How a niche and intricate Indian dance is getting popular in the US

How a niche and intricate Indian dance is getting popular in the US

Anuradha Nehru introduced Kuchipudi to a country more attuned to ballet and Bollywood dancing. This is her story
12 Apr, 2016

WASHINGTON: It was a life-changing moment for Anuradha Nehru. Her guru, the late Vempati Chinna Satyam, the man who taught her Indian classical dance, was touring the United States with a solo dancer. He invited Nehru to perform with them on their final night in Washington.

Nehru practised for two months to prepare for that moment. When her dance was over, Nehru says her guru told her: “What are you doing with your life? You’re wasting your time. Anyone can do a job, but not everyone can dance like you.”

And with that, Nehru, the founder of Kalanidhi Dance — a Bethesda, Maryland-based company celebrating its 25th year — embarked on a journey that nurtured her lifelong passion for dance in a country more attuned to ballet and Bollywood dancing than to Kuchipudi, a form of Indian classical dance.

The company is the subject of a short film, Why We Dance, by local film-maker Ellie Walton. She says she was captivated by the courage it took for Nehru to pursue this art form and “that process of how are you simultaneously losing yourself in the art form you love and how are you building a community through it”. Her film aims to show how even if viewers are unfamiliar with the form, the dance “goes to a deeper core that people can connect to”.

Even within the larger classical Indian dance world, Kuchipudi, which hails from southern India, is something of a niche market. But Nehru, 55, has found ways to overcome that, in part through collaborations, with Washington’s Opera Lafayette and with modern dancer Seán Curran, who is chair of the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

A dancer who spent 10 years with Kalanidhi in Bethesda is today one of India’s top Kuchipudi dancers. “I’m known in India today as Amrita Lahiri’s guru,” Nehru says with a laugh.

In fact, that’s not a bad place to be for a woman who wants to help Indian classical dance take off in the United States and make it possible for young dancers to become professional Indian dancers.

It may seem to be a quixotic goal. But Nehru has tilted at bigger windmills than that. As a young woman growing up in southern India, she studied Kuchipudi. College, marriage and family forced her to set aside her vision for a while, but she was always working on ways to get back to dance.

She says she didn’t have a choice. “I think the only thing is that I can’t imagine not continuing,” Nehru says in her Bethesda home, which doubles as a school and dance studio. “I never set out with a goal in mind. I always did it because I loved doing it.”

Kuchipudi demands that kind of devotion. It’s a complex art that combines storytelling, music and creative expression. Besides the 28 single-hand gestures and 13 double-hand gestures, there are six foot positions and 108 different units of movement, not to mention moves for the nine basic emotions portrayed in many of the dances. Even that description is an oversimplification, Nehru says.

Dancers from Kalanidhi in a scene from Lalla-Roukh performing in collaboration with Opera Lafayette
Dancers from Kalanidhi in a scene from Lalla-Roukh performing in collaboration with Opera Lafayette

The discipline requires hours of practice, physical conditioning, rhythmic know-how and a sense of maturity to be able to convey a story or an emotion. No movement is without meaning.

Dancers, Nehru says, need five or six years just for body conditioning and learning the basic dance vocabulary. “It’s five years before we even start teaching the expressive dance aspects,” she says, “because expressive dance comes with maturity, too. Indian dance has so many layers of complexity to it that it takes 10 to 12 years to even begin to get a grasp of it.”

If that’s what dancers must do, imagine what a US audience must know to fully appreciate the performance.

Kuchipudi and opera

She has found creative ways to reach wider audiences. In 2013, Kalanidhi performed with Opera Lafayette in a production of Lalla-Roukh, a 19th-century opera that is set on the road from Delhi to Kashmir. Director Ryan Brown says that when he decided to use an Indian dance company in the show, he did a search online and discovered Nehru “in our own backyard. It was almost unbelievable that a group of that quality could exist so close by and kind of under the radar.”

Even though Nehru knew almost nothing about opera, Brown says, “she was just so attuned to every musical gesture in this music and style that was previously unknown to her.”

Opera Lafayette later used Kalanidhi in another production of an 18th-century opera-ballet by Jean-Philippe Rameau based on Egyptian mythology. “Even though those two aesthetics in Western music are very different, she had the same kind of careful listening and reaction to the musical gestures of that language,” Brown says. “On top of that, I find that she not only comes up with beautiful physical images but that they are really pertinent to the dramatic storytelling that’s going on.”

“She’s an astounding artist,” Brown says. NYU’s Curran, who worked with her on that second collaboration, says Nehru also invited him to lead a modern-dance workshop with her dance company. “Anu is kind of fearless,” Curran says. “She watched every hour of every rehearsal.”

Besides her collaborations, Nehru is known as “auntie” to a host of young Indian American women in the D.C. area. One of them, Chitra Kalyandurg, 33, has danced with the company on and off since she was six.

