The Idiot’s Guide to Natya

Until last weekend, classical Indian Dance was boring to my uneducated eyes and the music, too high pitched for my liking. It was a good thing then that I was persuaded to go for Dance a Prayer at the Indian High Commission, on the evening of Sat 10, Sep 2005. It promised to be an introduction for beginners, complete with surtitles, almost like an Idiot’s Guide to Bharata Natyam.

Except it isn’t really Bharata Natyam, not the one with a 200-year-old history. Sheela Raghavan, who is the sole performer for the night, wants to show us Natya, which is 1000 years old. The word Natya in its ancient context, according to the 38-year-old dancer, means dramatology, encompassing dance, drama and music. So, to be precise, what she was performing that night is ancient dance theatre in the style of Bharata Natyam.

But that’s not all. Sheela has also used Wayang Kulit to help in the telling of the stories. We were taken through each of the dances by way of a dialogue (in English) between Lord Brahma, the Creator, and Bharata, the Sage, who were depicted through wayang kulit projected onto a screen. The characters would introduce and explain the philosophy behind each piece before the dancing. A beautiful series of stills and illustrations then accompanied the performance, highlighting the significance of various key hand gestures as well as the story. For instance, the “Dasa Mahavidyas” was a story of a demon called Durgama who took control of the four Vedas (knowledge) and gained power over the entire universe. The goddess Shakti then had to materialise ten forms (representing 10 wisdoms) out of her body – the Dasamahavidya – to defeat Durgama and return the Vedas to the Gods. The first form is Kali, personifying time; she dances on a cemetery and is depicted in a ferocious manner. Tripurasundari, or The Beauty in the Three Worlds, is shown to be more graceful – she is the beauty of self-perception. Without the help of the accompanying film, all these ferocity and beauty would have been lost to me. It was also good to know at which point Sheela was a demon and when she was a goddess!

The multimedia was created by the award wining team of Bracket Pictures, Sylvia Ong and Albert Hue. I have seen many performances where the multimedia takes on a life of its own, overshadowing or even disrupting the performance, but the team of Bracket Pictures, together with Sheela’s direction, blended seamlessly with the dance. When onscreen words actually sounded like what was being sung – words like “Bumi” and “Cerita” – I was even made aware of the common Sanskrit origin of both Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil. The thrill of this discovery delighted me to no end and was a source of a long conversation afterwards.

The excellent accompanying score (which did not sound high pitched now) was written and sung by Nirmala Raghavan, who is an accomplished bilingual writer, an Indian music and dance critic, and Sheela’s mother. The composer told me that many of her songs came to her in dreams. If only my dreams were this fruitful. Special mention must also go to the percussion arrangement by Maestro Kalimamani S. Gopakumar from India which served as the crucial pulse of the dance.

It was unfortunate that Dance a Prayer was a one-night-only performance. Sheela says she lacks the energy to do more than one show in a row, what with managing three children and an accounting firm with her husband. On top of those, she also teaches classical Indian dance to underprivileged kids at the Nageswari Amman Temple in Bangsar. In fact, the donation received during her performances are channelled to CHILD (Child Information, Learning and Development Centre), a charity organisation which then uses the money to transport other voluntary dance teachers to the temple as well as a Tamil school in Bangsar Utama. They are in the midst of turning their centre at Sentul into their third educational post.

Sheela is passionate about teaching as she herself had been trained by the best. In Malaysia, her guru is the renowned Sri Ganesan. From India, her teachers include Vasantha Vedam, formerly a lecturer with Kalakshetra, a famous dance school in Chennai; Kiran and Sandhya Subramaniam, a husband and wife pair who are well known within Bharata Natyam and have performed with the likes of Ravi Shankar; and Vijayashree, a state examiner for Karnataka State Government for Virtuoso level, who also happens to come from a lineage of ceremonial temple dancers going back 1000 years.

Having spent most of her life studying the artform, Sheela was frustrated by the growing disinterest amongst youths. She also feels that while the flourishing of various modern interpretations is good for the evolution of the dance, it certainly doesn’t help preserve the origins. So, in an effort to ensure that all forms of Baharata Natyam interpretations were done with intimate knowledge of its pure form, she embarked on this thankless journey to create awareness. She hopes “to make accessible to the multi-ethnic Malaysian public – this knowledge and the place in life that Bharata Natyam once occupied, in the hope of reconnecting a modern public to the original philosophical intention of the dance.” As a result, she has spent the last two decades “researching the origin, meaning and function of the Bharata Natyam, with relevance to Hinduism, yoga and the cultural context from which this dance arose.”

In that sense, we at the Indian High Commission that evening were her guinea pigs in testing this educational performance out. Despite a few lulls in the show, it was an enjoyable affair; one can’t help admiring the infectious passion behind this project. An elderly lady by the name of Mangalam, who runs the charity Pure Life Society and has received awards for her humanitarian work, came up to Sheela after the show and said it was the best Bharata Natyam she has seen in her life. When asked what she thinks of her guinea pigs’ response, Sheela said, “I can’t really tell from the stage. But there was pin-drop silence. And my friends tell me no one walked out after the interval.”


Lee Jia Ping, director of Tabs Creative Projects, has worked as production manager and stage manager in local productions and did a stint at Cambridge, learning theatre management.

Additional reporting by Pang.

First Published: 15.09.2005 on Kakiseni

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