Traditional Nutcracker, Indian style

By Elana Zeltser

Tara Joshi ’14 layered on the many pieces of her silk costume, pinned flowers and jewels to her hair and tied bells around her feet. She stood backstage at the James Armstrong Theater and braced herself for the show. On Nov. 26 she performed an adapted take on the classic Nutcracker Ballet in the Indian style of dance Bharata Natyam with the Shakti Dance company.

“It had the same story line as the Nutcracker, but the styles of dance we incorporated took in a whole new direction,” Joshi said. “We did Bharata Natyam, and we had guest dancers doing belly dancing and hip hop.”

Bharata Natyam is one of the oldest and most traditional dances from India. While not religious, it is considered the highest form of yoga and is extremely spiritual. Live musicians, including a drummer, a violinist and a flautist accompany the dances, with a vocalist singing in Hindi, Sanskrit or Tamil. For the girls, dance has become a way to connect with their Indian culture that they would otherwise be so distanced from.

The production, choreographed by Joshi’s Bharata Natyam teacher Viji Prakash, founder of the Shakti Dance School, was entitled “The Nutcracker: a Christmas Story Retold.” The score was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s original composition and the music of Duke Ellington. Joshi and the rest of the company began practicing for the show in early November, rehearsals sometimes ending at 12 or 1 a.m..

Joshi, Sanjana Kucheria ’12, Sandhya Nadadur ’12, Sarika Pandranji ’13, Amita Pentakota ’14 and Divya Siddarth ’14 have spent much of their childhood and teenage years studying together at the Shakti Dance School. Working with Prakash, the girls have learned countless variations of the dance.

After years of study, they were admitted into the Shakti Dance Company, and have gone on two tours performing in states across the nation like California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

“I’m usually the youngest on tour but it is such a rewarding experience and I get so much closer with all my friends,” Pentakota said.

Joshi has been studying Bharata Natyam since she was 5 years old. In 2010, after nine years of experience and a summer of intense practice, Joshi performed this style of dance for three consecutive hours in front of 500 of her friends and family. Her solo debut dance performance, known as her arengetrum, marked her achievements in the traditional Indian temple dance.

“Its just an amazing feeling, being alone on the stage with everyone watching you after you have worked and trained so hard,” Joshi said. “Call me a diva, but it was one of the best times of my life.”

In fact, Joshi was one of eight of her closest friends who celebrated their arengetrum the same year.

“It is like our version of a Bat Mitzvah,” Siddarth said. “It is not religious, but it marks a time of passage.”

After reaching this landmark Joshi found that not only is she more respected in the dance community, but there is also a distinct change in her priorities when she performs.

“After my arengatrum, I really feel like I don’t have to focus on the technicalities of the dance anymore — it becomes mostly about what the dance means to me,” Joshi said. “I can let the whole art form take over me rather than focusing on the little things.”

To add to the spectacle, aside from the intricate footwork, facial expressions and emotions, the girls wear elaborate costumes no matter what sort of dance they are doing and no matter the characters they are playing.

Before her arengetrum, Joshi, her family and her dance teacher went sari shopping in her mother’s hometown in India. She then sent the silk saris of different colors to be made into costumes, her favorite being deep purple with a gold border.

While Joshi admits that the costumes can be limiting, she said that the goal is to emulate Indian statues that could be found in temples thousands of years ago.

“When I first began, it took me forever to get my costume on, but now I’m pretty adept at it because when we do performances, we have to do 50-second costume changes,” Pentakota said. “I also have to spend at least an hour on my hair because I have to put flower and jewelry and hair extensions into it.”

With the hours of practice and preparation that she have put into Bharata Natyam, Joshi said that she has learned so much more than just how to dance.

“It has really taught me a level of discipline and focus that helps me in school, and I know will help me throughout my life,” Joshi said.

Joshi said she has found that, despite a hip injury and rehearsals that have been known to run until midnight, Bharata Natyam is a stress reliever for her.

“Our school is so special because people always come back to class eventually,” Joshi said. “Even when they are 40, they come with their daughters and dance with the same teachers. I want to be like that, too.”

“If I hadn’t done this kind of dance I wouldn’t know anything about my heritage at all because we’re not a very religious family, and we don’t go to temple that much,” Joshi said. “This dance has given me an insight and a community.”