Asian Music and Dance

Dance of Devotion – Devdasis for a New Era

The members of the Bhaktikalalayam troupe, bharatanatyam-trained dancers, based in Florida are on their first tour outside the USA. They talk to Jahnavi Harrison on what motivates them to practise this form of dance with such dedication.

I’m on the phone at midnight. Thousands of miles away in Florida, the six girls of the Bhakti Dance Seva troupe are taking a break from rehearsals to chat. They laugh and scream as one of their group arrives, after being in India for nine months. Their Bhaktikalalayam Academy studio is secluded – they share the wooded setting with a few curious peacocks and even cows. Though they’ve travelled almost every summer performing their bhakti-filled bharatanatyam at festivals across North America, their upcoming European tour is their first ever trip outside the US. 

As members of the Hare Krishna community, they were introduced to dance from a young age as a way of offering love and devotion to God, and sharing that with an audience. Their teacher, Anapayini Jakupko felt a calling to South Indian dance from early childhood, and spent extensive time in Bangalore and Chennai with her guru, Smt. Indira Kadambi. As an adult, she began teaching this form to the local girls of the community, some of whom began to take their training and performance very seriously.

“It gives me physical and mental discipline,” says Nadia, 22. “It’s so much more than just a hobby or a form of exercise – it’s a deep devotional practice.” Sita, 21, was attracted to this art form because of its deep capacity to express emotion: “It almost gives a freedom of speech,” she says. “And performing dances that explore such unique, spiritual topics gives an audience a chance to examine their emotions too.”

Practitioners of the Hare Krishna lifestyle often attend daily temple services and classes, and practise meditation at home. Many of the second generation find little time or relevance for these activities, but for some of the girls, dance has been their unbroken connection. “It is my spiritual life,” Prtha stresses. “I’m in college and I’m working, and I have no time, but dance has been my saving grace. You can’t dance and not feel close to Krishna – there is no separation.” The other girls murmur their agreement. 

But how do six non-Indian girls from ‘po-dunk’ Alachua fare dancing this traditional form among audiences outside their home community? “People usually say stuff like ‘You’re American girls, how come you didn’t do ballet?’ They’re usually surprised but when they see us dance, they can see we feel it – it is a form of worship, it is an offering,” Jahnavi adds, “otherwise what would our connection be?” 

Anapayini has pushed the girls even harder for the last few years, choreographing new repertoire, most interestingly that which explores the spiritual tradition they practise – coming from the Bengal/Orissa region, in the idiom of bharatanatyam. These include ‘Jaya Jaya Jagannath’, a fifteenth-century Bengali bhajan recomposed in Carnatic style, and a special group alarippu that depicts the opening of a lotus. Every dance is a deep expression of their faith, and performances are normally offered as a voluntary service, hence the troupe’s name – Bhakti Dance Seva.

This year marks an exciting shift. With almost every girl graduating from college, they will be embarking on a seven-month tour – first to Europe where they will perform a marathon sixty-four times! They then travel to India, where they will be undertaking intensive training in Chennai for the first time and staying for the December season. “We never have a chance to just focus on dance,” says Sita. “We also never get to see other professional dancers perform. They just don’t come to Florida much. We’ve seen plenty of uninspiring ones who obviously don’t put in much effort, but this will be a chance to have a new level of exposure to this art form.”

And what of the future? It seems no dance teacher escapes the fate of most students giving up dance once they hit their late twenties. Like many, the girls don’t want to depend on dance as a source of income, and want to pursue different career paths. But they unanimously stress that it has an eternal value in their lives. “I want to dance, whether I perform or not,” says Jahnavi. “The joy of the sadhana is separate from the performance.” Kalindi agrees, “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to dance and I can’t imagine life without it. It trains me to be confident but also to be humble. This is a service, it’s not about me being on stage.”

If you’d like to catch the troupe on their brief stay in England, check the Pulse website for up-to-date listings. Bhaktikalalayam perform 18 June at the Leicester City Festival and 19 June at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, Watford.

Visit their website for more photos, videos and information:  www.bhaktidance.com



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