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Dance roots, dance routes

There is a family tree that links these Russian girls with the hoary traditions of Bharatanatyam, discovers ANJANA RAJAN

Family tree: (From left) Natasha Obolenskaya, Padma Sampathkumaran, Maria Mavlyudova and Naresh Kumar in New Delhi Photo: V. Sudershan

Established artistes like to trace their genealogy back several generations and enjoy the comfortable feeling of support, the warm weight of tradition that lend confidence to their creativity. But there is another kind of family tree in the arts - the one that links gurus and disciples.

This is the kind of tree among whose branches you will find Natasha Obolenskaya and Maria Mavlyudova, two Russian Bharatanatyam dancers.

Even knowing they are part of an endless chain, teachers can never fathom how far a chance statement or lesson may travel to affect the life of someone in another land, another age. Perhaps this applies even more to gurus who spend their lives dedicated to teaching the arts. So perhaps, the late Guru Nana Kasar, who spent many decades teaching Bharatanatyam at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi, might not have foreseen how his classes would lead to the Moscow-based Natasha Obolenskaya's sitting at the India International Centre in 2005 talking about her Bharatanatyam journey.

Among Nana Kasar's students was Elena Dobrovolskaya. Natasha was initiated into Bharatanatyam by Elena. Devoted to the dance form, Natasha makes regular trips to India, where she takes further training under Guru Padma Sampathkumaran. She is currently on her third visit, but this one is different, because this time, Natasha, who teaches Bharatanatyam at the Cultural Centre of Moscow State University and heads a group of 15 dancers performing regularly in Russia, has come with one of her own students. So as one more name makes its way to the family tree - now a web - of gurus and shishyas, Maria Mavlyudova too gets to know Delhi and take advantage of Padma Sampathkumaran's guidance.

Having taken up accommodation near their guru's residence, the young women say they enjoy living in Delhi. Since April they have performed in a few important recitals and the comfort they feel is palpable, both with their guru and her young associate, the Mumbai-based Naresh Kumar, who often does nattuvangam for Padma Sampathkumaran and sometimes dances with her group. The guru on her part, treats her house like a gurukul, saying any time can be learning time, and while she waxes eloquent on their enthusiasm, the dancers speak of what the art means to them.

A big world

Maria, who did not train in any other dance form before learning Bharatanatyam but used to play the guitar, says, "It's not only movement of the body, it has some meaning. I realised it's a very big world. I can remain inside this for a very long time. I discovered it by accident when my friend took me along with her, about five years ago. She later stopped learning, but I am still here. I didn't believe I could do it. " As teaching and learning get blurred in a dance form that has something for everyone, Natasha narrates how she discourages those who want to join her classes to lose weight. "I say, no, you should go to aerobics for that. Some do it for a while and say, it's not so very hard after all!" Maria is not one of those. As soon as she comes to grips with one aspect, she says, she finds there is another challenge ahead.

"To be natural on stage. Not to show that you have learnt. And it's not enough to know the meaning, it should be fresh. There should be some calm inside. That's also very difficult," she points out.

What is special about Indian dance, feels Natasha, is, "The expression is not just through the face and eyes. Through these you show the soul."

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