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Article originally published in guardian.co.uk
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'Dance brings my culture back to me'
Forget Bollywood and bhangra: a new generation of children are more into classical Indian dance, writes Aditya Chakrabortty
Tuesday 28 July 2009 22.05 BST
Students get to grips with the 2,000-year-old Indian dance form bharatanatyam. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi
From Chennai in south India to Croydon, where south London shades into Surrey, is a distance of just under 5,100 miles. The city formerly called Madras is famous for its classical performing arts and temples; Croydon boasts trams and a big shopping centre. Yet if, one Saturday morning, you were to drive over to Kingsley junior school in west Croydon and tug open the door to the assembly hall, you would enter a kind of cultural buffer state – somewhere between suburban Britain and southern India.
In this school gym, a group of 10-year-old girls are learning Indian classical dance. Their shoes stacked neatly at the door, the Indian-origin children wear white pyjama bottoms with long kurta tops. Legs bent, brows furrowed in concentration, they run through a series of steps accompanied only by the teacher's handclaps.
Some, it's fair to say, keep time better than others. "Stop-stop-stop!" cries the teacher. "Until you get this right, we are not going forward." Her pupils try again to grasp the rudiments of the 2,000-year-old bharatanatyam tradition, in front of a sign advising that Hockey Sticks Are To Be Kept Low.
They have been learning this routine, with its 100 or so movements, since January. "The teacher makes us practise and practise," says Puja Joy, though she doesn't seem to mind. "I get to see my friends here." She has been coming to class since she was five. "I'm going to stop in a few weeks," she says. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, her friend Archana clarifies: "We have to study for our 11-plus – then we'll carry on."
It's hard to think of anything less obviously appealing to your average primary school pupil than the exhausting and obscure art of bharatanatyam. Routines include separate movements for the eyes, eyebrows, neck, shoulders, wrists, arms, torso, thighs, knees and feet, to narrate the action and convey emotions. It bears some comparison with ballet, though there is more emphasis on soloists. The dance form is an ancient and integral part of southern India's Carnatic classical music tradition, but it rarely gets a look-in here, where Indian music is too readily identified as poppy bhangra, or the north Indian style of Ravi Shankar. When Puja tells white schoolmates about her Saturday lessons, "they all do Bollywood dances" – which is a bit like confusing Gregorian chant with Beyoncé.
Bharatanatyam requires discipline as strong as girders. Students here do not use their teacher's first name: Pushkala Gopal is known as "auntie", and her word is law. She believes in three things: repetition, repetition, repetition.
"I trust in rote learning," she says. "Someone who learns their times tables processes maths much more easily." Can the same apply to the arts? "Absolutely. Repeat something 200 times and you know it completely – and in performance you can pull out things you didn't know were there."
Gopal is one of the most sought-after Indian-dance teachers in the UK. On arriving here from Chennai in 1983, she taught four hours a day; now, it's a minimum of nine. Much of this interest comes from second and third-generation Indian immigrants wanting to find out more about their culture.
Nanthini Anandan has been coming since she was six. She's just finished her A-levels, and has an eye on Oxford. But what she learns here can't be found in textbooks. "Today I was learning a dance about how the Ganges came to exist, and how a few drops of Ganga water brought some dead people's ashes back to life," she says. "I stopped practising as a Hindu, but dance kind of brings the culture back to me."
Hindu mythology in a gym: pundits can debate multiculturalism, but this is what it actually looks like. Of the 500 or so arts groups in the London borough of Croydon, around two-thirds are run by ethnic minorities. Yet they stand in splendid isolation, neither engaging with each other, nor with local white people. "The Gujaratis do their own thing, the Tamils another – it's very cliquey," says Lata Desai, who has co-curated an exhibition to highlight the artistic activities of Indians in Croydon. "But if these rich traditions do not get more exposure they will die out in Britain."
On Sundays in another Croydon school, local Indian-origin children attend performing arts lessons, wearing red kurta tops and white pyjamas. In one room there is a classical singing group; next door, the Carnatic violin teacher holds court; upstairs an Indian drumming class is in full, throbbing force.
The Sunday school is run by Sangeetha, a neighbourhood organisation that in the early 90s taught dance to just eight children; now it runs 10 classes a week. Teachers are recruited from Chennai and Bangalore, and have albums and books to their names. This is a good-news story, so why doesn't the wider community know about it? Sangeetha's Najeeb Abdul mutters about white indifference and his own community's diffidence, before brightening: "We are getting more confident and saying, 'We're doing this and if you want to move in, you are most welcome.'"
Later, Najeeb takes me for a drive, pointing out a church that has been converted to a Jain community centre. We duck into an Indian DVD-rental shop, and there, in a back room, is Najeeb's five-strong group. They have foot-and- a-half long Thavil south Indian drums hanging from their shoulders, and a pair of sticks in one hand. They give an impromptu recital. It's deafening, and clouds of dust come rolling off the drumskins. Somehow, despite the unlikely setting, it all makes perfect sense.
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