The Soul in Indian Classical Dance



Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 499, Nov 21 – Dec 4, 2014) 

An Interview with Dancers of Apsaras Arts – Banupriya D/O Ponnarasu and Mohanapriyan Thavarajah

By Li Yen
Epoch Times Staff

Banupriya D/O Ponnarasu is an undergraduate at Lasalle College of the Arts, majoring in Arts Management, and a parttime dancer at Apsaras Arts.

Apsaras Arts is a local performing company founded in 1977 by Shri S Sathyalingam and Smt Neila Sathyalingam.

With over 30 years of prolific local international productions and performances worldwide, Apsaras Arts has gained recognition in Indian dance-theatre.

For Banu, dance is lifelong learning. The 23-year-old’s dance journey began when her parents sent her to learn Indian classical dance in the Bharatanatyam style at the age of five.

The Bharatanatyam style originates from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Out of the eight classical dance forms, Bharatanatyam is India’s most widely performed dance style.

After joining Apsaras Arts, Banu’s love and passion for Indian classical dance grew and intensified.

“Then it is a small spark, but now it is a blazing fire,” says the demure and gentle lady.

Recently, she went to India to further her knowledge on the Bharatanatyam dance form, which had been an enriching learning experience.

Currently, she is trained in Apsaras Artsto become a teacher, as well as a performer to become a teacher, as well as a performer in Apsaras Arts’ productions, which include ANGKOR – An Untold Story.

What is your favourite part of Indian classical dance?
Banu: There are so many dance forms right now, contemporary dances, bollywood dances, etc. I like the fact that I am actually learning a traditional dance and a traditional art form.

[Right] now, you can easily find a pool of contemporary dancers [and] folk dancers, but it is quite rare to see youngsters who are interested to practise a traditional art form. Learning Indian classical dance gives me endless happiness, no matter what kind of challenges it (has) put me through. Though I have cried too many times, but at the same time, I feel happy.

What are the challenges?
Banu: Being a part-time dancer is the biggest challenge for me. My biggest challenge is to plan my practice section into the schedule I have as an undergrad. I am still trying my best to get the best management.

My fellow dance mates would also feel the same as me. Some of them are teachers, undergrads or working, and they are still trying to gain work-life balance.

Hence, I think it is more of multi-tasking between arts, work and life balance. The biggest challenge is to carry on the passion as long as we can.

We do earn, but it is not much. The salary gives me some form of happiness. But if I compare the passion and the money aspects, definitely the passion aspect weighs more. The money aspect is just some form of incentive which encourages you to move on.

What does performing and/or learning Indian classical dance mean to you?
Banu: Over the years, through learning and performing Indian classical dance, I came to understand what I want to do in life. In terms of learning, it has taught me life lessons. In terms of performing, it has taught me how to become a more confident lady.

It takes a lot of energy to perform. It is not easy performing an Indian dance; your brain needs to multi-task you need to remember the steps and to be able to portray it in a very soulful manner. In addition, you need to be able to execute expressions that will entertain the audience.

With all these things that are going in my head, I really have to be very focused when performing. To me, it is very tough.

No matter how many times I have gone on stage, I still think it is the most difficult part. Indian classical dance has some forms of depth which is hard to explain.

What are the different movements in Indian classical dance? How can the audience understand the stories behind the movements?
Banu: The amazing thing about the movement in Indian classical dance is that it incorporates two basic elements. One is the nritta (pure dance) and the other one is the abhinaya (expression).

I remember my mummy (means teacher – Neila Sathyalingam) telling me that when doing dance in Singapore, you cannot be too slow. You have to do it fast, thus, we call it the fire-cracker dance. You need to dance in a fast manner, but at the same time, you need to act out the expressions.

I guess it is in the dancers’ hands to educate and entertain the audience. If a performer can execute it right and express herself well on stage, and the audience are able to understand her despite the language barrier, I think that is the biggest success for the performer.

(Note: Nritta is dance in its purest form, and is displayed through rhythms and physical movements to musical phrases. Abhinaya is the expressions and emotions which aim to bring life to the story behind the dance. Emotions are acted through facial expressions and eye movements.)

Has Indian dance taught you something about life?
Banu: We live a stressful life today and there are so many commitments. Dance has taught me to be more grounded, to be patient and to put through every challenges that come forth. It also taught me the ‘never say die’ attitude, and to be very determined in what I am doing.

What is your future plan?
Banu: For me, my future goal is to further understand the art field in-depth. I would continue my Master’s later on. At the same time, I want to carry on dancing as long as I can. It is a lifelong passion.

Because my friends have given up dancing as their top priority when they enter their next phase of life, for me, I would like to always make dance my first priority – which is something I am still fighting for today.

My goal is to keep that going, and at the same time, further pursue the arts so that I could contribute to the arts industry, and spread this classical dance form.


Mohanapriyan Thavarajah is a fulltime choreographer, dance instructor and dance artiste of Apsaras Arts since 2012.

