Forget ballet and hip hop: India’s classical forms of dance, from odissi to bharatnatyam, are back in fashion


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Classical Indian dance requires synchronicity and style.

Students curve their hands in the air before breaking into perfectly in-step footwork at a class in New Delhi, India, where more and more people are signing up for Indian traditional dance classes.

The class is attended by people of all ages and backgrounds, who have all chosen to learn traditional dance over genres such as ballet, jazz and hip hop.

“Traditional dances are popular now,” said Nitya Pant, a Mumbai-based marketing executive who practises odissi, an ancient temple-based dance. “No other form can give you the satisfaction that classical dance gives you. You feel like you’re one with God.”

Pant flies to Delhi, spending around Rs7,250 (HK$830) every weekend on flights just to train under dancer Madhumita Raut.

India is home to eight major classical dance styles – including odissi and bharatnatyam, a genre that came out of the country’s southern temples more than 2,000 years ago – that tell stories of gods through facial expressions, hand gestures and quick footwork.

While reasons for enrolling vary from exercise to extracurricular points on university applications, Nabanita Baul Dutta says dance saved her from depression.

“Dance is happiness to me,” said the 23-year-old, who has been learning bharatnatyam for a year. “After moving to Delhi, I became depressed ... Then I found [my guru] and ... she helped me out of my depression.”

In a small living room, Dutta’s guru Aayurshi Neeraj keeps rhythm with a wooden stick. Her students clasp their hands in front of them and stamp out beats with their feet.

“Bharatnatyam to me is spirituality, it is a meditation and it’s a dance to Lord Shiva,” said Neeraj.

The traditional dances are a spiritual experience for many.
Photo: AFP

At Raut’s studio in Delhi, she teaches odissi, a fluid-moving dance in which face and hand movements are perfectly timed.

Pant and five other student copy Raut as she forms mudras [hand gestures] to a steady chant.

“My children also learn different forms of dance,” said 47-year-old Raut. “Today they are learning Zumba-Rumba or something. A year ago, it was hip hop.

But “they know that odissi is for keeps,” she adds, comparing the allure of traditional dance to the lasting appeal of classic texts.

“There’s a difference between Shakespeare, a coffee table book and a magazine,” said Raut, who has more than 60 pupils and a growing waiting list.

Once performed only in temples and royal courts, India’s classical dance is now performed by troupes around the world. And thanks to more Indians settling in other countries, traditional dance schools have popped up globally, generating interest in people of other nationalities too.

Back in Delhi, the students say the West looks to India in search of spirituality, culture and history, which is why this classical art has gained international popularity.

“What is lacking, especially in the US, is a rich cultural history... I think they want to find that here,” said Pant, who has been learning odissi since she was 14. “That’s why India and its culture’s become so popular, because we’re one of the most ancient civilisations.”

Her guru Raut believes Indian dance crosses borders between people and countries.

“Today it’s music, tomorrow it’ll be costume, and the day after tomorrow it will be movement. It’s so graceful. There’s no end to it,” Raut said. “It’s a vast treasure that can be shared and spread.”