Thaka Dimi Thaka Jonu

Yukta shares her journey with, Bharatanatyam is a classical art form that originated in Southern India over 2,000 years ago.

Image supplied by: Yukta Ramanan

The sharp beats of my dance teacher’s nattuvangam1 slice through the air as I step into the studio. Sliding my soles across familiar vinyl flooring and breathing in the balmy air, I am reminded of how lucky I am—to be thousands of miles away from my motherland, but to still be so intrinsically connected to it. 

Bharatanatyam is a classical art form that originated in Southern India over 2,000 years ago. Entrenched in a narrative that has traversed war and marginalization, it is a marvel that this ancient art has reached me deep in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. 

I started learning Bharatanatyam at the ripe age of four, much to my naive chagrin at the time. I grimaced at the prominent makeup, heavy jewelry, and itchy costumes that I would have to wear and longed to be back in my preschool ballet class, where I would get to don bouncy tutus and rose clips in my hair. Although I’ve never expressed overt embarrassment about my culture or heritage, I glossed over Bharatanatyam in my conversations for years in my early childhood. It was reduced to nothing more than an “Indian classical dance.” People seldom prodded for more information—the mere mention of such a complicated word often deterred them from doing so – but on the rare occasion that they did, I found myself unconsciously launching into a passionate discussion of the new mudras2 I was learning in class and their cultural significance. I learned that the heavy makeup and dark kohl3 that I had so detested were used to accentuate dancers’ features and ensure that their nuanced expressions could be seen on large stages. I also learned that instead of tying paper rose clips into my hair, I would be able to fasten a string of fresh jasmine flowers at the nape of my neck.

Thus, my qualms about leaving ballet had soon dissipated. I grew to embrace the rigor of Bharatanatyam and bore the weight of my culture with unwavering pride. I no longer felt the need to glaze over details of my performances and work, choosing instead to unabashedly express that cherished component of my identity. My incredible teacher, who believed that dance history and theory were just as important as the actual movements, additionally instilled in us a deep understanding of her choreography, allowing us to truly delve into its traditional depth. 

To equate Bharatanatyam to just a type of dance seems to undermine its beauty. Although it is a dance in its elemental state – an amalgamation of coordinated, rhythmic body movements – it is also a profoundly cultural experience. Sitting on the floor of the studio, hastily penciling in notes about Bharatanatyam’s origin and evolution, I feel transported to an oddly academic setting. Each performed hand and leg movement is deliberate and represents centuries worth of research/corroboration. However, although the pedagogical approach remains as decreed in its founding documents, Bharatanatyam has evolved to embrace all creeds, races, sexualities, genders, and socioeconomic statuses – making it a truly inclusive art form.

Bharatanatyam also indubitably contains a theatrical aspect to it. While some themes (like utter devotion to the divine and a mother’s pride for her newborn) are difficult to connect with, others are wildly relatable. When the Gopi5 tries, unsuccessfully, to conceal her affection for Lord Krishna, I am reminded of personally having a crush on someone. When a mother reprimands her child for mischievous behavior, I am transported to memories of babysitting my cousins, who seemed to get into trouble wherever they went. Although I attempt to immerse myself in a character’s disposition and journey, I find dance themes bleeding over into aspects of contemporary life. By portraying emotions ranging from love and euphoria to bereavement and rage, I am also more in tune with my own feelings. In this sense, Bharatanatyam is used to catalyze not only societal change but also personal growth.

Bharatanatyam is an art form at its core. Each gesture follows a loose, but calculated science, and is used to convey a particular theme. Praspuritam4, a rapid blinking movement, can be used to show the sun getting into a character’s eyes or even their flitting, flirtatious gaze as their lover walks by. A scrunch of the eyebrows, depending on how exactly a dancer performs it, could evince either an angry or quizzical gaze. A slight shift of hand placement on the hips could denote a shift from a male character to a female one. The tautness of fingers in a mudra determines the difference between representing a snake, an elephant, and a spider. These small details, coupled with intricate hand and leg movements, aim to pay homage to the devotional temple sculptures that Bharatanatyam draws its inspiration from. 

I do not claim to be a perfect dance student. I have so much room to grow and so much left to learn. When the clutches of academia beckon, I find myself – like every busy high school student – struggling to carve out time. When the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown struck, the future of our dance classes was thrown into jeopardy. However, we made it work – shifting classes to digital platforms and eventually meeting in person when restrictions were lifted. All the dancers are cloaked in thick masks and it is initially difficult to discern their emotions as they rehearse their items. We are all a little more tired than we were a year ago – the toll of the tumultuous year wreaking havoc in our lives and the lives of our loved ones. However, as I glance at my teammates’ eyes I see a hazy, but growing flame—a flame charging us to continue on this journey, no matter how difficult it became. My flame is charged by not only my zeal for the art form and what it has done for me, but also my dedication to preserving the remains of my heritage in a land so distant, and starkly contrasting, to its origin. I am wholly dedicated to keeping this flame alight. 

  1. nattuvangam – rhythmic beats played on a wooden block \
  2. mudras – symbolic hand gestures
  3. kohl – black powder used to line dancers’ eyes
  4. praspuritam – eye movement of rapid blinking
  5. Gopi – a Hindu term for a female cowherd, especially one that is unconditionally devoted to 
  6. Krishna – a revered Hindu God

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