The most connected I’ve ever felt to my culture as an Indian American growing up in a conservative suburb of Los Angeles was when I attended Bharatanatyam lessons. Originating in south India, Bharatanatyam is an expression of devotion that combines complex rhythmic footwork with subtle eye movements and hand gestures, making it one of the most virtuosic and theatrically expressive dance forms in the world. I was fortunate to have been taught this traditional art form by a teacher who ate, slept, breathed, and lived dance. Viji Prakash of the Los Angeles based Shakti School of Bharata Natyam was intense in all the right ways and opened the doors to a whole new life that my classmates and I instantly became addicted to. She gave us amazing opportunities to showcase our talent and also exposed us to a plethora of artists across the globe to expand our breadth of knowledge. My favorite memories were of hearing stories of the dance scene when she was dancing in India. She would describe in such vivid detail her classes, teachers, dance mates, and various festivals she would perform in. So when I received this fellowship, an important item on my India bucket list was to experience this spectacle, and in February, I had the unique opportunity to.
‘Natyanjali’ translates to ‘offering dance’ and is a festival, whose devotional aspect separates it from others, that is celebrated for 5 days at the end of February inviting dancers all over the world to participate and offer their art to the lord of dance, Nataraja. Chennai (the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu) is the hub of Carnatic dance and music and houses some of the oldest temples in India along with a throng of the most talented artists and teachers and the most esteemed platforms to perform. Dancers congregate in Chidambaram, the most hallowed and ancient sacred spots in which the holy shrine of Nataraja is full of esoteric and spiritual significance. The icon residing in this temple has been a perennial inspiration for the art of dance in India and thus is the most appropriate arena to which an offering of dance is given.
I was fortunate to have been traveling with a performer in the festival (Pranita) and experienced a minutia of the magic that I heard so much about. Pranita has been training under Guru Harikrishna Kalyanasundaram of the Sri Rajarajeswari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir in Mumbai for the past 11 years. From the moment I landed in the Chennai airport, the air was filled with the exciting buzz of dancers and musicians in every corner. Since its inception in 1981, Natyanjali has acquired international dimension and features 300-400 dancers and also involves ~300 accompanying artists. Dancers and musicians travel from temple to temple around Chennai and perform at allotted times for five days and nights without any gaps in time. In a large vehicle filled with jewelry, costumes, instruments and more, 10 of us drove to each of 6 venues.
For those unfamiliar with Indian classical dance forms, it is important to note the extensive and intricate process of preparation. Each costume is delicate with multiple components; jewelry is fragile but heavy, chunky, and usually painful when situated; and one must not forget the garland of flowers pinned to a long braid and heavy brass bells strapped to the dancers feet. Though it becomes routine for dancers to undergo this process, I watched in awe at how quickly and easily each step had been undertaken. Costumes needed to be changed in between performances and in our case, two of the performances were so close in time that a costume change happened in the back of the car-and yet she looked glorious! Before commencing each performance, however, it was compulsory for the guru (teacher) and sishya (student) to pay their respects to the temple idol.
What amazed me most as we traveled at odd hours of the night for these five days was not just how dancers and musicians performed with indefatigable grace and energy, never faltering in the meticulous details of each piece, but also how enthusiastically and intently hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would watch each performance. Devotees of all ages would gather around the stage to catch sight of the artists, sleeping in the space when they were tired and eating the simple food provided by each temple. It is this allegiance and love for the arts that made even the longest of nights seem like no time had passed.
In short, this journey proved to be everything that I looked forward to experiencing for so many years. Witnessing the hustle and bustle of the artists itinerary through the frenzy of the festival drew me back the days of my childhood, and I was once again hooked to the magnetism of dance.