Sonali Skandan, artistic director and choreographer at Jiva Performing Arts in New York City, connects modern audiences to ancient traditions through the art of music and dance. With the help of her composer and husband, Bala, Sonali carefully choreographs the ancient Indian dance called Bharatanatyam. She along with three of her students perform the dance in traditional costume and show how music and dance can connect us to broader cultures. This story is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with Pearson.
Indian Classical Dance in the Modern World
SONALI SKANDAN (Artistic Director, Jiva Performing Arts): I think this art helps us connect to our broader culture. It’s a tool for us to express who we are. The dance form is called Bharatanatyam. And it has its origins in South India, in specifically Tamil Nadu. It's a state in southeastern India.
I teach dance I get a lot of students who grew up in this country. And because they're so far away from their culture of origin, it's hard for them to relate to who they are in the context of New York City or the United States. I think learning dance helps them identify with their background, with their culture, have a sense of pride in who they are.
SAHANA SRIDHAR (Dancer): Having moved abroad recently in New York, I think it’s a wonderful way to connect with your culture and the traditions that you belong to.
JANANI COMAR (Dancer): It's amazing to be in such a diverse community. And you know, in the city where all these different things are coming in. And I’m absorbing everything and that reflects on me on stage.
AISHWARYA MADHAV (Dancer): It came in as a completely pleasant surprise when I moved in here, and to see the respect they have for artist. They keep the art form as pure as they can. It's as pure as it is in India.
SKANDAN: This is traditional Indian classical dance makeup and what we’re doing right now, we’re putting it on for a performance. So we really highlight the eyes, make our eyes look bigger, because as you’ll see in the dance, we use a lot of our eye movements that relate to our abstract dance which we call Nerta and also our abhinaya or expression.
This is traditional temple jewelry from South India. This is what the Devadasis or the traditional dancers use to wear when they danced. And you also see the same kind of jewelry similarly worn by brides in south India. So because the Devadasis were so called married to the god, lord of the temple, they would also dress like a bride. So this is why we still wear this very traditional jewelry.
This is a stitched costume, skirt costume, made from a traditional sari. And this is a variation of what was traditionally worn way back by the Devadasis. They actually wore saris, so this is based on the sari costume.
Bharatanatyam is based on carnatic music. And carnatic music is a system of Indian classical music that hails from South India. And it's really tied to Hindu philosophy. It was danced by a women called "devadasis" in temples as a form of worship to the gods of the temple. There's actually no real specific date of origin of this dance. I mean, some say it's, like, 2,000 years old. So at that time, when the Davadasis were dancing they were part of a lineage of women who would pass this art down. And now Bharatanatyam is performed mostly in theaters across the world.
BALA SKANDAN (Composer, Jiva Performing Arts): I studied Indian classical music, a tradition called Carnatic music. The way I relate to my cultural background is through music. The piece today, it's called Shadja. And Shadja is the name for the first note in Indian classical tradition, similar to doe. The interesting thing about this particular piece is it's a different take on a very traditional scale called Nattakuranji.
SONALI SKANDAN: When I choreograph new works, it's based on the traditional language, the movement vocabulary of our dance form. So we have a system of hand gestures. It's almost like sign language. We have a series of single hand gestures that we use, called "asamyukta hastas." When we use them when we're telling a story or doing abhinaya, which is expression, they do convey a meaning. So one hand gesture can have several meanings and used within a context of a dance choreography or a song, it has different meaning.
SRIDHAR: There are a lot of reasons why I really like to do dance now. It’s a form of expression. There is that individuality that you are left to interpret the works the way you want.
MADHAV: It has such a strong legacy, it has been passed on from generation to generation. So that itself is-- it's something you're proud of.
COMAR: I get to take these poems, this poetry that, you know, have either been written 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, and sometimes even older than that. But I get to interpret it. How do I take, the messages that they're sending to us and make it applicable to our lives today, if it's in India, or if it's in the U.S. or anywhere.
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