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Dance and studies are a part and parcel of my life, says Navia Natarajan
In this day and age when a lot of students of dance are lost to the IT (information technology) industry or some other demanding careers, there are a handful of them who realise what they are truly meant to pursue, and take the brave step toward it. Navia Natarajan is one such student, who realized her real calling, literally while performing laboratory experiments as a research assistant. "I would sit in front of an experiment and start to think of an item," she recalls. This isn't surprising coming from someone who was attracted to the divine art form of Bharatnatyam at the age of 3. After her move to the United States, her bond with Bharatnatyam only grew stronger.

She started the Navia Dance Academy to instill this pristine art form into other young students and bring out the wonderful dancers within them. She has given numerous performances across the globe. The Department of Culture, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, awarded her a scholarship in the field of Bharatnatyam in 1998. Following that, she won the top prize in Bharatnatyam at the Yuva Sangeet Nritya Mahotsava conducted by South Central Zone Cultural Centre in Belgaum, Karnataka. In recognition of her talent and efforts to elevate the cultural standard, she was awarded the Kalakusuma Award by the Aryabhata Cultural Organization, Bangalore, in 2000. In 2002, she won the competition held by Tamil Nadu Eyal Esai Nadagamandram, Government of Tamil Nadu, which gave her the opportunity to perform at several prestigious dance festivals in Tamil Nadu. She was upgraded to a top-grade auditioned artist in the "A+" category at Prasar Bharathi, Doordarshan, New Delhi, in 2004. She is an empanelled artiste of ICCR (India Council for Cultural Relations), New Delhi, since 2007. Navia Natarajan talks to Soumya Tilak on her dance, gurus and teaching.

When, where and how did your dance lessons begin?
Navia Natarajan: I was formally initiated into dancing at the age of 7 under the guidance of Smt. Radhika Kalyani. But it was at the age of 3 in Cochin, when I apparently saw our family friends taking dance lessons. I believe I was so mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it, that I asked my mother if I could also take classes. This is what my mother told me. That's how I embarked on this journey. I was 4 when I first took to the stage for a folk number. We then moved to Chennai when I was four.

Nowadays the dance field is losing a lot of students to the IT Industry or some other demanding career. You hold a Master's degree in Microbiology and have also worked as a Research Associate for a Scientific Research Foundation in Bangalore. How did dance fit into your schedule amidst all that? What would you tell students of dance who want to pursue or are pursuing a professional degree as well?
Frankly speaking, I have never analyzed all that. The reason being ever since I was a school going student, I was also a student of dance. Dance classes and classes at school went parallel to each other. This was possible only because my parents backed me and supported me. There was no room for excuses for not having fared well in studies or dance. All of it was meant to be a part and parcel of my life. I doubt if during my early school days I was even aware of the intrinsic meaning of the word dedication or for that matter passion. I probably went about it like a normal chore. After I performed my arengetram in Chennai, my father got transferred to Hosur.

Hosur is approximately an hour away from Bangalore. My parents used to drive me to Bangalore every week-end for my dance classes with Guru Smt. Padmini Ramachandran. We then moved to Bangalore. During my high school days, ones the day ends I would rush to the dance class looking forward to doing the adavus or learning an item. While in college, I would do the same except that at times I would be exhausted after all the experiments that had to be conducted. Even while at work, the routine was the same, but the approach started to change. I was beginning to feel a tug at my heart. An emotional bonding that was surfacing towards my conscious level.

But even then, I used to only treat it as a hobby. It was during my days as a research assistant that I felt a deep urge to take dancing seriously. I would sit in front of an experiment and start to think of an item. That was an eye opener. That was when I decided to take dancing seriously.

So all that I would like to tell students of dance who want to pursue a professional degree is that, try to handle both and do justice to both. Never confine yourself and never limit yourself with self-inflicted "it is tough" thoughts.

I was able to juggle all this solely because of the constant encouragement and support of my father M. Natarajan and my mother Varada. They served and still serve as an impetus to fuel my passion and goals. After marriage, I also have my husband Rupesh, who is a pillar of support, though he is still in the process of understanding the significance of dance in my life. It may seem absolutely impossible, but it has possibilities as Nelson Mandela rightly put it "It always seems impossible until it's done." There will be a point when, they will be able to decide with conviction if they want to take up dance as their career or some other field.

