Not just ethnic dancers, but a bridge to the classical & contemporary

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Melbourne-based classical dancers Roshni Vellore and Uthra Ramachandran and their guru Dr Chandrabhanu OAM talk about Parampara: The Making of Dance, which bridges classical and newly developed contemporary works. The performance was recently held at the MTC and received much applause.

Chandrabhanu is no stranger to the classical dance scene in Melbourne. His school Bharatalaya Academy on Richmond’s Swan Street was founded in 1973 and today continues to produce a new generation of dancers who have formed a new youth company the Jambudvipa. Chandrabhanu has created over 40 full length works in the Bharatnatyam, Odissi and contemporary dance genres. His ability lies in very conscious awareness of the development of Bharatnatyam and Odissi within the Australian context, and also drawing from the traditions that were transplanted from India to Australia. Nowadays he spends more time choreographing and Parampara is one among the many that he is involved in.

With over 14 years’ experience in dancing, Roshni studied Bharatanatyam at the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Academy. In 2007, she commenced Odissi training and performed her Manch Pravesh (a culminating event for students of Odissi dance) in 2012. She has performed in several productions over the years and has jointly received the Natya Kala Best Overall Performance award in 2015 with Uthra Ramachandran for Geeta Govinda Part 1 and received Odissi class awards in 2007 and 2018.

Uthra commenced training in the Vazhuvoor style of Bharathanatyam at the age of five in Botswana, Africa. She presented Arangetram, which is the debut performance for Bharatanatyam in 1998 before migrating to Australia with her family in 1999. In 2001 she joined the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Academy and continued training in Bharatanatyam. Since 2007 she has focused solely on Odissi and has had the opportunity to perform in several shows and productions. Their recent performance at the MTC also had Spanish Flamenco dancer Laura Uhe, herself an accomplished and experienced performer and teacher, where the audience were given a chance to see the merging of cultures in dance.
In conversation with Roshni, Uthra and Chandrabhanu.

What was the inspiration behind Parampara?
Uthra & Roshni: We wanted to raise money for JAIA (Jambudvipa Youth Association of Indian Arts). JAIA is the non-profit part of the school which stages professional level productions for senior dancers. It is our way to continue to connect and share with our heritage. Profits from Parampara will go to support future performances by dancers of the academy. Since its founding under the guidance of Chandrabhanu, JAIA has staged a number of major productions in both styles of dance with professional-level dancers including “Mariamman” (2013), “Ras Leela” (2013), “Geeta Govinda Part 1” (2014), “Geeta Govinda Parts 2 and 3” (2017) and now “Parampara – The Making of Dance” (2019).

How does it bridge classical and newly developed contemporary works?
Chandrabhanu: I’ve wanted to do this program as an example of the fact that choreographers and people who actually make dance sometimes get overlooked, because people think it is “traditional” dance. That word “traditional” in India is a curse really because we say “by tradition, this is the way we have to do it”. I am looking at the genius of people in the past who have been gurus and have choreographed. I am very lucky in the sense that I have had very good gurus who were encouraging me to choreograph work. And so throughout my whole time in Australia I’ve been observing the general dance community where there is always this emphasis on innovation, particularly in Western dance.

What about the Flamenco piece in Parampara, is that fusion?
Chandrabhanu: I wouldn’t still call the Flamenco piece fusion. Dance is dance. Too many people think if you do Bharatanatyam, you don’t do Odissi or Kathak. It’s all dance and just different ways of moving. The human body loves to move and express itself. I have been to Spain five years in a row, listened to a lot of Spanish music and watched a lot of Spanish dance. Like Indian dance, they have their own issues with different schools and regional differences. But they are still very proud of their lineage of teachers, their parampara. What I find about Flamenco is that it is very innovative. Each generation has its own way of expressing themselves through dance. Flamenco is said to have an Indian origin from gypsies who came from northern India to Spain. Also, when the Jews were expelled during the Reconquista period, they came to India, and then they went back to Spain. So, there are already different cultural elements in Flamenco, and Indian dance is the same.
We can’t say that it’s been traditional for 2000 years, it has changed. For instance, the Tanjore quartet in classical terms were influenced by Dikshitar, who was very innovative. Dikshitar revolutionised Carnatic music by introducing the Melakarta raga system. Today, from an academic point of view, we think Dikshitar was a very contemporary composer. In the same sense, there is a kind of merging of cultures within Flamenco and I want to make that connection with Indian dance as well. With Odissi or Bharatnatyam, our rhythms are a little bit more complex than Flamenco, but there’s always the bravado, the quality of performance, showmanship and passion the dancers have.

Do you feel Indian classical dance has isolated itself from the wider cultural community?
Chandrabhanu: I’m very sceptical of what has happened to the arts generally in Australia. The last few governments have not encouraged the arts at all, so you will find that arts funding has gone down. You only find mainstream funding for the big companies. In terms of grassroots level, it is really low. We are now in a position where we are seen as “ethnic” dancers rather than being part of the cultural exploration of Australia. In the 90s, Bharatam Dance Company was a major company funded by the government, and we had our shows at the arts centre and people didn’t just think “it’s Indian dance”. We had an audience that kept coming for every season because in a way I educated them because of my ability to communicate what the dance is all about.
The dance culture of Australia is under threat because mainstream professional companies are getting all the grants, but the general dance culture – small ballet schools, Indian dance schools are not. It also worries me that there are no regulations for Indian dance. There are Indian dance schools everywhere now with no set curriculum and that is a concern. My emphasis has always been on a professional standard from day one. We have to make sure people understand that this is theatre – a convention of theatre.

(As told to G’day India)