For many of our volunteers, experiencing the culture of India means immersing themselves in traditional art forms such as Bharatanatyam. Leonie Rodenbuecher meets Shailaja Mahadevan, a Madurai-based Bharatanatyam dance teacher and artiste who exudes passion and grace with her every move
Today, India is torn between a rich cultural heritage and a modern Western lifestyle. Modernisation has also begun to erode traditional art forms such as Bharatanatyam. American television programmes popularise dance styles like Hip Hop to young audiences in India, while Indian classical dance forms slide into obscurity. But there are also those who try to keep the heritage alive by sharing their knowledge and teaching children. Shailaja Mahadevan, 39, is a professional Bharatanatyam artiste who is also proficient in other traditional Indian dance forms such as, Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi. She runs a dance school in north Madurai. No matter what challenges she has to face, dance is the golden thread that runs through her life. When we visited her family, we were warmly welcomed and given an interesting insight into Indian culture and classical dance.
Pursuing a dream
At the age of twelve, Shailaja began dancing in her mother’s music and dance school ‘Kalakendra.’ Her mother, Saroja Thirumalai, was a talented veena artiste and dancer. As her idol and mentor, Saroja not only passed on her dancing genes, but also set an example on how to pursue her dreams. Her mother was not allowed to perform on stage because her parents believed that a woman who dances in front of an audience wouldn’t find a husband. By founding the dance school, the musical woman found a way to live her passion.
At the tender age of 15 years, Shailaja started to teach in her mother’s school when one of the other teachers was sick or unavailable. “At first I was afraid because even my brother’s friends were there,” she remembers. “I thought I would be too young to teach older students and especially boys or men.” But after three or four days, this feeling ended because she had gained the respect of the students. Shailaja shares her mother’s passion, and over the years has collected much knowledge about Indian classical dance and also about teaching.
Quality not quantity
Shailaja currently holds classes for eight children in her own living room but she also teaches 25 performing students at Yadava College in the city. She prefers to teach fewer students because she feels that they should not only learn the dance steps but also learn about culture and the history of classical dance. “It’s not about the number of students. They should take it seriously and complete the course properly,” she says.
Men and women both learn the Bharatanatyam. While many characters are female, some characters are male and can only be played by men. “I choose males even if they don’t have a lot of experience and give them training because men’s body language can’t be imitated by female dancers,” explains Shailaja.
Normally a child starts taking dance classes between ages five to eight years. “From the age of 15 years, they are more able to demonstrate the dramatic feeling of the dance and their face expressions come automatically when the music starts.”
Even though you need a lot of experience and interest in the culture to perform Bharatanatyam perfectly, most of the students only take it as a hobby or past time in their teens. As students get older, many often find it difficult to find time to continue with their dance due to academic and family commitments. But it is also becoming less popular as trends shift towards Western dances.
“Indian classical dance takes a lot of time to learn and you really have to devote yourself to the training,” Shailaja says. “Nowadays people don’t want to spend so much time, they want to learn everything quickly and easily.”
More than dance
While Indian students tend to follow Western influences, overseas students who come to Madurai for university are often interested in local Indian traditions. Shailaja has taught dance to nationals from Singapore, Canada, Germany, China, Dubai and the US. She loves to share her culture with those who hunger for such knowledge. “They respect our culture even more than some of the local youngsters and want to learn all about it,” remarks Shailaja, her enthusiasm obvious from her sparkling eyes.
Many of her overseas students have been magnificent dancers and she has enjoyed including them in performances. They are a great favorite with people who plan events because they stoke audience interest even more than Indian dancers. Many of her former foreign students have continued Bharatanatyam in their own countries and some have even started their own schools.
Being the passionate professional that she is, when Shailaja shares her knowledge of dance, her words are full of emotion. This is just one of the reasons parents choose her to teach their children. And of course there is also the fact that her performances leave a lasting impression on the audience.
Sapna, a 12-year-old dance studen explains, “My mother wanted me to join this school because she had seen one of Shailaja’s performances. When I decided to take regular classes, she searched for her.” Sapna’s mother watches every lesson she attends with interest because in her youth she was not allowed to dance. Now she wants to give Sapna the chance she never had.
Dancing in the Womb
Just as Shailaja was inspired by her mother, she has passed her passion onto her own daughter, Sri Hamsini. Practicing around two hours a day, Sri Hamsini is visibly excited about Bharatanatyam and can’t wait to show us her talent. According to her proud mother, she began to dance in the womb!
“When I dance, I can forget about the outside world and get involved in the role I play. Whether it is a deer or a lion, I slip into the role and feel all the emotions inside,”
With confidence and flowing movements as if she has never done anything else in her life, Sri Hamsini dances across the living room. She tells a story using expressive gestures. Her emotional performance brings the story alive. “I am so happy to dance,” the nine-year-old says. “When I hear music, I just have to start dancing!” And indeed so far in her life, she has several heartwarming performances to her credit.
For example, when the girls went to Rameswaram to perform in the Meenakshi Thiru Kalayanam Festival, they had a surprise participant. “None of us had practiced much before the festival, but we were confident that we would follow the steps correctly by looking at the other group members. We had prepared a dance for only half a song, but then they played the whole song.” Suddenley a man from the audienhce came up on stage and started dancing vigorously. The children were taken by surprise and didn’t know how to react. The girls all started following his steps and the performance continued. But after the programme was over, he just disappeared into the crowd again.
When I ask her about her future dreams, Sri Hamsini passionately tells me that she wants to follow in the dance steps of her mother undaunted by any of the challenges she may face along the way.
Dance as therapy
Bharatanatyam is not just a dance. It is a complex collaboration of body language, facial expressions and even psychology. Because of this, the dance even works as a form of physical therapy. Interestingly, it is also a form of physical therapy for physically challenged students as it can improve flexibility which can help decrease muscle stiffness and thereby the pain .
A six-year-old girl who regularly visits Shailaja’s dance lessons is troubled with a leg disability. After three years of taking classes she is able to dance for nearly one and a half hours without pain. “The stretching exercises improved her medical condition enormously,” explains the dance teacher. “We do stretching to warm-up and at the end of the dance classes. Stretches like rotating the hips can be very beneficial.”
There is also a child in the dance group who is mentally challenged. For the last two years she has been dancing in her free time and has grown enormously in confidence, which has improved her ability to face the world. Supported by her whole family, she even enjoys performing on the stage in front of an audience.
What does dance means to Shailaja? Bharatanatyam is clearly central to her life. Her love and motivation shines from within. “It’s my passion, my belief!” she says. And even when you listen to her, one can recognise that she is a dancer by the graceful way she moves as she speaks. Even if some people may view Bharatanatyam in a skeptical way, Shailaja doesn’t stop devoting a lot of time and love to it. And devotion and love is exactly what is needed to learn this dance.
Shailaja says that anybody who is interested is qualified to start. So if you are interested, don’t hesitate to give dancing a go! If you are able to move your arms and legs, you can dance. All you need is the willingness to devote time to learning. And it pays. “When I dance, I can forget about the outside world and get involved in the role I play. Whether it is a deer or a lion, I slip into the role and feel all the emotions inside,” she says with a dreamy expression on her face.
Shiailaja’s wish for the future is to spread the joy of Bharatanatyam to countries all over the world. As near and dear to her as Indian classical dance is, she is adamant that it be seen not only as entertainment, but also as art.
Bharatanatyam is a classical dance from Southern India, mostly practiced in Tamil Nadu. The dance dates back about 2000 years. Originally it was only used to worship the Gods in Hindustan temples. In the 18th century, people began performing it on stage in the palaces of south Indian Maharajas. From then on, it became increasingly popular. Bharatanatyam is very different to other contemporary dances because it has such a spiritual origin.
Still today, it follows special traditions and rules. Mostly the dance is performed accompanied by Carnatic music and tells mythological, religious or historic stories. Dancers use expressive gestures called ‘Mudras’ which are like a kind of sign language to act out the plot. This makes it understandable even for those who are not able to follow the lyrics. Students can gain physical fitness as well mental balance, similar to yoga.