A young economist, a Guinness Book record holder, a Grammy performer and a Hollywood singer are some of the young stars of Indian classical dance pushing the boundaries of the art with innovation and contemporary creativity. Bharatanatyam dancer and economist, 30-year-old Sharanya Chandran is a London School of Economics alumna, whose expertise in skill development has found a connect with innovation in choreography.
Odissi exponent Arushi Mudgal, 27, finds it gratifying to take Indian dance abroad—at 22, she performed her solo composition at the Internationales Tanz Festival in Germany, a major annual contemporary festival held in Vienna where thousands of professional dancers, choreographers and teachers gather for five weeks of artistic exploration and workshops.
Both 26-year-old Kuchipudi dancer Bhavana Reddy and 35-year-old Kathak dancer Vidha Lal have experimented widely with their skills. Bhavana once performed at a Grammy afterparty, cut the solo EP Tangled in Emotions and sung grunge for Hollywood thriller Joy Ride 3.
Vidha holds the Guinness world record for maximum bhramaris (spinning movements) in one minute, was first runner-up in an international beauty contest in Fiji and a celebrity judge in a reality TV show.
The difference between these women and their predecessors is that they are willing to step out of the rigour of their discipline and reinvent their forms.
These are lucrative days for Indian dance overseas with Manhattan tapping its feet to Bollywood dance classes. However, the absence of big bucks doesn’t dishearten dancers such as Bimbavati Devi, whose craft segues seamlessly into the present classical genre, as was witnessed at the recent International Dance Day in the end of April.
Says Kathak exponent Abhimanyu Lal, “The realm of classical dance has changed overall even though the grammar hasn’t. There are more dancers coming in, and hence we artists want to do better, innovative and beautiful creative productions. It’s an intelligent space.”
The realm of classical dance is a magical whirl today. The traditional base and experimental encouragement for artists come from their families: Sharanya has a famous mother, Bharatanatyam danseuse Dr Geeta Chandran; Arushi is the daughter of musician Madhup Mudgal and niece of Odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal; Bhavana’s parents are celebrity dancers Radha and Raja Reddy, while Bimbavati’s folks are the distinguished dancer Kalavati Devi and late Guru Bipin Singh.
Sharanya Chandran, Bharatanatyam
In a recent presentation called Anekanta by her mother and guru Geeta Chandran’s dance company Natya Vriksha, Sharanya related how Bharatanatyam renditions were inspired by Jain philosophy. “To translate the very abstract theme of Anekanta into an aesthetic visual experience, we tried multiple choreographic devices. There was a segment on how the alarippu (the first pure item taught to any student of Bharatanatyam) could be performed differently using various rhythmic interplays but they all converge in the samapti (last beat),” says Sharanya.
A mix of rhythm and improvisation speckles Sharanya’s work. A few years ago when Sharanya was sharing the stage with her mother at Sankat Mochan Festival in Varanasi, she was unfazed by her mother’s manodharma (improvisations). “Sharanya had imbibed the art of manodharma, of creating at the spur of the moment,” says Geeta.
That is what Sharanya loves doing the most—improvising on stage. “Because I have a formal training in nattuvangam (cymbals), I instantly respond to musical surprises through mudras and abhinaya, ” says Sharanya. “We constantly respond to the revolutions in space design, music and time, but there has to be a deft balance to retain the core grammar and aesthetic of the style.”
Earlier, traditional Bharatanatyam was a solo art form. With larger spaces available, duets and group recitals have become common. “We have taken the iconography of Shiva and performed it to an English script to bridge the language gap. Once there is a core understanding and connection with this imagery, similar compositions in Tamil, Telugu or Sanskrit become relatable,” says Sharanya, who holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics in Development Studies, and also stays busy with research and policy for solving development challenges in South Asia as she is a developmental professional in the policy space.“I avoid pieces that propagate caste hierarchy and project women in an inferior and unequal light,” says Sharanya.
Command over abhinaya, laya (rhythm) and manudharma (improvisation).
Performing to live orchestra, which renders more scope for improvisation on stage. There is plenty of freedom to communicate and it shows the dancer’s command over her art.
