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

Society - - MELANGE - By ARWA JAN­JALI|

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.

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