For a seasoned dancer in a specific style, learning a new dance form is quite the adventure.
I mean that in both a positive and a negative sense, but mostly a positive sense, I’m glad to say!
I started my Bharatanatyam training at the (late) age of 13 (most classical dancers begin around the age of 5, so you can imagine…) under the guidance of my guru Smt. Nandini Mandal. As a not-so-flexible teenager, Bharatanatyam was torture. The basic posture – aramandi – left my legs burning and my mind reeling with the knowledge that my peers were not struggling nearly as much as I was. The other girls in my beginner’s group were ages 5-7, and I was the clear outsider. This was a pattern that continued as I went up from Beginner’s A to B to C, to the intermediate levels, to first and second year training…I was soon put with my age group but I was definitely lacking in skill and grace. It left me with immense frustration and an unwillingness to put in my full effort to practice during the week; what was the point, I asked myself? Is anyone ever going to praise your grace or abilities?
But the funny thing about dance is that even if you feel like you are lacking, there is nothing that persistence and practice cannot cure. And although I struggled with the discipline of practicing during the week, eventually, the fluidity started to make an appearance. One day, I was no longer stumbling over my own feet or waving my arms about like a windmill. I was suddenly able to maintain my aramandi or muzhumandi without falling over or giving up halfway through the piece. And as I practiced the adavus and dance pieces before class, my muscles began committing the movements to memory.
One thing that worked in my favour, perhaps, was my understanding of the emotions and language of Bharatanatyam. My father’s side of the family hails from Tamil Nadu, and Bharatanatyam is the cultural totem of the state. My grandmother would listen to padams and thillanas and hum along as she grated coconut, and my grandfather would occasionally flip the old box television set to a channel featuring classical dance programmes. My mother taught Sanskrit and I had learnt some Hindustani classical music, so I technically had the foundation to become a good classical dancer.
But foundations are not enough to carry the weight of a building. The architecture, the care with which the structure is designed, the precision of each building block, and the skill of the architect and engineer all contribute to the final product.
Ask any dancer how they gained further appreciation of their own art form and improved their skills, and they will mention two things – endless practice and exposure to alternative dance forms. After years of learning Bharatanatyam, the love for the art form grew within me. I began avidly reading books on the dance form and other classical dance forms of India. I watched performances in the theater as well as on YouTube. When I got Instagram, I followed performers and exponents, watching their precise execution and flawless abhinaya to help hone my own. I learnt by teaching new dance students at my guru’s academy; sometimes, teaching others a skill is the best way of finding and mending the gaps in your own knowledge. Preparing for an arangetram taught me that determination and dedication go a long way in creating a final product that is worth presenting to the world. And it also taught me that there is a long path ahead of a dancer even after her arangetram, her so-called graduation into the world of solo dance.
It was upon this long path that I embarked after my arangetram in 2012, in a quest to learn as much about my dance form and to delve into its intricacies. A new graduate delights in putting her knowledge to the test, and a dancer is no different. I tried my hand at various choreographies and exposed myself to other schools of Bharatanatyam through workshops in Chennai, Mumbai, and those organised by my guru in Pittsburgh. I choreographed small pieces for various functions and watched endless other dancers’ renditions of the same song to pick up the finer bits that would transform my dance into something spellbinding. And I learnt that no matter how much you practice, there is no compensation for the ability to think on your feet and truly become one with your dance when the time comes to perform on the stage.
When the COVID-19 outbreak led to a lockdown, I wasn’t sure of how I would manage my suddenly-overflowing free time. Watching television and movies held little enthrall for me. Reading books was a good option, but I knew that exercise and motion were key in keeping my spirits up and energy high. Thus began my daily routine of dance. Every day, I traipse to my dancing space attired in a cotton salwar kameez and lose myself in music and rhythm. Some days I focus on my adavus and pure nritta – thillanas are a particular favourite. On other days, when I feel the need to express emotions, I prefer to try my hand at abhinaya (expressions). And one day, when a visiting dance teacher offered me the chance to learn a new dance form, I jumped at the chance to test my abilities and expand my horizons.
Enter Harikishan Nair, a teacher of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Mohiniyattam based in Toronto, Canada. He had taught multiple workshops at my dance academy in Pittsburgh, and thus we knew each other. Hari Sir offered me the opportunity to learn Mohiniyattam via Zoom (god bless technology in times like these!) along with an eclectic group of dancers who were also keen to expand their repertoire during this stressful time.
I turned up for my first class slightly apprehensive but confident that my Bharatanatyam training would help me navigate the waters of Mohiniyattam. But while my mind was able to wrap around the complexities and intricacies of the new dance form, I forgot the power of muscle memory.
My legs simply could not understand why they had to adopt a new posture – the aramandi of Mohiniyattam (which is called prerita in Bharatanatyam) – instead of the good old Bharatanatyam aramandi position. In Mohiniyattam, the body is held in this wider stance (feet are two feet apart) and low, to allow for the opening of the hip joint. Feet point outwards. While the concept of sitting with my feet in a V-shape and knees pointed out was not foreign to me, I had never had to hold prerita for such a long time. Within five minutes of holding the posture, my thighs were shaking and begging for release. I grimly held on, but I learnt that it is extremely difficult to focus on torso movements when one’s legs are threatening to flop underneath them.
Torso movements are another aspect of Mohiniyattam that really don’t apply in Bharatanatyam training. The dancer’s body sways gracefully like the palm trees of Kerala, the state from which Mohiniyattam originated, while the lower body remains centered. This is something that I struggle immensely with as a dancer used to holding her torso erect and moving crisply. The motion of Mohiniyattam can be described as languid and sensual, while Bharatanatyam is far sharper; its beauty lies in the precise steps and angles of the body. In learning Mohiniyattam, I am also training my body to absorb two highly different styles of motion and to switch between the two as necessary.
After my Saturday Mohiniyattam class, I stretch out my legs and back, aware of each muscle in these body parts. The strain on my knees is palpable, something I experienced before my arangetram when I was learning my varnam but haven’t faced since. I have to write down steps and think about the swaying torso motion, committing it to muscle memory just as I had to learn the adavus of Bharatanatyam so many years ago. Learning a new dance style is teaching me humility as well; as someone who has performed Bharatanatyam before and received praise for execution of certain pieces, it is somewhat disconcerting to be a beginner again and to undo certain movements. But it is incredibly enriching. I am suddenly exposed to an entirely new side of classical dance – one that is highly feminine in its grace. My mind is opened to the culture of Kerala, the history of a new dance form, and I find myself looking at videos of Mohiniyattam exponents to better understand it. My leg muscles are stronger, especially the muscles that I rarely use in Bharatanatyam. My mind is quicker and, like a sponge, rushes to absorb new steps and theory much more rapidly than it did a few months ago. And my stamina is increasing as I work out different muscle groups between these two very rigorous Indian classical dance forms.
Would I recommend the experience of learning a new dance form? Oh definitely! It has opened up my mind, given me a whole new workout, and taught me humility and patience. It has reminded me of the value of practice and dedication. It has taught me how to be grateful for small victories and to not take defeat to heart. And I have a stronger love for Bharatanatyam as a result, a newfound appreciation for the art form and the little details that I took for granted all these years.