Incorporating Britain’s nature into Bharathanatyam

I know the flight of the swallow, the sound of the curlew, the grouse on the moor, the badger hole in a dry stone wall and the ubiquitous sheep poo in the National Parks of Britain. I know the feeling of heather brushing against my leg as I stride through open moorland exercising my right to roam, I experience the awe as I go bog-trotting on the top of Kinder, I enjoy lunching on the tops as the breeze catches the sheep wool stuck on barbed wire fences, I marvel at the colour of peaty water as it flows down the side of rocky verges and shaded vales as the birds chirp about at dusk on a long summer’s day. Nature is at its best in these special landscapes and one of the 15 National Parks is never too far to get to for anyone living on this island. For the last three years, I have the privilege of roaming Britain’s most visited National park, the Peak District National Park as a volunteer ranger and won awards for my work.

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But long before I was a ranger, I was a dancer. Having learnt abhinaya with Guru Kalanidhi Narayanan from my early dance years, the National Parks have inspired and challenged me to find new ways to express and translate the experience of nature. My creativity is being influenced by my experience and shaped by the landscape I explore.

How would we use the Bharathanatyam idiom to capture the grouse, not the peacock, the badger and not the elephant? I feel a new exciting dimension to creative expression welling up. The beginning of a new chapter in Bharathanatyam, incorporating Britain’s Nature into Bharathanatyam! Not just that, but the direct experience of nature has a powerful impact on the dancer’s expression.

Capturing these aspirations of mine was a BBC crew who filmed the introduction of my dance students to the Peak District National Park, in their ‘dancer’ mode! On the afternoon of the 20th of June 2014, the grounds of Padley chapel were overrun by dancers in bright tops and practice sarees. It was a fine sunny afternoon, on a pleasantly warm day in the dark park village of Grindleford in the north of England. Two groups of dance students led by Annapoorna and myself did the sarasi jakshulu Shabdham in unusual settings.

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With a small audience in tow and ready to clap after every shoot, the afternoon had the makings of a fantastic start for the concept of nature learning in Bharathanatyam. In my brief note to the director, I had written the following:

‘Bharathanatyam is based in a philosophy that accounts for nature as being integral to human existence. Bharathanatyam dancers depict nature ubiquitously, as backdrops, as analogies, and even while dealing in human relationships. At Nandavana Dance, Chamu Kuppuswamy, who is also a ranger, believes that dance becomes more powerful and real when the dancer’s experience of nature is direct, and not vicarious.

Dance learning can be made exciting and challenging when students spend time in natural surroundings, by observing and translating nature into movement and expression. In modern multicultural Britain, the practice of traditional Indian arts such as Bharathanatyam are subject to a number of pressures such a lack of time for practice, limited number of teachers, lack of context and culture, standardisation and lack of opportunities to watch live Bharathanatyam, especially by senior dancers and legends, hence its practice is often diluted and is at risk for losing the essence of the art form – its philosophy. One of the reasons for these pressures is perhaps its relevance to modern society is less understood and therefore Bharathanatyam gets encroached upon. Nature learning is an attempt at finding new ways of making Bharathanatyam relevant in a modern society, where health, environment issues are on the top of any agenda. Both National Parks and Bharathanatyam benefit from nature learning in Bharathanatyam. And the ranger and dancer come together!’

Abhinaya learning is exciting and a deeply creative exercise.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with Dr. MacFarlane in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. He spoke of specialist vocabulary in different aspects of landscapes in the dialects and languages of the British Isles. On reflection, I believe, in my response to nature, my arms and stance begin to change almost simultaneously as words form!

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