Language of dance: When the dancer uses both hands to describe an object or paint a picture, these hand gestures are referred to as samuyukta hastas. Here Nikolina shows us the blossoming lotus. In yoga her form is strong, precise and graceful.
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Dedicating her life to dance in India, Croatian-born Ms. Nikoleski sets a powerful example of self-discipline as she carries forward the work of India’s grand masters


Our Delhi correspondent, Rajiv Malik, interviewed a young lady from Europe who has made India her home, dedicating herself to to Bharatanatyam and teaching. Her narrative of her life of dance, cultural education and the need to preserve our cultural arts reads like a manifesto for Hinduism’s future.

IWAS BORN IN THE REPUBLIC OF CROATIA, which was once a part of Yugoslavia. My mother, a gymnast in her youth, enrolled me in gymnastics at the early age of three and a half, in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Gymnastics is connected to dance, and we progressed to learning classical ballet, contemporary dance and folk dance. In high school I chose gymnasium as my main subject, along with history, English, mathematics, etc. During those same years, I attended another school that taught dance, along with subjects like yoga, history of dance, pedagogy, history of arts, history of music, piano and singing. For four years I had a full day of education every day: high school in the morning, with a focus on gymnastics, and dance school in the evening, or the other way around.

Yoga was not a part-time thing. We had daily yoga classes, exams and evaluation just like other courses. We learned the meaning of the asanas and pranayams, delved into the philosophy and mythology and came to know more about Indian culture. Some of our instructors had been trained at Sivananda Yoga Centre and other places in Rishikesh. By fourteen I was practicing yoga and pranayama, with a deep knowledge of them.

Croatia is a multicultural country. It hosts international dance and theater festivals every year, with troupes from around the world. But it was rare for people to come from India. Finally, I saw my first Bharatanatyam dancer, Sonal Mansingh, when she brought a troupe from India to Zagreb. She told our top dance students about the importance of yoga for Bharatanatyam, about mudras and the impact they have on the dancer and viewer.

Though my exposure to Sonal Ji was limited, it was the first trigger. She told us Bharatanatyam was a holistic way of living. Everything mattered—how you walk and talk, how you dress, how you feel and how you breathe. I was so impressed by this holistic way, which included the dance, yoga, mudras, storytelling, philosophy and working on yourself. To me it was something complete, not fragmented—life and art were bound together. From that day onward my interest in Indian classical dance and yoga grew. I researched, read more and watched documentaries about Indian classical dance, temples, devadasis, the philosophy and mythology.

But I had the impression Bharatanatyam could only be practiced by Indians—it was so very Hindu and connected to Gods like Siva, Parvati and Ganesh that non-Indians could not practice it, and the professional scene was reserved for the Indians, Hindus and Brahmins. So when I turned eighteen, I left home to go to Austria and then Germany to focus my training on contemporary dance. There, due to the greater frequency of Indian concerts and more and more interaction with the Indian artists, it became clear that I could also learn Bharatanatyam and even take it as a profession. Without any idea of the future and having never attended a single Bharatanatyam class, I decided to come to India, where I now live.

In 2004, at 27, I started in a gurukul in Kerala, the Bhaskar College of Fine Arts. I made rapid progress in Bharatanatyam because of my foundation in yoga and contemporary ballet. In Germany I had done a tough four-year university course in contemporary dance, and later became a teacher, choreographer and a professional dancer. The positioning and centering in contemporary dance and Bharatanatyam are the same, though called by different names. I mastered a repetoire and completed my arangetram in just three months. It normally takes an Indian student seven to ten years to do her arangetram.

After six months, Saroja Vaidyanathan—one of the eight or ten dance gurus recognized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR)—advised me to get a scholarship from ICCR. I did so and came to Delhi, taking her as my guru. I stayed with her, started my studies at her Ganesha Natyalaya and studied with her for six years.

I also learned about the lifestyle and culture. Everything was different from Europe—the way you communicate, the way you dress, the food. I learned simple things like wearing a sari, putting a bindi and tying my hair in a certain manner with flowers.

My relationship with my guru was quite intense. I spent the whole day in the studio. Some foreign scholarship students dropped the course midway. Not everyone can cope with India, the traffic and chaos. There were only five or six full-day students. But my background was different. I had already devoted my life full-time to dance. Guruji appreciated this and gave me more chances to learn and perform in celebrations like Sivaratri and programs in Khajuraho. So I got much more exposure than other students. My every minute was dedicated to the learning of dance. I was committed 150 percent. I would never change my profession.

