finally when the time came to start learning an item, we were excited to hear that we would be learning a piece from Vidhya’s repertoire the previous night. Jai Durge—a hindi bhajan adapted to Durga ragam. Durga, or Kali as she is also known is one of my favourite symbols as far as Hindu mythology is concerned. She is empowered, at once a force of destruction and creation, famed for being a dark-skinned beauty and conquering demons. This goddess, famed for being deadly and beautiful has always struck me as the epitome of my Feminism.

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The Left hand Mudra depicts a Lion (you can imagine the wild mane), and the Right hand Mudra depicts a whip. Durga is depicted as the one who rides a Lion as her vehicle. Talk about fierce.

Here are some of the lyrics translated for you:

Jai Durge, Durgati pariharini

Victory to Durga, the remover of sorrows

Shumbha vidarini Mata Bhavani

Remover of evils/ demons, our Mother

Adhi Sakthi Parabramha Swaroopini

The Primordial energy, the Ultimate form

It’s really wonderful that the Indian arts still find a way to communicate stories from the scriptures to the next generation. The piece that Vidhya Subramanian taught begins with a choreographed conversation and battle between the demon Mahisha and Goddess Durga that can be found in the Markandeya Purana (Vedic Scripture). In an act of arrogance, Mahisha received a boon that he could only be destroyed by a woman. When he sees Goddess Durga, believed to be the Ultimate energy, he scoffs at her unable to believe that she could defeat him. As they battle using various weapons, finally Durga kills him with a spear to his neck, a scene immortalized by many sculptures and paintings in India.

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Captured on a temple wall during my trip to Chidambaram, here is a sculpture of Kali/ Durga. The invaders may have chopped her arms off, but her power transcends all!

The primordial energy—the energy of creation is understandably exhalted in the female form. Womanhood is marked by moments of pain, strength and endurance. The story of Durga, dated to Vedic times is indigenous to the cultural history of India which is ironic given the current situation in the country. With female foeticide still happening in India (and not just the rural areas either), dark-skin shaming, acid-attacks on women who would *dare* to spurn a man… with politicians answering “boys will be boys,” when asked to comment on increasing sexual assault, it is indeed a paradox when the very same men in power pray to their Goddesses to get their seat in politics. It then becomes exceedingly important that the female energy in the form of Durga remains relevant and contextualized in the 21st century.

There is no ifs, ands, or buts about it #darkisbeautiful #stayunfair

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It is important to mention that Smt. Vidhya Subramanian has worked on projects such as Aham Sita that bring a modern perspective on ancient mythology by giving a voice to the female characters. When hearing Vidhya akka speak about such projects, I felt a kinship grow and look forward to more artists using traditional art to address current issues. In terms of learning, I appreciated Vidhya akka explaining the meaning and intention behind every movement. I find that within our generation, it is becoming increasingly rare to find people with a knowledge of Sanskrit, so it is extremely vital that as students we at the very least record word-for-word translations. She was patient and made sure that all students present understood the meanings and gave personal attention to each individual’s queries. When we had a Q&A session she had a lot of stories to share about her experiences learning from her Vadhyar Sri Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai, and touring with my Guru Smt. Anuradha Jagannathan. It is always wonderful to see how people who learned from Vadhyar speak with such fondness about his individualistic teaching style. Vidhya akka shared a sentiment that I have heard from my Guru as well – that Vadhyar was one of the last nattuvanars who designed pieces with the student’s strengths and weaknesses in mind.

Vidhya Subramanian in Hyderabad #Bharatanatyam #Performances #indianclassical

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It was a true delight sharing these experiences with Smt. Vidhya Subramanian and my new friends in Hyderabad. Jai Durge!

8 Things I learned from doing Outdoor Photoshoots

I am finally back in Canada and I am really grateful for some of the unique opportunities that came up while I was away. I had the chance to do a couple of outdoor photoshoots for the first time and while I am no super-model to be giving any advice I thought I’d share some tips.

  • Work your angles. This takes exercising some vanity in front of the mirror. It’s better if you have a few ideas of poses you want to do and understand how your body looks. Work to your strengths. Fix your posture and hand gestures as though you were being pulled up by a puppeteer. Most importantly, shift your body from being straight in front of the camera/mirror to being 45 degrees, and 90 degrees away. See what suits your desired pose best!

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  • Practice your different smiles. Again, this will engage some of your vanity, but I guess it’s a good thing we are all getting accustomed to taking empowering selfies! The thing is, sometimes your natural laughter or natural smile might be too wide and reflect too much light off your teeth. The irony is that your close-lipped, unnatural smile ends up looking more natural on camera and your genuine mirth can look insincere. Also remember how your makeup has been applied – if you go too overboard with your facial expressions and have dramatic makeup on at the same time it can be too much.
  • Stretch before you do the photoshoots and after. Doing photoshoots may seem like its easier than actually performing on stage. In some ways, yes it is. But remember you are required to hold your pose while the photographer adjusts his lights and level of flash. And you can’t let the strain show on your face! Because we aren’t models by profession this is probably the hardest part of the job. All those early lessons in adavus come handy in holding aramandi and muzhumandi!
  • Think about your makeup before the day of your photoshoot. My friend over at Drishti Photography (IG: @drishtiphotography) told me that natural light in India can be harsh and wash you out. She advised me to make sure my makeup is bold, because subtle makeup won’t photograph as well – it’s a good thing Bharatanatyam makeup is striking to begin with! She also said something that all photographers will remind you of – don’t face the sun directly because it will hurt your eyes.

 

 

  • Chose the people you work with wisely. Going back to Point 3, yes it’s difficult to hold your concentration and your pose at the same time. This means that who you have around you should be chosen wisely. People that purposefully make you laugh a lot are fun to have around on most days, but hysterical laughter doesn’t photograph too well (refer to Point 2). It’s good to have someone around to arrange the pleats of your outfit, make sure your jewelry is in the right place and encourage you. Complete silence isn’t great either, so have someone supportive around who will make you feel confident!
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The Muscat Sunset. This isn’t a green screen, this is real life!
  • Use the natural space around you to its fullest. I had a lot of fun working with both professional and amateur photographers because no one stopped me from climbing up on rocks and bring out my inner wild-child. If you have family around, be prepared for a lot of tsk-ing and gasps—but don’t let it stifle your creative ideas. And remember, it’s sometimes easier to grab footholds while climbing up, but harder when coming down!

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    At Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Hyderabad is famous for its dry air and rocky terrain.
  • Trust your photographer. Don’t be that person that stops them all the time to find out how the shot went. They can make magic on Photoshop happen so trust them! Stopping every five minutes will cut into the creative flow. Instead, if you really have an idea in your head talk to them about it before the shoot starts. Communication is key in almost everything! I was really lucky to have Michael Monteiro Photography at Hyderabad, because he was incredible at using the location and understanding exactly what I wanted.
  • HAVE FUN! It’s a privilege to have access to talent, costumes and jewelry. It’s become a necessity to constantly self-promote yourself no matter what field you’re in, so yes you go ahead and take every opportunity to strike a pose and capture your moment. Remember you love to dance and you know you look like an ethereal supernatural being!