It was a moment of magic, of inspiration, for Nandini Saxsena, a medical consultant as she, while browsing the internet, came across a site dedicated to Indian dance in which Alarmel Valli talks about why she dances. The famed Bharatanatyam danseuse’s words: “I feel like I am a poet, writing my personal dance poetry. Dance not just offers me that heady joy of self-expression, but it also allows me to realise my fullest potential,” resonated with what the 30-year-old Saxsena felt when she was a student of this dance form, but had to give it up because of her studies.
“It’s been a while since I last even practiced my mudras and hearing Alarmelji’s words made me realise the void I have since experienced.” Having seen not just Valli’s, but also other artistes’ videos on why they dance, Sharma is inspired enough “to get back to Bharatanatyam and once again, experience the joys it offers”.
That’s been the purpose of ‘Why I Dance’ — a “social-media movement” created by IndianRaga, a platform for Indian classical music and dance and the Maryland-based Kalanidhi Dance institute. “This lockdown time may have brought the world to a standstill, but our spirit, our willingness to dance should not, we felt, be diminished. This is the message that dancers across the world are giving out on our website,” says Sriram Emani, founder and CEO of IndianRaga, which he set up when still a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013.
Indeed, since the ‘movement’ was launched over two months ago, over 700 dancers including over 21 leading maestros of classical dance have come on board “to be part of this motivational campaign that also lets them express themselves while answering the seemingly simple question: Why I Dance, and showing others the way too,” says the Boston-based Emani, whose association with the classical arts commenced from the time he, as a student in Mumbai, was connected with Spic Macay and later with the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).
Bringing the community closer
The idea of getting dancers to talk about their experience with dance first came from Sahiti Rachakonda, a young Kuchipudi dancer from Virginia, US. “As we brainstormed, we decided to create a platform in which both veterans as well as young artistes would talk about why they dance and add a short clip of themselves performing,” informs Emani. “Having seen many disheartened with the world of live dance that was shutting down bit by bit, we felt this platform would help bring the dance community closer," he adds.
Also part of the campaign, Kuchipudi artiste Anuradha Nehru remembers being asked a similar question on the 25th anniversary of her Kalanidhi dance. “It was such a profound question — one that made me introspect to find my source of inspiration for dance. And as I, together with some fellow artistes delved deeper, we came up with four factors that we felt were taking us onto our chosen path — starting with the way dance provides a connection with our heritage to the sense of liberation it gives us. It also allows us to tell stories and finally, helps us build strong bonds of friendship and community,” adds Nehru.
It was only a matter of time before ‘Why I Dance’ picked up steam and in the weeks that followed, it saw not just classical dancers like Birju Maharaj and Rajendra Gangani (kathak), Rama Vaidyanathan (Bharatnatyam) and Prateesha Suresh (Sattriya), but also those from folk such as Jyothi D Toommar (Ghoomar) and contemporary artistes such as Astad Deboo get on board. “What’s interesting is that dancers as young as 12 years of age to 90-year-olds are with us with their clips on why they dance,” smiles Emani. “And whenever anyone, especially the maestros, confessed to being not too tech-savvy, we pitched in to help.”
Senior Manipuri artiste, Darshana Jhaveri, laughs talking about her first few attempts to record herself in the selfie mode. “But I managed — having learnt tips to keep the phone in landscape mode, ensuring it remains static, etc., and am happy with the result,” says the Mumbai-based veteran whose clip shows her talking about how dance gives her inner joy and peace and has helped her overcome the stressful periods of her life. It also includes vignettes from her last performance in January this year. “The willingness and enthusiasm of senior artistes like Darshanaji to shoot a video from home has not ceased to amaze me,” adds Emani.
As videos of artistes across genres started getting uploaded, “a chain reaction was soon underway with more and more dancers wanting to share their experience of why they dance," says IndianRaga’s Sharanya Swaminathan. The platform now has the participation of dancers from over 65 countries with many who had left dance mid-way also being inspired to get back to it. “Inspired by senior dancers, they felt strongly about pursuing dance and making the most of the difficult times we are in," she adds.