Geetha Sridhar, a well-known bharathanatyam artiste, is an alumnus of Kalakshetra. Following a successful career as a principle dancer at Chandralekha Dance Company in Chennai, Geetha moved to the UK in 1992 and continues to perform, teach and lecture. Her choreographic works include traditional, contemporary and collaborative productions.

Geetha Sridhar
Geetha Sridhar

This possibly is the earliest evidence we have of bharathanatyam being introduced to the western world. Legends like Uday Shankar and Ramgopal were catalysts in popularizing Indian dance in the UK in the early 20th century. Today, the word bharathanatyam’ is not just a term put down to mean an ‘ethnic dance style’, but certainly on its way to being a household name and practice.

To emphasize this notion, I take a linear approach, in saying that the key is ‘good teaching’, (straying from ‘bharathanatyam for fitness’, ‘bollynatyam’ or ‘Indian contemporary’). As a bharathanatyam dancer and teacher based in London, my research is informal, based on my personal experiences, dance classes, Arangetrams, ISTD exams, scholarship programmes and education sectors. My informants are mainly my colleagues and collaborators.

Often, people ask me what I think of the future of bharathanatyam in UK. My unwavering answer is that it is BRIGHT. If Indian dance has made the journey of 2000 years, then surely it can continue for another 2000! The abounding qualities of the style are reason enough for its longevity in its motherland. It is no different in diaspora. There has always been a need for Indian dance in Britain. Of course, it stems from the Indian communities wanting to keep in touch with their tradition and legacy. The sprightly fourth generation British Asian population, are on the cusp of taking the baton for Indian arts and culture. This inspiration reflects an innate passion and faith in our cultural heritage.

But how is this inspiration nurtured? It is credit to the numerous institutions like Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, Tamil schools and over a hundred independent dance teachers. Here, bharathanatyam is taught in its traditional format of adavus, korvais, and repertoire items. This training equips the students with a strong foundation. Students often use their art for self-identity. In some cases, on embracing two cultures their creativity disseminates and diverges to produce new work by collaborating or fusing styles. This is making headway indeed!

A typical training session for a bharathanatyam class would be approximately an hour or two once a week. Plainly this is insufficient and inadequate for both the student and teacher to progress. Sometimes it is simply not feasible to have more lessons. The reasons vary from transport issues to expenses. A government initiative called the Centre for Advanced Training (CAT) which facilitated the South Asian strand in 2009, tackles this issue by awarding bursaries and scholarships to students who are keen to pursue their interest in bharathanatyam or kathak. Furthermore, students have the opportunity to attend summer camps organized by Arts institutions. They also provide platforms for upcoming performers to showcase their new work. Professional dancers in the country often mentor them.

The UK, can boast of resident bharathanatyam dancers namely Chitra Sundaram, Pushkala Gopal, Shobana Jeysingh, Anusha Subrahmaniam, Mavin Khoo and many more. These artists are known for both their traditional and contemporary work. We have visiting artists like Leela Samson, Priyadharshini Govind, Viji Prakash and others who often create a sizzling effect with their performances and workshops. Their traditional Margam (repertoire) performance is always a pleasure to watch and an incentive for the students to excel in their practice.

Another notable feature in the dance scene of Britain is the practice of bharathanatya Arangetram (debut performance). Seemingly, the practice is often overrated. Nevertheless, it has its benefits too. One British Asian student described her Arangetram experience as “a form of meditation which made her realize how seriously she took her dance”. A recent project on the concept of Arangetram reveals more such insights reassuring of its scope for the future.

A good proportion of the students I interviewed felt that the future of bharathanatyam was strong. However, there is a spectrum in the quality of bharathanatyam being taught in the UK. Standardizing teaching practice of South Asian dances in the UK, is an absolute necessity and a regulated system has been set up for quality control. The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) has formulated a syllabus, which caters to some needs. This dance examination board included the South Asian grade examinations in 1999. Since its launch, there has been a notable rise in the number of dance schools participating and benefiting. The designed syllabus is strategic in the preparation of professional dancers and teachers. The six grade examinations offered covers ample time scale for a student to consider a debut performance. The ISTD, also introduced “The Education and Training Department” in 2002 which aids continuous professional development, by accrediting teaching qualifications. This kind of holistic training philosophy invested in students, can certainly affirm a better quality of dance in the future.

More refreshing and reassuring facts are the support and encouragement that is gained from education sector of the British system. Ten years ago, it was a case where an average primary school employed an Indian dancer as a one off to simply demonstrate a dance piece and conduct a token workshop. This was a hands on experience for the British students to understand the topic of ‘India’ in more ways than a textbook. Often, it included Indian cuisine as well. These days multiculturalism in Britain canvasses more than just a curry! For example, GCSE Dance includes Shobana Jeysingh’s work as part of their syllabus. At a higher level, there are Universities that offer courses that include Indian classical dances or dance studies. Roehampton University offers the South Asian Dance Studies with a wide range of modules such as British Multiculturalism, Dance Migration, Globalization and so on.

In my own experience of being a lecturer at Kingston University in London and having delivered lectures and studio sessions, I can confidently say that it is a healthy engagement for both my students and myself. Jason Piper, the head of dance at Kingston believes and endorses the motto ‘Excellence through Diversity’. Bharathanatyam features as part of the curriculum alongside other genres such as Capoeira, Wushu, African, and Hip hop to name a few. The three-year graduate programme includes modules with various aspects of bharathanatyam, each year under the titles of Dancing Histories, Dancing Cultures, and Production Project. This spread enables me to start with simple studio based work to raise the awareness of the genre of bharathanatyam in the first year, and build it up to a deeper level of understanding classicism through the works of Natyasashtra in the following years. It is truly rewarding to see the outcome of choreographies by students based on a strong foundation and informed knowledge.

In the UK there is a constant flow of immigration population. This necessitates greater access to Indian arts and culture. As the term ‘supply and demand’ goes, whether it be the ritualistic initiation ceremony of an Arangetram, formal training through the education sector or simply a way to keep up with their roots, Britain has eminent dance teachers who offer teaching of par excellence. This is evident with the rise in the number of homegrown British Asian dancers and dance teachers.

Bharathanatyam in the UK has gained its identity and a well-secured place in society. Bharathanatyam is certainly on its way to being a ‘Jewel in the Crown’.