You have worked with dancers from different styles. Your initial training was in Vazhuvoor Bhani. You have collaborated with Maduai Shri. R. Muralidharan. You have also worked with Malathi Iyengar. And, you continue advanced training with Shri. A. Lakshmanan, who runs the Nrithyalakshana School in Chennai, and Bragha G Bessell. Tell us about your working experiences.

It is interesting, when one collaborates with artistes of exceptional caliber, one gets to understand their working methods, how their experiences mould their expression and vision and the kind of hard work they put in to produce and launch their productions. It has been a very enriching experience and I feel deeply honored to have worked with them.

My advance training with Shri Lakshman and Bragha akka has been extremely gratifying. With Shri Lakshman, I am learning how to understand the body, the precision of body lines, how an amalgamation of grace and energy can enhance a performance. With Bragha akka, I am learning the ways of interpreting a line, a passage, the kind of episodes that can be used to articulate, how even a slightest movement of the hand or a small twitch of a facial muscle can change the colour and context of the item. I derive a lot of inspiration from them, their attention to details and, above all, their total commitment and dedication to the art forms.

Was it difficult for you to move to the U.S. as a dancer?
Interestingly, it was actually after reaching this land that my personality underwent a progressive change. My dormant senses were aroused. Things that would have never crossed my mind earlier where all making their presence felt now.

Since initially I was unable to work here, I would spend a lot of hours contemplating. In India my life was fraught with activities I neither had the time nor the inclination to spend some quality moments with myself. It was here that I actually became sensitive to my own personality, my needs and interests. I would say that this land has actually been instrumental in the process of bringing in a metamorphosis in me.

However, I do go to India every year to learn and to perform. I do miss India, its vibrant and energetic life. I often look forward to going to India, absorbing and basking in its rich cultural tapestry. Rushing for programmes amidst rehearsals, trying to understand another artiste's approach to art, themes and interpretation without any bias, I savor the whole process of rejuvenating one's senses in India.

You currently teach in the U.S. Do you think different teaching strategies or methods are required to teach students in the U.S.? What is the difference in teaching Indian students, NRI students in the U.S. and foreign nationals?
To be candid, I began teaching only a couple of years back. I was in Denver initially and with in a couple of years, I moved to California. So basically I have been dealing with students who have just been initiated into Bharathanatyam. They are all still learning the steps /adavus. So right now, I am not employing any strategy. But yes I have heard other teachers expressing difficulty while trying to teach them interpretive dancing. I am yet to face it. I will cross the bridge when it comes.

You have performed both in India and abroad. It is said that the audience in India is bit more familiar or informed or knowledgeable about Bharathnatyam than that in other parts of the world i.e. a foreign audience. Do you think it so? If yes, can you share with us your experience?
Yes, performing in other parts of the world is quite different. That is because our Indian classical dance forms are steeped in philosophy and mythology. We, as Indians, are able to relate to it, as all this has been a part of our growing up in India. It is a way of life for us. We take pride in being a part of its rich heritage

While performing nayika-oriented piece, say a varnam, in India we can go ahead and perform it without a lot of hassles as to whether the audience understand it or not. But in other countries, I have experienced that one needs to explain the emotional plight that the woman is in, what thoughts or desires she is journeying through, and how the plethora of Gods such as Shiva, Rama or Krishna are just protagonists in the piece. Emotions - be it love, hate, anger, humour - are all universal. So when an artiste presents these pieces to a foreign audience, we just need to package them in a way that they will be able to relate. For example, I recently did a piece "indendhu vachitivira", wherein a kandhitha nayika rebuffs Lord Venkatesha for being unfaithful to her. Here the audience did not know about the Lord but where able to see the turmoil in the nayika.

If we take our mythological stories, there are protagonists who are not ideal characters to emulate. Some characters have shades of grey in them. Some are perfect to revere. And theses shades of characters can be found in all and sundry irrespective of the age or era they hail from.

Foreign audiences do appreciate neat lines, the geometry in the execution of our steps and our grand eloquent movements .So I personally believe our art forms have various layers of meanings and contents. It is how we use those layers skillfully to present it to a foreign audience. Presenting our items to them also helps us to sit back and reflect on our work.

Well with the limited exposure that I have had, this is what I have felt and perceived, but then again probably I would be able understand it more as and when the journey unfolds.

Therefore, a lot of dilemmas and perplexities exist. But then I guess that is the whole beauty of being an artiste, who is evolving.

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