The strength of our training gears us to adapt to difficulties. So even when there is a technical
glitch, we breeze over it with conviction.
A rhythm-based Bharatanatyam recital that is in the conceptualisation stage.
Arushi Mudgal, Odissi
Arushi’s thoughts are as crystal as exquisite is her art—as an artiste, you have creative convictions and you try to bring them out through your work. “By watching my dance, someone’s perspective on arts, or even life, may change. For another, it may not. But you keep giving your best and with the right intention,” she says.
Daughter of Hindustani classical vocalist Madhup Mudgal and niece of Odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal, Arushi believes that what you create must come from within, naturally and organically. “I try to find newness within my art, and that is a highly creatively stimulating process for me,” says Arushi, known for her technical virtuosity and creative approach to tradition. She has trained under her aunt Madhavi and been guided by maestros such as Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Vidushi Leela Samson.
Her recent production Sama with French contemporary percussionist Roland Auzet was presented across Europe and Taiwan, in which her part stemmed from Odissi. “I try to create new ways of moving from one posture to another, which lends a degree of freshness, yet is rooted. The aim is to strike the right balance,” she says. Recently, she created a production called ‘Sopaan’ with four pieces.
Arushi has performed in France, the US, the UK, Austria, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Greece, China, Malaysia and Singapore. She has co-authored a book on the aesthetics of Odissi dance called The Bud and the Blossom with aesthetician Prof. S K Saxena. She is empanelled with ICCR and conducts dance workshops in France, the US, the UK and Singapore, and is a regular performer for SPIC MACAY.
I am able to communicate and reach out to the audience, without having to put an extra effort.
There are indescribable magical moments where you feel like you’re floating. They are surreal. You experience bliss—aanand (joy) that is out of the ordinary.
Sometimes you have to perform in places where the ambience is not interested in watching your dance. It feels like you’re forcing people to watch you.
Bhavana Reddy, Kuchipudi
Bhavana Reddy’s favourite moment on stage is playing the young pseudo Buddhist monk Shandilya in the dance drama Bhagvadajjukyam. In the play, Shandilya is infatuated with a courtesan. “Shandilya was this bald comic character. It was a completely new experience playing the jester, and dancing for this,” says Bhavana.
Versatility runs through this dancer, the younger daughter of Raja Radha and Kaushalya Reddy, India’s most famous Kuchipudi family. While she is celebrated for her Kuchipudi, Bhavana is also a Carnatic music vocalist and has studied Western music at the Musician Institute in Hollywood.
She is incessantly making her art form relatable to the youth. “We experiment with language, creative introductions and fascinating stories. Multi-media enhancements are a big game changer,” she says. “We recently combined Kuchipudi with Sufi songs.”
After a morning full of uninterrupted dance and healthy arguments on taal, memory and interpretations, Bhavana does an hour of music warmup. Critics call her the Kuchipudi dancer who rocks. With stringent budgets plaguing classical dance shows, she believes organisers cut down on the recital duration. “I don’t believe in performances that are truncated because of lack of time. While fusing Kuchipudi with other dance forms, the core aesthetic should not be toyed around with. There can be immense innovations woven in through music, stage craft and design.”
That a traditional dancer can jumble her art with contemporary music is u nique. Bhavana says her father has performed traditional Kuchipudi on Western classical music. “In the music when there is a mention of a deer and we make the mudra for it, the audience understands. The next time when they watch a traditional Kuchipudi recital and we use the same mudra, they know that we are depicting the deer,” she explains.
In touch with my roots and my surroundings. I’m able to compartmentalise and juggle my love of Indian and Western cultures. I can be performing a traditional Kuchipudi recital and next moment singing along to pop or rock music.
When I played the young pseudo Buddhist monk Shandilya in the dance drama ‘Bhagvadajjukyam’. Shandilya was a bald comic character. It was a challenge to enact a funny man through dance.
Every experience teaches you something, so essentially it isn’t really the worst. You learn through falls as well.
My music album, which will be released soon
Bimbavati Devi, Manipuri
Initiated into the world of Manipuri dance at a tender age, Bimbavati Devi presents the style of her parents Kalavati Devi and Guru Bipin Singh in her dance. She even learnt the basics of Manipuri martial art Thang Ta so that it enhances her movements and choreography in her performances.
