Dance Like a Man
Abhishek Ravi has taken Bharatanatyam from the intimate Indian sociocultural gatherings in Auckland to New Zealand’s national television. He has not just introduced the Indian classical dance form to the Kiwis but is becoming an inspiration for many young
During my stint in New Zealand five years ago, I came across an enigmatic nine-year-old Bharatanatyam dancer. He would emerge as the little ‘Kanha’ on stage— bansuri (flute) in hand, matching steps with the Gopis— at either performances organised at Indian community gatherings or at events organised by his classical dance school in New Zealand. That he outdid all the girls on stage with his immaculate movement, flexibility of body and sheer focus, was hard to miss. Today, 14-year-old Abhishek Ravi has brought Bharatanatyam to the fore in a land where the traditional Maori Haka still rules the roost, along with the popular contemporary and Western classical dance forms. He has achieved the feat by winning the first season of an ‘Indianinspired’ dance reality show in NZ— The Great NZ Dance Masala, telecast on the country’s national television. Ever since the auditioning process of the show began, Kiwis sat up and took notice of not just Abhishek’s dance moves but most importantly, his apparent desire to inspire other boys to take up the Indian classical dance form. “Yes, I would like to motivate boys to take up Bharatanatyam,” he affirms when I catch up with him on video call and quiz him about the wish he expressed on the show. His voice and body language is that of a role model in the making. He is all of 14, I remind myself, fascinated at how the fame and recognition post the win has made him all grown-up. In reality, it wasn’t the success but the struggle… that perhaps forced Abhishek to take the leap mentally, irrespective of his age. His passion for Bharatanatyam has brought in its expected share of prejudice for a boy like him pursuing a dance form, which is typically perceived to be a woman’s domain. And has much lesser awareness in New Zealand. “A lot of people and friends say negative things but that’s because of their
ignorance. They don’t know that Nataraja (Indian Lord of Dance) is male. But I have gotten over the peak of bullying, which was mainly till Grade five,” he says strongly. A major factor that has also helped this maverick artist to come into his own at such a tender age, is the rock solid support and encouragement of his family. Mother Shanti, father Ravi and elder sister Archana have been pillars for Abhishek, not by guarding him against the flak that came his way, but by relentlessly fuelling his talent. For instance, Shanti brings her own creative talents to his performances with her exquisite make-up, stage design and many other little but significant aesthetic contributions that enhance the young gun’s dance. Abhishek’s performance at the final round of the dance reality show, which blew away the judges and audiences alike, was a beautiful amalgamation born out of the mother-son teamwork. While Abhishek choreographed his performance, Shanti came up with the concept of depicting the five elements of nature that unite us all without any discrimination—Space, Water, Earth, Wind, Fire. The idea was executed by Abhishek dancing on a mud pot, with a pot filled with water on his head, dancing on a brass plate, dancing with the Poi (a traditional Maori performing art prop) and dancing with a hoop to symbolise all the five elements in the above order. Incorporating the Poi was also a way of paying gratitude to a country that this Indian family calls home away from home. The dedication of the parents also surfaces in Shanti and Ravi tirelessly picking and dropping Abhishek to numerous music classes during the week. Well, Abhishek also learns western dance forms like jazz, contemporary and hip-hop along with our very own Bollywood. “In order to gain mastery, equal exposure to various dance forms is a must,” advises Abhishek, who also feels that the exposure will enable him to acquire the much needed assets for a dancer—strength, versatility and body control. And oh, the multifaceted artist also plays veena, drums and guitar…and has been a gymnast and trampolinist. He is a part of his school’s choreography team, participating in inter-school dance competitions and winning the ‘best male dancer’ awards. He has also been active in dramatics. With this vast canvas of creative activities that make up his life, how does he manage time for studies? “I try to balance dance with studies as I want to do well in academics too,” says the all-rounder, who is apparently at the highest academic level at his school currently. “I dance for about 20 hours a week, all the styles together. Four to five hours are reserved only for Bharatanatyam. You see, constant practice is the key. It may
take a week to master a step or movement, but it would take just a couple of days to forget it if you don’t keep practising,” the dancer warns. I can vouch for abhishek’s dedication there. after all, I have marvelled at the intense passion, undeterred focus and amazing body control of this lanky boy when he was nine, while watching him endlessly learn and practise steps at his home in auckland, either from Youtube videos of prominent Indian Bharatanatyam performers or what he had freshly learnt from his dance guru in auckland, anuradha ramkumar. at an age, where children are grappling with short attention spans and are easily distracted with more luring digital options of the time, abhishek was engrossed in getting every expression and movement of the classical dance right. the learning extended to him taking training in India too. During his school break, he travels to India to train under Sheela Unnikrishnan, a renowned exponent of Bharatanatyam in chennai. “It is her dance academy Sridevi nrithyalaya where a lot of my idols come from,” abhishek tells us, informing further, “I have also done workshops with Shankar Kandasamy, who is based in Malaysia. He is such a perfectionist that it inspires me.” Having done performances based on Mahabharata, Ramayana and Maha Yugas, abhishek’s interest and love lies in challenging pieces based on footwork and rhythm, he says. “I love tandavs. anything that is upbeat and fast…and nritta based.” this year, abhishek has been selected to do a pre-professional development class with Momentum Productions, one of nZ’s foremost dance entertainment companies, which also does musical theatre. “I do want to perform other dance forms but I mainly want to promote classical dance. For most people abroad, Indian dance is just about Bollywood, but the country’s origins are in its classical dance forms,” he insists. He may have been born and brought up in auckland and carries a Kiwi accent too, but abhishek’s solid connect with his culture and roots is palpable. His experience of competing in The Great NZ Dance Masala has added dollops of confidence to the overall personality of this 14-year-old performer. How to use a prop, being more aware of your body and continuing to enjoy your dance, no matter how intense the competition gets… are the important lessons that abhishek has walked away with from the show. “I will dance for the rest of my life. I want to teach dance. I want to pursue performing arts…,” he stops abruptly. “...I still have a long way to go,” he smiles.