When we follow our heart's calling, all we need is given to
us, says dancer Ramaa Bharadvaj
Ramaa Bharadvaj is an acclaimed choreographer, performer, dance
activist and a writer. She studied dance in Chennai, India,
under legendary gurus Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and Kamala (Bharata
Natyam) and Vempatti Chinna Satyam (Kuchipudi).
As the founder and Artistic Director of Angahara Dance Ensemble,
she has won multiple Lester Horton Dance Awards in Los Angeles.
In 2003, she was selected as a Master Artist of California by
the Alliance for California Traditional Artists and was the
only performing artist to be honored with California Arts Council’s
Directors’ Award for exemplary contributions to the Arts
in California. She is included as one of 21 exceptional South
Asian women living in the United States whose lives and stories
are presented in the book Spices
in the Melting Pot released in 2005.
Ramaa with her daughter Swetha on the cover of Dance Magazine.
Photo credit: Bala Bharadvaj
| A thought-provoking writer, her dance
commentaries have been published by the Congress on Research
in Dance, New York Foundation for the Arts, National edition
of Indian Express (India), Narthaki web magazine, among others.
Ramaa is on the Dance Faculty at Orange Coast College and Pomona
College and also teaches at yoga conferences, retreats and spiritual
In July 2000, Ramaa and her daughter Swetha became the first
Indian dancers in over 45 years to be featured on the cover
of the prestigious Dance Magazine (July 2000). Their critically
acclaimed choreography, JWALA-Flame,
which depicts the story of the immigrant experience of search,
discovery and returning to the roots, was telecast nationally
on PBS (December 2007). In a free-wheeling interaction with
Mallika Jayanti, she discusses very many topics
related to these two great dance forms.
You have learnt both Bharatanatyam
and Kuchipudi. What fundamental differences do you find in these
Answer: It’s mostly an energy
shift that happens. It is necessary to tap into the male energy
– almost as if the dancer is impersonating a man who is
impersonating a woman. The speed is also much higher than the
slightly relaxed pace of Bharatanatyam. As a dancer who was
first trained in Bharatanatyam, I found Kuchipudi more intense.
The variations in footwork, especially the traveling on the
toes and the heels, are practically non-existent in Bharatanatyam,
thus (as my daughter Swetha pointed out) requiring different
groups of muscles in your legs to work. The foot positions such
as knotting of the toes and crossing of the feet while creating
pure dance rhythms also require attention. In contrast to the
definitive crispness and sharp angles of Bharatanatyam, a Kuchipudi
dancer creates more rounded and softer edges that are luscious
to watch. The leans and lunges are deeper and farther. There
is an up and down bobbing movement, which is also very unique
to this style and which Dr. Sunil Kothari describes as “the
playful jumping of a baby goat.” The movements flow with
great deal of lyricism, in a continuous stream of sways and
twirls, restraint and release, high leaps and bounces. Another
important aspect is the outward hip thrust in certain lunges
and poses. I often use the comparison of a Kuchipudi dancer’s
movements to that of the sway of a bamboo tree.
It is also my opinion that some of the movements might have
drawn their inspiration from everyday village activities. For
example, the pure dance movement in which the dancer extends
the arms in front with two Katakamukha gestures and pulls them
back and forth over the shoulder while bobbing up and down with
the feet might have been inspired by the rhythmic twist of the
village women churning butter.
is the difference in music for Bharatanatyam and music for Kuchipudi?
Answer: This is a complex subject and I am
going to refer your readers to my guru Vempatti Chinna Sathyam’s
website which has a thorough article by P. Sangeetha Rao, who
was Vempatti master’s long-time music composer for many
of his dance dramas. www.kuchipudi.com
Have you learnt them simultaneously?
How difficult or easy do you find learning them?
Answer: My initial training was in Bharatanatyam.
