Updated: May 11, 2019
It was a joyous moment when one of my dance gurus Padmashri Geeta Chandran visited Boston. Watching her dance at MIT (Cambridge) earlier this week took me back to the verdant neighborhood in South Delhi where Geeta akka* offered dance classes at her residence. Exquisite antique bronze sculptures, vintage furniture, hand-woven rugs, urlis (large brass bowls) holding fresh flowers and potpourri, were all moved aside to clear the space for dance. Along with this visual stimulation, the scent of fresh flowers and camphor, the sound of the shruti box and akka’s melodious singing stimulated other senses. Today’s education theorists discuss benefits of multi-sensory learning. What I now realize is that I was learning with all my senses, with the external and the internal body! Classical metaphors such as the crescent moon of Shiva indicating the waxing and waning life forms, and therefore the illusory TIME, inspired me to paint them. Images poured out on the canvas of both: the easel and the stage. Hours would flow by. I would often skip meals. Sated from dance class, re-working a new jathi in my head while walking down the street, once I nearly walked into the path of an approaching car! Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘FLOW’, which is “one of life’s highly enjoyable states of being, wrapping us entirely in the present, and helping us be more creative, productive, and happy”**. I was indeed in the state of constant FLOW in akka's school which has since blossomed into the institution called Nātya Vriksha (NV) that "enshrines the best philosophies of Indian classical culture." ***
Above: different images of Shiva (as Chandrachūdan, Ananta, Bhairava and Ardhanārīshwara) that I created while learning dance at Nātya Vriksha. Every gesture in the images was inspired by dance movements. The image of the red Shiva adorning himself with a crescent moon is now a part of NV permanent collection.
Today there are hundreds of students enrolled at Nātya Vriksha. The institution and the company are both going strong. Here the students learn that classical dance is about more than simply moving in a formal way to create dazzling spectacles on stage. Anyone dedicated to dance is aware that the real quest is for what lies beyond the physicality and the acrobatic feats.
What does dance education do for us?
My years of learning at Nātya Vriksha, and my career as a professional dancer have given me the following insights:
A dancer dreams, but is not the 'dreamer' type. Martha Graham famously said, “A dancer is a realist. His craft teaches him to be; the foot is either pointed or it is not. No amount of dreaming will point it for you.” You get down on the floor and you get to business. There is zero tolerance for what the author Steven Pressfield calls RESISTANCE, the psychological mechanism that keeps you from starting the work meant to open the portal to self-actualization.
Dancers are hard working. Years of mind-body alignment and focus enable us to maximize our performance with laser sharpness. Add to this the power of immediacy and unrelenting grit, the ability to push through emotional and physical pain, and you have an individual who is sharp, savvy and strong. While the risks of obsessive behavior and physical overindulgence are real, they are relatively minor challenges when mitigated under the guidance of an expert mentor.
Dance combats demons of modern living like depression, ADD/ADHD, loneliness, tech-addiction, insomnia, anxiety, social withdrawal, and everyday stress.
Dance helps build strong communities. Once a student is enrolled at Nātya Vriksha, s/he joins a family. The shared time, space, energy and inspirations become the glue that binds everyone together. The community evolves and grows organically. Personalities and individual opinions might vary, but the shared experience of living, learning and loving the dance dissipates the differences. Organizations often struggle to align their workforce toward a shared goal. External consultants are sometimes hired to moderate conversations and negotiate divergent opinions. All they need to do instead is to look at a thriving dance institution!
Dance education is a pathway to ‘innovative ideas’. I am told that in New Delhi some corporate bosses are encouraging their dancer employees to be on time for their dance class. Employers are encouraged to attend dance performances of their employees. Dance students are introducing kinesthetic pedagogies in early-education that engage children through movement. This might ring in a revolution in how we educate our children, and perhaps foster more joyful individuals who will, in turn, create a better world for themselves and others.
Everything I learned and experienced at Nātya Vriksha served me in different aspects of my life, artistic and otherwise. I continue to marvel at what possibilities await us while the world continues to discover the merits of dance and dance-education.
Above: classes and rehearsals at Nātya Vriksha
Photo courtesy: Nātya Vriksha
Photography: Rakesh Sahai (left) & Amrithasruthi Radhakrishnan
Epilogue: call to Nātya Vriksha alumni
NV students are scattered around the globe. Separated by geography as we might be, we all share the indestructible bond to the institution and our individual memories of being in the “flow”. Today NV is aspiring to grow, enable, empower and educate the cultural future of the world we inhabit. It is up to each of us to reach out, support and offer assistance in any way we can. The time to give back is NOW!
*an honorific term of endearment
** Ref: What is Flow in psychology?