For These Bharatanatyam Dancers, Age Has Nothing to Do With Following Your Heart – and Feet

In Bharatanatyam, like other dance forms, ageist perceptions still dominate, forcing women to give up their passion for learning and practicing the art form as they take over other roles as adults.

Listen to this article:

“When I had my daughter, I did wish that she would be able to fulfil the dreams I could not. But, I didn’t want to put that kind of burden on her. I wanted to do it myself, and in the process, be an inspiration for my daughter, so that she would, in turn, do whatever she wanted to do in life,” says Krina Calla, a lawyer practicing at Gujarat high court.

For the past five years, Krina has been learning Bharatanatyam at Ahmedabad’s Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, a pursuit she took up at the age of 43. In mentioning her concern that her daughter should feel free to make her own decisions in life, Krina sums up the anxieties of millions of women negotiating their ways in a world that is fast-changing, yet rigid when it comes to certain social mores.

Over the 20th century, as Bharatanatyam was taken away from the hereditary practitioners and installed in the realm of socially advantaged communities of ‘upper’ caste and economically advantaged classes, it became a hobby rather than a profession for millions.

Though the damage caused by that process is finally being debated, today the art is an inalienable part of the national vocabulary, draped in layers of social acceptance — and etiquette. These layers have ensured that Bharatanatyam is associated with limited definitions of feminine beauty as well as expectations of coyness in the depiction of a woman’s emotions, along with youthful looks and the assumption that marriage signals a stop to a dancer’s performance ambitions.

Consequently, even as a hobby, it is weighed down by ageist perceptions. Across the world, though, teachers and students are countering this trend.

Reliving the passion 

Darpana Academy, the institute founded by the late Mrinalini Sarabhai and now headed by her daughter, renowned dancer and activist Mallika Sarabhai, is one of India’s few major institutions for dance instruction where age is no bar.

In this process, other debates around ageism in general, the value of art for every individual, the meaning of roles such as wife and mother, body shaming, and why we dance at all, get tossed up and resolved in everyday interactions.

It was some 10 years ago that Mallika decided to motivate a group of women to join Darpana’s Bharatanatyam course. “I would see all these mothers sitting outside waiting for their daughters, chatting, gossiping, cutting vegetables, really whiling away their time. And one day I just stopped and said, ‘Would you like to dance?’ And they laughed ruefully and said, ‘At this age! We would have loved to have learnt, but…’ I said I’m not asking you to dance professionally. All I’m asking is if you’ve longed to learn how to dance all your life, what is stopping you doing it? And that’s how they started.”

Mallika Sarabhai. Photo: By arrangement.

Today there are about 12 such women on the student rolls, and this academic year, the first batch will be graduating from the seven-year course. “The average age is 50. The oldest one is 65. And the greatest joy has been that these women seem to have finally found themselves,” Mallika underlines, “not as wives, or mothers or daughters.”

Take Hema Patel, who joined Darpana when her son was about to leave home for the US. “I started when I was almost 49. I wanted to do something for myself,” she relates. It was her son who motivated her to join the Bharatanatyam course, knowing the desire that had been in her heart for years.

“Now I am 54, and on December 10, I will be performing my arangetram (debut performance) at Natarani (Darpana’s amphitheatre),” says Hema.  Hema’s US-based son Rudra Patel adds that seeing his mother about to fulfil her childhood dream gives him “immense joy and also hope, that a lot of people who sacrifice their dreams growing up achieve that at any age and serve as motivation for others”.

The students at Darpana are grouped by their progress in the prescribed syllabus and not according to age. Often, mothers and daughters are classmates.

Krina says, “I did initially ask as to how can I match up to the stamina and enthusiasm of kids? What if I hold up the whole class, or what if I get depressed watching them? Then I was told that their energy will give you more energy. When we are with kids, we become like them. I did experience this. Neither the teacher nor the children took any notice of the difference in our ages. All the students have to work just as hard. So I think the best part (of Darpana’s teaching policies) is keeping the age groups together.”

Hema, on the other hand, felt no hesitation dancing with the little ones, saying, “I get inspiration from them and try to do better than everyone else.”

