Interview with Shalini Srivatsan & Shruthi Srivatsan – Bharatanatyam Dancers from Nairobi, Kenya

Shalini Srivatsan and Shruthi SrivatsanShalini Srivatsan is a Medical Electronics Engineer and Shruthi Srivatsan is an IT Professional. Both sisters have pursued their art form of Bharatanatyam dance, a classical dance from South India, since they were 3-4 years old. They also teach the art form to other aspiring young children in Nairobi, Kenya.

You can connect with Shalini and Shruthi on Facebook. You can also view photos of some of their performances.

ExtraImaginary: Please give us a little background about yourselves and your dance.

Shalini & Shruthi: In the real world (LOL … as in working world) we both are graduates. Shalini in medical electronics engineering and Shruthi in Information systems and technology. We both work in Nairobi; Shallu is a product specialist at Nairobi X-Ray Supplies Ltd and Shruthi the head of IT at Kenya Data Networks (KDN).

In our world, we are dancers … and dreamers … As far as dance goes, we’ve been learning right here at home since we were 4 and 3. Dance pretty much defines a huge part of us! We are Bharatanatyam dancers.

ExtraImaginary: What brought you to Bharatanatyam and what was your initial inspiration?

Shalini: To be really honest, we got introduced to Bharatanatyam in the way 90% of Indian Expat kids do…sent to learn the dance so our parents could retain their cultural identity through their kids! There wasn’t really much of an inspiration at that point … I started learning at 4 and Shruthi at 3 … Inspiration wasn’t even in our vocabulary then!

ExtraImaginary: When and how have you received training in Bharatanatyam? What is the training process?

Shalini & Shruthi: We’ve been learning dance for yonks now, right here in Nairobi. Gita Aunty as we fondly call our guru (teacher) has been our sole teacher, guide and friend in the art form. She has given us all the motivation and room for growth in our dance. And our parents have been amazing, always there pushing us and encouraging us to get better and better at it… we spend a lot of time dancing and hardly get time to help out at home or anything, and they never complain!

The training process is disciplined and calls for dedication. It begins with “step class” which sets the foundation for a dancer. This is where you develop the strict postures required for the dance and cultivate the movements that are required. Also called junior class … the first lessons (this could take a year or more depending on the pace at which an individual progresses) are focused on footwork and movement based on adavus or small repetitive dance movements. Hand gestures and use are then introduced to these adavus. Once these have been mastered, we progress to basic dances and then slowly move on to “senior class” where focus shifts to learning items in a full Margam, from the lighter items to the heavier ones. (Margam is a techy term in Bharatanatyam … we won’t bore you with the details; it just basically means a full set of dance items traditionally performed in a show). After years of hard work, an Arangetram is performed. The Arangetram can be loosely translated to a graduation. This is usually a solo performance by the dancer and constitutes a Margam – LOL There is the techy word again!!! … As you continue learning you start working on choreography.

ExtraImaginary: Tell us about Bharatanatyam. From the little I know, the dancer is a medium to relate a story, and each dance is a story from beginning to end. Also, there are very strict rules and all the hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures have a meaning that is used to interpret the story. Could you explain the basics of the dance?

Shalini & Shruthi: Wow … right so you want to put your readers to sleep? Or do you really want us to get into the details??? … You’ve got a pretty good picture of it though …

Right so we’ll give you our take of this dance form … Bharatanatyam is centuries and centuries old. Its roots are from Southern India though now it’s a global art. Initially it was performed within the precincts of the temple by devadasis- Devadasi, literally meaning servant of the Devas/Gods/Kings. In those days there were patron Kings as well, who fostered and promoted the arts and usually Monarchs were regarded in the same standing as Gods, so sometimes apart from temples these devadasis performed for the King as well. Then, in came the conquering Brits, with their religious aversion (at that time in history) to physical and sensual aspects of life. They immediately gave the entire Devadasi system a lewd connotation and Bharatanatyam nearly died then. Towards Indian independence a few staunch lovers and practitioners of the art then made huge efforts to bring back this beautiful dance form and without going into tedious details it’s a global art now.

To the dance itself, it’s a classical dance hence there ARE rules to be followed and principles to be maintained. The basic and most important stance is the demi plie akin to ballet. The non–expressive part of Bharatanatyam (called Nritta) involves feet stamping to rhythms and hands and feet doing various steps and sequences. The expressive part (called Nritya) uses hand movements, body movements and facial expressions to carry through the essence (both literal and hinted) of the song to the audience. Bharatanatyam is danced to classical south Indian music- Carnatic Music. There are special costumes we wear during the performances, and special make up and hair do – dressing up for a programme can take up to 3 hours! And we wear bells on our feet to accentuate the sound during the recital … Mmmmm anymore and it might get a bit too verbose … we can go on and on, but that’s for the basics …

ExtraImaginary: Who are your favourite dancers and who inspires you?

