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Borders no Bar

Justin McCarthy,52,first learnt Bharatanatyam in California. Shortly thereafter,he packed his bags and left for India.

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
June 13, 2009 2:34:46 am

Justin McCarthy,52,first learnt Bharatanatyam in California. Shortly thereafter,he packed his bags and left for India. He travelled to Chennai to learn from Subbarayan Pillai and then under Leela Samson at Delhi’s Bharatiya Kala Kendra. That was in 1979. Today,McCarthy is a Bharatanatyam guru,one of the many foreigners who teach Indian classical dance in the Capital. He taught at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra for 30 years and now holds classes at Sri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra. “One has to give one’s soul to teaching classical art forms. There sacredness demands that. My being an American doesn’t change anything,” he says. McCarthy’s words would sound strange to those who believe that only a person born into Indian culture can appreciate its nuances. But,even as Indians line up for foreign citizenships,many expatriates devoted to Indian classical dance,are rooting for Indian passports.

Sharon Lowen,51,an American Odissi dancer and teacher from Michigan,was drawn to India by its dance. With kohl-rimmed eyes and perfect poise,Lowen came to India in 1973 and learnt the art from Kelucharan Mahapatra after living in Detroit. She now conducts regular workshops to teach students. “During my sessions under Kelu babu,I realised that abhinaya was my forte. Also I did not want to come to India like a tourist. I wanted to be here with some know how of the country,” she says. A Fulbright and American Institute of Indian Studies Smithsonian scholar with a Masters in dance from the University of Michigan,Lowen,broke through the language barrier of India by “going deep into the connotations and denotations of the text to produce the actual meaning of the sahitya by way of my dance”. She not only teaches Odissi but also conducts workshops in Chhau and Manipuri dance.

Isabelle Anna,32,a French Kathak dancer and teacher,has been living in India since 2001. “I was accepted as a Kathak dancer and performed here in front of and along with other artistes,” says Anna who discovered the dance in 1998 and has been training under Pt. Jaikishan Maharaj since then. Anna says that she “worked really hard to understand Indian mythology,an integral part of Indian classical dance”. It is this detailed knowledge that she now passes on to her students.

Croatian Nikolina Nikoleski,32,was studying contemporary dance in Germany when she discovered Bharatnatayam. A disciple of Shanta Dayanand and now Saroja Vaidyanathan,Nikoleski visited India as an ICCR scholar and performer in 2008. “I was always fascinated by physical expression,therefore,Bharatnatayam appealed to me,” she says.

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While Indian youngsters fill the classes in Delhi,these teachers also train foreign students during workshops abroad. Shilpa Jain,23,who learns from McCarthy,says,“He is well versed in Hindi,Sanskrit and Tamil. He understands the dance so well that it doesn’t feel as if he is not an Indian.”

But,how do Indian dancers react to foreigners turning gurus? “They work harder than many of us and often end up being better teachers,” says Bharatanatyam exponent Geeta Chandran. Classical dance,clearly,knows no borders.

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