UK based Bharatanatyam dancer Stella Subbiah grew up to the rhythm and sounds of dance as her father Hari Uppal was the moving force behind Bharatiya Nritya Kala Mandir in Patna and a great exponent of Kathakali and Manipuri dance forms which he learnt at Shantiniketan.
Stella has taught Indian theatre at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, for a-year-and-a-half, and then went to Nigeria for over two years. Stella is proficient in half a dozen Indian languages and is the alumnus of Kalashetra in Chennai. For over a decade, she worked with celebrated danseuse Rukmini Devi Arundale.
Stella setting up the All Saints Art Centre in London to provide proper training to budding talents. In 1994 Stella set up Sankalpam Dance Company in UK to give live performances. Sankalpam has developed a reputation of maintaining respect for tradition and build a new choreographic framework for Indian classical dance. In this interview with CSP she speaks about the complete art of Bharatanatyam and its appeal in the UK.
Since the time you first started dancing and teaching outside India, how has the interest and scope of Indian dance abroad increased?
The field of Indian dance has not changed as much as I would have liked, perhaps because I studied dance as a part of a whole, meaning the Kalakshetra and my Besant Arundale School was based on Rukmini Devi's ideals of living life through dancing, music, painting, sculpture architecture and ceremony. From Rukmini Devis Inaugural Address I quote;
"The West does not yet know how to appreciate the Beautiful as expressed in eastern forms. The East does not yet know how to appreciate the Beautiful as expressed in western forms. There must be a Universal Brotherhood of Art, linking nation, faith and individual in mutual appreciation and fellowship."
Dance is being offered as a medium of culture to the Diaspora through few organizations who engage with artists and deliver the arts within the community, such as The Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.
Do you think that both in the Indian community as well as among non-Indians there is a search for seeking contemporary motifs and themes in classical dance?
There are two models currently found here; one as an intercultural practice where it gets homogenized with the contemporary dance, the other, which is what I have inherited from my training, is that Bharatnatyam is a multidisciplinary art form therefore looking at it in a multicultural one which coexists autonomously within its own cultural identity.
Tradition is often understood as fixed but tradition is constantly in a flux. It meets innovation and causes us to question the aesthetics and pedagogical cannons. The Indians within the community engage with the art in a different way. For them it is a form of identity, a connection of their roots, inherited pasts, a subtle connection with the land which their parents or grandparents left. I find this very poignant - the history of the body stories are unbelievable.
The history of the body which is a store house of memories, rituals and relationships has an impact on how you view the new location and how you need to preserve and present yourself in the new location. The tradition of storytelling connects you to the moral values held within yourselves.
In your experience, do you think that Kalakshetra was among the pioneering institutes to attract non-Indians to Indian dance. How has your training with Smt Rukmini ji influenced your dance techniques and what aspects do you emphasise in your own teaching?
Kalakshetra invited many from outside to study as it offered a place where you could experience life in art.
I have taken away from Kalakshetra that dance for me is not about a performance, but it is constant affirmation and committing to what you are doing. Staying open, responding to whatever comes up, paying attention to relevant details, repeating things till it gets clear and so on.
You have given a workshop on imagination and language - how does this relate to Indian dance modes
Imagination and language with Bharatanatyam are all about metaphors. Focusing on the text for e.g. you are making Krishna, you are creating Krishna, you are embodying krishna with your eye's gestures and body movement, this experiencing of Krishna through a technique which acts as a scaffolding draws awareness to your senses and can be understood as metaphors.
Imagination and language go hand in hand. Language gives us an insight to our thoughts and feelings and sometimes the pieces in Bharatnatyam comes as poetry or prose. When it is the poetry format we engage with the images as Metaphors. Metaphors in poetry allows you to suggest multiple things without being specific unlike a prose.
Is it difficult to source original music out of India for dance productions?
It is not difficult to access any music out of India, especially in today's time. There are always connections with different artists who are so global now.
What role can Indian institutions like Bhavans or ICCR play in promoting artists like you?
The schools such as Bhavan in the UK have a very important role to play, as they are a conduit between India and the diaspora who engage with the art forms in various levels. The art study becomes focused and becomes non personality focused. What I call as study mode of learning and engaging with the Indian art.
Please could you share a few anecdotes about your performances or interaction with non Indians learning Indian dance.
My teaching at the University and at LSCD was very inspirational. I had to teach Bharatanatyam in its practice as a whole. The intrinsic quality of my belief in Bharatanatyam as a form which can be engaged by anyone, not to create an end piece but looking instead at the possibilities of the transformation of the body through your imagination. This becomes as a somatic practice of Bharatanatyam, it doesn't matter who you are as long as you are open to practice the form, and through that understand the possibilities.
The students in both these places had no former experience of Bharatanatyam, so the engagement with it was so totally new and amazing. I was teaching them Shabdam on Krishna. For them to find parallels in this hero I had to tell them to imagine Krishna …for them He was in a band and a musician with curly hair and a swagger. They immediately got the idea and it was amazing how they interpreted the text from the metaphors. They accessed their imagination and created a contemporary work. But their intentions were totally Bharatanatyam as they had learnt the Shabdam in the Bharatanatyam technique, and embodied it in their body with their connections and their body.