Below the stoic, humbling mountains that ring Kathmandu Valley, the chaos of life and the lively people who create it have a palpable rhythm. In the tradition and culture here is movement. As a dancer from America recently arrived in Nepal, I wanted to explore the movement of Nepal, magnify it and understand more about the country's traditional dances in order to learn more about the pace of life here.
Of the numerous dances attributed to various cultural groups and social movements, my main interest was the Newari Dance, in part because I'm based in Kathmandu and it makes sense to explore the culture with its deepest roots here. All I knew to start with was that Newari dance was festive, and included traditional costumes and masks. But when I started exploring, I came up against a curious challenge: finding places to learn the Newari Dance and see it being performed is more difficult than you think. Despite Kathmandu and Bhaktapur's abundant Newari population, the ritualistic and celebratory dances are sadly not often taught in dance studios, and the dance is mostly performed in a few tourist venues or at festivals.
"People don't have time anymore to pass on such traditions, " said Raju Hyaumikha, 38, the director of the Kathmandu University-based Newari Music and Dance Centre in Bhaktapur. "Now people have different occupations than when I was young, so they don't have time to think about this older culture."
Most traditional dance and music schools agree that teaching Newari Dance in order to preserve the culture is extremely important. The dance movement tells stories of the deities and reflects various religious and philosophical aspects of Newari culture. These schools often carry on traditional Newari music classes, but in the months between festivals, dance classes are scarce. "Students are studying hard," Hyaumikha explained, "the classes will start up again next term."
Similarly, The Sadhana Kala Kendra dance school does not presently give Newari Dance classes unless a solo class is specifically requested. "The centre was founded to preserve Nepali Dance and music. Nepali people play instruments poorly, so we are here to form stronger musicians," the school's director Tikendra Rai explained. As far as dance goes, though, the school teaches what is in demand from its students. Rai said that classical and Nepali folk dances are more commercial dances that are taught year round. He claimed that the most popular classes at his school are Hindi and modern dances. "Nepali people demand these dances," Rai said. "Newari dance is not in high demand unless there is a festival."
Suresh Nepali, 36, has been a dance student for 18 years and performs various dances with his wife from time to time. "I started with modern dance, moved to Nepali folk and then I learned Newari," Nepali said. "Now, people want variety," he explained. Newari Dance embodies only one culture and dance students want to branch out. "Newari Dance," he said, "is also the most difficult to learn. There is a specific language, and when studying Newari Dance, one must also study the music." Nepali, once a private teacher of Newari and Nepali folk dances, also believes that he and others simply don't have enough time to dedicate to this art.
It is saddening that in a country so reliant on its traditions, that one rich tradition is scarcely found. If the most popular dances taught originate from another country, how is Nepali dance preserved?
Back at Sadhana Kala Kendra, the dance teachers generously agreed to show me some traditional Newari Dance. They clothed themselves in black and red patterned costumes complete with the traditional accessories: a red flower, macasi earrings, thick hollowed-silver ankle bracelets and a gold headpiece. They were delighted to practice this dance for me and I was happy to have my first glimpse at Newari Dance culture. Their version was a duet, nimble and celebratory as they danced in circles around each other.
Aside from a private showing in a dance school, or attendance at a festival, it seems to me the only venues for truly exposing oneself regularly to ritual Newari dance are hotels and restaurants around Kathmandu. There, several dance groups perform traditional dance during meals or as a separate showing. Last Tuesday I attended a traditional performance in a beautifully decorated and peaceful studio on the top of Hotel Vajra. One of the most respectable and well-known dance groups performs there- Kala-Mandapa, The Institute of Nepali Performing Arts.
This group directed by Rajendra Shrestha is one of the cultural centres in Kathmandu devoted to propagating the rich traditions of Newari culture's performing arts.
Shrestha has made Newari dance accessible outside of its traditional festival setting. He has taken the religious, ritualistic and philosophical aspects of the dance and woven them into a performing arts form that is shown weekly. Kala-Mandapa's repertoire includes ritual operatic dance drama, ritual dances of gods and festive rhythmic dances, as well as comical and satirical social dramas.
The Newari Dance I saw here was vastly different from that at the Sadhana Kala Kendra. The costumes were made of rich, brightly coloured fabrics and the dancers wore thick make-up, intricate crowns and ornate jewellery. The movement was low to the ground and deeply centred with dancer's limbs that expanded, hands that stretched far back with fingers that were strong. This dance was not like western dance, where nowadays, anything goes, and tradition is not very influential. This dance told a story, had a philosophy, and every gesture, stance and glance had meaning. This was the Newari Dance I had been searching for, one that mirrored the deep religious and cultural aspects of Nepal.
"Through dance and music, we learn the real knowledge of our being," Shrestha said. One hopes for a realisation in Nepal of the richness of the country's movement traditions. And I hope that Newari Dance, a vital and once-vibrant part of Newari culture, is further supported and taught.