A dancer may give professional performances, get paid well, participate in festivals, theater performances and temple functions, traveling constantly. But that is a stressful career, because there is a lot of uncertainty. Teaching is the most supportive lifestyle for a Bharatanatyam professional. We just pass on our knowledge. So I became a dance teacher and am currently employed at Father Agnil School, where I teach seniors and juniors. If I traveled too much, I would lose my regular students in the school.

Decline of Bharatanatyam

I am saddened to see that Delhi girls’ interest in Bharatanatyam is so low, and going down each year. Even in those who are doing it, the devotion and inner feeling is lacking. Bharatanatyam is not just meant to burn your calories. It is a different dance form, with a totally different meaning. If you are singing or dancing about Krishna, you have to have a certain relationship with it. But this generation is more interested in Bollywood or Salsa or Hip Hop.

I have been here in Delhi for six years, and I visit theaters every evening. There are so many performances of Kathak, Bharatana­tyam and Chhau, but there are hardly any students of dance in the audience. Students must see other dancers perform, learn more and get inspired. But now, even at prestigious dance festivals where top artists perform, the auditoriums are empty. Anywhere else in the world such performances would be sold out—you would not be able to get a ticket. But here, where such performances are free and you can just walk in, the audience is not there. I find this very sad, and I believe the whole Bharatanatyam movement needs a revival or renaissance.

Schoolchildren can opt for dance as part of their curriculum, like opting for sports or a course in Hindi. This way the parents do not have to pay anything extra for dance training. They enroll and I teach them. If they take outside classes, they have to pay, and the training is different.

Interest in the dance forms is a regional thing. Ninety percent of those who come to learn Bharatanatyam are from South India, mostly Tamilians. There are precious few North Indians—hardly anyone from Delhi and no one from Rajasthan. Most people of these areas are interested in Kathak, as it originated in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Kerala has Kathakali. Andhra Pradesh has Kuchipudi. Those practicing these dance forms come from the Brahmin families. While some children are inspired by the dance form, the primary impetus comes from the parents. Carnatic music, vina and Bharatanatyam are part of Tamil identity. The intent to preserve that remains strong. But once they have the arangetram, the final ceremony, they do not perform it ever again. The moment it is finished, they quit dancing. For me, that is heartbreaking.

Obviously, the life of a professional dancer/teacher is not for everyone—maybe just for five percent. One may get married, have a baby and have family duties to perform. Even then, dance should at least continue as personal sadhana. But that is not done. After learning dance for seven years and doing the arangetram, more than eighty percent will quit dancing. The moment they get diksha, initiation, they stop. Parents do not allow them to continue, or they lose interest. Why the girls stop performing or practicing dance after arangetram is a big topic for us to focus on. It is because of the Indian society.

The Challenges of Teaching

As in yoga where you have different levels of students—uttam, madhyam, those who are enthusiastic and excel, those with mediocre interest who make little progress—so too with dance. The lazy ones are just waiting for an excuse to stop. Many drop out halfway through. Others hear just one word and they are fully alert. Many factors are involved: their character, level of interest and parental input. So you cannot generalize. Students also have unique challenges. Some have problems with technique, others will have problems with abhinaya, the expressions. And for some it is just a flow, and it is all very easy.

Abhinaya is nothing but the expression of the rasa, the flavor, the mood. I had a deep knowledge of the Indian mythology by the time I came here. But for the child whose parents may have come here from South India, what for them is the relevance of Krishna and Yashoda and their stories? How do you convey the expression of wonder on Ya­sho­da’s face when she sees all three words in Krishna’s mouth? How can one communicate to the child that kind of awareness and appreciation? It will all depend on how good the teacher is. If I just tell them Krishna was an avatar and was supreme Lord, it is flat. I have to use my knowledge and imagination to inspire the children to learn. I have to open their third eye, their visualization When they can imagine what is happening in all the different worlds, then they get to the adbhuta rasa, the emotion of wonder.

Parampara Tradition Must Adapt

In the East and West alike, the reverence for the guru is very much there. My German teachers were even stricter than Saroja-ji. If one is doing poorly, she suggests that perhaps it has not been a good day and you must try to do better tomorrow. But in Germany my teacher would immediately ask the student to leave the dance studio and not return. If a high level of discipline is your measure of tradition, then you can say I am very traditional. If the student’s work is not up to a certain level, I would tell them not to pursue this dance form. Give everything or just leave it. There is no middle path. Even if you do not intend to be a professional, you have to give it one hundred percent of your body and mind here and now. Whether it is dance or academic study, do it with commitment.

The way Bharatanatyam is taught must change. In ancient times the disciple lived with the guru in the same house, as family, but today’s students have little time to spend with the teacher or guru. It is still a family relationship, but of a different type.

