On a recent Sunday morning at a studio on Gunn Highway, nine barefoot Indian dance students intently practiced for an upcoming performance. Dressed in colorful silk saris, the dancer’s rhythmic and deliberate leaps reverberated the floor.
Bharatha Natyam is a theatrical form of dance dating back to 2000 B.C. with roots in classical Hindu scriptures, which are even older, said Sheila Pitchumoni Narayanan, of Carrollwood Village. Initially created to visually explain complex religious stories, over time, the traditional Indian dance evolved into a richly complex and expressive medium, making it a bit challenging to describe. A blend of dance and drama, it uses music, props and, in modern times, advanced lighting and staging techniques. Incorporating graceful hand gestures, facial expressions, impeccable balance, stamina, and rhythmic body positions, it also taps into a repertoire of precise hand movements, vigorous footwork and a stylized choreography. The result is a beautiful and complex storytelling medium.
Initially performed by men, both genders now study this form of classical Indian dance. Yet those who commit to studying the discipline learn skills far beyond performance art and dance.
“It’s not something you study for a year or two," said Narayanan. “It’s truly a full commitment and it takes a lifetime of study and practice.”
It also requires dedication, patience, skill, and focus, she said.
“It’s an extremely structured and scholarly discipline, incorporating eye movements, neck and shoulder positions and specific leg and body sequences … with nothing left to chance,” she said. “There are years of immersive study, and the choreography is tremendously systematic.”
Narayanan, who at age 5 became immersed in the culture, and movements, said the complementary documentation for this discipline is extensive. Nearly 36 pages are devoted specifically to describing the details of make-up, jewelry and costumes. The mudras (hand movements) seem sculptural and deliberate. They’re laced with meaning and tradition. Narayanan says their origins can be linked back to classic sculptures found in Indian temples. The dance creates a direct link to ancient history, folklore and traditions.
“Most of the words of the music or stories can be traced to ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Tamil or Telugu,” she said.
Yet Narayanan is quick to say that the stories are allegorical, with happy endings and life lessons, much like fairytales.
Those stories celebrate Hindu gods, nature or animals, often imparting a sense of values. Passing them along to future generations has become a personal passion for Narayanan and those who study with her. Her own commitment is as much about performance as preserving an Indian cultural tradition. As a child growing up in New Jersey, she studied with renowned performer Padmini Ramachandran, who imparted a fierce dedication and passion for Bharatha Natyam to her young charge. Narayanan has since passed along that passion to her own daughter, Shreya, who has been teaching with her for years.
“I’ve been dancing all my life,” said Shreya Narayanan, 21.
A first-year medical student at the University of South Florida, she enjoys the release dance provides, but like her mother, emphasizes the scholarship, mentorship, and sense of community she derives from her students.
“It has definitely taught me discipline and focus,” said Shreya Narayanan, “…that is something I’m very grateful for.”
That’s also true for most of the students, many of whom are mother and daughter.
“They learn at a young age to balance competing interests and commitments,” said Sheila Narayanan.
The students seem to be high performers who look out for one another. Sheila Naryanan says their dedication is quite impressive.
“This is a gift I’m so blessed and lucky to have gotten," she said.
And it’s clear the students feel similarly.
Over time, interest in the stylized and graceful Indian dance discipline mushroomed and she now teaches six days a week, often joined at the studio by her daughter, for whom it is named. A true family affair, her husband Ravi is also a drama actor thanks to the tutoring offered by his wife and daughter. He is also immersed in the production side, even though his full-time job often involves travel. He first began helping his wife build a library of recorded music.
“We give our heart and soul to this,” he said.
His involvement has evolved to coordinate all of the backstage work for performances. Yet he’s quick to deflect any credit. Effusive in his gratitude to the families of other performers who generously devote their time, sweat equity and support to productions, he says there’s a unique kind of teamwork, perseverance and dedication he finds fulfilling.
“It’s truly a sense of community and commitment,” he said. His daughter concurs, smiling widely.
“It gives us all so much happiness,” said Shreya Narayanan.
Staged productions are simultaneously complicated and creative. From planning the costumes to choreography, lighting to audio requirements, they involve months of intensive coordination. Students devote hours to refining their technique, incorporating their own styles and interpretation of roles into their performances. The culmination of this year’s rehearsals will be a June 1 production at the Sickles High School auditorium.
Despite the hard work, it’s clear the dancers are enjoying themselves. It’s evident in the deep bonds and warmth shared between students and teachers.
“It’s so much fun,” said Shreya Narayanan, who has taught since she was 13, including a class for seniors at the Indian Cultural Center. ”It’s more than a dance class; it’s a relationship -- an extended family …”
Charitable giving is also a part of the production. This year, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to USF’s student-run clinic.
What:: Dashavataram, a dance drama benefiting the USF BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic
When: Sat., Jun. 1, 2013 at 6:00 p.m.
Where:: Walter L. Sickles H.S., 7950 Gunn Hwy. , Tampa, Fla. 33626
Tickets:: $10 (with valid student i.d.), $15, $25 and $50.