It was my guru the legendary Kamala who took me to Vempatti
master when I was 14 years old and requested him to teach me
Kuchipudi. Many years later, while traveling in a bus from Boston
to New York City, Vempatti Chinna Satyam told me of the immense
admiration and respect that he had for Kamala. He said that
when he was young he would save the small allowance he received
in order to buy a ticket for Kamala’s performance. The
sculpturesque quality of her dance inspired him to later expand
the vocabulary of Kuchipudi movements. The complete extensions
of the arms, the frozen poses and full leaps found in Vempatti
Chinna Satyam’s style of Kuchipudi are, to me, very reminiscent
of Kamala’s dancing. In my performance of Kuchipudi I
experience the helpful influence of Kamala’s Bharatanatyam
technique - the perfect confluence of styles from two living
legends flowing like liquid gold through my limbs.
Do you have any particular preference? Like
Kuchipudi for certain items and Bharatanatyam for some?
Answer: Not really. When you get into each
style, it has its own appeal.
difference do you think it makes while learning from teachers
like Vempati Chinna Satyam and Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and
some dance teachers and schools? What is their style of teaching?
What thing you would want the dance teachers to learn from them?
Answer: When learning from the masters, a lot
of focus and observation were necessary. There was no taping
of songs or video taping the classes and things like that. They
also did not kinesthetically break down the movements when they
taught. These days dance teachers find it beneficial for students
to learn when they can break down the movements in terms of
space, weight, balance etc. This is also good in a way. But
we never heard those words when we studied under the gurus.
It was more a reverential surrender – not intellectual
Recently I was reading
an article that makes me ask you this question- what do you
think that differentiates a Nattuvanaar to a dance teacher?
Answer: The same difference as between a cook
and a chef. A cook (Nattuvanar) simply follows a recipe given
to him/her to create a meal. But a chef (dance teacher) is also
the creator of the recipe.
have achieved a certain position in the field of dance now.
How difficult or easy has been the journey. What did you learn
that you would like to pass on?
Answer: I wish I could tell stories of how
I walked 5 miles in bare feet over mountains to get to where
I am. But actually it was nothing like that. There is something
called the Law of Attraction on which the Universe operates.
When we follow our heart’s calling, all that we need is
given to us. All lessons (both pleasant and painful) are taught
to us so that we may accomplish our soul’s purpose. One
of my colleagues, who was an actor, used to quote an African
saying “Blessing is next to the wound.” My journey
has been full of many blessings to be grateful for. As the Sufi
saying goes, “all experiences are but preparations for
something else”. So the idea of disappointment and difficulty
does not arise.
|The formula for success
in art (and life) is this:
* Practice equanimity and be neutral to both praise and
criticism. Otherwise, it will be a long, tedious roller-coaster
ride of elation and depression.
* Do not get attached to your work or let it define who
you are. You define your work not vice versa. That way,
your work will be able to change and grow as you do.
* Be objective about your work and invite constructive
criticism but at the same time listen to YOUR heart and
what inspires YOU. Many trend-setters have all been pooh-poohed
away in the beginning by the public and the critics.
* Invite every experience into life with gratitude and
surrender to the Divine Will.
* Feel free to make mistakes but once a lesson has been
learnt never make the same mistake twice.
Ramaa Bharadvaj Solo
Photo credit: Scott Ellis
| * It is not enough to simply present
your work. You must also represent it both artistically and
politically. So get involved and don’t shy away from writing
and speaking and expressing yourself in other arenas.
Why did you choose the U.S. and not India?
Answer: That was destiny, not choice. It was
the typical arranged marriage story. But it is the freedom (financial,
artistic and personal) that this country has gifted me that
is responsible for my growth as an artiste and a woman. I am
grateful for that and wouldn’t change a thing.
How different is
the audience perception towards these art forms in India and
Answer: To the western
audience, these dances are international experiences (like travel)
through which they see colors, sound, stories and movements
that are different from their own – whether it is Kuchipudi
or Bharatanatyam or Odissi or Kathak really is not discernible
to them. It is Indian. And to them, Indian is mystical, Indian
is spiritual, Indian is ancient and so on. They don’t
really bother about the micro details such as there are 22 official
languages in India, that Vaishnavism influenced Kuchipudi, that
Tabla is different from a Mrdangam and is different from a Pakhwaj,
that Hindustani music and Carnatic music do have their differences.
