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The Vibrant Anklets of Srekala Bharath  - Bharatanatyam exponent and choreographer
Interviewed and Written by: Anu Gopalakrishnan Exclusive

A spirited soul, her eyes speak a million words, her passion is contagious and so is her dance! From the Bharatanatyam capital of the world, Chennai, here’s a danseuse who creatively collaborates with dancers around the world emitting the kind of spark that is intriguing and captivating. This is the world of the beautiful and expressive danseuse - Srekala Bharath, a Bharatanatyam exponent who with her distinct character has been enhancing this field of art.

In an exclusive meeting with, Srekala speaks to Anu Gopalakrishnan about the nuances of the dance form, her mentor K. J. Sarasa, the beautiful balance of fitness and dance, the excitement of teaching local Michigan students and the much awaited event “Dasavataram” at the Bharatiya Temple, Troy on July 13th.

Here are some excerpts:

Over the years, do you think Bharatanatyam as a dance form has changed in the way audience looks at it?
Well, I don’t think the art form by itself has changed. The message has not changed. I think students across the world- young and old are keeping Bharatanatyam alive. Coming from the mecca of Bharatanatyam and this being my second tour in the US, I have traveled to 25 countries spanning five continents and I can see that the passion for the southern classical art form is very well buoyant and vibrant. If at all there are changes -that could be in the structure and style. The thematic presentations have changed. We can see some creativity in the presentations. The focus is now on collaborations. As you see, the featured dance for the Bharatiya Temple of Troy, has young students from the local schools partnering and collaborating under my choreography. I do not know the lineage they come from, but their involvement and uniformity in performance is beautiful. Thanks to Mrs. Sudha Chandrasekhar, Mrs. Sandhya Atmakuri, Mrs. Radhika Acharya and Mrs. Dhanya Vani Rao – their support in the formation of Dasavataram with local talent is highly encouraging.

How does an artist (irrespective of the geographical location) establish the rapport with the guru?
Classical art gives us great discipline. Every parent wants a child of theirs to pursue or take up one art form or the other. I was very lucky to have the very versatile and well respected Sarasa teacher just a stone’s throw away from home. My good fortune, I joined a fantastic guru. The Guru then takes over the responsibility of guiding and directing the child. An artist should be a package of everything – presentation, costumes, PR etc. This package is what a teacher should see. Dance in itself is a presentation of your inner self. It constitutes elements that you strongly believe in. Gu- means darkness; Ru-means light – and so, it is the Guru that brings the student from the ignorance of the dark to the enlightenment of the light. Of course, one has to work hard.

And what happens when that break comes in a dancer’s life- especially with those special milestones?
The rat race is always there. After a student’s education, college, marriage and the works- it is the sheer perseverance, dedication, devotion and destiny that matters. Whether you choose to continue or not rests in your passion towards the art. That burning desire to perform is instilled inside. This passion is unlike what you see in school where you can learn the chapter by heart and sail through tests and exams, but in Bharatanatyam or any dance form, practice makes it perfect. Each of us is a droplet in the ocean of Bharatanatyam. There is so much to learn. The base of dance is very important. It is very critical to practice the thattadavu and nattadavu of Bharatanatyam in whichever phase you are in. The first adavu in Bharatanatyam is the Thattadavu. It consists of 8 steps (or variations).This Adavu is performed by striking the floor with the feet. The next series is the Nattadavu. Nattadavu is the stretching set of steps. While Thattadavu is very simple, Nattadavu is much more complicated, and involved. It is VERY important that students review these steps frequently, even if it is only for 5-10 minutes each day. If students do not practice between classes, they cannot master the steps. As a guru, my focus is on the stamina.

And your relationship with the very magnificent guru K. J. Sarasa – tell us a little about your experience.
My guru Sarasa gave me creative freedom. Seeing is also learning according to her. She is a non-performing guru. The vibrancy and the passion she has for the art is out of the world. She always mentioned that as an artist, once you wear the anklets- your focus should be on the stage; attention to the footwork; love towards expression and the story should be conveyed to the audience with a choreography that is always to the beat. Several people have mentioned that Sarasa’s vibrancy is what Srekala has and this is one of the best compliments I have ever received. It is her teachings and direction that has made me cherish a project “Thejas Dance School” in 1999.

