A bit of Mysore, abroad

Rooted

Situated in Northwest Switzerland on the River Rhine, scenic Basel is a border town hugging France and Germany. As a confluence of these assimilated cultures by virtue of its location, Basel is a major cultural centre of Europe. Its world famous theatres, museums and art galleries showcase a rich variety of arts and artistes annually, creating a unique meeting ground in itself.

Amid this ambience, Indian classical dance, more particularly the Mysore style of Bharatanatya, has bloomed into a well-recognised form in this distant land today. Kalasri, the school of Bharatanatya and yoga, the first such institution to be established in Switzerland, has brought these ancient Indian forms to that country and popularised them, carving out an identity for the Mysore style on the world dance stage. In Basel’s art calendar too, Kalasri is a visible presence, representing the fluid and graceful Mysore style.  

But this carving out a niche for the Mysore style was not by design. For Dasappa Keshava and his Swiss wife, Esther Jenny, Kalasri was a natural fallout of their love for dance and all things Indian. They did not even vehemently announce the pursuit of the Mysore style, their own gentility echoing in the style itself. So all-absorbing has Bharatanatya been to them that their two daughters — Nandini and Sumitra — have taken to it as a full-time profession despite being academically qualified for other vocations.

Seeing is believing

Keshava and Sumitra performed at the Alliance Francaise in Bangalore recently, and this single exposure to their dance spoke of their sincerity and grooming. What constitutes the Mysore style can itself be a debatable issue. But it is no doubt a gentle and graceful style, with the abhinaya complementing it in natural fashion. In Keshava’s words, “It can be called sahaja abhinaya. The pantomime in the sanchari bhavas are shown more clearly. The adavus are done with more flexibility, and appear different, although they are similar to the other banis.”

While these aspects of the Mysore style were visible in the father-daughter duo recital in Bangalore, Keshava’s emphasis on mind and body training is what made him adopt a holistic approach to dance, and the setting up of yoga classes. He is an avid hatha yoga practitioner and trainer. “Dance is an art and not a sport. You have to train the body till it becomes aligned with the mind.”

Why Keshava took to dance makes for a fascinating listen, and a journey into the cultural ethos of the Mysore region. The Mysore style is a part of the ‘Rajanartaki’ form. Keshava is one of the very few dancers trained by Venkatalakshamma, who was the last among the dancers of royal patronage. She was singularly responsible for getting a high visibility to the Mysore style.

Living close to the Mysore palace, Keshava was lucky to watch innumerable recitals of Venkatalakshamma around the palace temples. The fascination for dance took root, although the prejudices attached to boys taking to dance kept him away from learning it.

He found outlet in theatre instead, during his school and college days. But the palace and its rich performing arts activities continued to stir something deep within him, and he could no longer resist walking into Venkatalakshamma’s dance classes.

Far removed from this pursuit was his qualifying as a mechanical draftsman, which he put to use creatively, and not as a career option, by sculpting in wood. The artist in him found yet another outlet, and “I would spend hours working on my carvings.”

His entire learning experience continues as an ongoing journey of the spiritual. His dance has also taken an academic turn with the publishing of his book, Bharatiya Nritya Sampradayagalu, by the University of Mysore, a city which is so close to his heart that he and his family spend at least a few weeks there annually. Perhaps his upbringing in Mysore, with all the paraphernalia of royalty and pageantry in terms of  the famed Dasara festival and public celebrations of festivals all round the year, has much to do with his treating dance as both a heritage and a form of self expression that eventually leads one on to the path of spiritual growth. This humility and faith was more than evident in his recital.

He has brought out two music CDs — Classical South Indian Music and Daiva Stuti — which have propelled him to go deeper into Carnatic music and devotional songs in Kannada. 

A remark often heard among dancers is that classical dance has lost its relevance today. Hence the need to venture into new ideas and concepts. Keshava has something else to say. “The art of dance is like a mirror to society. It is educative. Through entertainment, it conveys a great philosophy of life. The good and bad are portrayed on stage, which the audience can easily identify, and learn from it. As for me,  I cleanse my body, mind and soul through practicing dance.” True to this belief, the repertoire of his dance school represents a mini-India, as it incorporates other classical dance forms and folk dances too.

He says he presents Bollywood style dances too as they are popular, but that does not take away from his traditional moorings as those dances are treated as just filmy outings.

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