Natyaloka: Bharatanatyam in the land of Kiwis

Natyaloka: Bharatanatyam in the land of Kiwis

At an emotional level, one unconsciously packs in many things while moving from the comforting borders of home into a foreign locale- the familiar smells, accustomed chaos, welcoming tastes. Swaroopa Unni also packed in her intense love for Indian classical dances when she and her husband, Siddharth Nambiar left the Indian shores for Dunedin, a small pretty town in New Zealand. The lack of Indian classical dance scene in Dunedin surprised and disheartened Swaroopa, who has been dancing since she was four.  

But the dancer soon took the disappointment and converted it into an opportunity by creating Natyaloka (a world of dance), the first Indian dance school in Dunedin. Today, Swaroopa has successfully managed to both carve a name for herself in Dunedin dance circles and start a dialogue around Indian classical dances.      

Starting Natyaloka:

The dance school is the result of the culmination of Swaroopa’s inner restlessness and dogged determination.  “When I moved to Dunedin after marriage, I was expecting a dance scene similar to Europe or the United States where Indian dance styles are visible, and experiments with dance themes are well received.  When I came here, there was nothing!” she says.

A small town, Dunedin has a population of about 100,000 people, and the Indian community comprises a very small percentage. The locals though aware about Bollywood (Hindi Film Industry), were mostly oblivious to other diverse Indian dance forms. 

Swaroopa decided to take up projects or classes in a bid to both give her dancing aspirations an outlet and to create awareness. But it was proving to be a daunting task.  She was far away from home, knew no one, and was discouraged by many when she asked around for opportunities. The lacklustre responses did not deter her. “I called on the artistes here, knocked on their doors and introduced myself. They were warm and cordial, and heard me out! It was challenging but I did get there at some point," she says.

She decided to launch herself as an artist and did a solo performance at the Fringe Festival in 2012. “I was expecting just 10 people to turn up. It was a small theatre and pouring heavily. But then, people started coming in and tickets were sold out in no time. We had to turn people away at the door. The performance was called Aananda - Dance of Joy  and included Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dances) in its repertoire. The response was amazing,” says Swaroopa.

Swaroopa’s performance and her previous outing at a Diwali (Indian festival of lights) function piqued the interest of the local residents, and she was inundated with enquiries, which prompted her to start her dance school.  

“I started Natyaloka School of Indian Dance in a spare bedroom at my rented apartment with three students on October 6, 2011. The house owner and an elderly old man living downstairs were both extremely supportive, and never complained about the ruckus we created. Now, I have a proper dance studio with 30 students. My students comprise kids as young as four to adults from different nationalities and races,” says Swaroopa. 

The first dance production put together by the students of Natyaloka explained the basics of Bharatanatyam and its structure. “This helped introduce the dance form to the audience. I also experimented by adding contemporary elements to the ancient dance form. Since the dance derives its stories from Indian mythology, I took the time out to explain every story behind each dance. This made the programme interesting, and caught audience’s attention,” says the 34-year-old. 

Swaroopa has published and presented papers for a dance research journal, and conferences respectively. 

Initiation into the world of dance: 

Swaroopa’s family considers dance a holy ritual and has produced many renowned Indian classical dancers. “It was part of our family tradition to introduce children to dance and music by taking them to classes as soon as they turn four,” says Swaroopa.  “I haven’t stopped dancing since!  I started with Bharatanatyam and had my Arangetram (debut performance) at the age of nine. Later, I started learning Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi. My gurus (teachers) included the highly respected Kalamandalam Vinodini and Kalamandalam Saraswathi," she adds.

Soon after, Swaroopa found herself a part of their dance company and started performing across India.  “Dance has always been a part of me and I knew it will be all my life!”

Overcoming challenges: 

One of the biggest challenges Swaroopa faced was to rid the residents of preconceived notions pertaining to both India and Indian dances.  “There's a tendency to label Bharatanatyam as just another exotic traditional dance with no scope for innovation. Therefore, we try to incorporate new elements to make it more contemporary.  I take these challenges and use them to nurture new ideas and discussions within the Natyaloka community. However.  financial hardship for an artist is real. Especially in my experience. That is another struggle that I constantly face,” she points out.

Swaroopa adds that though it has achieved a lot, Natyaloka has miles to go. “The school and I are both going through a growing phase. This year we also embarked on a new journey - inviting artists over for performances. I invited my dance gurus Nirupama and Rajendra to our small town and presented Kathak in Dunedin for the first time. It was a rewarding experience,” she says. 

Swaroopa credits the success of her journey to the support she received from her husband, her family and friends, and the Natyaloka family.  “Their constructive criticism and acceptance of my passion have helped my school grow, and made me realise my dreams,” she adds. 

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