Stamina was not the problem for Suman Nehra, a half-marathon runner. At 41 when she joined Darpana, having earlier learnt Bharatanatyam at Baroda University’s Faculty of Performing Arts (even then she was a mother of two), Suman and her fellow adult students had to stop the youngsters from addressing them as ‘Auntie’. If a child used that honorific, the women would in turn address that child as ‘Auntie’. Now every older classmate is simply didi (elder sister) to young learners.

Suman Nehra

“Since we got this chance late in life, we are a little more sincere,” points out Suman. “Sometimes young children only join the class because their parents want them to.” The teachers often hold the older women up as examples. “They say, ‘See how they value the art which they couldn’t learn at your age’,” says Suman.

Besides, “When we play with children, don’t we become children ourselves? You just have to adjust your attitude a bit,” remarks Dr. Parul N. Purohit, principal of a municipal corporation school. It was once when she was appointed convenor of the youth festival as part of her official duties that Parul, watching the students, was inspired to learn dance. The 53-year-old educator, learning Bharatanatyam now for the past six years, is determined to perform her solo debut.

“It is my dream, and I will fulfil it no matter how many years it takes.”

Sandeep Kaur has a different angle. She joined Darpana as a way of supporting her child who was shy, and “to see how they teach here, how kind the teachers are with the children, to ensure she is getting the right kind of learning — all the anxieties of parents!” as well as to get some exercise. There were two other adults in the class besides Sandeep.

“The rest were all kids, some as young as six. I was the oldest one in the group. Definitely, it is a very difficult dance form. I am not very flexible, and dancing wasn’t my passion, so it was very, very difficult for me.”

By the third year, Sandeep found it hard to keep up. “I had begun to feel everyone was doing better than me and that was a demotivating factor. The children were grasping the material so fast. They had grace in their body. I felt I couldn’t acquire the required grace. So I quit,” she says, but adds that her motive as a parent was achieved. “I was sure that the institute was the perfect place for her. She is in good hands.”

Sandeep’s daughter has reached year seventh now, and while Sandeep doesn’t practice anymore, she is now “very good friends” with her former teacher.

Friendship, peace and fulfilment are recurring themes in these conversations about what women get by embarking on this arduous course of practice at a time when some of them have their hands full raising families and balancing demanding professional lives, and others have earned their retirement as grown-up kids leave home for work and marriage.

Singular interest for dance artform        

Sonal Solanki

Says Sonal Solanki, Bharatanatyam teacher at Darpana, “Often women do not share their innermost thoughts verbally. Dance is the way to express their feelings. This is very, very important.” The thing is, notes Sonal, “For these women, dance is a dream. They neither have to give any exams nor do they aspire to be big professionals. It is for their happiness.”

Sonal adds, “Mallika didi is a woman who understands how important this is for a woman.”

As a teacher, Sonal realises that adults grasp movements intellectually faster than children but cannot execute them as easily. “Bharatanatyam requires dedication,” says Sonal. “At every stage it is tough – to teach, to explain and to grasp it. So I give them special time, and sometimes, I allow them to video record the class and ask them to practice at home. They do this, happily and diligently, to master the steps. Whenever they need my help, I am ready to give them time.”

Wherever necessary in teaching or choreographing, Sonal looks for alternatives, moulding the movements to suit the capacity of each student while remaining within the Bharatanatyam framework.

“Our teachers too have been mostly brought up in Darpana, where there has never been an age or religion or a gender bias,” adds Mallika. “And I think all of this is ingrained in the teachers so that they teach the older ones with as much enthusiasm.”

As for the health benefits of dancing into one’s old age, Florida-based Dr. Sindhu Jacob, whose love for Bharatanatyam was reignited after a hiatus of 30 years, says, “Many adults stay away from dancing due to fear of sustaining an injury, causing a flareup of arthritis, etc. Improper posture, dancing too long on hard floors, not stretching before and after dancing, etc., could cause problems. If done the right way, dance, irrespective of its style, improves cardiovascular endurance and improves muscle strength and flexibility. It helps in alleviating many age-related illnesses, improves bone density as well as mental health.”

