Dance preview: The essence of love in Indian dance

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran focus on the rasa of love in their bharatanatyam concert Sunday night

Across genres of Indian art, rasas—the juice or essence that classifies the aesthetic of the work—play a key role in transporting the audience to a realm of wonder parallel to the one we live in. Though the ancient form of Indian dance, bharatanatyam, may seem mysterious and other-worldly at first, the emotional content that serves the style is recognizable, even without the benefit of extensive cultural education.

When I asked visiting bharatanatyam dance couple Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran of Chennai, India, what their favorite rasa was, Viraja replied simply, “The king of the rasas: shringara (love). A love for what you do, a love for the art, and our love for each other.”

 Sunday, in a one-night only performance at Portland’s New Expressive Works, the duo will perform an hour’s worth of traditional Indian dance, followed by a special audience talk-back that will help answer questions that may arise.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran will perform Sunday night at New Expressive Works. Photo by Sibu Kutty

Bharatanatyam is a beautiful and rich dance form laced in tradition traced back in  Sanskrit texts from the 2nd century CE. “There’s a lot of misconceptions around bharatanatyam because it’s an ancient art form; a carrier of tradition, of ways of the past. There are many ways to demystify it,” says Subashini Ganesan, founder and director of N.E.W. 

Viraja and Shyamjith are a dynamic dance couple trained from the illustrious Kalakshetra Foundation, based in Chennai. Kalakshetra is an intensive university program founded in 1936 that has received international attention for its perfectionism and clean, geometric approach to the preservation of classical Indian dance. Reflecting on their  Kalakshetra training, Viraja noted that it’s rewarding now as professional dancers to be asked if they are from Kalakshetra, based on their performance qualities alone. That reputation seeps through Viraja and Shyamjith’s work as creators and performers, further validating the level of training that informs their movements.

Kalakshetra’s program emphasizes that there is more to learning the artform than just the movements, however. The idea that the dance progresses as the dancer’s life experience becomes more full and mature is equally important. While chatting with Ganesan, she also cited that principle, recalling her early teachers explaining that “you won’t perfect bharatanatyam until you’ve felt the emotions of it in your real life.” 

Shyamjith noted that the school “gave us an eye for beauty, and a system to follow when creating.” Later in our conversation, he explained that he likes to push the boundaries of the tradition as the choreographer of their performances. For him, that might mean using music with a more modern feel to it, which you’ll have a chance to hear in the final dance of the Portland program, which uses the melodies of composer Sri. Balamurali Krishna.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran/Photo by Paresh Gandhi

Sometimes, this type of innovation receives pushback from more traditional practitioners of the ancient form, while others welcome the new ideas. “We try to improve ourselves and change based on the feedback we get about out work,” says Shyamjith. 

Viraja and Shyamjith’s Portland program includes a blend of the rasas, the Indian term that refers to the feelings evoked in Indian artistic practice. The nine rasas are shringara (love), haasya (comedy), raudra (fury), karuna (compassion), bheebhatsya (aversion), bhayaanaka (terror), veera (herosim), adhbuta (wonder), and shanta (peace). Given that the dancing duo is also a couple in real life, I wondered how the rasa theory played out in their artistry, and how it relates to the idea that your understanding of the practice increases as your life experience broadens.

“The whole reason we are dancing together is because we believe in each other. As artists, we strive toward the same thing, to strike a chord. That is rasa,” said Viraja. Their work’s foundation is “to be honest, to be sincere, and to bring the best of our energies together. We try to live up to each other’s strengths.”

The experience of the performers’ intimate bond as partners should be enhanced in the cozy performance studio at N.E.W. Similar to western ballets, bharatanatyam is typically performed in large theatres with proscenium stages. The grandeur of the theatre reflects the breadth of the dance form as it narrates mythical legends and spiritual ideas of sacred Hindu texts. I asked them how they felt bringing their work to a smaller space than what they are used to. Audience members will be able to see each facial expression and have a close view of the intricate footwork that denotes the form.

“Personally, I feel cautious. You have to be very clear and not be distracted by the audience. But we are human,” says Shyamjith.

Viraja sees these potential distracting moments as just that, moments, and then you are still in your performance.  Shyamjith shared that some of the rasa expression comes more naturally to a woman, and that he’s sometimes hesitant to try them. But, in a similar way to how he pushes boundaries as a choreographer, Shyamjith uses this challenge as an opportunity to push himself and his ways of storytelling.

For the pair, the talk back will serve as an important exchange of understanding. Without it, “the stage becomes a divide between the audience and the art,” Viraja says.

 Viiraja and Shyamjit will perform Sunday, July 28, at 5 pm. Limited tickets are available through New Expressive Works.

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