3-9 January 2014 #688

Dancing for the gods

Bharatnatyam artist seeks to revive Nepal's classical dance forms
Risheeram Kattel

While her friends would bicker about who would be the ‘doctor’ or ‘pilot’ during pretend play, young Sulochana Gopali always chose to be a dancer. Such was her love for the art that the girl from Makwanpur spent hours in her room perfecting the steps of her favourite dances from actress Mithila Sharma’s movies.

After completing high school, Sulochana moved to Kathmandu in 2002 and began studying dance at Padma Kanya Campus. Having grown up watching popular Kollywood and Bollywood dance numbers on TV in her village in Tistung, she got cold feet when she was put in a Bharatnatyam group in her first year.

“I had never heard of Bharatnatyam in my life. Getting the precise movements and expressions correct was very challenging. But with practice and my gurus’ guidance I started enjoying the dance,” recalls Sulochana who trained under Krishna Pradhan and Yagya Man Shakya in college.

With a BA degree in hand, the talented dancer left for Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 2010 to sharpen her craft and broaden her understanding of classical dance forms. It was during her two years in Banaras when Sulochana realised how far we lag behind in our performing arts curriculum. “My Indian classmates were far ahead of me and the first semester was definitely the toughest,” she admits. “I felt like I was starting from the very bottom because everything I had learnt in college was a fraction of what I was expected to know at BHU.”

Sulochana’s hard work and perseverance finally paid off paid when she graduated last year with a master’s degree in Bharatnatyam.

An extremely precise dance style with the knees bent in a basic stance called araimandi where the body is divided into three triangles, Bharatnatyam is traditionally performed to Karnatic music. The theme is devotional love: a love for god that is at once physical, emotional and spiritual characterised by human emotions like jealousy, anger, happiness, playfulness, and betrayal.

Since the craft demands extensive training - a minimum of six years is usually required before a dancer is considered ready to present a full recital on stage - and a lifetime of dedication, it does not have the mass appeal as other Indian dances. The number of Bharatnatyam artists in Nepal can be counted on the fingers of two hands and those with an academic degree are even rare.

Sulochana has travelled across the 75 districts of Nepal as well as many parts of Europe and India honing her talent. “No matter where I perform, I concentrate on giving my best when I am on stage,” she says.

Besides lives shows, the 26-year-old is also a dance instructor at schools around the Valley and is now being sought after by colleges to teach Bharatnatyam at university level. Padma Kanya, which is introducing a master’s program in dance, reached out to its alumna recently to work on the new degree. “I am humbled to be working besides my guru ji on developing the new program which I hope will benefit many dance enthusiasts who want to perfect their skills,” explains Gopali. 

The gifted artist, however, is saddened by how quickly traditional dances in Nepal are losing their appeal and fears that without proper promotion and support, they will soon die out. “From popular media to dance schools, our children are watching and learning only western dances and Bollywood routines. When I try to teach classical dance like Charya to my young students, they shy away,” says Sulochana. “If we want to inspire young people to take up traditional dance professionally, us teachers need to incorporate modern styles into ancient dance forms without altering their core elements.”

Sulochana now wants to go beyond teaching and research on Nepali folk and classical dance forms like Charya so they become more popular among the youth. She says: “It is unfortunate that we haven’t been able to pass on the skills and passion for our traditional dances from one generation to the other. I hope to work closely with my teachers to ensure that we don’t lose such an important part of our cultural identity.” 

@GopaliDance

Read also:

The dance of devotion

Watch:

Performance by Padma Subrahmanyam

Arangetram or debut dance

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