Celebrating the beauty of classical Indian dance styles | Interview

Words by Katie Hagan.

To celebrate its 30th year, Leicester-based arts organisation Nupur Arts is holding the specially curated Äanartam festival. Taking place on 13th November 2021 at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, Äanartam will feature work from UK-based classical Indian dance and contemporary dance artists. The in-person showcase will take audiences on a passage from one classical Indian dance style to the next; revering forgotten traditional forms and introducing new hybrids. Dance art journal spoke to three of the programmed artists that are showing work at Äanartam: Anjana Bala, Shalini Shivshankar and Shreya Vadnerkar.

DAJ: Hi all! Thanks for chatting to us. To kick things off, could you explain what your work is about? 

Anjana Bala: My piece is about the duality of uncertainty. On the one hand, it cripples and chokes us. On the other, uncertainty is that which is left unfinished, a sense of potential of what is yet to come. I had some images of knots and frayed threads dangling in the wind that I worked with. It was created during the lockdown, so it reflects some of the sentiments of that moment in time. I think art produced in moments of collective catastrophe can become an interesting archive of feelings! I did not research too much, just moved however my body wanted to in that moment, with some structure and revision, almost like a working-through. 

Shalini Shivshankar: As far as Mohiniyattam is concerned, my work is primarily focused on establishing the dance style in the UK. It’s such a beautiful and graceful style. Yet unfortunately not a lot of artists out there who perform the style are maintaining its authenticity. Coming from my training with the late Kalamandalam Kalyanikuttyamma, I feel it a responsibility to spread this style. 

Shreya Vadnerkar: My work is called ‘Breakin’ Boundaries’. It showcases Bharatanatyam as well as break dance, the latter of which I have explored over the past few years. The work is about identity, being British-Indian and my experiences. It explores the concept of dual identity and what that means to me. My piece explores these labels that society puts on us and how to break free from them. It also looks at what happens after this liberation. It is quite a journey; finding out who I am as a person and where I do and don’t fit in.

DAJ: If your work was a food, what would it taste like?

Anjana Bala: Sweet and sour something! 

Shalini Shivshankar: To describe Mohiniyattam as food is a lovely concept, except it is food for the soul and the heart — and of course the body. It’s wholesome, nourishing food that caters to all the senses and aspects of the mind and body. It’s a combination of the right nutrients that one can have. That’s how I would describe Mohiniyattam or classical art forms. 

Shreya Vadnerkar: There are so many things! If I had to pick it would be panipuri. Like panipuri, my work is a burst of different flavours… you have sweet and salt. This mirrors the big journey I go on in my world where there are intense moments but also sweet ones.

DAJ: What attracted you to showing your work at Äanartam? 

Anjana Bala: I was lucky enough to be part of Project Emerge, which was produced by NAYA. They were kind enough to invite us back to perform at Äanartam.

Shalini Shivshankar: Myself and my school Upahaar School of Dance were invited to this significant festival. It’s only through these occasions that we can share the beauty of this art form. It is very sad for it to be known very little. The more people who watch and enjoy this art form, the more people can benefit from it. 

Shreya Vadnerkar: I was lucky enough to be invited! It all stemmed from being selected as a dance artist for Project Emerge as part of Nupur Arts Youth Association. It was a choreographic development project where we worked with Kamala Devam, who is a Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance choreographer. We premiered work created during lockdown and so I am excited to perform in real life and bring this work to classical and non-classical audiences in Leicester.  

DAJ: Is it important to represent the diversity within Indian classical dance? Both in terms of the forms and the people working with those forms? 

Anjana Bala: That is an interesting question, because often I do not associate diversity in any sense of the word with the Indian classical arts. In India, as is well known, the production of the classical arts is still quite caste-ist, with an aesthetic erasure of other communities that have participated in its creation. Some say this is changing, but I wouldn’t know. I think when these arts are brought outside of their home, to the UK and elsewhere, there can be the possibility of “diversity” because of the minority subject position of its participants. Diversity of voices, of bodily languages, of questions of form. Anusha Kedhar writes about this in her recent book, about the need for “flexible bodies” — how bodies and movements languages are created to mirror the flexible identity of those participating in it.

That being said, I don’t think there should be a “need” or great “importance” to represent diversity in Indian classical arts, as any ethnic minority should not feel pressured to represent their culture in any sort of way. That pressure to represent can become its own form of the commodification of culture (i.e., representing the form in an “exciting way” to obtain funding, ensuring the themes are intelligible to British audiences, etc.)

Shreya Vadnerkar: I think it’s super important to represent the diversity. I feel a lot of the UK audiences are not aware of the different styles within Indian classical dance. It is not known that there are seven and more styles. UK audiences may know Western dance styles, but a lot of people don’t know about the variety of forms within Indian classical dance. 

Having showcases like Aanartam bring these styles together. There’s Odissi, Kathak, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi. It’s key to showcase these. They can also be danced by anyone with a passion for it, not just south Asians. 

L-R: Image of Shreya Vadnerkar and Shalini Shivshankar.

DAJ: As professionals working in Indian classical dance, what is the style’s future? Is the style evolving in any way? 

Anjana Bala: I don’t know how the style is evolving, but I think there is a general thread of minimalism and the use of abstract themes, when the form itself is quite ornate and specific. Usually that represents a “Westernisation” of aesthetic forms, but I can’t be sure of this! In any case, I hope however it evolves. It includes new ways of learning and making work together with an attention to safe spaces. 

DAJ: DAJ is a magazine that focuses on independent dance artists. As an independent artist, what advice can you give to your peers and those starting out in the industry?

Shreya Vadnerkar: Believe in yourself! It is never too late to start. Regardless of age and ability, anyone can do it. In this country British Asians are separated from their roots but having this connection through classical Indian dance is super important. 

Äaanartam takes place on 13th November 2021 at the Curve Theatre, Leicester. For tickets book here: https://linktr.ee/NupurArts. Header image is of Anjana Bala, photo credit William Pavli.