“It’s totally shaped my life,” she says. In 2008, her love of Kuchipudi dance prompted her to quit her job and go to India for three months to study choreography. She says of Nehru: “I recently saw her practice for the first time in a while. When you see your teacher, your guru, up there dancing, you’re always in awe. She represents the best of everything that you want to have as a dancer.”

The company reprised one of its popular performances this month, as part of its anniversary celebration. Rasa Revisited used the backdrop of the Indian epic the Ramayana and depicted nine emotions through dance: love, happiness, fear, sorrow, disgust, wonder, anger, courage and peace.

The name rasa is deliberate. “The whole purpose of Indian dance is to create what’s called rasa,” Nehru says. To describe it, she says to think of the consumption of food. “When you consume a really flavourful meal, the kind of both physical and psychological satisfaction that you get is the same as when the spectator has watched this performance and he has not only been able to appreciate the physical beauty, but is able to have that emotional sense of well-being or connection to whatever it is that the dancer is portraying.”

Although US audiences may not grasp the full range of the poetry behind the dance, “what amazes me is that we have been able to come to a point today where we are making connections,” Nehru says. “The more you see it, the more you begin to appreciate it.”

It may also be easy to see what fed Nehru’s lifelong passion. Lahiri, one of Nehru’s former dance students, says that Nehru taught her to love Kuchipudi dance “for the sheer joy of it and for no other reason”.

Nehru now has a goal, though. She wants Kalanidhi Dance to grow and nurture professional dancers. “If you can produce even one or two students who continue Kalanidhi,” she says, “my life has been worth it.”

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Originally published in Dawn, April 12th, 2016


A Shah Apr 12, 2016 10:24am
The beauty of Indian culture will spread across the world.
Sri1 Apr 12, 2016 10:41am
Wow, great article from Dawn, hats off. Just the tip of the iceberg for dance and other arts. The west rediscovered yoga and has now realized the depth and breadth of the meditation and holistic benefits. Now it is realizing Ayurveda by just seeing the amount of Ayurvedic formulations, Panchakarma centers and practitioners teeming in America and the West nowadays. Slowly they will rediscover and revitalize the many art forms of India one by one, before Indians rediscover their pride and strengths. After all we need to realize the facts that made the European historians starting to call our subcontinent as the fount of all human civilization, till the Church put an end to that.
Umer Apr 12, 2016 10:43am
But Tahir Shah as become more Popular..
Rohit Apr 12, 2016 10:55am
India has so much to give to the world. This is only a small portion of it. The ultimate purpose of human beings is to live in peace and harmony with every body and every thing.
Dr vimal Apr 12, 2016 11:24am
India shines through her culture. It's vibrant diversity nourished by its secular fabric is a beacon to peace and spiritual prosperity in this torn world. Way to go.
kranaiitr Apr 12, 2016 11:26am
Indian worker, culture, technology are becoming famous day by day
Raj Apr 12, 2016 11:44am
As an Indian, i am proud of this news and also proud of Dawn for publishing this news item. This gesture and unbiased reporting is highly appreciated. Thanks dawn.
RK Apr 12, 2016 12:09pm
Indian culture is rich with varied dances and has been noticed for longtime, not now..
charu Apr 12, 2016 01:30pm
thanks to dancers like her, classical dance forms which were banished under british are once again gaining popularity. And she is absolutely spot on regarding the rigour, my sister has been learning bharatnatyam for 12 years yet she says its not even half way there, kuchipudi am assuming would be just as difficult to master.
Dhanku Apr 12, 2016 01:46pm
Thats the beauty & depth of Indian other culture comes anywhere near.
Feroz Apr 12, 2016 02:34pm
It needs commitment, dedication and sacrifice to master any Art form and Dance can also drain you physically. Indian human resources and culture through soft power is making a big impact rapidly across the world. A civilization of thousands of years has a lot to showcase.
Surya Kant Apr 12, 2016 03:39pm
Dance is meditation when dancers are lost and only dance remains.... Osho
Jamal Apr 12, 2016 06:13pm
Dance is a form of expression born from an evolved culture.
ROHIT PANDEY Apr 12, 2016 07:45pm
Indian soft power spreads further?:)
anon Apr 12, 2016 11:49pm
@Rohit "Vasudaiva Kutumbakam" - The world is one family.
anon Apr 12, 2016 11:54pm
@Surya Kant Spot on!
anon Apr 13, 2016 12:03am
I have seen members of the audience especially the women, after watching a superb performance of great Yamini Krishnamurthy's performance of Kuchipudi in Europe, were in tears for the joy they experienced by watching such a masterly rendition of a beautiful but very complex dance form.
deven Apr 13, 2016 07:49am
A good article specially considering that it has been published in Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper.