By Karishma B. Desai
With Indian classical dance seeming to lose its appeal amongst mainstream generations on a global scale, there has been a rather recent and revolutionary movement to revive the dance style in the most unexpected of places – US university campuses. College campuses all over the US are emerging with competitive classical Indian dance teams that typically focus on Bharatanatyam, yet fuse elements from all Classical Indian dance styles.
One such team that pioneered the first inter-collegiate classical Indian dance competition in the US East Coast – named Laasya – with the help of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Natya, was Boston University Dheem in 2010. Since then, other annually-held competitions and showcases have evolved as a way for college-based teams to meet and help preserve fading traditions. Today, BU Dheem continues to attend competitions and even produces its own semi-annual dance concerts. At University of Maryland-College Park’s 2013 competition, BU Dheem placed second for its piece portraying the story of the Narasimha avatar and Prahlada’s unassuming devotion.
Much like the spirit of Boston, the ladies of BU Dheem are always up for a challenge. They decided to take a completely different direction by portraying the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box during their recent annual fall show titled Mahila. Pandora’s Box is the story that helps explain how the world’s troubles started from a damsel named Pandora who opened a box full of “evils”, disobeying commands given otherwise from Zeus (the Greek King of Gods).
While the very attempt to portray such a dark yet realistic theme carries high risk, BU Dheem captain Samantha Venkatesh said this about the team’s unique storyline: “Our main goal in enacting this piece in particular was to bridge the gap between the east and the west by depicting the universality of emotions. The emotions associated with the story could still be understood and appreciated through Indian classical dance.” More than just desiring to portray such an abhinaya-intensive piece with a refreshing twist, Venkatesh elaborated that she wanted “audience members to glean the moral of the story, an ubiquitous human sentiment – that even in the darkest of times, hope would always act as a beacon of light.”
However, while teams like BU Dheem are multiplying in areas outside of the East Coast and continue to adapt with contemporary themes there is still a noticeable and detrimental difference between the appreciation of classical Indian dance teams versus and enthusiasm for fusion and Bollywood-based teams. While the team keeps close relationships with its fusion Indian dance team counterparts on BU’s campus, its members admit that it is harder, in turn, to receive the same sort of support from the general student body on campus. BU Dheem President Aisha Rawji reasoned, “Indian classical dance is really rare and has more meaning behind it. So it is harder for people to really understand what we’re doing.”
Nevertheless, NRIs have to be willing to embrace their authentic cultural roots and value India’s rich artistic history, apart from Bollywood movies and chai lattes. BU Dheem wants all of India’s various facets to be promoted whether it be Bollywood, Bhangra, or Bharatanatyam, but most important, wants to be that voice for classical Indian dance, so that NRIs can know the true roots of our culture and create awareness among other communities.
As I have been a fresh transplant from Raleigh, North Carolina, myself, joining the team not only was a way for me to meet other students studying in Boston, but helped me connect with fellow dancers passionate about Bharatanatyam. Even for the Boston locals on BU Dheem, dancing with the classical Indian-based team is a way to also form that special bond from rigorous rehearsals to performing under the stage lights. Agreeing with my own sentiments, Emily Ghosh, a returning teammate cited that she liked “being in a community of other Indian girls with the same interest and love of dance while educating the public about the beauty of Indian classical dance.” Fellow newcomer, Pooja Kalapurakkel added, “Working on a team helps you to understand that people are not that different from each other – as dancers, we all want to perform well, and as Indian classical dancers, we want to become the characters that we are playing.”
While Boston is renowned as a hub for the arts, especially that of the prestigious Boston Ballet, it seems teams such as BU Dheem are putting Boston on the map for Bharatanatyam as well. BU Dheem includes Aisha Rawji, Samantha Venkatesh, Emily Ghosh, Shruthi Rengarajan, Karishma Desai, and Pooja Kalapurakkel and hopes to grow and generate interest, as well as increase awareness. Those who know dancers or dance connoisseurs in the Boston-area, are invited to spread the word and to “like” the team’s Facebook page. Like the resonant sound of their dancing bells, these Bharatnatyam-dancing belles are not fading out anytime soon and hope to revive the classical grace of the art form, all while promoting contemporary-based issues and stories to audiences all over America.
KARISHMA B. DESAI
(A newly auditioned member of BU Dheem who takes graduate classes in Scientific Journalism)