Dance critic and scholar Leela Venkataraman once said of Bimbavati Devi, “Bimbavati danced like a Trojan... her movements bore the evidence of one born to the dance family.”
For her last production for the Mudra Festival at NCPA, Mumbai, titled ‘Nirvak: The Realm of the Unspoken’, Bimbavati choreographed items to depict the fish, swan, golden deer and lion through dance. She also teaches Manipuri dance at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, is an avid reader and loves to do embroidery. She is the artistic director of Manipuri Nartanalaya in Kolkata.
Bimbavati is the recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar conferred by the Sangeet Natak Akademi; Shringar Mani by Sur Singar Samsad (Mumbai); Nandita Kripalini Award from West Bengal State Academy of Dance, Drama, Music, and Visual Arts; and the Samskriti Award. “If you lock up tradition in a closet, it will rust without use. It has to be polished with novel ideas and experimentation so that it shines like burnished gold. It’s the same with Manipuri.”
Her production ‘Devatmayee: The soul of the Gods’ portrayed various facets of a woman through the goddesses (Aryan, non-Aryan and Meitei deities). “Indigenous Manipuri music was used with Sanskrit hymn,” she says. “I have also worked with many traditional Manipuri music that was unexplored in dance.”
The power of the blessings of my gurus and parents, Guru Bipin Singh and Kalavati Devi.
The fact that I give it my all when I perform on stage. I lose myself in the whole aura of dance.
So far it has been a fruitful journey, except for the times when I had to cancel a few recitals because
of ill health.
Revival of the old items performed by my father. This also happens to be the 45th anniversary of Manipuri Nartanalaya, so we have a host of plans for celebration.
Vidha Lal, Kathak
Sometimes even though a small drop doesn’t impact a change in the ocean’s volume, such drops culminate to change after a point. Kathak exponent Vidha Lal believes in this philosophy.
Honed under the tutelage of Geetanjali Lal (her mother-in-law), Vidha is like a whirling dervish on stage—she holds the Guinness world record of 103 spins in a minute.
Weaving contemporary elements in her work, Vidha doesn’t compromise with the core style and grammar of Kathak. “I can’t dare distort the style, but I’m taking liberties by conforming to the original format. But it’s imperative I do that so that Kathak as a traditional art form is not disrespected,” she says.
Vidha explains how Kathak can be clubbed with Flamenco. “Two widely revered dance forms come together in a glorious way. Khartal (a Rajasthani instrument) tap dancing and Kathak is a great combination. Kathak is the most fluid classical dance styles in north India, so there’s a lot of scope to innovate.”
Vidha loves performing with her husband, Kathak dancer Abhimanyu Lal. While she is graceful and lyrical, Abhimanyu is energetic and vigorous.
A typical homebird, Vidha loves to spend time at home with her family when she is not touring. She is a movie buff as well. Creative to the core, Vidha designs her own costumes and those of the dancers for the shows. As a child, she acted in several telefilms and till date she does voice-overs for children in cartoons.
Some of her productions include ‘Colours of Fire’, ‘Namo Devi Narmade’, ‘Shree’, ‘Roohdari Rang’, ‘Kausumbaha Kanti’ and ‘Nitya Niti’, presented by her A V Dance Company Kathak Resonance. ‘Colours of Fire’ was performed with shlokas from the Rig Veda and Agnisuktam. “Connecting these traditional texts to modern life and justifying these elements through Kathak made the entire production unique. Fire, the most vibrant yellow and a dangerous element, was depicted through drut laya in the dance,” she says.
The entire package of my performance. The dance style that I have developed over the years, costumes, presentation, selection of the pieces, speed and choreography, all these make sure to involve the audience.
Once I was performing and suddenly realised two of my accompanying artists had stopped playing their respective instruments. They were so engrossed in my performance that they got distracted and stopped playing. That was overwhelming.
Never had any. With my god’s and my guruji’s blessings, I hope to never have one.
‘Dance of Victory’, a traditional Kathak recital choreographed by me and Abhimanyu Lal, to be premiered by our A V Dance Company Kathak Resonance