I Learnt Indian Dances for the Philosophical Understanding of Their Spiritual Context: Eshani Lasya

Born in Portugal in 1980 as Eurica Luz, dancer and visual artist, Eshani Lasya is the Director of EKA [dance company] and co-founder of EKA [unity] a Lisbon based  non-profit organisation that is setting trends in the Portuguese capital’s alternative arts and culture scene.

Eshani undertook extensive studies in painting, architecture, music and dance, which started with ballet and eventually branched out to Yoga, Meditation and the Indian Classical dance traditions - Bharatanatyam and Odissi. Her time spent in Portugal and London saw the birth of a unique amalgamation of these influences while working as a performer, choreographer and educator. Her background as a visual artist connects Indian Dance, Architecture, Mathematics and Physics, using new technologies to produce unseen artistic results.

Eshani as a child in Indian clothes borrowed from an Indian friend.

Eshani says her interest in Indian culture arose when she was a child. There is a large community of people of Indian origin - especially coming from Mozambique in the 70's and 80's - who established themselves in Lisbon and have families here. ”Although I was born and raised in Portugal, it was not uncommon for me to see Indian ladies in the streets of Lisbon wearing colourful sarees, bindis and nose rings. I found it all very appealing and started having a curiosity for the culture. Adding to that, my parents had some Indian friends who frequented our house, and one of my uncles went to live in India, and used to show pictures from there and talk about the wonderful things he had learnt in India. I don't know exactly how to explain this, but every time I saw something related to India, my heart just exploded with joy, and I felt transported into that place!”

There are hardly any parallels between Indian culture and present day Portuguese culture, says Eshani. “Actually I feel that I have started a research into Indian culture because I was lacking something fundamental in my own culture.”

Eshani’s interest in Bharatanatyam started when she was eight years-old and “watched a beautiful Bharatanatyam dancer performing on TV. I thought that kind of dance was out of this world! I already wished to be a dancer, and had a background of ballet during my childhood.”

She says that when she was 16, she formed a strong connection with Indian culture, through Yoga and reading some Vedic texts, and came across Indian classical dance forms. She started her research but it was not until she was 24 that she met her first  Bharatanatyam teacher in Portugal. “I started studying with Tarikavalli - [who is Portuguese but studied in India and France] - in 2004 and never stopped. In 2006 I met Silvana Freire, a Brazilian dancer who was living in Portugal, who invited me and other dancers to create the first Odissi group in Portugal. I love both styles and kept practicing them over the years, with different teachers who travel to Portugal and also in London. Eventually I started dedicating myself more to Bharatanatyam, but still keep up my Odissi practice.”

Her interest in India started with its ancient philosophy. “When I was 16, my curiosity in understanding the mysteries of life took me to Yoga classes, and during the practice I understood this knowledge had a spiritual provenience. That curiosity made me start reading books like Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam and other Vedic texts, and I fell in love with the culture of Sanatana Dharma. The more I knew the culture, the more my love grew. Dance has always been important in my life, and the philosophical understanding of Indian dances in their spiritual context made me definitely want to learn it!”

She says the aesthetic side is really appealing and she used to watch a lot of dance videos. “Wearing saree, Indian style make-up and jewelry were already part of my life-style since 1997, which made it very natural and pleasant for me to wear Indian dance outfits. It really helps us enter the character and gives the feeling we are travelling to ancient India.”

Eshani and her students performing at Ratha Yatra Festival, Lisbon, 2019. They were performing 'Dasavatara Stotram', choreographed by her and accompanied by a live bhajans, by friends from Hare Krishna. In this picture, their 'Satya Dhara Group' represents Sita, Ram, Lakshman, Hanuman.

Dance does have a way of integrating all of the spiritual aspects of Indian culture and Eshani says that it also integrates human experience - “the physical aspect while doing such intricate dance poses, that require a lot of strength and gracefulness at the same time; the emotional side, as you really have to feel the bhava and convey the message to the audience; the intellectual side, because you need to study the narratives, the languages of the songs, the rhythmical patterns, you must have a wide culture in order to understand dance, and especially to choreograph; and the spiritual side, as you connect with the Divine energy while dancing. You feel this inner joy that comes out of you and reaches the hearts of those who are watching.”

Her first teacher would tell her that “Dance is the most complete offering” and Eshani agrees saying that in dance, “You give your body, heart and soul to the art form, overcoming yourself to vibrate at a higher frequency. It is the most powerful and delightful experience to a dancer and the audience as well. I feel I am in meditation while dancing.”

Tarikavalli, her teacher, has learnt from Indian gurus and has been teaching in Portugal since 2002. Some of the dancers who have learnt with her have become professional performers and are even teaching.  In Odissi, Eshani created the first group in Portugal in 2006 with her teacher, who then went to live in another country and the group was disbanded. She kept up her practice and studies with other teachers. Today, there are other dancers who have studied Odissi in India are giving lessons in Lisbon.

While there is an audience in Portugal for Indian dance, Eshani says that they are relatively new. “We still have a lot of work to do in order to spread Indian dance to the general Portuguese audience,” she adds.

She says she can’t find any relationship between these styles and the dances of Portugal. However she believes, “that there must be some connection with old Pre-Christian practices in my country, but I have not done proper research into that. I find, however, a relation between Bharatanatyam and Ballet. It has been very useful having a background in ballet, as well as in Yoga. I had already developed a few tools and techniques in my body that helped in the practice and learning of Bharatanatyam.  Odissi is very similar and very different at the same time, as I had to reprogram the way I moved, coming from a more geometrical approach into a more organic one.”

