Om Namah Shivaayah theme touches a chord with Washington audience
By Geeta Goindi
Rockville, Maryland, November 16, 2013 – For patrons of performing arts, the annual show by Natananjali School of Dance, held Saturday afternoon, was a treat for the eyes, senses and soul. Some 56 students, ranging in age from 6 to 35 years, gorgeously embodied the concepts and intricacies of Bharatanatyam, displaying their skills in an ancient dance form which demands discipline, perseverance and practice!
The theme, ‘Om Namah Shivaayah’, ethereal and sublime, touched a chord with the audience, a discerning crowd some 250-strong, which sat in rapt attention in the Kreeger Auditorium of the Jewish Community Center. The dances, choreographed for the most part by Lakshmi Swaminathan, gifted and dedicated director of the Natananjali School of Dance based in Bethesda, were set to beautiful compositions in praise of Lord Shiva.
Bharatanatyam is a sacred dance. It is one of the oldest dance forms of India which was nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India.
Lakshmi told us, “Teaching dance today is a spiritual experience for me and I see and feel the hand of God in everything that I do. In Bharatanatyam, the songs chosen are usually in praise of a Hindu God or Goddess, so I find the whole experience of teaching this art form bringing me closer to God and my faith”.
The theme of Natananjali’s signature show was a corollary of her deep and abiding faith. “One of the songs, ‘Panchakshara Stotram’, struck a deep chord in my heart and I decided to make my ‘ishta devata’ (favorite God), Lord Shiva, as my theme for the annual show”, she revealed. All the songs were in praise of Lord Shiva except the ‘Pushpanjali’, a traditional offering of flowers, and ‘Prabho Ganapate’, a song on Lord Ganesha, which are a staple in the annual event.
Lakshmi recalled that when she began the tradition of an annual show, in 2006, her friend and colleague, Sukanya Mukherjee, Director of Mayur Dance Academy, advised that dances should be selected based on a central theme. “I took her words to heart and since then, every year I chose a theme and based all my dances around it”, she informed us. As such, prior shows by Natananjali have focused on poets, saints, composers, Hindu deities and Bhaashaa (language), among other profound subjects.
‘Om Namah Shivaayah’ was a two-and-a-half hour show which began on time, with each piece following the other in clockwork precision. It began with the ‘Pushpanjali’, an invocation dance, and culminated with the ‘Tandavam’, a powerful piece highlighting the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva. The ‘Tandavam’ was a fitting finale, a dance brilliantly performed by Medha Swaminathan, Trisha Sankineni, Abhiksha Desai and Aradhana Vyas. Lakshmi was elated with the outcome and proud as her senior students rehearsed for it in record time!
In all, there were nineteen dances. ‘Ardha Narishwara Stotram’, a beautiful composition in praise of Lord Shiva in his half-man and half-woman form, was poetry in motion! The dancers, Abhiksha Deasi and Aradhana Vyas, moved in perfect sync lending a romantic, surreal aura to their performance. In ‘Nada Tanumanisham’, Lord Shiva is described as the embodiment of music, while ‘Shivaashtakam’ revolved on eight stanzas of thought-provoking poetry depicting His glory.
All the performances lent credence to the belief that dance is a truthful expression of our being!
While Bharatanatyam remains a codified dance form, it has a story-telling tradition which appeals to untrained eyes! ‘Om Namah Shivaayah’ was very informative, offering plentiful insights. Prior to each dance, a beautiful image of Lord Shiva adorned the stage with an explanation of the ensuing presentation.
Lakshmi intended to make the show an entertaining and educational experience! She explained, “I thought I would introduce different facts about Lord Shiva in between the dances so that my students as well as the audience could learn some interesting information on Him. This led me to seek online resources for research and I found myself not only thoroughly enjoying the process, but also learning new facts about Lord Shiva. So, ultimately, it was also an educational experience for me”.
She does not see learning Indian classical dance as merely another extra-curricular activity, instead believes it brings students closer to their culture while teaching them the value of hard work and discipline.
“Some children who grow up in this country are far removed from the myths and legends that make India such a rich and interesting culture”, she noted. “They are unfamiliar with the Gods and Goddesses who make up the Hindu pantheon as well as the numerous stories associated with them. Living so far away from their country of origin, they do not realize how ancient our culture is and how privileged we should feel to be a small, insignificant part of this wonderful heritage that has been passed down to us through centuries”.
Lakshmi began teaching dance at the early age of 16 in Calcutta, as it was called at the time, under the tutelage of her Guru, Dr. Thankamani Kutty, Director of Kalamandalam. Her quest to learn took her to Coventry, in England, where she served as a resident teacher and performer for Mrittika Arts, for a year. Marriage brought her to the US where she continued to hone her skills.
Lakshmi describes herself as “a hard taskmaster and very demanding teacher”. She hopes to inculcate in her students “the fact that nothing in life comes easy, but with hard work, determination and the will to succeed, anything can be within their grasp”, she says.