What’s the story behind “Thejas” and what is your vision for the dance school?
Tejas is 15 years. It so happened, that in 1995 while I was touring Japan, the constant question thrown at me was “when will you start a school”? I was so determined not to start a school. I said, this is it. I will be myself and I will pursue dance as a performer. In 1999, on Vijayadasami day, I started the school with 4 students and now it has grown ten-fold. In 15 years, I did seven arengetrams and 15 salangai poojas. And yes, I know your surprising look. I seek perfection. Those little things make up for quality. I want to teach more than everything my guru gave me. My student should feel privileged coming out as a total performer with quality in all facets.

Your pet topic- “Fitness through Dance” is gaining a lot of momentum. Can you share some details?
Yes. I am very excited about it. In 2007, I put on a lot of weight and for three seasons, I was not feeling comfortable about myself. I never had a personal trainer. I decided I had to step into the gym and in 2010, met this very enterprising young individual N. K. Aridhas. I wanted to lose 10Kgs and immediately, he was very optimistic unlike others. With his positive attitude, and with god’s given will power, he made it happen for me in six months. I started my December season and critics and other journalists gave some good feedback about my fitness regime and “back to form” moment. All credit goes to N.K Aridhas who is part of this successful journey of mine.

Today, as technology is rampantly growing, everything is digital – the gym, the fitness, the exercises that are in vogue. So, why can’t we do fitness through dance? The concept started three years ago in a camp like setting. Aridhas charted out a curriculum which involved fitness stretches, standing, moving legs with footwork, sitting, dance related poses. This improves the agility of the dancer and also prevents injuries while dancing for extended hours. Aridhas is a holistic fitness trainer and his skillset was very helpful in getting back to shape. As a dancer, we don’t do strengthening of our muscles, warming up, cooling down etc. The mobility, the relaxing of the tight muscles, eating right, yogic exercises, metabolic diets etc…is something that a Bharatanatyam dancer does not think of. Fitness through Dance achieves this and more.

Performing alongside Danseuse Srekala Bharath at Dasavataram (Bharatiya Temple of Troy on July 13th) are our talented Michigan student participants:

Chitra Lakshumanan, Hiranmayi Akkoor, Harshitha Kuna, Kamakshi Santhoshkumar, Vibha Moorthy, Divya Gumudhavelly, Anu Mathangi Arunkumar, Shivani Arunkumar, Sriya Vishnubotla.

A lot of effort has gone into the making of “Dasavataram”. With you in Chennai and the local dancers in Michigan, how did this all come together?
Dasavataram was conceived and produced in December 2013 for the December festival in Chennai. After listening to the age old song “paarkadal alaimeedu”- the concept came into being. I have produced solo and group presentations and using all the students from Thejas along with my student from Michigan Chitra Lakshumanan. All the props are extremely suggestive. Saree and dupattas are used to symbolize balcony. Garlanded dupattas/stoles are used as swings. Small touches in such thematic presentations are challenging, but it makes it more effective.

The practice sessions were challenging and tough on both sides. I stick to a particular style. Learning and imbibing in a few weeks calls for a lot of discipline, commitment and time management. There’s give and take on both sides. I was thrilled to see how the dancers didn’t miss a class. They were all excited and enthusiastic to learn. I might be a very sweet woman by nature but I am a very strict teacher. I am demanding and I look for perfection. The event will start with a medley for 25 minutes. The show will be an authentic affair, vivacious and vibrant. The students and the team have worked very hard. The sound system is excellent and the impact will be seen for years to come. I am hoping to conduct an annual dance production in Michigan as the students and teachers are very thrilled and excited about the grandeur of the presentations.

Dasavataram practice by Michigan students.   Danseuse Srekala Bharath with Michigan students preparing for Dasavataram
Physio trainer Aridhas at a workshop with Michigan dance students.

Event details – click here»
Interviewed and written by: Anu Gopalakrishnan thanks Nagu Lakshumanan for coordinating the event and the interview.
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