Natraj School of Dance marks 25-year milestone


Prabha Ravi with the students from the Natraj School of Dance (Photo Supplied)

Venu Menon
Wellington, April 4, 2023

The Natraj School of Dance in Wellington will join two other dance schools in showcasing the skills of their pupils at the first-ever Bharata Natyam dance festival to be held in Auckland on May 6.

The annual festival is being launched by Indian Newslink, with 30 students drawn from the three dance schools.

Students from the Auckland-based Anuradha School of Dance and the Varaveena Dance Company will perform alongside dancers from the Natraj School of Dance at the festival.

Prabha Ravi, the founder, director and choreographer of the Lower Hutt-based dance academy, will choreograph the Indian epic Ramayana on stage, with eight of her students unfolding the narrative through dance movements.

The Ramayana story will be compressed in dance form over a time span of 27 minutes.

“It is one long song whose lyrics tell the Rama story. The song is very popular and is called Bhavayami Raghuramam. It will be a musical dance drama,” Ravi explains.

Of the eight students performing on the night, three are graduates who have completed their Arangetram or solo dance debut.

From that point on they can be called professional dancers, Ravi points out.

The Natraj School of Dance was established in 1999, which is also the year Ravi arrived in New Zealand. “The dance school was set up in three weeks from the date of my arrival here,” she recalls.  “So, this is our 25th anniversary.”

A Bharata Natyam recital (Photo Supplied)

Ravi was initiated into the dance form at age 3. She grew up in a musical household. “Lots of musicians used to drop by. My father sang devotional songs. My mother, who came from a small town [in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu], was keen that her children picked up music and dance,” Ravi reminisces.

The full-time presence of a spiritual master or Guru, who lived with her family, helped wean her into spirituality.

“Even before I arrived on Planet Earth, when I was in my mother’s womb, our Guru had already arrived in our home and was living with us,” Ravi says.

“It’s very rare for something like that to happen,” she notes. Her grandfather had welcomed the Guru, whose life mission was to spread Nama Sankeerthanam or bhajans, into his joint family household. Visitors from far and wide came to pay their respects to the Guru and listen to him.

“It wasn’t unusual to find 50 people in our house on any given day. My mother did the cooking. And she did that with a smile,” Ravi remembers, adding, “For 25 years, my mother served the Guru and her family without complaint.”

Ravi attributes her multi-tasking skills to her parents. “If I am appreciated for anything at all, the credit for that goes to my Mum and Dad.”

Running a dance academy in New Zealand is not without its challenges. Apart from the obvious one of nurturing an ancient Indian art form so far removed from its native cultural setting, there are other “logistical” hurdles.

Ravi set up her dance school in Wellington at a time when an understanding of the art form was minimal in the wider community.

Though a male dance teacher was already established, he followed a different style from that offered by Ravi.

“When I started teaching, there would always be comparisons with him,” she recalls.

Ravi specialises in teaching Bharata Natyam by blending the Pandanallur and Kancheepuram Ellappa styles, which differ from the more widely practised Kalakshetra style.

What is the key difference between the two styles?

Ravi explains: “We blend the narration, the story telling, with the abstract steps and movements of the dancers.”

There are seven recognised styles of Bharata Natyam – Pandanallur, Thanjavur, Vazhuvoor, Mysore, Kanchipuram, Melattur and Balasaraswati.

The Natraj School of dance offers weekly classes of 45 minutes’ duration. Classes begin with a five-minute warm-up session leading up to the main dance lessons, which are interspersed with theory as well. “People like to focus more on the dance rather than the theory,” she notes. Her students are drawn from across communities and range from age 5 onwards.

But her youngest student so far has been her daughter Radhika, who started learning Bharata Natyam at age 3.

The synchrony in the starting age of mother and daughter is hard to miss.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington.

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