A talk with indian dancer Anoosha Shastry

The classical ballet La Bayadère from the 19th century is one of the most important works in Marius Petipa's oeuvre. In 1998, under the direction of founding director Konstanze Vernon, it received its German premiere at the Bayerisches Staatsballett in a revised version by French choreographer Patrice Bart. The piece will now be revived at the end of May 2023 after a five-year break.

The plot is set in an imaginary India. The choreographic elements of Petipa's original version from the 1870s are based on the views of the so-called "Oriental" at the time of its creation - Orientalist motifs were particularly popular in the arts at the time.

Indian dance is only hinted at in Patrice Bart's version performed at the Bayerisches Staatsballett. But what exactly is classical Indian dance? What forms exists, how is it taught, where is it danced and what role does it play in modern India? 

Reason enough for the Bayerisches Staatsballett to talk to the Indian dancer Dr.  Anoosha N Shastry about this dance style in more detail.

Annette Baumann (AB): Let's start at the beginning, with the training: How is classical Indian dance taught? At what age do children usually start?

Anoosha Shastry (AS): From a medical point of view, an age of six to seven years is ideal to start. From this age, children are able to grasp and coordinate the movements. Starting earlier is unfavorable, because otherwise too much pressure is put on the feet - in classical Indian dance, a lot of work is done with the floor, with the element of stamping. The lessons are methodical, first you learn the steps and the posture, then you work on the expression. Many people just do it for themselves, for fun. You can also study classical Indian dance at universities. For example, I have a master's degree in classical Indian dance. Meanwhile, you can also go into research, there's a lot happening in India right now.

By the way, it is never too late to start dancing!

It's just that when you start at a higher age, you have to pay more attention anatomically, of course, and go a little slower.

AB: How long does the training take if you want to become a professional dancer in classical Indian dance?

AS: It takes at least 10 to 12 years of training until you have the level to continue working on your own. But in the end, you never stop learning. Just yesterday I spoke with my teacher Guru Dr. Mala Shashikanth in preparation for the workshop at the Bayerisches Staatsballett, I still do this after 2 decades of training.

AB: If you want to become a teacher, is there also a classical dance pedagogy training?

AS: There are many ways, you can do a corresponding training or you can teach without official exams. It is primarily a question of training and experience. There are wonderful dancers and also teachers who have never attended a university. And of course the concept of the guru is very important in Indian dance. We always seek the advice of our teacher, keep learning, try to keep the traditional knowledge alive. There are many exams that can be taken, also methodically levelled and certified. But the performing arts can never be evaluated only with certificates, it takes years of practice and expertise to get the confidence to become a professional dancer or a teacher. This is probably very similar in classical ballet.

AB: In ballet there is a clear physical limit, with mid/late 30s is usually the end. Is there also such a limit in classical Indian dance?

AS: Many teachers and dancers I know dance until they are very old. 80, 85 years is not uncommon. The way they perform can change according to physical ability, but in Indian classical dance there is no specific age limit. The emotive, expressive part of Bharathnatyam (one of eight Indian dance styles in which Ms Shaastry was trained, editor's note) is a delight when these older, experienced dancers perform. One of my teachers is even 95!

AB: How does the male Indian classical dance differ from the female? Are there any differences here?

AS: There should be no differences. At least not in training. For example, in Bharatanatyam, the style I dance, there are four different types of movement. And in the original Sanskrit scriptures as in Natyashastra, it is written that all four can be performed equally by women and men. In fact it is written that one of the forms is challenging and only female dancers would be able to perform such a challenge yet graceful. Although, of course, the execution has changed somewhat over time and through individual interpretation.

AB: Is there also a nomenclature like in classical ballet?

AS: Our nomenclature is based on Sanskrit, more precisely on the Natyashastra, a book written in Sanskrit that deals with the ancient Indian tradition of the performing arts. Every posture, every gesture is written down here. For us it is like a bible of dance. But we also work with numbers that indicate rhythm patterns and counts, and these numbers mean the same thing all over the world. For example, when we say "three" we mean Trishra, when we say "7" we mean Mishra, a very specific way of counting to three or seven etc., which is the same all over the world. So it is a combination of terms and numbers. Non-narrative dance is about rhythm and cycles that follow the counts and end with certain distinctive final counts. For the expressive, emotional part, we have hand gestures called mudras, footwork and head-eye-neck movements. Every single movement has been described in Sanskrit and has a name that is universal to everyone who studies and learns Bharathanatyam.

AB: The movements are codified, they have a certain meaning: does the viewer also have to learn this in order to understand Indian dance?

AS: Ultimately, dance is always about emotions. I use certain gestures and movements, but what counts is what we express emotionally with them. This emotional factor plays an immense role in classical Indian dance. It might help sometimes if you know a little bit about the story that is presented. But if the audience, regardless of their knowledge of postures and hand movements, understands the story, then we have done a good job.

AB: Where do the dancers perform?

AS: There are a lot of different places where dance is shown. There are large auditoriums, small theaters, even what is called living room dance is something that is just developing for intimate audiences. The Ministry of Culture in India is also developing many programs, there are numerous programs throughout the year.

AB: On the movement level, what are the differences or similarities between classical Indian dance and ballet?

AS: For the non-narrative parts, ballet is mostly light and has a lot of movement in the air and is more flexible. Indian classical dance is about being grounded and is structurally a bit heavier and has other components. Musically, both forms follow rhythm, but Indian classical dance has its own language for rhythm and uses lyrics or composed classical songs for the performances. Ballet, on the other hand, is based on instrumental music as far as I understand it.  I also noticed that Indian classical dance traditionally does not use many props on stage, unless it is some recent productions.

AB: It seems like dance plays a significant social role in India?

AS: Yes, dance indeed plays a very vital role in our society and has a very long tradition. Now it's not that everyone in India dances. But there are a total of eight different styles in Indian classical dance and thousands of regional folk dances. I am trained in Bharatanatyam, for example. And then there are the dances of the film industry, the Bollywood dances. The Indian people like dance, music, everything that has to do with the performing arts. That's why there are so many offerings, everywhere and practically every day. The arts scene is very strong in India which holds our culture together and keeps us close to our roots.

AB: Indian classical dance has often been associated with religious practices. What role does religion still play today?

AS: I would say it's a matter of perspective. Some of the productions that are regularly shown are based on mythological material, on religious content, on prayers. On stories that are important for our culture. You can interpret that religiously. But it´s  nowhere  written that it is exclusively about religion.

I would rather speak of devotion in this context, of something spiritual. It's about happiness because I dance with devotion.

Author: Annette Baumann




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