As a former dancer, I am always curious about dance forms from other cultures and how people use dance to express both their personal feelings as well as express larger cultural ideas. In my personal exploration, I encountered several forms of classical Indian dance, an art form that requires extreme mental and physical discipline while offering its practitioners a code of expression that dictates behavior outside of the dance space. While Bollywood may predominantly be many Americans’ first introduction to dance from India, the classical Indian dance tradition and way of presenting oneself in all facets of life goes back centuries.

In order to share the experience of both the physical and spiritual aspects of this style of dance with our community, I enlisted the help of IVY member and Bay Area-based Kathak performer and master teacher Rachna Nivas — who will be leading a classical Indian dance demonstration and workshop for our lucky San Francisco IVY members. We sat down with Rachna to learn more about not just the dance form, but also how classical Indian dance is worth exploring for emerging leaders like us!  

How did you get into dance?
I was always involved with Indian folk dances while growing up. Bollywood did not exist yet so everyone did traditional folk dance with real instrumentation. It’s a big part of the Indian community to express oneself and our culture through song and dance, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I stumbled upon a Kathak class that my friend brought me to. At that time, I naively thought I knew everything about my Indian heritage – that my leadership in the Indian culture club at UC Berkeley and my love of Indian food and clothing somehow rendered me a knowledgeable advocate of my homeland. But when I entered the room, my entire world was turned upside down. The energy was palpable. The electric sounds of the ankle bells (ghungroo), the students in the class dripping in sweat with piercing focus, and a hypnotic drum being played by a spirited and intense man in the front of the class. He was yelling “Do or die!” He would intersperse grueling physical training and nuanced artistic beauty with words of wisdom, life lessons, and lectures for each student to face their own inner demons. I could not understand what was happening. This is Indian dance? I had no idea that Indian dance could be this emotional, physical, and spiritual all at the same time. And I certainly hadn’t met a teacher who so relentlessly taught his students with unwavering faith that every person could learn it. I was hooked from day one. The rest is history.

What does the training to become a classical Indian dancer entail?
Knowledge of a classical Indian dance is passed down through a one-to-one relationship between guru and student. Guru literally means “one who removes the darkness.” Traditionally, in Indian classical dance and music, one does not study under multiple teachers but rather picks one guru and one philosophy to follow. There is no shortcut to this path. You have to study and train with painstaking repetition before ever daring to become creative yourself. I was lucky to train with a great guru, Pandit Chitresh Das for 17 years until his passing. In addition to the grueling training 3-4 days a week in the Bay Area, I also traveled with him annually to India and trained in a traditional gurukul setting. Students and teacher live together, eat together, do chores, and of course train in dance, expression, music, theory, and history. The teachings of the dance expand far beyond the classroom and just learning dance moves. The training is meant to affect one’s entire behavior – tenets for how to live and how to conduct oneself. It teaches respect, humility, and most importantly, a sharp mental acuity to be alert at all times – when we’re eating, speaking, or just sitting quietly. That awareness and ability to respond to daily life helps with the improvisational and spontaneous nature of Kathak dance. Also, the ability to observe humanity translates into understanding motives behind people’s actions and gestures, which trains students to portray all types of characters: Heroes, villains, and sorcerers of the great epic stories.

Can you give us a little history of classical indian dance and its role in Indian society?
There are 8 distinct and recognized classical Indian dance forms. Many of them have origins dating back to the Natya Shastra – a ancient Sanskrit text on the performing arts dating between 200 BCE and 200 CE. All the Indian classical dance forms have an aspect of pure rhythmic dance as well as a storytelling and expressive aspect. They differ in technique, postures, gestures, music, etc. Kathak dance, began as a storytelling art as way of telling stories of the land through dance. It then moved into the temples as a form of worship and then moved into the courts of India during the Moghul dynasty that ruled India for 400 years. This is how Kathak beame the only dance form to be influenced by both Hindu and Muslim cultures. The Islamic and court influence brought in the heavy and intricate technique in pirouettes and footwork. During British rule, Kathak and the other classical forms were banned from public performance forcing many lineages to dissolve or go underground. Many of the women, who were powerful figures in Indian society, not only lost their stature and wealth, but many had no choice but to go into sex-work to survive. It was not until Indian independence time in 1947, that a renaissance and “reclaiming” of Indian traditions took place. Today, classical Indian dance has moved to the proscenium stage and is gaining popularity again. However, it is in a continuous struggle of being diluted and eclipsed by pop culture such as Bollywood dance and western pop. It is my life mission to help raise awareness of the dynamism, richness, and beauty of Indian classical dance across the globe.

