An Apprenticeship in South Indian Bharata Natyam

ACTA - Posted on 24 May 2009

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By Sherwood Chen, ACTA's Associate Director

Master South Indian bharatanatyam dancer Shreelata SureshAs current participants in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, master artist Shreelata Suresh of San Mateo is working with 16-year old apprentice Ambika Gopalan of San Jose in an apprenticeship in classical South Indian Bharatanatyam.   As one of Suresh’s earliest students since Suresh arrived in the Bay Area, Gopalan has worked with Suresh since 1999 when Gopalan was six years old.  Their apprenticeship this year focuses on nritya—Bharatanatyam’s interpretive and dramatic aspects—and will be grounded in interpreting the oeuvre of celebrated Tamil Nadu poet and freedom fighter Subramanya Bharathiar.

Weekly lessons occur out of Suresh’s home studio, and are spent not only on dancing, but also includes storytelling, and discussion of Bharathiar’s work, and studying his poems in Tamil, a language common to both Suresh and Gopalan.  His early 20th century poems express a full spectrum of human emotion—“from a warrior’s fiery call to a lover’s soulful pining to a mother’s unbridled love—that pull the heartstrings,” explain Suresh and Gopalan.  Bharathiar’s prolific output of writing, including prose and poetry compositions, contributed to the rallying efforts for Indian independence in South India.  In addition to nationalism, other reformist themes in his work focused on greater freedoms for women, and being critical of the caste system.

Bharatiar’s wide range of expression in his compositions provides ripe material for Suresh to guide Gopalan on a full range of complex expressions and relaying emotion, important values in adept Bharatanatyam performance.  With an emphasis on nritya, or more specifically abhinaya, which Suresh and Gopalan define as “the communication of the aesthetic experience to the audience through expressions and body movement,” Gopalan builds upon the technical foundation which she has built under Suresh’s guidance over the past ten years with, as Suresh describes, “a high level of athleticism and grace, as evidenced through many stage performances over the years.” 

Suresh began dancing from the age of six under dancer and actress Vyjayantimala Bali, subsequently studying under Guru Kalaimamani K.N. Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Guru V. Krishnamoorti, with whom she also studied with to deeply learn Kuchipudi, a dance form which hails from Andhara Pradesh. She also studied yoga at the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute, and founded the Vishwa Shanti Dance Academy in the United States in 1999.  Her holistic perspective on Bharatanatyam informed her incorporation of Bharatiar’s poetry.  “I have always sought to emphasize the spiritual and subliminal aspects of art and not just the physical aspect.  Bharatanatyam is a sacred art.  It is a fusion of music, rhythm, sacred geometry, yoga, worship, therapy, sculpture, poetry, harmony and beauty.  It is the perfect blending of all the dimensions of the created being... I strive to create new audiences for Bharatanatyam who can appreciate the sacredness of the art form and elevate their consciousness.

“The [Bharatiar] poems are very meaningful to Ambika’s heritage, and abhinaya is a very appropriate and powerful vehicle to bring out the richness of human experience reflected in the songs of Bharatiar.  At the end of this intense period of study, Ambika will have significantly deepened her knowledge (both theories and techniques) in abhinaya and choreography, and acquired new skills in interpretive and dramatic aspects of Bharatanatyam,” explains Suresh.

The apprenticeship also will introduce Gopalan to exploring choreography as she has the long term goal of being able to choreograph her own dances and to be able to visualize movement correspondent to music.  Suresh notes that Gopalan’s exploration in choreography will further “expand her general knowledge of how dance is part of music, how it flows together.”

While Bharatiar’s poetry has been set to music by many composers, both recently and in the past, rarely is it expressed in Bharatanatyam.  Suresh and Gopalan’s goal is to develop at least four pieces based on compositions of Bharathiar’s writing, which represent a challenging and rich spectrum of emotions for Gopalan to refine and develop in performance. Suresh and Gopalan’s apprenticeship will yield a concert in addition to presentations at Gopalan’s school later this fall. 

“I expect to nourish my innate talents as a dancer,” Gopalan notes, “but I know that the subtle nuances and beauty of movements can only be grasped and mastered under the supervision of my guru.” Gopalan’s mother, Shoba Gopalan, was herself a dancer and notes that the apprenticeship serves “as an opportunity for her daughter to learn more about Hindu and Indian culture, and reinforce the traditional Indian guru-shishya relationship.” Gopalan hopes to continue her learning relationship into the future with Suresh, and already has taken on the role of teaching younger students at Suresh’s Vishwa Shanti Dance Academy.  In the longer term, Gopalan sees her studies as a larger, multigenerational arc respective to the Bharatanatyam tradition: “It is my dream to perform in India in front of an audience of my family over there, especially my grandmother, who has inspired and initiated my mom and me in this great tradition.”

With Suresh’s support during and beyond the apprenticeship, Gopalan comes closer to her dreams. She has “great confidence Ambika will blossom into a versatile and seasoned dancer, and a passionate and creative exponent of this dance form in the larger community.”

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