Master: Viji Rao
Apprentices: Neha Nataraj and Rochitha Nathan
Art Form: Bharatanatyam dance
Through a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Apprenticeship in Folk and Traditional Arts, Neha Nataraj, a high school senior at the time of the apprenticeship, and Rochitha Nathan, a high school junior, were able to complete one-on-one dance sessions with Viji Rao to learn the traditional Indian dance of Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam is an ancient Indian classical dance form that is based upon the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts written between 200 BC and 200 CE, probably by Sage Bharatara. Bharatanatyam depicts both Hindu and secular themes and the artist can portray the power of a god, a well-known religious story, or pure shapes and geometry. This art consists of two components: nritta and nritya. Nritta is pure dance, utilizing space, geometry, rhythm, speed, postures, and complex footwork. Nritya, in contrast, uses abhinaya, body language, and mudras to express emotions. By employing these two elements, the dancer evokes the rasa, or the mood of the composition. Nataraj describes the emotional aspect of the dance: "To me, Bharatanatyam is about inner expression as I release my emotions and take myself into a different world of power and concentration."
Neha Nataraj has been fascinated with Bharatanatyam ever since she was young, practicing it as a way to connect to the culture of her parents, who immigrated from Karnataka, India: "I take enormous pride in being bilingual and celebrating my own traditions and culture as a Hindu, while still being well adapted to the American lifestyle." Through this apprenticeship Neha enhanced her repertoire, reaching a professional level of dance performance, developing the skills of determination and organization, and spreading this dance form to a larger community. She says of the experience, "I developed as a performer. Not only was I whipped into shape, but I learned how to whip myself into shape and how to be a true artist and express myself through the art form."
Rochitha Nathan decided she wanted to be a Bharatanatyam dancer when she was three years old: "From a very young age I had been going to dance performances and concerts. I would stand in the aisles dancing to my heart's content." Nathan has studied under Viji Rao for eight years and served as one of the principal dancers of the Three Aksha Dance Ensemble. Through this apprenticeship, Nathan continued her education in dance, but also increased her depth of understanding of language, particularly the literary significance and the deep meanings in the powerful yet simple stanzas of the Vachanas, ancient literary texts that relate to the Bharatanatyam dance. Nathan says of her experience: "I learned how simpler poetry could be interpreted and expressed in many ways. Learning these new pieces also truly showed me that there are many ways to show a feeling or a word through dance."
Viji Rao has over a decade of experience as a Bharatanatyam dance artist, choreographer, and teacher. She began dancing at the age of five, learning from her father, Shiva Rao. "The form of Bharatanatyam contains wisdom and insight that no other form has; the nine emotional states of the dance form give me great insight into my own emotions, into my daily life." She has studied under eminent artists from the Kalakshetra School of Bharatanatyam. Since 2002, Rao has been based in Philadelphia, where she founded and serves as artistic director of Three Aksha, a dance company and school. She also serves as artist-in-residence at Girard College. For her, this experience focused on choreography: "This was an opportunity to widen my aptitude to choreograph, amalgamating the two different intricacies of Bharatanatyam."