Pulling at One’s Heartstrings: Classical Indian Dance

Mirga sirsa ( Mirga sirsa (“deer’s head”

Since childhood, I have loved dance. Particularly, Indian dance has been my performance art of choice. Although I never had any complete formal training, the multi-faceted benefits of dance are truly awe-inspiring. I started out in elementary school with a group of young girls getting together to choreograph, practice, and perform “filmy” dances to popular songs with modern twists, a fusion of East and West. As I grew older and began teaching and dancing with people who were just beginning to learn about Indian culture, my appreciation for and understanding of Indian dance deepened. No longer was it simply a casual pastime; it let loose a world of history, mythology, and respectful reverence for an ancient art form.

Kathakali style

The roots of the eight types of classical Indian dance are very rich and very old. However, the stories and technical aspects of the dance have not died out in history, being passed down from generation to generation. An audience member well-versed in the stories of Hinduism can easily follow along with the storyline presented by the dancers. Themes include the the epic Ramayana and the famous stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses. The portrayals of Lord Krishna are very famous, especially the love story between him and Radha. The stories are carried out with high technical skill involving varying postures, complex footwork, facial expressions, and hand positions known as mudras.

Kathak style

While living in Philadelphia, I took the availability of cultural programs and experiences for granted. During my last year of medical school, I decided to take up dance again by enrolling in lessons with a local dance company. Through this decision I met a great friend and teacher, Shaily, founder of Usiloquy Dance Designs. I was able to attend one of her company’s shows called Chaat, named for a tasty street food in India. If you have ever tasted chaat, it is a wonderful mixture of flavors that calls to attention every tastebud: sweet, salty, fiery, tangy. This performance was an interpretation of each of these flavors/moods through classical dance. Now whenever I see photos of Shaily’s dances, I feel a pang of loss at not being able to see them live!

Shaily, founder of Usiloquy Dance Designs

The variety of instruments used in classical Indian music includes the well-known sitar, of course, but also many other beautiful bass, wind, and string instruments: the veena, tabla, bansuri, mridangam, santoor (a personal favorite), and many others. More and more, classical instruments are being employed in modern sounding songs which can appeal to almost anyone. If you have the opportunity to attend a classical performance of music and/or dance, I strongly urge it! I doubt you will be disappointed.

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