Shalini & Shruthi: Alarmel Valli (Bharatanatyam), Vyjyanthimala (Bharatanatyam), Kelucharan Mohapatra (Odissi) and Birju Maharaj (Kathak)

Inspiration- Alarmel Valli and Shilpa Krishnan (nee Umesh)

ExtraImaginary: Which is your most memorable performance?

Shruthi: Oooh this is a tough one… I think a lot of our performances are memorable for different reasons of course. Our Arangetram (which we did together) is definitely a winner… a dancer is always at her best at this time because of the hours of practice and polishing that occurs before the performance. I think our performances in India have also been memorable simply because they were very well received by a rather critique dance festival audience. But like I said almost every performance has something terrific about it …

Shalini: I agree this is a tough one!! I think some performances we’ve done well even with the strangest of stages and settings get into the list- like there was this one time we danced in Eldoret, on a makeshift stage with rain pouring down and roof leaking! That was fun!!! …

ExtraImaginary: You both have full time jobs. You dance as well as teach dance. How do fit Bharatanatyam into your schedules?

Shalini & Shruthi: (Laughter) well lets just say we don’t have much of a life … work all day dance all night … literally that’s how we schedule our Bharatanatyam and of course full time weekend classes :)… crazy right? … And not to mention we love to party so we need to squeeze all that in too! In 7 days of a week! What are we doing?!@?

ExtraImaginary: When you’re dancing, or teaching dance, what is most important to you?

Shalini & Shruthi: When we are dancing, the most important thing for us is that we put our heart and soul into the performance and that our guru is satisfied that we have done well. If the audience is enthralled that’s a plus too … And also the fact that our dancing makes people love Bharatanatyam, especially in these days of Bollywood shollywood – its extremely gratifying and assuring that even the young and hip who come to watch us, love Bharatanatyam at the end of the performance! It’s important that we are good ambassadors for what we think is the best dance form in the world …

With regards to teaching, what’s most important is that the student gets the most out of us and our experience, that they are able to also love dance, grasp things from us and emulate it and exuberate dancer qualities at all times. We’d love for people to recognize our students as dancers simply by their grace at day to day tasks …

ExtraImaginary: Where and when can people see you perform and what are your plans for the future?

Shalini & Shruthi: We do a number of shows in a year for the local temples here and various other Cultural Associations. Every year Nrityalaya (our dance school) also hosts one or two performances, these are open to the public.
Neeraj … we are Indians! Who knows what lies in the future, it’s all preordained Heheheheh we can check with our astrologer and get back to you on that one …

On a serious note though, we hope to be keep dancing, improve our techniques further, try and squeeze in a more holistic approach to dancing even though we have nightmarish work schedules, learn and choreograph more dances with our guru, hope to conduct our first Arangetram and spread our wings beyond Kenya and Chennai …

ExtraImaginary: If you could have dinner with any dancer in the world from any form of dance, who would be and why?

Shalini & Shruthi: MJ … though that’s never going to happen now! Because he was a consummate artist and a wonderful dancer!

ExtraImaginary: Is there anything else you would like people to know about yourselves?

Shalini: Right so I have this fetish that I want to tell the world about … This question sounds like a celebrity question though I’m not sure if there’s much left to discover about a celebrity after the press gets done with them …
In our case there’s plenty to discover it’s a journey we haven’t finished ourselves …

ExtraImaginary: Thanks so much Shalini and Shruthi. You’re ExtraImaginary!

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  • Vidya Doraiswamy

    Beautiful poses and photos, nice interview and good luck with your dance!!
    Nice to know you were inspired not only by the famous Alarmel Valli, but also by our Shilpa.
    Best Wishes.
    Vidya Doraiswamy (neighbor and good friend of Shilpa Krishnan)

    • Shalini

      Thanks Vidya!
      Shilpa is awesome:)

  • Roshni

    Hey Shalini and Shruthi, so proud of you guys! Nice interview – very conversational but at the same time informative.

    Was so excited to read a news article of the two of you that had come in a Chennai newspaper during December festival (still have a copy of it). Proud that you were making your mark beyond the Kenyan plains. Gita aunty is very special to me and so happy that the two of you are preserving her legacy so beautifully.

    Still remember your arangetram – definitely very memorable. Hoping to see you both dance some time in the future.

    Till then, wishing you Happy Feet
    Roshni

    • shalini

      Thanks Roshni! What a sweet thoughtful comment!!!