Foreign feet on India’s traditional dance floor

May 1st, 2011 - 5:58 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, May 1 (IANS) The ancient classical dance form of Mohiniyattam has kept Russian dancer Olga Stoliarova wedded to India for the last eight years since she came to the country to master the genre from her guru. And she isn’t the only one.

Over the last three decades, Indian classical dance has found a growing tribe of foreign disciples - Russians, Americans, Japanese and Croatians. From Mohiniyattam to Odissi, Bharatanatyam to Chhau, these forms offer them spiritual succour, creative freedom and a chance to express themselves through highly nuanced and graceful body language.

They usually come on scholarships from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and choose to adopt the country as their home for long periods after finding a guru.

Olga, for instance, found a guru in Bharati Shivaji in the national capital.

“I fell in love with Mohiniyattam in Russia when I saw a danseuse, Galina Dasgupta, perform. For the last eight years, my mentor Shivaji, who has been reviving Mohiniyattam among the younger generation, has been tutoring me. It is beautiful and lyrical. It touches my heart,” Olga told IANS.

She performed at the India Habitat Centre during the two-day international festival of Indian dance, “Utsav”, to mark the World Dance Day April 29.

“Many of my acts are themed on the beauty of nature and the lores of Radha and Krishna,” Olga said.

Referring to Mohiniyattam, which is from Kerala, Shivaji told IANS, “The dance form has really caught on in the last 10 to 15 years. Several foreign students come and go. They come on scholarship from their country.”

ICCR offers 5,000 scholarships to foreigners and of these 100 are for performing arts.

Bhubaneswar-based Odissi dancer Ileana Citaristi, who is from Italy, was “looking for a land where she could express in a total unrestricted way all the questions in her soul that could not find satisfaction in any of the solutions offered by the present patterns of living of the western civilisation”.

“After completing my doctorate in philosophy and having worked in both traditional and experimental theatre in my own country, Italy, I followed the calling and reached this land of Orissa,” she said.

And she dedicated herself to the dance at the feet of her late guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

Citaristi combines Odissi with the ethnic Oriya Chhau to tell both traditional, philosophical and contemporary stories.

One of the country’s oldest classical dancers of American origin, Sharon Lowen, who came to India in 1973 to train in Odissi under Mohapatra, “feels completely herself in India”.

“I feel the Indian traditions inside of me. I will stay in India as long as I feel welcome. I have been fortunate enough to travel around cities and villages in India - and have been honoured to receive respect from the audiences,” Lowen told IANS.

She is one of the most visible faces in the capital’s Odissi circuits and also an authority.

“I have done nearly 40 choreographies of my own in different Indian languages within the classical vocabulary. But when I want to perform Odissi, Chhau and Manipuri together, I call it a ‘Jugalbandi’. I do not fuse genres,” Lowen told IANS.

Bharatanatyam exponent Nikolina Nikoleski, a disciple of guru Saroja Vaidyanathan, says she “is scared to leave India”, her home for seven years.

“Bharatanatyam is all here. I love it too much to ever think of leaving India,” Nikoleski told IANS. The Croatian dancer fell in love with “Bharatanatyam from the first moment I saw it”.

Nikoleski, a teacher of Bharatanatyam, classical European and contemporary dancer at the French Embassy School, “loves the dance for its nobility, divinity, costumes, rhythm, engaging style and wonderful expression”.

“Indian culture is trying to broaden its perspective and transcend the barriers of both India and diaspora,” says Malaysian Bharatanatyam and Odissi guru Ramli Ibrahim, who was taught Odissi by a guru in Orissa.

This leap across creed and geography is manifest in the popularity of Indian dance globally, he said.

“Indian classical dance is also riding on the diaspora population. The diaspora communities are passing the performance traditions to the local non-Indian populace as part of the cultural osmosis, post-globalisation drawing more foreigners to India to learn its traditional dances,” Ramli told IANS.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

Related Stories

    Posted in Uncategorized |