When Mythili Kumar, founder and artistic director of Abhinaya Dance Company, was only seven years old, a dance instructor came to her elementary school in India to introduce the children to classical dance. Mythili revealed an unusual degree of flexibility and feeling for the dance and it wasn’t long before she had begun private instruction in the South Indian classical tradition of Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam is one of several classical dance types that developed in different regions of India in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Indian tradition recognizes no difference between dance and theatre; performance art is a singular entity. The sanskrit word, Abhinaya, means “communication” or “expression” and has been used for at least two thousand years to refer to both dancers and actors.
Indeed, all of Indian classical performance art—music, stagecraft, dance, and theatre—stems from a single work of ancient literature, the Natya Shastra. Dating from the first century or even earlier, the Natya Shastra is traditionally credited to a single author, Bharata Muni. It describes musical instruments and forms, emotions, movements, makeup, everything that goes into a performance.
In India, a style of dance is considered “classical” if it has its roots in the precise directions described in this ancient text. Although there are hundreds of various ethnic and folk dance traditions, which are influenced by classical dance and have developed in various directions, there are only eight traditional dances that are considered to be authentically classical.
The tradition of the Abhinaya Dance Company, Bharatanatyam, may be the oldest classical dance form in India. It has its roots in the religious practices of the Tamil Temples. Many ancient Indian religious temple sculptures represent figures performing Bharatanatyam dance.
A very interesting historical detail is that in 1910 all such dancing was banned by law under English Colonial rule. Thus, all contemporary Indian classical dance companies survived by defying these efforts at cultural destruction.
The Ahbinaya Dance Company was founded by Mythili Kumar in 1986, when she settled down to start a family in the San Jose area. This was after many years of professional touring in India and North America. Since then, Kumar has trained hundreds of professional dancers in the classical tradition, many of whom have toured around the world. Although the company has trained a few male dancers, and occasionally features them in performance, they mostly follow the tradition of using primarily female dancers, each of whom achieves professional status when they debut a solo performance after several years of intense instruction.
In a recent interview, Kumar explained that in classical Indian dance, “the music is being visualized in the dance. Movement without music is not classical dance. There is nothing you could do in silence, not ever. And it is always traditional music.
Although, to be considered classical, the movements and music and attitudes must conform to tradition, contemporary companies like Ahbinaya may nevertheless develop new stories to tell. For example, Ahbinaya is known for presenting several dances, in the classical style, that tell stories from the life of Mathatma Gandhi.
“Nowadays,” Kumar explains, “dances may incorporate contemporary figures from politics or history. The Festival performance, which will be about 90 minutes long, will include some very traditional dances from the 19th century, as well as modern variations and themes that we have choreographed over the past ten years.”
The performers are all professionals, some of whom trained in India, and many trained personally by Kumar. Professional dancers train six to eight years before a debut and then continue advanced training throughout their career.
“Any art is an ocean,” says Kumar. “We never stop learning! As you learn more and more in your own discipline, you find more and more. There are so many different interpretations that are possible! It is about life time learning. There is no end to it.”
Kumar began her own training in Bombay when she was eight years old. “A teacher came to my house three times a week. I started to dance on stage when I was 11 or 12. Later, I lived in New Delhi and different Southern states. I traveled with troupes all over India until I came to this country in 1978. I did a couple of tours with an Indian company here and in Canada throughout the early 80s, but I stopped touring after I started a family and began taking on students. Since 1986, I have graduated more than 135 students into their solo dance debuts. Our company has been getting grants since the mid 80s from the NEA and other organizations. We have just never stopped growing and creating. Some of my students have now started their own schools. One is in Ohio! My daughters are also company members and very involved in both dance and music.”
When audiences attend this performance at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, they can be sure they are seeing a pure presentation of an ancient tradition, as delivered by a true master teacher of the art form. Kumar, who has been a staff instructor at Stanford University, San Jose State University, and (currently) UC Santa Cruz, assures us that the performance will include narration and explanation to help the audience fully understand their experience.
Surely, a highlight of the evening will be Kumar’s solo performance of a traditional 19th century piece where a mother tells the daughter “how many times have I told you not to fight with your husband.” But there will be a modern, contrasting variation, in which the mother does not tolerate the husband’s abuse.
Kumar knows, from her teaching experience, that many in the audience will expect something akin to the dancing they have seen in Bollywood motion pictures. She says, with a laugh, “What we will show at the Festival is a long way from Bollywood! Bollywood is a sort of dancing where any movement goes. In Bollywood, you can have great fun incorporating modern folk and ethnic styles such as belly dancing or hip hop. It is a wonderful, modern amalgamation of everything, but it is not classical dance. Abhinaya is committed to an ancient tradition.”
Audiences can experience that tradition when the Abhinaya Dance Company will perform at the San Francisco International Arts Festival on Friday, May 26th. For further information, click here.