Dancing was a part of my life almost from the point I could walk. Although I grew up in Mumbai, my family origins are from the southern part of India in Tamil Nadu, and we all were very proud of that.
Like a lot of girls my age, I was really into Bollywood and dancing in general on my own, but my parents pushed me to learn classical dance that represented our heritage. So, at the ripe age of five they enrolled me in classes to learn the ancient dance style known as Bharatanatyam.
Learning this ancient dance form helped me stay connected to my roots and respect my tradition. It taught me to embrace my culture, and this is why I almost immediately fell in love with it. When I danced on the stage, I knew that it represented something more than a few mudras. It represented my people, my culture, and my tradition. I fell in love with it almost immediately, and it played a huge role in my life all the way to adulthood.
Bharatanatyam, the most popular of the main Indian classical dance forms, was originally a temple dance, before being brought to the public stage around the 1930s. Bharatanatyam includes a list of specific procedures that are performed by a single dancer — typically dressed in a colorful, fitted Sari, and adorned with symbolic jewelry that outlines the head and draws attention to the performer's heavily lined eyes.
Bharatanatyam is a form of illustrative anecdote of Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas emoted by a dancer. Through incredibly elaborate hand movements and facial expressions, the dancers in stunning traditional costumes and makeup weave interpretive narratives about various Hindu lords.
I gained a deep understanding of the movements by learning about the religious stories I was portraying through dance. It is a precise, intricate, and all-around beautiful art form. Today, although there can be a religious element to it, most of the time it is done purely for entertainment and as a testament to India's rich cultural legacy.
As you might expect, when studying such an art, it takes a serious commitment. Of course, one can learn a Bharatanatyam dance on YouTube if one really wanted to, but those who wish to pursue the art in a serious, career-minded capacity need to enroll in a professional institution.
That's not to say there weren't moments of levity. On one occasion, one of my friends had all of her elaborate makeup melt in the Mumbai heat right before she was ready to go on, and on another occasion, the institution I studied at was featured on TV. Granted, that performance was more Bollywood than Bharatanatyam, but I still got my 15 minutes of fame!
There are several different levels one has to go through to be considered proficient in Bharatanatyam. Each level isn't completed on a timetable; rather, you progress when your instructor feels you are ready for your examination — which, like any examination, requires rigorous preparation.
I personally completed all levels except the final one: my Arangetram, which is something like a graduation ceremony. At 15, I stopped to pursue higher education, but I fully intend to go back and finish one day — after I brush up on everything I learned during the 10 years I studied it, of course!
Although I had to leave dancing behind, dancing really never left me. In so many ways it helped define the person I have become. Even today when I talk, you can still see elements of my past life come out in how I "speak" with my hands, in how I move, in how I express myself and interact with the world.
You can even see elements of it in the discipline, preparation, and passion I bring to my internal audit role. Under my professional demeanor, it's always there, just beneath the surface, ready to burst out when I need it the most. I can't imagine my life without it.
Shruthi Ramakrishnan, CA, CPA, is manager of internal audit at Atlas Air Worldwide in Purchase, N.Y. and a 2020 Internal Auditor magazine Emerging Leader.
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