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Interview with Aleksandra Michalska, Indian Dancer

Questions by Angelika Petrich-Hornetz

Wirtschaftswetter: You live in Poland, you’re a graduate of the University of Warsaw, you went to music school and are now a dancer. Why do you find South Asia so interesting and how did you become an Indian dancer?

Aleksandra : Yes, that’s right. All the elements of my story fit together to form a complete composition.
I’ve always been interested in music and dance. My parents sent me to music school when I was seven.
And why India? I took up my studies at the Department of South Asian Studies (Indology) at Warsaw University as I needed someone to give me some guidelines and tell me the truth about India. You know, India and its culture have always interested me - most probably because it seemed so exotic - and I used to read a lot, trying to understand it all. Initially, it was easy to find answers to all my questions, but the more I read the fewer answers I found. Then I thought OK, if I study India for five years, I’ll know everything I want to know. And now the only thing I know is that it was very naive and stupid of me to think like that. But those five years at the Indology Department have given me a great foundation and prepared me for further studies.

I was lucky to have eminent teachers, Prof. Christopher Byrski (previous Polish Ambassador to India) and Dr. Joanna Kusio, who are both experts on Indian performing arts. During my first year of studies I landed in the batch of students for whom Dravidian (South Indian) specialization was compulsory (specialization changes every year, so first year students do not have a choice and have to specialize in a specific field). That meant five years studying Tamil, literature, history, Sanskrit grammar, translating Sanskrit and Tamil texts, Indian philosophy, art, classical and folk traditions, and more

To cut a long story short: it meant dealing with aspects of South Indian culture. And since Bharatanatyam, the classical dance form I cultivate, originates from Tamil Nadu (Southern India), I was able to study this art form and wrote my dissertation on Arangetram (stage debut) in Bharatanatyam according to Silappadikaram (circa V AD) and contemporary practice.
I got interested in the Indian performing arts when, during my first year of Indology, I witnessed a performance of Kudiyattam by the Polish artiste Anna Lopatowska. She is the first ever foreign woman allowed to study that form of ancient Sanskrit theatre. And again, I was very lucky to have met her, for she had also studied Bharatanatyam (many years ago in Kerala). So under her guidance, I started my dance training in Warsaw in 2000.
For me, Anna Lopatowska was - and I would venture the opinion that she still is - the only competent teacher of Bharatanatyam in Poland. Unfortunately, as far as Indian classical dance is concerned, there’s nobody there (apart from her) who would be able to guide you from start to finish.

At some point I felt that the only way to know India is to experience India. This became my number one aim and it was of utmost importance that I come here, travel, meet people and, of course, see and study dance in its native place.
I landed in Delhi for the first time in July 2003. The hot and humid air left me literally breathless, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t hear anything or rather I could hear EVERYTHING (omnipresent NOISE). I couldn’t cross the street - unbelievable crowds, traffic, cars, cows, everthing - and I thought to myself OK, high time to learn about all these things.
They say that one either falls head over heels in love with this country or wants to run away right after one gets here.
I fell in love. I knew I would come back. I arrived with a clear plan in my head: I am tabula rasa – without expectations, without prejudice. I want to experience and accept everything the way it is without passing judgements. Frankly speaking, I would give this advice to everyone who comes here to this land of contrasts, colours, variety of sounds, smells, diversity of cultures, customs and whatever else you can think of. This diversity is inspiring, exciting and there is something about it that makes you feel addicted. I do not want to exaggerate when praising India; of course I can see its darker side as well. And being a foreigner in India is, let’s put it mildly, not always a bed of roses. But you just need to be very understanding.

India is changing, developing, expanding, modernizing every day, so are people and their attitudes. This is a very promising and encouraging fact about India. I met wonderful people here.
So, as I said, I had to come back. I spent four monhts in India in 2003 and another four months in 2004, travelling, admiring landscapes, monuments of art and nature, meeting people, trying to communicate, understand and learn. I could only travel during my summer holidays and wanted to come to India for longer than just a couple of months. After I graduated from the Indology department I was awarded an ICCR, Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship to pursue my studies in Bharatanatyam under Guru Jayalakshmi Eshwar.

Wirtschaftswetter: You’ve specialized in traditional Bharatanatyam. What is this dance form like, and what fascinates you so much that you keep on studying it?

Aleksandra: To begin with, I guess a short introduction to this dance form is needed. I will try to say a few words about the history and technique of Bharatanatyam, which is perhaps the oldest classical dance form of India.
From sculptural evidence and Tamil texts Baharatanatyam can be traced back to the fifth century AD. Known earlier as Dasi Attam, the dance of the Devadasis Temple dancers Sadir and Chinnamelam, this dance form has recently been called Bharatanatyam. Since Bharata is a name of the sage who is said to have written Natyashastra (the ancient treatise on theatre art) and Natya means dance, the term Bharatanatyam could be applied to any classical dance. It is, however, presently identified with the classical dance form from Tamil Nadu.
Some scholars interpret the word Bharata as an acronym formed from the first letters of the words Bhava (emotions), Raga (melody) and Tala (rhythm). In earlier times, this dance form was performed only during temple rituals by Devadasis girls dedicated to service in temples. The dance nearly vanished under British rule - the Devadasi system was not tolerated and their practices considered as immoral.
The renaissance of this art form started around 1925. The first institution of fine arts (Kalakshetra) was established by Rukmini Devi in Madras (now Chennai) in 1936.
Bharatanatyam and other Indian performing arts underwent many changes and modifications. One has to be aware of these changes. The dance is not restricted only to temples anymore and is performed in theatres in India and abroad.

