Bharatanatyam, the most popular of the Indian Classical Dances, had intrigued me for a while. It was beautiful and unfamiliar and its intricacy, from the costumes to the hand gestures to the facial expressions and footwork, was such a contrast from the minimalism of ballet. It was beauty by another definition. My friends founded an Indian Classical team and having curiously watched numerous videos of dances on Youtube, I could already name half of the eight Indian Classical dances. However, despite this, I learned in taking an Indian Dance class this semester.that there was so much more to Bharatanatyam than I knew.
First and foremost, I gained a huge appreciation for Indian Classical dancers, especially my friends. I learned very quickly, from just the first few minutes of Aramandi (think a"plie" in ballet) and Tripataka (a basic but surprisingly difficult hand gesture), that Bharatanatyam was not as easy as its dancers made it look. Breaking it down, I knew exactly how to do the moves, but my body and specifically fingers just were not functioning how I wanted them to. Just like the shoulder movements that I struggled with in Bhangra, the hand gestures in Bharatanatyam forced me to move a part of my body in a way that I had never done before. Furthermore, although we hardly worked on facial expressions and head/eye movements, I kept imagining adding that on top of the multitude of things I was already doing with the rest of my body. I realized that the coordination in classical dance requires a lot of discipline and why it took many years to train a good dancer.
Speaking of hand gestures, I was very surprised to learn how meaningful the gestures were, how many gestures there were, and most interestingly, how those hand gestures were used to tell stories, even those about other cultures and religions or modern themes. These meanings range from elements of Indian religion and mythology to nature. Unlike ballet, where the movements don't really have any meanings and stories are told through costumes and interactions between dancers, Bharatanatyam's hand gestures tell a narrative all on their own. It really is astounding how so many elements weave together into one story.
Although Bharatanatyam is drastically different from ballet in many ways, I realized the philosophy and training of the two dances are actually very similar. The two types of dances require formal training for many years and have a very structured curriculum. In addition, I was very impressed by how thought out and exact the curriculum in Bharatanatyam was and how it starts from basic moves and builds on them in very logical sequences. Most importantly, this revelation and the respect that I gained for this dance form challenged my "Eurocentric" view of dance where ballet was the normative trained dance and any other dances were merely cultural folk dances. The most shocking thing I learned was that despite it being viewed as a respectable and beautiful dance form today, Bharatanatyam was not always seen that way in history. Under the British rule, the dance was defamed and outlawed and Indians came to associate Bharatanatyam with promiscuity until a woman fought to revive the dance and restore its honor.
As a conclusion, I gained a lot of respect for the difficulty of Bharatanatyam and the richness of the religious and mythological background and history of the dance, but also for its adaptability to and universality in the modern times. Watching my friends use this ancient dance to tell their modern stories is truly inspiring and beautiful. I only wish that I could have mastered the moves better, but obviously, that just requires more time and training. Overall, I gained a much deeper understanding of Bharatanatyam that will now allow me to appreciate and understand this beautiful and amazing dance better.