It’s lucky, then, that individual teachers frequently do not impose an age limit as some institutions do. In the US, a country where the elderly remain independent well into their 90s, teachers of Bharatanatyam relate experiences with expatriate Indian women who find the leisure and courage to pursue dance in a way they may not have believed possible in India. It may be to fill the vacuum caused by an empty nest, or grief from a loss. After all, as Suman says, learning dance is a meditative activity, and any such pursuit is healing beyond words.

For Dr. Sindhu Jacob, dance was a distant memory, something she had excelled at while being a schoolgirl in India before dropping it completely at the age of 15. Then, in 2017, she lost her mother. By that time she was 45 and an endocrinologist in the US.

“My mother loved all forms of art. Some of my fondest memories included her cheering for me with tears as I performed on various stages. It was my best friend who asked me to keep her alive in me by restarting my dance. My first thoughts were, ‘Am I too old to dance? Will I be able to? Will I be judged?’”

Orlando-based Bharatanatyam exponent Anjali Fluker gave Sindhu the confidence to dance again. “A few years ago she started with me,” says Anjali. “She said, ‘Start at the very beginning, as if I’ve never learnt before,’ so she began with taiyya tai.” Anjali adds that Sindhu got into the groove so quickly that she completed the preliminary compositions of the repertoire within two years and is now learning complex abhinaya pieces.

Teaching adults runs in Anjali’s family. Her mother, veteran Bharatanatyam guru Sudha Doraiswamy has had a “mom’s group” parallel to her flourishing school for children in Michigan for decades. “I enjoy teaching my adult students,” says Guru Sudha.

Guru Katherine Kunhiraman

Guru Katherine Kunhiraman, another veteran exponent who runs Kalanjali Dances of India in California’s Bay Area, says, “I love having these adults who always wanted to dance and never got the opportunity. And I feel like I’m giving them the most auspicious gift.”

Paulomi Pandit in Los Angeles has also taken students above 45. “They don’t necessarily want to perform, but only to learn,” she remarks. On the other hand, Katherine says, there are those “hellbent” on performing, who intimidate their teachers if they hesitate to include them in performances due to the student’s inability to pick up the basics of tala, bodyline and hand gestures.

On a positive note, Katherine has been teaching a 73-year-old student, one of those who “get it.”  The reason she wanted to dance was “she loves Krishna”, explains Katherine. “So I’m teaching her ‘Haririha’ (a song from Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda describing Krishna’s dance with the gopis).”  Guru emphasises that this student “can actually put one mudra after another,” whereas “there are some people who start at five and by the time they’re 50 they still haven’t got it. So it’s anyone guess who’s going to get it, and what they get out of it. It’s more than just being able to do it. Where do we draw the line, and what right have we to draw lines?”

Highlighting the current situation of Bharatanatyam teaching and learning across the world, particularly among elite and middle-class Indians among whom it is a popular hobby, she notes, “None of our students are going to be [professional] dancers. They are all going to be scientists and engineers and lawyers. So we should try to bring in as many people [as possible] to love this art and to know more about it, so they’ll be better audiences for it.”

Indeed, it seems society still has things to learn about why women dance, which is why one student gives a variety of reasons to cloak her passion with an acceptable conservatism.

“I have told my parents I am learning this to stay in good health. My in-laws know only that I take my daughter to class.” As for her husband, “He was not negative, never said to stop, but he wouldn’t mind if I did. He cannot realise its value the way I realise it. None of his colleagues’ wives do this.”

Back at Darpana, with Mallika’s mentoring, Sonal is helping her wards prepare for their solo debuts. “One of them is going to be doing her graduation [performance], on the night before her son’s wedding,” says Mallika. “And she came to me and said, instead of a regular padam can I do this lullaby that I used to sing to him as a child? So we are composing a Gujarati lullaby as a Bharatanatyam padam.”

Take that, naysayers! A mother’s role can be played in many ways.

Anjana Rajan has been writing on the arts, literature and society for nearly twenty years. She is a former deputy editor of The Hindu, a dance exponent and theatre practitioner.