Bala Devi Chandrashekar is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer and a professor of Asian performance arts. Her approach is interdisciplinary, involving performing, lecturing, teaching and intense research. An artiste with a philosophical leaning who has constantly explored various methods through classical dance, to interpret spiritual concepts for diverse audiences across the world, Chandrashekhar likes to delve into complex subjects and forms of dance.

She is also the artistic director of SPNAPA Academy of Performing Arts based in Princeton, New Jersey. In this interview with Guardian 20, she talks, among other things, about her preferred subject matter that has formed the core of most of her choreographic explorations: the Mahabharata.

Q. When did you decide to become a dancer?

 A. I have been dancing since I was five years old and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I started learning formally from the age of six. I have three master’s degrees and had a busy corporate life. Yet I decided to follow my passion, and have been doing so for the last 20 years.

Q. Most of your pieces have been about the character Karna from Mahabharata. Why are you so inclined towards Mahabharata?

A. I like to take on complex subjects and characters and delve into them spiritually and philosophically. I try and break it down to a simple communication that can be related to diverse audiences across the world, irrespective of colour, language, culture and region.

Q. You are based in the US and associated with a number of projects on South Asian Performing Arts, raising awareness about the traditional history of South Asia with respect to art, literature, culture and other domains. Is it difficult to raise awareness in a country where people hardly know about the nuances of Indian classical dance?

A. I enjoy the challenge in getting across to people who have not been exposed to the Indian classical forms. At the university level, there are many institutions which engage and invite scholars and performing artists  in the research of  interdisciplinary study that combines expertise in the languages, literature, history, and cultures of South Asia with special reference to India. I contribute extensively to the South Asian Studies Program and departments of religion, art history, theater and dance of various universities to engage in scholarly research and teaching on this region and providing space for interdisciplinary, comparative and collaborative projects that connect this region to critical themes and issues of wider significance. Interestingly, I presented and performed for the FBI last month!

Q. You once said, “Bharatanatyam has the force to bind people together.” Could you elaborate?

A. I have lived, worked and travelled to more than 50 countries and I love meeting people across the world. Through dance I have worked with artists from many world traditions, and through Bharatanatyam, I have advocated how  music and dance dissolve all barriers, bringing each dancer and the audience to a  common platform which dissolves the boundaries with regard to region, language, religion or culture. Once, an art critic in London wrote this after my performance:  “It was like watching  a Steven Spielberg  movie!”

Q. Could talk about your production on “Udhava Gita” and the Nritya, Natya and music philosophy?

A. Uddhava Gita forms the major part of the 11th skandha (known as the Jnanaskandha) of Srimad Bhagavatam authored by Vyasa. The Udhav Gita comprises the wisdom imparted by the guru of gurus, Krishna, to his dear friend Udhava, just before Krishna left the world in His Transcendental Body. 

It was a challenge as a dancer for me to do an entire production on Udhava Gita in Ekaharya — as a solo dancer. The research and collating information took nearly three years. This symbolic teaching of Krishna was brought out through nrita — pure dance by having complicated thala sequences for each of the gurus — such as spider and pigeon courtesan, maiden with a single bangle and wasp, all the thala patterns were evolved to correspond to the character.

The production brought out the fact that Uddhava Gita has not left untouched any important factor contributing to our progress: it highlights yoga, jnana, scientific analysis of bondage, and sufferings,  bhakti and liberation.   

“The twin arts of dance and sculpture developed together. Beauty in a sculpture has always been associated with dance movements.  These arts have influenced each other’s growth, enriching their common themes and forms.”

Q. You’ve worked on the study of movement techniques, investigating the relationship of classical dance to other cultural spheres, like literature and music. Could you shed some light on this study of yours?

A. The technique of Bharatanatyam is usually performed by a solo dancer and is derived from the ancient text of Natya Shastra. In my productions, I have to play several roles through mime, body movement and gesture, stressing the beauty of movement.  To fine tune the technique, all the movements of major and minor limbs needs to be perfected. The steps include a range of bends, extensions and leaps to radiate the speed, precision and beauty of dance.  Every part of the body has a significant role to play in the dance — the eyes, eyebrows, hands, neck, hips, shoulders and, most importantly, the feet— all portray distinct movements. I have been part of a large interdisciplinary lecture demonstration/ workshop connecting the basic technique laid in natyashastra to world dance styles like ballet and jazz.

Natya Shastra lays detailed mudras or hand gestures. These mudras contribute to the understanding of the dance, accompanied by the footwork, bodily movements and posture. Just as poetry is a language of words and imaginative beauty, mudras weave together a dance poem. The main feature of bharatanatyam is that of the dancer impersonating a character. When portraying the emotions and expressions, satvica abhinaya — innate feeling — play a significant role.

In this  context, I would like to mention that I was invited to be a movement consultant for two shows at the prestigious McCarter Theater in Princeton — one was the well-known Arabian Nights show  and the other Mad 7 show (Hebrew literature) where I introduced the basic technique and movement  for the actors.

Q. Your lectures also focus on the core architectural components of ancient temple structures. Tell us about this.

A. The twin arts of dance and sculpture developed together. Beauty in a sculpture has always been associated with dance movements.  These arts have influenced each other’s growth, enriching their common themes and forms. The dancer is a delectable source of inspiration for the sculptor. The sculpture thus created had also been a silent guide to generations of dancers. My lectures focus on the temple sculptures and its significance in understanding the dynamics behind any movement and dance item. I have given performances at grounds for sculptures in New Jersey to highlight the significance of ancient temple sculptures and their relationship to dance.

Q. Do you see any difference between India and the US in terms of audiences? 

A. Audience expectation across the world is the same. From an experienced artist they expect a world-class production. Therefore, I put over three years of intense research on each of my topics, and I collaborate with world-class artists to present a world-class production. 

Q. Tell us about your future projects?

A. I am currently working on three very interesting topics that are very relevant to today’s world. You will hear all about it next year.

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