Nikita Menon
Photo: Nikita Menon

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Indian Dance’? A fun and energetic style of dance fit for Bollywood silver screens may come to mind. In reality, Indian Dance encompasses countless diverse styles of dance, some originating from folk, some classical, and some even fused with western dance styles like hip-hop or break-dancing.

The oldest of these dance styles are the classical Indian Dance forms—one of which is Bharatnatyam, an ancient classical Indian Dance form dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Due to its deep cultural ties, Bharatnatyam has made a place for itself in Singapore, particularly within the local Indian community. Today however, few Singaporeans pursue classical Indian Dance professionally. The result is that this art-form is seldom known or appreciated by anyone not directly involved. Even so, there are some like Nikita Menon, a 22-year-old local university student who love and revere the art form enough to pursue Bharatnatyam professionally.

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Bharatnatyam Group Performance
Photo: Nikita Menon

Here, Bazaar speaks to Nikita about the challenges of pursuing a path less taken, and why she loves Bharatnatyam as much as she does.

How do you think Indian Dance is perceived in Singapore, and is there anything about that perception you would like to change?

Actually, I don’t think there is much awareness about Indian Dance⁠—particularly the classical forms⁠⁠⁠—among the younger generation in Singapore. Part of the reason why, is that the term ‘Indian Dance’ is used locally to encapsulate a myriad of dance styles like Bollywood, or Bharatanatyam, or Kathak, so not many people actually realize that these distinct dance forms actually exist. When I tell people “Hey, I do this professionally,” they often respond with “Oh, I love Bollywood Dance!” I find that pretty insulting since Bollywood and Bharatnatyam are so different—Bharatnatyam is a classical, highly-respected dance form that is thousands of years old. I think if ‘Indian Dance’ is no longer used as a blanket term, more people would understand and value the individual art forms.

What does your daily routine as a professional Indian Dancer look like?

I have been training as a dancer for almost 20 years now, and like most art forms, Bharatnatyam demands a lot of training and practice. Rehearsing is an essential part of my daily routine – the only thing that changes is the extent to which I rehearse. As a university student, I have days where I’m really busy and all I can free up is just an hour to rehearse the basics. On a normal day, I try to slip in some repertoire pieces that are important to keep practising. On days closer to shows, I can rehearse for up to 16 hours a day just to make sure that I’m in perfect form, and sometimes that means waking up at 5am or staying up past midnight to rehearse.

What does Bharatnatyam mean to you?

Bharatnatyam is much more than an art form to me. It has shaped me into the person I am today, and it has influenced me in very obvious ways, like the way I carry myself, speak, or even dress. Naturally, I feel the most in tune with myself when I am practising my art form and when I am dancing. I feel really privileged that my art form puts me in this intimate space of knowing myself, because not everyone gets to experience this.

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Nikita Menon
Photo: Nikita Menon

What are some challenges you have faced in the pursuit of your art form?

I have spent much of my schooling years convincing my peers and teachers that Indian Dance holds value, and that my art form is legitimate. Often, especially when I was visibly tired from rehearsals and shows, my teachers would call my parents and ask “Why are you letting her waste time with dance?” Bharatnatyam doesn’t seem to hold the same value to people as sports, or other activities. Even when I was performing internationally, it never got much acknowledgement or respect. I fear that the more people view classical art forms like Bharatnatyam as a secondary activity, the more people of the next generation are not going to want to go into it, and it’s going to kill the art.

Another issue within the dance space is caste-ism. My experience with caste-ism here basically refers to a certain ethnic group and caste believing that Bharatnatyam should only be practised within their own community, which I find to be completely antithetical to why the art even exists. In my opinion, art is supposed to transcend barriers like culture, race, even language. If a particular community claims territory over it, people like me who don’t belong to that community are discriminated against based on caste and ethnicity.

Living in Singapore also means I do not have the best resources in terms of what Bharatnatyam has to offer. It’s hard to find a good teacher, or other resources like costumes, so you have to keep flying to India and it can get really expensive! I have been really lucky, since my parents have been willing and able to afford the expenses that comes with this art form. Usually, over summer or any breaks I have throughout the year, I fly to India and spend months there training under the tutelage of the gurus there.

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Bharatnatyam Manchester performance
Nikita performs a piece in The Lowry, Manchester, UK.
Photo: Nikita Menon

In your career so far, was there anything that made you consider giving up Indian Dance? What kept you going?

Of course! Physically, dance takes a massive toll on your body, so there have been times when I considered quitting, just so I could be less in pain all the time. But somehow, every time I have taken time off to rest after an injury, the only thing I wanted was to dance again! There is also a mental side of things – the industry can get very competitive and sometimes political, so it’s very intense. It’s small, so naturally, if there’s internal conflict, it gets very emotionally exhausting. I’m slowly learning. Something that has helped is learning how to sieve out what I take into my life from what I don’t.