Bharatanatyam — it’s an ancient form of classical Indian dance that’s as entrenched in Indian culture as ballet is in the West. It originated in southern India as an element of worship in Hindu temples.
But despite its prominence in Indian culture, having the opportunity to learn this special dance form has been a forbidden teenage dream for some girls in India.
Aparna Roy Kollannur was raised Catholic, one of the largest religious minorities in her native state of Kerala.
“My dad is very religious,” she said.
Kerala is near the birthplace of Bharatanatyam and as such, the dance form is a significant part of the region’s culture.
Roy Kollannur said that while “everybody” around her learned Bharatanatyam when she was growing up, her family wouldn’t let her learn the dance largely due to its religious associations.
Besides excellent footwork, the dance requires a lot coordination between body, hands, and even the fingers and the eyes. (CBC/Arturo Chang)
“I wanted to do like a bachelor’s in Bharatanatyam, and then master’s, and then do research in it, and stuff like that. But my parents wouldn’t let me do that,” Roy Kollannur said.
“It’s not like a profession that’s in the social framework in India.”
Nevertheless, she returned to her “first love” later in life, training under two gurus in India and learning both the theory and practice behind the dance.
This is my way of reforming the societal view, and the societal structure.– Aparna Roy Kollannur
Now Roy Kollannur is sharing her passion for Bharatanatyam with Islanders.
She came to P.E.I. a few years ago as a student.
And this month, she started giving weekly Bharatanatyam lessons to children and adults at the DownStreet Dance non-profit dance studio in Charlottetown.
“Aparna actually approached us and wanted to teach her class in an environment that was supportive. So we said yes, absolutely,” said Laura Weatherbie, DownStreet’s board president.
“We’re so excited to support anyone who wants to teach people a little bit about their culture.”
‘A form of expression and communication’
Selvi Roy is one of Roy Kollannur’s students.
“I’ve been here 10-odd years and I have spoken with people who have been here for 60 years plus. And all of them have said the same thing: ‘We’ve not had anybody teach Bharatanatyam here in P.E.I.,'” she said.
Selvi Roy said that growing up she had to be very discreet when the subject of Bharatanatyam came up. (Submitted by Selvi Roy)
“We’ve had folks who know the dance, who have learned the dance and graduated and are performing on different stages … But what Aparna brings to P.E.I. at the moment, I doubt we’ve ever had.”
Like Roy Kollannur, Selvi Roy also grew up in India, and her desire to learn Bharatanatyam was also quashed at an early age.
She said some of her fellow students have expressed similar motivations to learn the dance: they weren’t allowed the opportunity to do so when they were younger.
“I grew up in in the northern part of the country, a province where this dance form was the privilege of only the elite, because learning this dance form was a very expensive endeavour,” said Roy.
“It was against the working class ethos of the time, if you may, that kids learn to work more than learn to dance.”
Roy’s family was also Catholic. She said that growing up she had to be very discreet when the subject of Bharatanatyam came up, and only rarely had the opportunity to watch performances on TV.
She only ever attended two dance concerts. She went with friends, and never said a word about it to her parents.
There’s a little teen somewhere deep within me who wants to learn the dance and be able to express freely.— Selvi Roy
“Part of me might want to tell my dad, that, ‘Well, I do have a chance to dance now.’ So there might be, there’s a little teen somewhere deep within me who wants to learn the dance and be able to express freely,” Roy said.
“There is a very tiny element of rebellion there. But for the most part, it is a form of expression and communication. It is a communion of the body with the spirit in oneself. That, for me, is the essence of the dance.”
Storytelling and dance
Bharatanatyam has its roots in an ancient treatise of the arts called the Natya Shastra and for most of its history was performed exclusively in Hindu temples by women.
The dance is usually accompanied by music in a South India style featuring traditional instruments, and lyrics related to Hindu mythology.
“This is something that I’ve wanted to do my entire life. And I’m finally doing it,” Roy Kollannur says. (CBC/Arturo Chang)
Roy said that because the dancers are representing the divine, they normally have to wear their “best attire”: Colourful, hand-woven silks, lots of bright jewelry, and many ornaments, all of which have symbolic significance.
The dancing itself is no less symbolic.
“It became a form of storytelling of the ancient scriptures that were there,” Roy said.
“The movement goes from slow to fast and fast to slow depending on the story that is being narrated, … [the beat] goes to a higher frequency when you’re telling tales maybe of battle, of rage … But when emotions of love are expressed, the cadence will be softer or slower.”
Roy said besides excellent footwork, the dance requires a lot coordination between body, hands, and even the fingers and the eyes. That’s because the dance is based on a series of gestures that can take years to master, all with a certain meaning.
“[You’re] communicating a story to the audience, with music, with expressions with footwork with handwork,” said Roy Kollannur.
“If you want to convey anything, you can do it through Bharatanatyam.”
Demystifying an ancient dance form
Roy Kollannur said she’s trying to teach her students the foundations of the dance. But she’s no traditionalist.
She said that in her humble way she’s trying to demystify the dance for ordinary people, trying to put less of an emphasis on Bharatanatyam’s religious aspect and more on its ability to tell different kinds of stories.
“This is not for people of a certain country, or whatever. It is for everybody,” she said. “I wouldn’t call it rebellion. But I would say [Bharatanatyam] is my way of reforming the societal view, and the societal structure.”
“The whole point of what we do is to encourage people who maybe have never danced, maybe to encourage people who have never tried a dance from a different culture, or if they’re from India and they’re looking for something that’s a touchstone,” Weatherbie said.
“It’s building community across cultural barriers, right? Instead of making them.”
Sharing a passion with others
Roy Kollannur said dancing has helped her survive very dark times in her life related to her personal struggles with anxiety and depression.
She said she has tried many styles of dancing, from reggae to Afrobeat to Zumba and Bollywood-style dancing. But none connect with her the same way than Bharatanatyam.
“It also gives me a lot of positivity and a lot of confidence, because this is something that I’ve wanted to do my entire life. And I’m finally doing it,” she said.
Roy Kollannur said her family is now more supportive since they know she’s still not lost her passion for dance. Now, her goal is to generate that same passion in others.
“I’ve had a lot of dreams about dancing and teaching dance,” she said.
“My family kind of put it down or like didn’t let me do it, but now that I’m here, I have so much opportunities. I can do something new and I can introduce Bharatanatyam to other people.”