Students elegantly curve their hands before breaking into synchronized footwork at a class in New Delhi, where growing numbers are signing up for Indian traditional dance classes rooted in Hindu mythology.
Class participants range from from pre-teens to surgeons and marketing managers – but they have all chosen to learn traditional Indian dance, which emerged from the country’s temples centuries ago, over western options such as ballet, jazz and hip hop.
“Tradition is becoming popular now,” says Nitya Pant, a Mumbai-based marketing executive who practises Odissi – an ancient temple-based dance that honours Hindu Lord Jagannath, Lord of the Universe.
“No other form can give you the satisfaction that classical dance gives you,” adds the 29-year-old. “You feel like you’re one with God.”
Such is the appeal that Pant flies to Delhi every weekend, spending around Rs7,250 (US$100) on flights, just to train under acclaimed dancer Madhumita Raut.
India is home to eight major classical dance styles – including Odissi and Bharatnatyam, a genre originating in the country’s southern temples more than 2,000 years ago – that tell stories about the gods through facial expressions, hand gestures and rapid footwork.
They run deep in India’s culture, and are performed at marriages, folk festivals and school contests, as well as in Bollywood films and reality TV shows.
Reasons for enrolling vary, from simply exercise to gaining extra-curricular points in college applications. Nabanita Baul Dutta says dance saved her from depression.
“Dance is happiness to me,” says the 23-year-old house wife, who has been learning Bharatnatyam in Delhi for the past year. “After moving to Delhi, I went into depression… Then I found my akka (guru); I came to her and I got out of depression,” said Dutta.
“There is a difference between literature, a coffee table book and a magazine. Shakespeare will be there always”
In a cramped living room, Dutta’s guru, Aayurshi Neeraj, recites a sollukattu, a sequence of syllables that correspond to movements, keeping rhythm with a wooden stick and plank.
Her students clasp their hands in front of them and stamp out beats with their feet.
“Bharatnatyam to me is spirituality, it is a meditation and it’s a favourite dance to Lord Shiva,” says Neeraj.
A converted garage in an upmarket part of the capital serves as Raut’s studio. Here she teaches Odissi, a more fluid-moving dance in which face and hand movements are perfectly timed.
Pant and five other students mirror Raut as she performs mudras (hand gestures) to a steady chant.
“My children also learn different forms of dancing. Today they are learning Zumba-Rumba, something like that, and one year back it was hip hop…” says 47-year-old Raut, listing off dance crazes that have slipped in and out of fashion.
“They know that Odissi is for keeps,” she adds, comparing the allure of traditional dance to the enduring appeal of classic texts.
“There is a difference between literature, a coffee table book and a magazine,” says Raut, who has more than 60 pupils and a growing waiting list. “Shakespeare will be there always.”
Temples to concert halls
Once performed in temples and royal courts, India’s classical dance has found international resonance, with troupes performing around the world.
Thanks to a mushrooming Indian diaspora, traditional dance schools have popped up globally, piquing the interest of other nationalities too.
Back in Delhi, students say the West is looking to India in search of spirituality, culture and history – which is why this classical art has gained international popularity.
“What is lacking, especially in the US and so, they don’t have a very rich cultural history… I think they seek and they want to find that piece of ancient history, that art form,” says Pant, who has been learning Odissi since she was 14.
“They’re leaning to India because we’ve had the most ancient civilisations and that’s why India and its culture has become so popular.”
Her guru, Raut – an award-winning dancer who has lived, taught and performed in Europe, the US and Japan – believes Indian dance transcends borders between people and countries.
“Today it’s music, tomorrow it’s costume, day after tomorrow it’s movement. It’s so graceful. There’s no end to it,” Raut says. “It’s a vast treasure and it can be shared and it will only spread and spread.”