Ten years ago, members of the small Indian community of Dunedin, New Zealand could not have seemed to know Indian classical dance forms from a distance. Residents of the southeast coast of the South Island are now well acquainted with the intricacies of classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam.
Dunedin is just one place where classical Indian dance makes deeper forays into the life of the Indian community settled on foreign shores, helping them stay connected to their culture and roots.
Swaroopa Unni, who established the Natyaloka Indian Dance School in Dunedin in 2011, started out with just two students in the spare bedroom of her rented apartment. Today she runs a dance studio with over 30 students. The dance school has made a significant contribution to popularizing Indian dance forms in the region.
âWhen I moved to Dunedin in 2010, the Indian community was barely visible because the numbers were low and there weren’t many people who knew about Indian dance forms,â says Unni. âBollywood was very popular at the time and most of the community was not aware of the various forms of dance in India. She took one step at a time and chose Bharatanatyam because it had global appeal. The fact that she received intense training in Bharatanatyam during her childhood, of course, helped.
From volunteer shows and workshops to using Bollywood as a bridge across to the community, Unni has tried everything to popularize classical dance. Eventually the community got curious and the first students appeared.
Increase in the number of subscribers
Dancing for many of them is not just an art form; it’s one of the ways to help them stay connected to their roots. Besides Bharatnatyam, other Indian classical dances such as Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam and Odissi are also becoming popular abroad. Today’s Indian dance forms have crossed borders and left an inedible mark in countries like New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the United States and South Korea. So much so that they have become an important part of the celebrations organized by various Indian associations in the country.
Yamini Aluru and Raka Gupta of Yuva Bharathi, a nonprofit organization based in Bay Area / Silicon Valley, Calif., Say the number of immigrants has increased, causing an increase in demand for classical dances.
The duo also points out that the Kathak has attracted a large number of foreign audiences because it is more interactive than other forms of classical dance. However, it is Bharatanatyam that has carved out a special place for itself in the hearts of Americans of Indian descent, as most families in South India would like their children to learn dance or train in Carnatic music.
The popularity that classical dance forms have gained in the Bay Area is evident from the increasing number of performances conducted by Yuva Bharati since its inception in 2006. Over a period spanning a decade, the organization has staged 62 Indian classical dance concerts and provided an opportunity for 35 professional dancers.
Adopt new styles
The demand for classical dances is only growing and this would not be possible if dancers were not open to fine-tuning the rigid structures of classical dance forms. It was important for them to introduce contemporary elements in order to keep up with the changing times, as the current generation is exposed to a number of dance styles such as contemporary, ballet, jazz, hip-hop and prom.
âThe adaptation of classical themes and art forms to modern times and the presentation of stories more relevant to the present day have, to some extent, helped to prevent the decline of traditional dance forms,â says Aluru. and Gupta. “Many Americans of Indian descent are forging a different course because of the rigidity of our forms and incorporating Bollywood and some traditional dance forms.”
Seema Nagendra of the Bharathanatyanjali Dance School located at Lyndhurst in Victoria, Australia, has also evolved from classical forms in India. âLike everything else, the art form has to adapt and evolve to keep up with the ever-changing world. I have noticed that this has already started to change both in India and elsewhere, âsays Nagendra, who teaches Bharatanatyam to 70 students.
Interestingly, it is not just the Indian Diaspora that is popularizing Indian dance forms abroad. Many foreigners who learned classical Indian dance forms in the country have returned to their home countries to spread their knowledge and love of the art. A number of dance schools are run by foreigners in Germany, France, Poland, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia who specialize in classical Indian dance forms. Through workshops, seminars and recitals, these dance aficionados do their part to shed light on Indian culture. The Indian film industry also has a huge role to play in popularizing classical dance forms abroad.
Despite the popularity of classical Indian dance forms, finding a good teacher is usually still a challenge. Sreeja Ramesh, a housewife based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, says her 8-year-old daughter Avni had to interrupt her training in Bharatnatyam when her teacher moved.
Plus, dance training is an expensive calling in the Middle East, says Ramesh. âI wanted my daughter to train with one teacher, but even in dance schools here, it’s hard to find a dedicated teacher who would be willing to stay for years and educate children. On the other hand, teachers who are ready to come home and teach charge exorbitant fees, âshe says.
The quality of training is another factor that must be taken into account, says Chandu Arjun, an accountant based at Umm Al Quwain in the United Arab Emirates. âAfter being a Kalaprathibha in the United Arab Emirates, I had the opportunity to play with a Kalaprathibha and a Kalathilakam from Kerala. I have to admit that there was a clear difference in their techniques, as their performances were a bit more refined, âexplains Arjun.
The journey of classical dance forms is not without obstacles, but most followers believe that a bright future awaits them on the world stage. âMost immigrant parents think that if they enroll their children in a dance or music school, it will help them stay connected to their culture and their roots,â Aluru and Gupta say. “The artists have adapted to modern times and incorporated modern themes to maintain interest.”