Dissent through dance

Something to write home about

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“I can’t; I have practice” is my most common response every spring semester. My dance team, Natya at Berkeley, competes in the spring, and I have anywhere between eight and 16 hours of practice each week. That said, competition season is incredibly rewarding, and for a couple of hours almost every week, I am allowed to reconnect with an art form that I’ve loved since I was four.

My journey with Bharatanatyam began at the age of four, when I saw my sister in her dance class, ever graceful and so at peace. As the younger sister, it was almost involuntary for me to follow her lead — and so I did. Growing up, I didn’t have too many peers who found relevance in the tremendously traditional dance form that Bharatanatyam is. 

I don’t blame them, of course. I did my time experimenting with various modern dance workshops in middle and high school because it was “cooler” than Indian classical dance; they used music that everyone knew and brought pop culture to the stage. No matter the changes in my life, Bharatanatyam remained constant, and I carried my passion for the form along with three suitcases, extreme uncertainty and several Indian snacks when I moved to Berkeley.

There is still some amount of stigma associated with it being a “classical” dance form, particularly from young dancers of newer styles in the ever-changing world of 21st-century art. It has been surprisingly easy, however, for me to justify my love for Bharatanatyam since I started college away from India — it’s a piece of home. And even amid UC Berkeley’s countless AFX Dance teams, Bharatanatyam is met with the respect it deserves.

My team competes in two or three competitions across the country every semester, and an average of eight teams compete each time. I am consistently, tremendously inspired and empowered by the environment at every competition. It’s exhilarating to be in the company of so many people who share my passion; we feed off each other’s energy, talent and untainted love for what we do. It reminds me why I dance, and in a school as large as UC Berkeley, I find that reminder invaluable.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the power of Bharatanatyam as a traditional art form when telling contemporary stories. I grew up idolizing dancers such as Mallika Sarabhai, Alarmel Valli and Rama Vaidyanathan. These dancers wove tales that aimed to achieve everything from working to fighting climate change to telling simple stories accessible to young people across the globe — long-distance relationships, for example, told via a medium as unconventional as that of Indian classical dance.

Dancing here, too, has given me the opportunity to tell stories that aren’t traditionally told through Bharatanatyam: short biographies of Indian warrior queen Jhansi Ki Rani, who fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and Shikhandi, a mythological figure who was given a boon to become a man from a woman (a transgender man, essentially, whose role in Indian mythology is often left unvoiced). But my perspective on the storytelling power of Indian classical dance might be more radical than I think.

This year, for the first time in competition during my time at UC Berkeley — and consequently, my time on Natya — I saw a team tackle the issue of the societal oppression of the South Asian LGBTQ+ community. I distinctly remember the tension in the auditorium when the team walked on the stage in darkness as the introduction video for the dance piece played behind them. The video ended, and the audience of other teams, judges and an array of dance enthusiasts from Dallas, Texas went completely silent, unsure how to react to a team addressing an issue rarely, if ever, discussed in the Indian classical dance circuit.

As the team’s piece ended, I nudged my teammate to express my awe and respect for the team for deciding to address the chosen topic. Her view, however, was that this was not the “space” for stories such as the one in question — Bharatanatyam is an extremely traditional art form and should be used primarily to tell traditional stories. While my dance teacher back home might have had the same view, I assumed young dancers, who are receiving the progressive education that I am at a school like UC Berkeley, shared my stance on Indian classical dance as a platform to tell a contemporary narrative in an unconventional, beautiful way.

Bharatanatyam is visually stunning and technically beautiful. It requires strength and grit and is traditional to its core. I realize, then, that the kind of change I expect of Bharatanatyam among the intercollegiate dance circuit is still essentially a pipe dream. It won’t be until young dancers everywhere start believing in its storytelling potential that the view surrounding it revolutionizes. Until then, I’m happy to just be a dancer.

Anoushka Agrawal writes the Wednesday column on her experiences as an international student from India. Contact her at [email protected].