Bethusa, Maryland, USA, is an unusual haunt for Indian classical dance. This area—where only 7.92% of the population is Asian—has a thriving art and entertainment district and, surprisingly, also houses one of the premier Kuchipudi schools in the US. Most students of the Kuchipudi Kalanidhi dance school are of Indian heritage, but of different nationalities.
“I had never planned on opening a Kuchipudi school. But, the dedication with which students learnt Kuchipudi inspired me to start a school of my own in 1992,” says Anuradha Nehru, director of the Kuchipudi Kalanidhi school. Her dancers—who can barely speak Hindi—interpret and emote their feelings (rasa) through Indian classical dance.
Artists from the Samudra troupe explore dance inspired by the classical form but performed in contemporary style
Kuchipudi Kalanidhi has received recognition and funding from the Maryland State Arts Council but it’s now the first dance troupe from the US to be invited to perform at the annual Ananya dance festival in New Delhi—an acknowledgement of their expertise in India as well.
Started in 2002 by Seher—an organization that promotes visual and performing arts—the Ananya festival was among the first to be set in New Delhi’s historical monuments. This year, the five-day-long festival will take place within the ruins of the Purana Qila in Central Delhi. Legend has it that the Mughals abandoned Purana Qila because it was cursed. But as brilliant multicoloured lights, a 52ft stage and dancers descend upon it, the Qila is set to abandon its curious past in an eruption of movement. The festival brings five troupes of dancers performing Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi, contemporary dance and Kathak from 11 October.
The setting inspires dancers such as Nehru, whose troupe will perform a Kuchipudi piece called Navrasa, based on the Ramayana. “The juxtaposition of Kuchipudi, with its roots in India’s ancient texts and the Purana Qila, a legacy from the country’s Mughal past, will be a reflection of the country’s complexity and its different art forms,” she says.
Inspiration has also been derived from other sources. C.V. Chandrashekhar’s muse was children playing on the streets of Vadodara. His Bharatanatyam piece moves away from the mythical to the everyday. “My choreography will comprise 10 games, including hopscotch and kho kho,” says the dancer who, at 72, claims to be one of the oldest performing dancers in India. The piece is called Krida, or play, in Sanskrit. “In this world of video games, I want to bring the audience the beauty of the simplicity of street games in the stylized form of Bharatanatyam,” he says.
The festival is not only a celebration of Indian classical dance, but is also an effort to get more people interested in the genre. In a world that is fast turning to contemporary dance and choosing to take salsa lessons rather than train in Kathak, Seher organizes the Ananya festival to bring larger audiences to the performances. And to this end, access to the festival is free. “We want to encourage the democratization of culture by firstly taking classical dance into monuments, and secondly, by throwing open the doors to the public,” says Sanjeev Bhargava, festival director and founding director of Seher. In the past, Ananya has seen up to 3,000 visitors for every show.
The festival will feature only choreographed group performances to match the colossal size of the venue and to ensure that the dancers are not overwhelmed. “We want the dancers to do justice to the Purana Qila and the Purana Qila to do justice to the dancers,” says Bhargava.
The Ananya programme:
11 October: Bharatanatyam, C.V. Chandrashekhar, Nityashree
12 October: Kuchipudi, Anuradha Nehru, Kalanidhi
13 October: Odissi, Guru Gangadhar Pradhan’s troupe
14 October: Contemporary, Samudra troupe
15 October: Kathak, Gitanjali Lal and troupe
There will also be an interactive seminar with artists and choreographers; open to the public on 13 and 14 October at the India International Centre.