Vibrant storytelling shared and celebrated

Natyaloka School of Indian Dance founder and choreographer Swaroopa Unni. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Natyaloka School of Indian Dance founder and choreographer Swaroopa Unni. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Natyaloka is the only Indian dance school in Otago that teaches Bharatanatyam, a major form of Indian classical dance.

The woman behind the school, Swaroopa Unni, tells reporter Molly Houseman how she raised awareness of India’s diverse art forms and made Dunedin home.

What is Bharatanatyam and when did you learn it?

India has diverse dance forms — both traditional and contemporary. Bharatanatyam is one of the traditional dance forms from India. It had its origins in South India, but now it is one of the most popular global dance forms.

Bharatanatyam has complex footwork and techniques and we convey our story through hand gestures and facial expressions. Though considered a traditional dance form, I would say the Bharatanatyam that we see now is contemporary in its way of storytelling and its ever-evolving and flexible form.

I started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of 4 at Nrithyalaya School of Indian Classical Dance, Calicut, Kerala, South India.

How important is it to you to teach the dance style to others?

When I started Natyaloka, my students were mostly from Indian community or of Indian origin. For them, learning dance is a way to connect to their Indian culture. Practising this dance form gives them a sense of community and belonging in New Zealand.

But, now, I have a multicultural setting at my studio. This is because of how I have used contemporary themes and Maori myths in my choreography.

This dance form can be used to tell our stories, be it mine, yours, or anyone else’s. Natyaloka is a safe space for anyone who wants to learn. This is my artistry and it is important for me that I can teach and share this with everyone here.

What can people expect from your show Cinema-Natyam in the Dunedin Arts Festival?

Indian cinema and dance share a deep connection. The initial dance sequences in the movies were done by women from the traditional dancing communities and choreographed by the men from these communities. This has evolved to the hybrid dances that we see now in mainstream Indian movies. These dancers and choreographers are long forgotten though they contributed their talents towards the film industry.

Now, when we talk about Indian cinema here in New Zealand, we tend to concentrate on Bollywood movies. That is just one part of the Indian film industry. I have concentrated on Bharatanatyam dance sequences in South Indian language movies like Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

I will use the help of digital media to show some of the songs pre-1950s and I have tried to choose iconic songs from different years, starting from the 1950s to 2000s for my students to perform on stage. This is a vast topic, so, to narrow it down, I concentrate on iconic women Bharatanatyam dancers and actors from these South Indian movies.

I also want to normalise the idea that dance and cinema is so interconnected in Indian screens that if the story demands it, if the script demands it, you can see these dance and song sequences in movies and that is OK. I will also show how our Indian dancers and dances have inspired the Hollywood musicals, even though they look at it with an Orientalist gaze.

Cinema-Natyam will be performed by students of Natyaloka ranging from the age of 5 and upwards. Being the 10th year of Natyaloka here, I have tried to rope in some of my ex-students from Christchurch and Auckland to come perform for Cinema-Natyam. I also have guest dancers who will be performing an Indian traditional dance form called Mohiniyattam.

All these dancers represent the wider Dunedin community. It is an ideal way to celebrate Natyaloka’s milestone year and the Dunedin Arts Festival.

How many hours a week do you spend dancing?

Ninety percent of my time I think; research, choreography or learning more about my artistry. I don’t think I can stay away from thinking or doing dance at any time in my life.

When you’re not teaching dance, how do you like to spend your time?

I love reading books, both fiction, non-fiction, history, and dance. In my native language Malayalam and in English. Listening to music — language no bar. I am a movie buff and I try to make myself up-to-date with Indian movies, series on Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime.

You can see how I have combined my love for Indian cinema and dance for Cinema-Natyam.

Currently, I have a wonderful distraction from all of this. I have my daughter, Nakshathra. If I am not teaching now, I am taking care of my 8-month-old daughter.

What has been your biggest achievement in your career?

Running Natyaloka for 10 years in Dunedin. Establishing myself as a solo artist in New Zealand. Being recognised in the Otago Museum’s "Our Women: 125 of Dunedin’s Extra-ordinary Women" exhibition which marked the 125th year of suffrage in New Zealand. Being recognised by Human Rights New Zealand for celebrating diversity for Natyaloka’s first ever Bharatanatyam dance production in 2012. Fundraising for several non-profit organisations. Collaborating with amazing artists from the community and introducing the Indian dance forms Mohiniyattam and Kathak for the first time in Dunedin. Being a part of all major dance festivals in New Zealand and co-creating and co-curating the Dunedin Diwali celebrations from 2015.

All this would not have been possible without my wealth of students and supporters of Natyaloka which has been growing over the years.

What about challenges?

Initially, when I came to Dunedin, the majority of the community were not aware of this dance form called Bharatanatyam. They knew Bollywood. I was the Bollywood dancer from India until I could create an awareness around the diverse art forms from India and how Bharatanatyam is one of them.

Funding and opportunities is a constant struggle, especially as an artist during these Covid-19 times.

Being far away from home in this beautiful little town, away from all things familiar, was also a challenge for me. But, I have made myself home here in this beautiful vibrant city now.

• Cinema-Natyam will be performed for the Dunedin Arts Festival at the King’s & Queen’s Performing Arts Centre, at 7pm on Tuesday.





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