A Life of Self-Discipline

I have been a vegetarian since I was thirteen. I do not smoke. I have never had a sip of alcohol in my life. I came into yoga at an early age and always had rigorous physical training. I control my mind through it. I go to bed around 10:30pm and I wake up around 5:45am every day. When I am up, I am up. I do not take tea in the morning. I am fresh because I came from my sleep. We do not need factors from outside. I have my own morning routine and leave for the school at 6:45. At 1:30 schoolteaching is over and I practice, keeping up my own repertoire and rehearsing for performances. Then, from 3 to 6pm I have classes for outside students of Bharata­natyam, ballet and contemporary dance.

Brahmacharya (celibacy) is also important. I emphasize this all the time, especially in Bharatanatyam, because you need to focus your complete energy on the dance and not waste it. Especially for students, brahma­char­ya brings focus, energy and determination. I have never seen myself taking up grihastha ashram or raising a family. I would like to follow Rukmini Devi, who had no children, or Leela Samson, who never married.

As a non-Indian and non-Hindu, not born into this culture, I have been received with great generosity, hospitality and appreciation. My biggest disadvantage and problem is language: I cannot speak or read Tamil, Telugu or Sanskrit. I do not need translation for love, suffering and pain, as these are universal. But I cannot go through the scripts myself. When I have to learn something new about Bharatanatyam, I must ask friends to translate. I am studying Hindi and Sanskrit and read to some extent, but if I get some elaborate text from Vedas, I need someone’s help.

Following the footsteps of the masters: Nikolina with her guru, Saroja Vaidyanathan, founder of the Ganesh Natyalaya institute in Delhi.
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Still, I think being a non-Indian has worked to my advantage. I see so many people who are born into this culture sitting on a treasure box but oblivious to it. Born into it, they take it for granted. It is their heritage, but they do not know anything about it. I know what is in the treasure box, so I work to take it out. That goes to my advantage.

Making a career out of dance is rare. You can count such people on your fingers. Priyadarshani Govind, Leela Samson, Malavika Sarokkai and Alarmel Wali are some of my role models. Rukmini Devi is the first whom I revere as a person. She was even nominated for the president of India. She propagated vegetarianism and nonviolence. She also promoted the cotton saris and Indian crafts, working with one’s own hands, gardening, sadhana and yoga. She was a true Hindu in all the values and traditions. She implemented these things in her institution, Kalak­she­tra. For me she is the ultimate inspiration.

Saroja carefully fine-tunes the subtle position of her student’s hand gesture.
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I want to start my own dance institute like my guruji has Ganesh Natyalaya. I will live there and we will have Bharatanatyam, yoga classes and music. I would just select those who are fully committed and really want to learn, who have the feeling and devotion that is required. In the morning we will start with yoga and eye exercises, along the lines of Kalakshetra. I would like to impart knowledge of Carnataka music and holy scriptures, Upanishads, Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Our Culture Preserves Our Identity

Any art form, whether dance, music or poetry, is a direct identification of our culture, our personality and who we are. I would say it is the first identification, like language. A language has a history behind it. Chanting mantras in Sanskrit creates identity. Classical Indian dance is the identity of the culture of the nation, and preserving it is the first duty of the people of this country. It is also important because it gives so many values to society. It creates elevated and alert human beings. If for five hours a day you are chanting the name of Krishna and dancing and performing arati, in the evening you are not likely to take drugs, kill people or do or say bad things. Because when you are chanting the name of Krishna your whole being is transformed. Dance creates human beings who are more conscious and more aware, who are more compassionate and less aggressive.

I give you your own example, Rajiv. You are wearing a crystal mala, a rudraksha mala and a yellow kurta, so I can easily make out that you are a Hindu. The yellow kurta also gives the impression of an ashram-type way of life. By doing all this you are basically preserving your culture. When a lady wears a sari and bindi, there is no confusion about her identity. Clearly, she is a Hindu and she is an Indian. Once you stop wearing sari or stop performing classical dance of India we do not know who you are anymore. You can be anyone or no one. Your identity in that case is not just questionable, it is lost. I am not against wearing this style or that style of dress. I am just saying that traditional dress reveals and preserves the identity of a person.

The dance has a direct relation to Hindu society. It speaks of the norms and values of Hindu society, Hindu culture and Hindu religion. Unless we keep them alive, the customs and traditions will just fade away. I think the nation and religion, though separate, need to preserve their traditions in dance and music. In this case the heritage is common to both the India and the religion. It is the prime duty of the religion, society and nation to preserve its traditions and culture.