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Teen Shows All the Right Moves in Classical Indian Dance: Recital Capped 9 Years of Lessons

July 3, 2008

By Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jul. 3–Bharatnatyam, the classical dance of India, grows from roots in 2,500 years of Hindu temple dancing. Its branches reach all the way to Fond du Lac, where Maya Kailas has made Bharatnatyam a big part of her life.

Maya, 16, has just capped nine years of formal training with guru Kripa Bhaskaran, who has Indian dance studios in Pewaukee, Brookfield and Madison. Saturday, Kailas gave her graduation recital, or arangetram.

Maya would have been happy with an intimate arangetram at Bhaskaran’s studio at the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin in Pewaukee. Her parents, Laxman and Sujatha Kailas, were thinking bigger. They rented the Pabst Theater for the event. They hired a quartet of touring musicians from India to play for it. They invited 650 to attend and served them dinner after the recital.

“She’s a special girl,” said Sujatha Kailas. “She’s put in so many hours and so much effort. We’re doing this to show her that we love her and appreciate everything she’s doing. We want this day to be a wonderful memory for her.”

The day was memorable, but not easy for Maya. She gave a two-hour solo recital comprising seven different dances. Bharatnatyam is among the most rigorous and demanding disciplines in the arts. It requires enormous flexibility in the back, excellent balance, great strength through the middle and lower body, grace through the shoulders and arms, sharp rhythm and great foot speed for the episodes of floor-patting abstract dance, and fierce but relaxed concentration.

Every aspect of movement is prescribed to the smallest details of hand positions and facial expressions; even the eyes are choreographed in Bharatnatyam.

The discipline of abhinaya, or facial expression, especially comes into play in the narrative side of the dance. Bharatnatyam tells stories from the vast mythology of Hinduism in a highly developed, style-specific language of expressions and gestures that define character and convey action. The solo dancer plays all of the parts in the dramas, from gods ranging from warriors to pranksters, to shy maidens and rampaging demons.

“With Bharatnatyam you have to do everything perfect,” Maya said, after the dress rehearsal at the Pabst on June 25. “For the longest time, I was really not that great at the expression part, the abhinaya, where you tell stories with your face. I just couldn’t show the emotions with my face. I’ve always been pretty good at the pure dance. But leading up to this, I feel that I’ve gotten better at the expression part. Maybe it’s even better than the pure dance part.”

She’s had countless hours to work on it. Starting one year before her arangetram, she raised her training to a pair of two-hour lessons per week with Bhaskaran. Six months before the recital, student and teacher upped it to five three-hour lessons per week.

“If you plan something big, then it looks great,” Maya said, “but it’s really a lot of hard work. If you want to do well, you can’t complain. You have to do it.”

This is an obvious life lesson, but how many 16-year-olds have learned it? The dancer’s parents appreciate what dance discipline has done for their daughter.

“Remember, this is a teenager who just got out of school,” her mother said. “She has given up her whole month of June for this.”

A lifelong passion

Sujatha and Laxman have been married for 25 years. They came to Wisconsin 22 years ago, for Sujatha’s two-year medical residency at Sinai Samaritan hospital. They settled in Fond du Lac 15 years ago, after Sujatha completed her gastroenterology specialty in Madison. She practices in Fond du Lac. Laxman owns three Indian restaurants in the Milwaukee area and has real-estate interests.

They are long-time members of the Hindu temple and have always made a point of attending Indian dance and music events. They took their daughter to some Bharatnatyam concerts when she was 4.

“Even as a little kid, she liked it and wanted to do it,” Sujatha said. “We never had to push her.”

Bhaskaran saw something in Maya Kailas. When she turned 12, the teacher met with the girl and her parents and asked them to make a decision. Would she continue with the low-key, once-a-week group lessons, or did she want to step onto the far more rigorous path that leads to the arangetram? Maya went for it and never looked back.

“If I ever wanted to quit, my parents would have been fine, but I liked it, so I stuck with it,” she said. “I don’t think I would make this my career or anything, but I definitely want to keep dancing. For many people, when their arangetram is over, they just quit dancing. I want to keep doing shows with Kripa. I don’t know what I want to do for a career, but I don’t think I want to do anything in the arts.”

Bridging cultural gaps

Kripa Bhaskaran, 35, said that she has a total of 80 students in her studios. Bhaskaran came to the U.S. and eventually to Wisconsin because her husband, a software engineer, landed here professionally 10 years ago. She started her training in India at age 5. Her primary mentor was Ambika Kameshwar, of Chennai, India, a scholar, choreographer, dancer and musician. (Kameshwar is well-represented on YouTube.) Bhaskaran, following her mentor’s path, also studied music extensively. She performed with and led the band at Kailas’ recital, in addition to choreographing all seven pieces in order to cast every aspect of her student’s achievement in the best light.

Bhaskaran has formed a company, Natyarpana, of her best students. She has staged Hindu dance theater pieces at the Pewaukee temple and elsewhere. In December, she will take her troupe to Chennai to perform. Maya very much wants to make that trip. (For more information on Bhaskaran’s studios, see www.natyarpana.com.)

“Maya is the ninth arangetram from my school,” Bhaskaran said. “It is a formal debut that usually follows eight to 12 years of study. One must learn the ragas (melody patterns) and talas (rhythms), the mythology, the gestures, the expressions. An arangetram is a beginning, not an ending. This is the first step on Maya’s path. She wants to learn more.”

Bhaskaran, an ecumenical sort, has found a way to accommodate Christians and a Muslim student within the Hindu art.

“Dance is a meditation,” she said. “The dancer is involved in the moment, but still must entertain the audience and drive home a point.”

The larger point, to her, is beyond any particular religion.

“I want to be a bridge between Indian and Western culture,” she said. “The message we convey is always positive. The world is one; we don’t want hatred or jealousy.”

Still, it’s safe to say that most of the dancers and parents who come to the Natyarpana school are expatriates seeking connection to Hindu and Indian culture.

“Each dance is usually about one god or a few gods,” Maya said. “Without dance, I really wouldn’t know much. I’ve grown up doing this and it just feels right. Especially since here the majority of the population is Christians and Catholics and all that, and you don’t really find that many Indians and Hindus. There’s only one temple, and that’s like an hour away from where I live. Otherwise, it’s really hard to stay in touch with the culture. And I really wanted to stay in touch with my heritage.”

E-mail Tom Strini at tstrini@journalsentinel.com.

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