They seek the “authentic” and so I have had presenters
even asking me if all members of my dance company are of Indian
origin. This is not to say that there are not successful Indian
dance companies that have multi-cultural dancers in them. But
this has been my experience.
In India when you perform within the cultural realm where the
dance comes from (eg, Bharatanatyam for Chennai or for a Tamil
audience) the nuances are understood and appreciated.
What changes do you want to see in Bharatanatayam
and Kuchipudi- be it in the margam structure, costume, jewellery,
music, length of items etc.?
Answer: The one thing that I have been bringing
up is the role of certain javalis in a traditional margam structure,
especially while teaching it to children or performing it to
an uninitiated audience. I would refer your readers to my article
in Indian Express about this and would invite their response.
I was the brain behind www.onlinebharathanatyamacademy.wordpress.com.
Now I moved out and am building www.bharatadance.wordpress.com.
What is your take on so many online teachers
these days? While you are at it, please also tell us your opinion
on DVD teaching.
DVDs can serve as references and inspiration. But you cannot
learn dance from an inanimate source like that. Baba Ramdev
said this in one of his yoga camps recently about Yoga learning
from a guru versus electronic medium and I am going to quote
him here. “You can meet your partner on line – but
can you make babies on line?” We are talking about human
bodies here and the watchful eye of an expert teacher is required
to make corrections on alignment and posture not to mention
facial expressions. Moreover, there is direct energy transmission
that happens between teacher and student when they are face
On the DVDs, it is clearly
stated that it is legally wrong to reproduce it in any form-
your comments please.
In the U.S., it is taken seriously. And I am all for it.
How do you find Bollywood Bharatanatyam?
Bharatanatyam on Mozart’s compositions or shall I say
the English Bharatantaym?
There is no such thing as Bollywood Bharatanatyam. That is a
misnomer. Holding a few gestures and imitating footwork does
not make it Bharatanatyam. It has a definite structure of its
own and it is also a spiritual (I don’t mean religious)
dance form. That means it can make you feel connected in a deep
way with what you are seeing beyond the sensual physical aspect.
We don’t have to necessarily tell the story of Hindu Gods
and deities. I am reminded of Dhananjayan’s breathtaking
choreography of a pregnant deer in a forest. My choreography
Jwala-Flame about the struggles and discoveries of the immigrant
experience and dedicated to the Statue of Liberty elicits that
kind of deeply spiritual response from the audience every time
we have performed it. Now tell me, what is spiritual about Bollywood
dance? It is entertainment, that’s all.
Dancing to Mozart or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky is a completely
different category. These were great classical composers who
were divinely inspired. The choreographers who attempt such
dances have put a lot of thought into it. They do not sacrifice
the structure of the dance form. Only the music changes. It
is beautiful when two classical art forms from two different
worlds can merge like that, transcending linguistic, cultural
and geographical limitations. I have seen Padma Subrahmanyam’s
stunning portrayal of an episode from Ramayana and so I know
how effective it can be.
If we can use Hindustani music and Bhajans (which do not belong
to the Carnatic music system) in Bharatanatyam, why should Mozart
be a problem?
There have been many talks on different
forum for all the dancers to come together and help each other
so that there could be some good classical dance and some funds.
I personally have faced such situations where I had to perform
without any money; respect is something I rather not comment
on. But as an artist you would understand the importance for
one to perform on stage. Do you believe in forming a group/team
to help one another?
Yes. Union power always helps. We do not and cannot live in
a vacuum. In Chennai, they started something like that called
ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artists of India), although
I don’t know much about it. There is a disproportion in
the rate which musicians charge in relation to what dancers
get paid (or do they even get paid anymore?). This kind of greed
has to stop. Dancers, musicians, lighting designers and set
designers must all be part of this team.