Originally from Batticaloa, Srilanka, the versatile dancer has performed all over India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Europe. He is a gold medallist for both his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Bharathanatyam awarded by India’s Bharathidasan University, which he passed with distinction.

Some of Mohanapriyan’s choreography contributions include Sita’s Magical Forest, Glimpses of Angkor, The Heroines of Raja Ravi Varma, Aanada Thanavam and
Mehala. He also writes regularly on dance for publications in India and Sri Lanka. Mohanapriyan has learned dancing since the age of 12.

“For a man to do Indian dance, he might be an outcast in my country. Even now, I really admire his courage to do this. So can you see the battle this boy has to go through?” says the founder of Apsaras Arts, Neila Sathyalingam.

“I am happy to be working with Apsaras Arts and prove that artists can stand on their legs, and they can have their own life, in terms of [economic] life,” says Mohanapriyan, a polite and good-looking young man.

“This art form and dance enables me to travel to many countries, which I think is not possible if I chose other professions like engineering,” he adds, beaming with pride.

What is your favourite part of Indian classical dance?
Mohanapriyan: When I was studying the dance form in college, my teacher always told everybody to work hard, which I didn’t really quite understand why.

We were always dancing and having undergone that kind of intense training, she still said we had to work hard to suceed.

I was exploring for many years. What am I going to get after all these hard work?

Recently, I realised that the recognition I got from the audience and the awards I received from various institutions and organisations are the outcome of my hard work.

My favourite part about Indian dance is that we have to work very hard to express this art form through our body, mind and soul, which I find the whole process to be
something unique.

It is unlike other dance forms like gymnastic and ballet, where they are trained only to move. But in Indian classical dance, we are also trained to express the essence of this traditional culture, as well as the soul of the dances.

Sometimes, when you watch a ballet or contemporary dance performances, you make ‘awe’, but in Bharatanatyam dance style, it is soul-reaching; you will find soul in the dance.

When you see contemporary dance, they are very coordinated in the dance steps, but in Bharatanatyam dance style, most of the movements can be coordinated, but our facial expressions vary from one dancer to another.

The expressions are how the dancers feel in their hearts. It is totally soulful.

What does performing and/or learning Indian dance mean to you?
Mohanapriyan: As an artist, teacher and choreographer, there is no ultimate ending point in learning. I still have that mind to pursue further. That learning can be through your life experiences, through other senior artists’ advices, and from the artists whom I am working with. The learning part should be still in process.

What are the different movements in Indian classical dance?
Mohanapriyan: Bharatanatyam dance style is said to be produced by the divine and brought to the world.

You can see a geometrical and scientific system in the Bharatanatyam dance form.
When we hold our hands, it should be 180 degrees. And when we do the steps and movements, it should be allocated at 45 degrees and 90 degrees. The dance is formed in mathematical and geometrical ways.

Bharatanatyam dance form is also similar to yoga. I can say that the Bharatanatyam dance style is a divine art form.

(Note: An important feature of Bharatanatyam is the movements which are conceived in either along straight lines or triangles. The gestures of Bharatanatyam comprise the use of the head, eyes, bust, neck, and hands. Hand gestures known as Hasta Mudra are acted out as a form of sign language to convey a story or demonstrate themes like weather, animals or places.)

What kind of emotion do you give off when you dance? How do you relate to the audience when you perform?
Mohanapriyan: When I express my love, my body should be tuned in that mood. The emotion and the expression is not only on the face but the whole body.

It is about how the whole body changes and tunes in with the different emotions, and this is something unique in Indian classical dance.

Those days when the art forms were performed in temples, the artists and the audience were very close; thus, they could see the expression and emotions very clearly.

These days, technology is very advanced. We utilise lighting and technology to enhance and emphasise the performance.

When I was doing my final exam, I had to perform various Indian folk dances and ritual art forms. I danced with the fire, and after I performed, my friend told me that he could see some spiritual aspect in me which made me vibrant.

I discover that if I perform with my ultimate effort and strength, the audience could see the difference.

[Note: The 9 emotions (Rasas) in Bharatanatyam include Sringara (Love), Hasya (Mirth), Veera (Heroism), Raudra (Anger), Bhayanka (Fear), Bibhasta (Disgust), Adbutha (Amazement), Karuna (Compassion) and Santha (Calm).]

Has Indian dance taught you something about life?
Mohanapriyan: Indian dance teaches one to respect the gurus (teachers), so from that, one will respect the ordinary men you meet in your life.

What is your future plan?
Mohanapriyan: Presently, I am doing my Master’s and research in dance. My father hopes that I could obtain a Doctorate, which I couldn’t do so because I am into this art profession. But through this art profession, I can also obtain a Doctorate by doing a PhD.

I promise him I would do my PhD, not just for his sake, but also for my personal interest, which inspires me to produce books on dance and pass them to future generations.

If I could not be a dancer, I wish to be a good teacher and mould students.

From – (Pg 1), (Pg 2)

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