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Reflections on Dance: Performance and Practice in the Diaspora

Updated: Apr 11

Neela Bhaskar: The Transference of Bharatanatyam onto New Soils

We sit for our interview in a ground-floor apartment in Berlin, where film posters and bookshelves adorn the walls - a scene not so out of place in the heart of this city. Neela is already dressed in an ornamental saree ready for our shoot later at Volkspark Friedrichshain. The feeling of ‘out-of-placeness’ won’t creep in until later, when we leave the space of the flat. We joke that passersby will take this scene as her ‘wedding’, the only possibility that the clues of Neela’s saree gives away in their mind - a sentiment proved immediately correct by our Uber driver. Inside it is still easy to forget our surroundings in Germany, where nothing of this scene is typical.

Our conversation transports us across distances - from India to Germany. We discuss the creation of roots in new cities, the simultaneous process of uprooting, ‘bringing over’ a form and culture to new eyes and ears, and Neela’s reflections on herself as an artist. A beautifully enlightening conversation that reveals her infectious passion for the art.

Neela came to Germany following her education. Starting her masters in Hamburg, she is now completing her PhD in Tamil poetry. Germany began as a vessel through which to delve into “the academic line of things” but it did more than that, it allowed Neela to accidentally stumble upon a new breath of life for Bharatanatyam. When reading poetry “there was one dimension of it that felt unexplored” without dance, its natural accompanying piece. For Neela, studying Tamil poetry has been a privilege that has only enhanced her appreciation and understanding of Bharatanatyam.

Neela’s love for dance didn’t blossom at birth but was nurtured by parents who introduced her to Bharatanatyam at the age of six. Often decisions that change the trajectory and meaning of our life are outside of our control. But relationships throughout our lives are rarely linear, experiences, loves, desires come and go. The ebb and flow of life meant that dance came back to Neela during the time of Covid, as a lockdown yearning. It became a connection to home, a way to move her body that enriched the soul. Neela’s journey with the art of dance is a friendship that's very accommodating. “You meet sometimes, and then you take some space, and then you meet again”.

Now Neela performs Bharatanatyam in new soils. Germany has given her a whole new canvas to create her art. But in leaving one ‘home’ for another, there comes the question of transference. How does anything translate across cultures, removed from a comfortability into the unknown? Through her performances in Germany Neela has learnt to confront the question of translation within art.

A few months ago Neela performed with the Varnum Salon, a German-based organisation hoping to expand the reach of Bharatanatyam, at Oyoun Berlin, a cultural centre. For the performance they provided their audience with a translation of the pieces, thinking that if everyone could understand the lyrics then they could follow the pieces with more ease. But “nobody really looked at the paper, they were more interested in being present and actually seeing what’s happening…allowing themselves to be confronted with this completely alien aesthetic”. The audience allowed the performance to wash over them and leave its own marks. Neela talks about how “sometimes it's easier to perform to a blank audience”, they carry with them a clean slate, without preconceptions. But one must also be careful with audiences that lose out on the context and complexity of the art. They do not recognise the privilege that comes with performing Bharatanatyam, which for Neela is essential to acknowledge. When an artist performs in Germany they are seen to be a representative of the dance - the audience takes them at face value. For Neela, there are certain pieces that she performs solely in India. Pieces so “linguistically connected to the dance itself”, would become lost in translation.

Within the spectrum of Bharatanatyam, Neela follows the T. Balasaraswati style. T. Balasaraswati was a hereditary dancer from a family in Thanjavur. Renowned not just in the world of Bharatanatyam but in performing arts across the world. Those with a deep understanding of dance will be able to comprehend its distinct aesthetic. The sense of simplicity is an illusion of precise controlled movements. Distinct movements blend with emotive actions, where a universal understanding can be found within its audience. T. Balasaraswati and her mother, who came from a family of accomplished musicians, also created music that belongs to the dance. For Neela an identity with dance cannot be without the music, it’s something she strongly believes in “that dance owes its fidelity only to music”. There is not one without the other. Neela herself also sings, an important aspect to T. Balasaraswati.

Neela was taught by Shyamala Mohanraj, who moved from Sri Lanka to learn from T. Balasaraswati herself. She was a student of hers for sixteen years before she passed away.

Neela talks of learning dance as a visual experience, you watch your teacher and “absorb the aesthetic yourself”. She realises that in reflection there isn’t another style of Bharatanatyam that she would be able to do as “this is now completely the only thing that I can hold on to”

Through my conversation with Neela, I wanted to learn more about the spaces of these dances within Germany, and whether they existed. There is little recognition of them but that isn’t to say that they can’t be found. Neela knows they must exist as she has found such accepting audiences. There is an inherent appreciation for the form. But it seems that finding all the pieces that make up a performance is what tends to be most difficult; tailors for blouses, shops for jewellery, and finding musicians.

But it is not just the physical costume, music, and understanding of the audience that differs in Germany. Neela reflects on the post-performance experience, which she shares with many other performers in the diaspora. “That’s something that I found really hard when I started performing in Germany, which was that when you perform in India, there’s always like this big hoo-ha after a performance, somebody will come and make you a cup of tea, somebody helps you put back all of your things. They take you out to dinner, we have a conversation.” In Germany, performances simply end with a goodbye. There is a lack of understanding of the emotive aspect of the dance, and the real impact this has upon the artist. There isn’t recognition of the emotional outpouring from the side of the dancer, which could be recognised with a little compassion.

Reflecting on her self-titled ‘exile’ in Germany for the last five years, Neela finds herself in a different position with dance, which is enhanced by the privilege of studying Tamil poetry. Without Tamil literature anchoring her to Germany, it would be hard to find an identity within dance. Stepping back allows her to glance at the bigger picture as a chance to reflect on this very important aspect of being an artist, which is to explain to people what an artist does. In India there is an understanding of Bharatanatyam, the question is only of an aesthetic preference. Germany offers the reverse, a liking but without understanding. Dancing in Germany needs a reason, an explanation. “So I have to often find ways to articulate what I do. And it’s always hard. Because I was never trained to talk about the dancer, I was trained to dance”. The diaspora has brought with it a cultivation of the skill to talk about dance. It helps to put words to and justify the importance of this aesthetic. Words that ignite flames of inspiration for others. That expands appreciation and understanding of the forms.

Thank you to Neela, for sharing your words and your passion for dance. And for showing us all that there is space for a ‘classical’ dance in the diaspora.

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