As for performing without money, I think it is a sad state of
affairs. The art must be self sustainable otherwise very few
will take it up seriously. It will become the prerogative of
the rich and that is wrong. Five years ago when I received my
Lester Horton Dance Award in Los Angeles, I spoke about this
on stage - about the need for economic stability for concert
dancers. Here is a direct quote from my speech which should
“How many of you have heard presenters
say to us, “we cannot pay you but we can give you great
exposure? My answer to them is this: “Darling, if I want
exposure I will strip naked and run on the beach. California
is full of them.”
And that’s my take on that!!!
you have achieved such great heights in this field, how do you
help other struggling artists? Is there a way one can approach
Answer: I give a lot of my
time to the dance community in an advisory capacity. Making
your presence felt in the community is as important as spending
time in your studio. What drives me is a desire to create a
wider audience, a wider family that can provide a nurturing
environment for Indian dance. I look at it as creating a family
around myself, sharing my knowledge and contacts and connecting
people with one another. Then people look up to you as a link,
a conduit that brings the community together, as someone they
can trust and turn to. That’s how you grow and succeed.
Otherwise you are just a leech and nobody likes leeches.
What do you want to say about old and
out of shape dancers who are not even graceful and flexible
but are adamant on giving performances based on their one time
Answer: There are two
separate aspects in this question. Old as in chronological aging
is never a deterrent for there are so many nuances in classical
dance that can be touched upon at each stage of a dancer’s
performing life. Dancers like Vyjayanthimala, Dhananjayan and
C.V. Chandrasekhar look good doing it because they know how
to choreograph to their mature bodies and yet bring out the
strengths of Bharatanatyam. They are not caught up in a time
warp trying to re-create what they looked like or danced like
in their younger days.
But being out of shape is an entirely different matter altogether.
One can be out of shape at any age in which case one shouldn’t
be dancing at all. As for dancers who are both old and out of
shape, they do seem to have an audience! Otherwise why would
they continue to dance? So are we to question the audience who
go to see them or the dancers? It is better not to get into
As dancers we carefully plan and choreograph entries and exits
on and off the stage all our lives. But when it comes to that
final exit off the performing arena, can we “exit”
gracefully? This is a choice that we all have to make at some
point. It is more important to focus on what we will do when
we reach that point rather than worry about what somebody else
is doing. As long as they have an audience, let them dance.
Please also quote on how Vazhuvoor
style is different from other styles
It was said to be known for its superb grace. I was watching
Kamala’s old videos when she represented the Vazhuvoor
style at the height of its glory. But I also notice that no
one dances like that anymore. That style is pretty much extinct.
With each passing generation, each dancer brings something of
herself/himself to the style and what I notice is that this
“style” or “pani” is getting crisper
and more streamlined not just in the Vazhuvoor tradition but
other traditions as well.
So it seems like there are actually two styles now – the
old Vazhuvoor style and the new Vazhuvoor style. The performing
artist who is the most well known in that style seems to define
the style for her/his generation. Let’s remember that
dancing is a body thing and no two bodies move the same way
– if they did we would all turn into robots.
Your final word to our readers.
Answer: I will end with a beautiful story of
conviction and confidence and an advice – both from a
very wise and dear friend Nala Najan, who was a great Indian
Once Tiruvarur Gnanam, a great Devadasi, was performing a padam
(a lyrical dance) to the song “Manchi Dhinamu” which
was a composition of the poet Kshetrayya. She portrayed astrological
charts through gestures, to denote the idea of auspicious time.
The Brahmin priests, who witnessed the dance, were highly offended
by it. They felt that it was inauspicious and against the sastras
for a woman to use these symbols and questioned her, to which,
she is said to have replied, “when you see Kshetrayya,
invite him over for tea, and I will discuss my improvisation
technique with him.” Then pointing to the sacred rudraksha
bead that she wore around her neck, she is supposed to have
said, “Do you see this? I AM the sastra. I AM Siva.”
On our final meeting before his death Nala said to me, "Don't
let anyone quote the Natya Sastra to you or tell you how you
should dance or what you should dance about. It is you, the
dancer, who creates dance. The Gods might have inspired it,
but you are the living tradition. Without the human body, there
would be no dance, no sastra. You are the Natya Sastra. Remember
Feedback at: email@example.com
Post your comments
this article to Friends by E-Mail