She introduces herself as Saraswati Dasi from Colombia in South America. “My original name is Isabel,” says the 28-year-old as she resumes her Bharatanatyam practise.
At various dance centres and institutes around the city, a large number of foreign students have enrolled giving ample proof of their fascination for Indian classical dance forms.
Dancer-choreographer Geeta Chandran lends taal and the trinkets tied on Saraswati’s feet clink and resonate in the room with mirrored walls at Natya Vriksha. “I heard about the Krishna Movement before I got to know about Indian classical dance,” says Saraswati, who grew up in a Catholic family. “I had deeper questions, answers of which I couldn’t find in Church. I started learning Indian classical dance in South America from an Indian teacher. And my spiritual guru had all the answers I was looking for… I then longed to come to India to learn classical dance, in the real traditional way (sic).”
“For me dance is a prayer,” says Saraswati, who travels twice in a week from Vrindavan to Delhi, to learn Bharatanatyam. “I feel I can explore more through movements in this form of dance. It gives me freedom to find more space for prayer. Also, I am happy to have found a guru who taught me not just to move my body beautifully for performance on stage, but also to connect with God through dance.”
Meanwhile, in the popular Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Guru Harish Gangani teaches Kathak to a group of foreign students as dance exponent Shobha Deepak Singh looks on. After a few pirouettes, the girls burst into a giggle at the click of the camera.
“I like Indian movies and asked my mother what dance is this,” says 20-year-old Jitrawan Phakphun from Thailand. She is trained in Thailand’s traditional dance and also learnt Indian classical dance for a year before coming to India. “The expressions in Bollywood dance are very different,” says the girl, sporting a a salwar-suit. Ask her if this too is inspired form Bollywood, and she says, “I’m crazy about salwar-suit. I wear it in Thailand too!”
Even Zabelina Valeriya sports a salwar-suit for the Kathak class. She is trained in theatre and puppet-making and loves Bharatanaytam. “But Kathak is closer to my country which is Muslim-dominated,” says the 32-year-old, adding, “I could have learnt Kathak in my country. There are good teachers who keep coming, but I wanted something more as part of the experience. I wanted to see India too.”
There are some who have learnt one dance genre and have come back to learn more. Akmaral Kainazarora from Kazakhstan, who runs the only institute of Indian classical dance in Central Asia, is one of them.
“I came to India first in 1993 and did my MA in Bharatanatyam from Chennai. But I thought it was important to teach Kathak also. So after 20 years of teaching Bharatanatyam, I decided to pursue Kathak,” says Kainazarora, who is presently learning from danseuse Swati Sinha, under the guidance of Pt Rajendra Gangani.
Ask what got her hooked to Indian classical dance forms and she says, “My grandmother was very fond of Rabindranath Tagore and read out his stories to me. It is from there that I got an idea of how beautiful the country of India is.”
Both a student and teacher, Kainazarora says, “Indian classical art forms are very popular abroad… We need to work hard to popularise them abroad because it is good for intellectual development too.”
When foreigners come to learn Indian classical dance, I let them go through the grind. Our cultural ethos and philosophy is so nuanced that it can’t be learnt in two months, and some of them wan to pursue a crash course so that they can go back and teach others or open their own institute. Teaching them is a challenge also because in western dance forms such as ballet, they are taught to keep the face straight. Whereas in India, we are an animated lot of people and emote through the face.
Shobha Deepak Singh
Foreign students are more serious than Indian students when it comes to learning classical dance forms. People from countries such as Malaysia, South Korea, Sweden, Russia and even America come here to learn. Though some of them are already trained in western classical dance forms and intend to improve their performance when they go back. We try to enroll all our foreign students in all our productions.
The language of music is universal but we have to explain the concepts of mythology to foreign students. Also, when foreigners come to India to learn, they are well-aware, do their research beforehand and respect Indian culture. When Indian kids come to learn, I have to ask them to bow in front of the guru and say pranam, because the parents just teach how to say good morning ma’am!
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