Eshani set up a studio as a part of her dance company Eka. “We wanted to spread the teaching and practice of Indian classical dance in Portugal, using not only the classical repertoire, but creating other kinds of languages as well. As a multidisciplinary artist - working in dance, visual Arts and video - I wish to interconnect those artistic languages, creating new forms that are more familiar to Western audiences. I think Indian culture offers such deep insights, and although it creates a huge impact on the viewers, it's not easy to understand it. I felt it was important to translate this language somehow.”

EKA [dance company] is part of a wider project, called EKA [unity]. “As the name indicates (EKA is the Sanskrit word for 'one' or 'unity'), our non-profit cultural organisation started in 2011, with the purpose of supporting art and artists. We have several branches, such as Music, Design, Video, a Wear Brand, and a cultural venue called Nada Temple. We develop many cultural activities in our venue, in Lisbon, but also in other venues in Portugal. We have brought many Indian artists to Portugal - some of the best musicians and dancers - toshare these wonderful Art forms with the Portuguese audience,” says Eshani.

Painting produced by her feet while dancing a Bharatanatyam piece

Long exposure picture with LED - 'Alaripu', Bharatanatyam style

Eshani integrates elements of Indian dance in her paintings and drawings, and  also brings the dance movements into visual shapes. “Because my first background was with images, it was easy for me to visualize forms designed by my body while dancing. I wanted everyone to see those same shapes, so I started experimenting. I have made a few pieces in which I was dancing in front of a canvas, with brushes on my hands and paint on my feet. I was creating shapes while dancing. In another experience, made with Dilen, we have attached tiny LED lights into different parts of my body and taken long-exposure photos while dancing. The result was a set of shapes made of light, clear lines that translate the movement I was doing.”

In EKA [dance company] stage performances, they also pay attention to the visual elements in the background, the videos that will support the dancing narrative.

She also likes to use multimedia tools to present images related to dance. “I believe the result is more impactful for the audience when there is an involvement of all the senses.”

Besides a classical repertoire that she has been studying fo 16 years, Eshani has started experimenting with some fusion elements too. “The word 'fusion' in dance is quite tricky, as it could mean a lot of different things... In my case, I wanted to experiment bringing elements of different dance styles in abhinaya, and simultaneously taking aesthetical elements of Indian Dance to other styles of dance and music.”

Her two projects where she has done this include Porta Aberta (Open Door), 2015- 2017. During this period she would dance regularly with two other dancers, with a background in hip-hop, African dance and contemporary dance. “Both of them were very good in their own fields, and I have challenged them to create some dance performances and steps with our own languages, merging our own styles. It has been an amazing experience for all of us. I was surprised with the facility with which they learnet the hastha mudras and aramandhi, for example. And they were surprised with the facility I learnt some elements typical of hip-hop, such as separating the movements of different parts of the body.”

They have developed experiments with dance movements, performed in different venues (with a casual approach) and have even conducted workshops with teenagers. The rehearsals were done with open doors at their venue, so that people could understand how the creative process in dance works.

The second project Into the Light, 2018- 2019 started with a shared passion about philosophy, spirituality and dance. Eshani met the multidisciplinary artist Smirna Kulenovic, a Bosnian living in Lisbon at the time. When she found out she was the grand-daughter of a Dervish and had learnt Sufi dance since she was a kid, Eshani was thrilled. “I had already read a lot about Sufi tradition, and the connection with Bhakti Yoga was very clear to me. I appreciated the way both paths can lead someone to Divinity through Devotion and giving yourself to the process with full trust. She had also studied the Upanishads in the University and her interest in Indian Culture was already there. So we decided to create a performance that highlighted these similarities, both in philosophical and aesthetical terms.”

They invited two musicians - Ishtar Bakhtali and T.L. Mazumdar - both with Indian classical music and jazz backgrounds. Ishtar composed the soundtrack for the performance, and Mazumdar participated on the half improvised stage creating the live music. “With the support of EKA [unity] team, who created the video backgrounds, we had all the conditions to develop a unique show. We were able to bring the deepest spiritual understanding in the form of contemporary art.”

Eshani has illustrated Bhavana Pradyumna’s book Raga and Yoga which will be released during Indica Yoga’s Global Festival of Yoga on June 27th. She says, for her all forms of   self expression are connected, “in the sense that you bring out what is in your soul and express it using different tools. Carnatic Music is very dear to me, as it is the basis for Bharatanatyam dance. The connection with Yoga is immediate, as the culture of Sanatana Dharma has produced different kinds of elaborate art forms in order to create awareness about Transcendence. In my opinion, practicing Yoga asanas, meditating, dancing or making music are not different in a sense: they all bring you to a higher level of conscience. As a visual artist, I often experience that same bliss while drawing or painting, especially if I'm portraying themes that are close to my heart. When you understand the philosophical aspects behind the art forms, you can find that intimate connection and fluidity when you are creating.”

She says that Indian Culture has spread in different ways in Portuguese or European people from different countries. “I guess they appreciate these art forms for being erudite, high-quality. In some cases because it's different from everything they know, in other cases they have already developed the taste for it and become fans.”

Eshani says that there are  a lot of people in Portugal who have an interest in Yoga, healthy living, a spiritual approach to life, “and that kind of audience also appreciates other elements related to Indian culture, such as dance, music or food.” They organised a workshop with Bhavana Pradyumna a few years ago and  most of the people who came for the Carnatic music workshop were professional musicians or music students who wanted to learn this technique to add to their musical knowledge.

Besides the performances, they had organised a conference in a reputed Portuguese University - Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa - and invited scholars of different fields to talk about the dialogue between Indian and Persian cultures.