As far as the Bharatanatyam technique is concerned, it is very well defined. There are clear methods, strict rules according to which every single gesture, posture and step have to be done. The three main components of Bharatanatyam (and other classical dances of India) are: Natya (dramatic element), Nritta (pure dance that does not express a mood and is just concerned with rhythmic movement) and Nritya (sentiment or mood, meant to depict ideas and stories by means of Abhinaya facial expressions and Hastas hand gestures).
Explaining every aspect of the Bharatanatyam technique would take me centuries, for this is a very complex matter. Let me just simply compare learning this dance form with learning a foreign language. First you have to familiarize yourself with the alphabet, in our case hand gestures (called ‘hastas’ or ‘mudras’) and basic steps (called ‘adavus’). Then you can try forming words and whole sentences, sing combinations of mudras and combining adavus into bigger dance units (called ‘jatis’ or ‘tirmanams’). Everything according to strict rules of grammar, for no language exists without grammar, and by definition every classical dance form has its own well-defined grammar.

Even if you acquired the alphabet, even if you have extensive knowledge of all the rules of grammar, exceptions, etc., it is still not enough. To master the language means to master all its subtleties and nuances and to be able to use them as if the foreign language was not foreign anymore. As far as dance is concerned we need this very elusive something which lets us really feel dance, live dance, breathe dance and actually ‘be’ dance. In my opinion one either has this something or one does not. You can learn how to use mudras, how to perform purely technical dance faultlessly, but if you cannot communicate with the audience, so that they feel aesthetic fulfillment, if you cannot convey the message of dance, you are not a true artist, you are just a very good and well-trained performer. Since Indian performing arts have close ties with religion (they trace their origin to religion), bhakti (devotion) is inseparable from dance. The artist tunes into the divine while dancing. For me (as a non-hindu person) this divine doesn’t necessarily have to be God; it can be art itself.
I read somewhere that dance and music are designed to take one from the material to the sublime, move from the outer to the inner. Only the chosen ones can achieve this perfection. Others can of course be good or even extremely good dancers.
There are many artists whose dance I truly admire, like Padma Subramanyam (and her amazing abhinaya), Chandralekha (and her modern approach to classical art), Leela Samson, Alarmel Valli and others. I admire my own teacher’s (Jayalakshmi Eshwar) abhinaya a lot. There is this elusive sparkle in her eyes that makes you smile while she’s dancing a story about little, mischievous Krishna and that makes you cry when she’s showing suffering and sadness

Wirtschaftswetter: What does your training programme look like?

Aleksandra: Usually I have classes four or five times a week or more if required - if we’re preparing for a performance. Every class lasts approximately three hours and during these three hours the work is in full swing.
Bharatanatyam requires maximum concentration and effort and since our teacher is really strict with her students, we cannot let our minds or bodies relax. For these three hours or so we are there to dance; we practice adavus, traditional solo items, thematic and group productions, and all the time we learn new choreographic sequences - done by our teacher.
It’s very inspiring to see the choreographer at work; how she experiments (on us) with movements, rhythm, music and space. Observing this process gives us inspiration and new ideas and is of great help for our future work.

Wirtschaftswetter: Tell us something about ICCR scholarships and their importance to your work.

Aleksandra: On behalf of the Indian Governmenet, the ICCR, Indian Council for Cultural Relations offers scholarships to international students from over 70 countries who wish to study in India and take up various programs and disciplines at different universities and educational institutions spread all over the country.
I was awarded an ICCR Scholarship for Performing Arts. It was a great opportunity for me to come to India for a longer period of time and to intensively study and research the art form I was interested in. I feel that if one really wants to know about Indian performing arts, one has to stay here and learn from people in their native place. This is also the case with learning a foreign language, as I mentioned before.
ICCR gives you a chance and you have to make use of it and then in return you should do your best to spread Indian culture in your own country.
I’ve been in India as an ICCR student for two years now and I hope to stay here longer. I’ve been able to learn the basics of other Indian classical dance styles, like Odissi and Kathak; I’m also learning Chhau (Saraikela style- martial art from Bihar). My aim is not to waste either the time I spend in India or the chance given to me by ICCR.

Wirtschaftswetter: Where and when can people see you perform and what are your plans for the future?

Aleksandra: Presently you can see me in New Delhi in Triveni Kala Sangam where I spend most of my time dancing. I study here, perform in Delhi and other Indian cities - taking part in my Guru’s thematic productions and group performances, programmes organized by Abhinaya Aradhana and ICCR.
I’ll be completing my second academic year this May and would like to spend more time in India. Time will tell. But at least I know for sure that I want to dance, in India, Poland or wherever I will be. Learning Bharatanatyam is a process that never ends. Your life keeps changing, you keep changing, your value system, the way you perceive the world, life, etc. And so does your Bharatanatyam. It keeps changing, becomes more mature. The way you performed a Padam (expression item) five years ago can be totally different from how you perform it today. You remain a student till the end of your life and you should always keep that in mind, even when you start teaching others and share your knowledge and passion for dance.
I want to learn all the time. I strongly believe that one should not lose touch with the place of origin of your chosen dance form, its roots, tradition and people. That’s why I’m going to stay in India for some time. Then I am going to continue my studies and keep coming back to India on a regular basis.
My Polish teacher, Anna Lopatowska, thanks to whom my passion for Bharatanatyam started, runs her Nataraja School of Dance in Warsaw and I will do my best to help her by sharing whatever knowledge and skills I possess with other girl who are studying Bharatanatyam in Poland.

More + Contact:
Aleksandra Michalska-Singh - Nataraja Dance Theatre

2007-03-30 Angelika Petrich-Hornetz, Wirtschaftswetter
Text: © Angelika Petrich-Hornetz und Gesprächspartnerin Aleksandra Michalska
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