Asian Music and Dance

The Making of a Dance Virtuoso

Early risings, punishing fitness regimes and incessant competitions cannot take away the joy of dance for fourteen-year-old Harinie Jeevitha.

On opening the doors of a tiny apartment,  her mother greets me and smiles: “She has a bharatanatyam class in an hour’s time.” Expecting from her photos and videos to see a glamorous young woman, I see instead a charismatic teenager with sparkling eyes. “I am Harinie,” her playful voice and childish intonations instantly give away her real age. 

Looking around the room,  the eye is drawn to her bharatanatyam photos, an array of awards and shields, and, finally, perched on a fridge, a golden statue of Nataraja in Argalam pose. “It is the Best Dancer Award 2007,” Harinie intercepts my look. “There is no space here, you can see more in my room,” she continues with the confidence and composure of a Tiger Woods. 

“Wearing their costumes and make-up for eighteen hours was worth the pain.”

It is her guru, Sheela Unnikrishnan, who sends her students’ applications for major dance contests all over India. “Otherwise, maybe we would be too lazy and would not practise so hard. I came to like contests for many reasons – even if I don’t win”, the cheerful 14-year-old virtuoso gives a chuckle. Dance contests are where Harinie tries to learn from other schools’ dancers. In May, over 5,500 people came to Pune to take part in the national-level dance competition. On the day Sri Devi Nrithyalaya’s dancers had to perform the classical items the marathon contest started at 8 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m. Wearing their costumes and make-up for eighteen hours was worth the pain:  the second prize in the solo competition, the first in both the duet and group sections.  

‘The most watched bharatanatyam video with 700,000 views to date.’

 Wiping  the dust from a large collection of prizes and awards is not the main activity of Sri Devi Nrithyalaya’s sizeable support group – that includes not only 150 students’ parents – who take care of everything: from the administration to the media. Without this support, the dancers’ videos would not have appeared on the Internet, and Harinie’s arangetram would not have become the most watched bharatanatyam video ever with over 700,000 views to date. 

I ask if Harinie saw her photos in daily Saptagiri TV kuchipudi contest, Muvvala Savvadi. Harinie, as it turns out, has time neither for watching even her own TV appearances nor for browsing the Internet. “My picture?” she gives a surprised chuckle when she sees the pictures of herself in a costume with a half-detached fan hardly designed for the extreme positions Harinie can display so effortlessly. Her fitness regime includes exercise classes at 6.30 a.m. three times a week. Some of these training routines would rival a gymnastics or a martial arts class. However, the exercises are geared with the special demands of classical dance such as communicating a particular mood covering the face with a niqab-like veil, that leaves only the eyes visible. 

Harinie’s ‘freelancing’ dance career started at the age of eleven in Anita Ratnam’s Arangam Theatre in New Delhi. “It was some bharatanatyam-based fusion, quite interesting,” she comments. Collaboration between various classical dancers is the everyday reality. At Radhika Surajit’s group’s performance, Harinie danced a solo… kuchipudi. “While dancing bharatanatyam I used to mouth my words, like it is usually done in kuchipudi. Then someone told me that it didn’t look good while I was performing difficult and fast nrithya.” 

What does the young prodigy think of other dance students using her popular TV and Internet videos as learning aids? “Sheela ma’am discourages us from copying each other. She always fits the choreography and even the music itself to each dancer’s abilities and skills. We have students coming from as far as Canada, Europe or New Zealand who ask her to choreograph items for them.” 

The foreign students, in Harinie’s opinion, are much more hardworking and goal-oriented. “For me, dancing is more like an enjoyable pastime, a discovery of the inner substance. Every time I perform an item I try to do it in a different way. A year ago, while dancing a varnam in Narada Gana Sabha, I forgot one passage and improvised on the spot. Hardly anybody noticed,” Harinie giggles. She is lucky to have an open-minded guru who allows the most advanced students to improvise and even actively participate in custom-made choreographing, some of which takes place in unusual places too. “On the way to a competition in Hyderabad, Sheela ma’am had to choreograph one item for me right on the train, and I had to rehearse it there too. This year I got a second prize only,” she sighs. 

Having spent their summer vacation – three hours almost every weekday morning –  on learning the karanas with Sujatha Mohan, the students are now asked for their suggestions where a chari or karana can be weaved in. ‘In bharatanatyam, we are to arrive at the ideal movement. It should “click”. It’s as if we were discovering something very precise, something connected to a certain state of mind.’ Harinie is of course impressed by the rhythmic gymnastic world’s champions, but believes that the classical Indian dance is not merely an acrobatic circus show.  Swarnamukhi is not her role model. “Dancing Shakthi Koothu brings an immense joy to me. It has a profound spiritual meaning in it,” says Harinie about her favourite item.

“I can’t afford more than an hour a day to spend on my homework.”

At the Padma Seshadri school which Harinie attends, bharatanatyam is a mandatory subject till the fifth grade. Harinie’s school teachers are very lenient: ‘I don’t get scolded if I get low marks. I try to learn in class itself, as I can’t afford more than an hour a day to spend on my homework!’ Harinie Jeevitha’s schedule is indeed busy: she is often woken up at 6 a.m. by her fellow dance students. “Here,” she outlines a few square metres of slippery marble tiles around us, “is where I teach them and practise myself.” 

Dancing on ice-like floors is just one extreme. “It is very hard to dance on carpets, like the one in Taj Connemara. In another hotel, I was once among the three dancers on a stage the size of a big table.” How does she feel about performing at hotels, exhibitions, weddings, conferences, corporate shows and similar venues? “It’s ok. After all, it’s like another rehearsal!” A mischievous smile appears again. Harinie likes to perform in temples even if it sometimes turns out to be even more challenging than dancing on a floor strewn with fallen-off ankle bells: “In a small town temple in Tamil Nadu, the ‘stage’ was just a long, narrow piece of cloth full of thorns and pins in it.” 

How does she see her future dance career? “Now I am only in the 9th grade!” she exclaims. Long-term planning, as it seems, is not a favourite subject with the artistes. Harinie wants to continue the research work pioneered by Padma Subrahmaniam. I ask if she intends to learn all the sixty-four subjects the dancers used to learn, such as ‘Spells and Charms’, for instance. “Of course,” her eyes light up, “tell me where I can learn it!” 



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