By Kristin Schultz
A tradition that dates to the time of Israelite King David, Iranian prophet Zoroaster and the Phoenician alphabet is alive and well in the Capital Region. Bharatnatyam is a 3,000-year-old form of dance that originated in southern India.
Niskayuna resident and recent high school graduate Elisa Abraham and Shenendehowa junior Purva Shenoy recently completed the three-hour recital or Arangetram, in which the student demonstrates mastery and becomes qualified to teach others.
Bharatnatyam is a form of dance with roots in Hindu temple worship rituals. There are two components that students must master: intricate, precise footwork and expressive, artistic storytelling through hand gestures and facial expressions.
Through dance, performers tell stories of Hindu gods and goddesses such as the story of Bhasmasur and Shiva.
The dancers wear brightly colored outfits with loose-fitting pants or full skirts with pleats and closer-fitting tops. Their makeup is elaborate and colorful as well.
Both Abraham and Shenoy studied under Sudharsana Srinivasan ,who grew up in India and has been teaching Bharatnatyam for 15 years in Texas, Poughkeepsie and the Capital Region. Srinivasan founded the Ragahastha Performing Arts Center in Niskayuna.
“I came from a family of artists and musicians,” said Srinivasan. “Art was a part of my everyday [life] and part of my culture and heritage.”
Srinivasan began taking lessons as a young girl, as did her pupils Abraham and Shenoy. Abraham began her journey at age 5 and Shenoy at age 6.
Shenoy attended a class with her friend and was intrigued. As soon as she started lessons, she was hooked. “I felt like it was something I was meant to do,” she said.
After coming to Srinivasan’s studio in sixth grade, Abraham, too, fell in love with the art. “I stayed with it because I devoted so much time to it,” she said.
It takes years of practice to gain the necessary skills to perform in front of an audience. Srinivasan said students take lessons for a minimum of six or seven years before taking the stage.
Abraham studied for 13 years and Shenoy for 10. The pair and their teacher first talked about a performance in 2015. They spent the next two years of choreographing and practicing both moves and practicing for stamina. The Arangetram is a three-hour performance and, while there are a few breaks, Abraham estimated that she and Shenoy essentially had to be able to dance for two hours.
“I practiced hard to build my stamina,” said Abraham.
In addition to training to perform for hours, the girls worked to perfect their footwork and facial expressions.
“I prefer the footwork,” said Abraham. “I enjoy the technical aspect of Bharatanatyam. [Shenoy] and I are polar opposites. She is good at the facial expressions.”
Shenoy said she enjoys expressing emotion and understanding a story in order to identify with the characters and tell the story without using any words.
“Expressing emotions has always come very naturally,” said Shenoy. “To this day I am still stronger at the facial expressions than the technical element but I have to say that this one-and-a-half-year-long preparation … has really helped me improve my technique.”
On July 8, the girls took the stage at the University atAlbany’s Performing Arts Center and, in front of nearly 400 family and friends, successfully completed their debut performances.
Both young women plan to continue dancing.
Abraham will be a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston where she plans to study pharmaceutical sciences. She was thrilled to find out the college offers clubs and activities in which she can continue to perform.
“When the footwork and the facial expressions combine, it is beautiful in its outcome,” Abraham said. “I wouldn’t trade it and am glad I’ve had the opportunity and achieved what I have.”
Shenoy has two years left in high school but plans to keep performing and will start teaching Bharatanatyam classes this fall.
“I really hope to pass on this passion I have inside of me for Bharatanatyam onto my students,” Shenoy said. “I think it’s always important to keep culture alive, even as we modernize.”
Srinivasan moved to California just after the girls’ arangetram but is pleased to have seen them to this point.
For more information about Bharatanatyam email Purva Shenoy at firstname.lastname@example.org.