What is the relationship between classical Indian dance and more contemporary styles of dance coming out of India today (like Bollywood)?
Bollywood dance was actually derived from some aspects of Kathak dance, particularly that of the courtesan tradition of courtly entertainment. At one time, Indian movies displayed this aspect of Kathak dance in a pure form, but with western influence. Bollywood dance is no longer recognizable to any classical Indian dance today.

Why is classical Indian dance relevant in the U.S. in 2018? Has the art form changed/evolved/adapted upon coming to the U.S.?
Classical Indian dance is a living breathing being. It has survived hundreds of years of war, invasions, regime changes, colonization, and even migration to different continents. It has been able to do this only through evolving and adapting to its time. I believe the art form is even more relevant today where we live in a “instant gratification” society and where there is less focus on mastery of a craft and human to human mentorship. Kathak is traditionally a solo art form with a continuous improvisational rhythmic interplay with live musicians. After coming to America, classical Indian dance companies have evolved to include ensemble work with higher production value. At the Leela Dance Collective, we are preserving both the choreographic ensemble work as well as the traditional solo improvisation work. I have traveled around America, teaching and performing the art – from the smallest of towns like Sheboygan, Wisconsin to New York City. No matter where we are, audiences respond not only enthusiastically but with a deep need in particular for the spontaneous aspect of the dance – where one does not know whats coming next. It mimics life in a way that is sharp contrast to a society where things are highly produced, edited, and fixed.

What is your process as an artist to take an art form that is hundred of years old and make it come alive to audiences today?
I was taught that the most important aspect of being an artist is to reach people. That it is a platform to commune. At the Leela Dance Collective, we are in a very unique position to educate, because we were trained directly by a master from the old-school generation yet we are also of a generation that understands and lives today’s society and culture. We are the ones who can serve as the bridge between today’s millennial generation and the integrity and discipline of the previous generation. Being in this position allows artists like myself to be able to collaborate with artists of different genres, highlight social issues relevant today even when using ancient Indian stories, and bring visibility to my own experience as a child of immigrants who grew up in America.

Why is being a good storyteller important for emerging leaders like those in the IVY network?
Stories are the only way we can truly understand our fellow citizens. It is how we build empathy and compassion for another, hence making for a more tolerant and humble society.

What is the best way to support classical Indian dance in our communities?
First and foremost, attend performances! If we do not have patronage, we cannot create our art. Take any opportunity to learn more deeply what the art is about – whether through a class, lecture, demonstration, or talk-back. It is an educated audience that will help cultivate the deepest foundation of support for the art. And of course, supporting as a donor is critical. Art forms like ballet and contemporary are thriving because of the incredible community backing that the institution receives. We are currently trying to build a sustainable infrastructure for Indian classical dance – something that we lost during British rule of India and when the patronage system was collapsed. To this end, we, at the Leela Dance Collective, have launched the first ever endowment for Indian classical dance in the U.S. Our vision is to be able to provide fellowships for artists for the incredible work they are doing so that artists can make a dignified wage in society and so that the notion of “starving artists” become something of the past.

In your opinion, why has dance been such an important part of all cultures since the dawn of time, and why do we continue to dance?
I believe that dance is the purest expression of emotion and of humanity on a whole. It is the perfect intersection of physicality, emotionality, and spirituality. Dance transports both the dancer and the observer to a place that elevates our state of mind. Dance has incredible power to heal – something that we so desperately need today more than ever.