Meenakshi Ganesan and the Kalaanjali School of Dance: The Art of Indian Classical Dance
Meenakshi Ganesan (r), the founder of the Kalaanjali School of Dance with her student Yogitha Rajkumar who recently earned an Indian Raga Fellowship that will allow her to train with practitioners of Indian arts from around the world.
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
As a little girl growing up in India, Meenakshi Ganesan, the founder of the Kalaanjali School of Dance, seemed to naturally enjoy dancing.
“I always loved dancing,” Ganesan said. “My mom would say that I danced more than I walked. I just loved dancing. Any music would just make me move.”
But then tragedy struck when Ganesan was six-years-old. Her father died. And while the door was closing on her life with her father, another door was opening that led her to the world of Indian classical dance. She went to live with her aunt who taught her the Bharatnatyam, a 2,000-year-old Indian classical dance form.
The foundation for the Bharatnatyam and the other seven Indian dance forms is Hindu mythology and their stories about values and life.
“The stories come from centuries ago,” Ganesan revealed. “Most stories are taken from the mythological stories that we have, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, stories mainly of gods and goddesses. As a child growing up in India, my mom would tell each of the stories and they had a message in them. Coming back to Krishna’s story, he was a little mischievous boy who was notorious. But he was loved by all. My mom would always say, ‘When you have a child who is naughty, think of the positive aspects of what the child brings into your life.’ If Lord Krishna could be notorious, you can get a 14-year-old child who is naughty and notorious. You have to accept the child and understand that he or she is super talented. And that is why they are the way they are.’ These stories were true to the mythology. My personal take on it is they were related to a god or a goddess because ultimately we are all gods and we believe in god. When it comes through the names of the gods and the goddesses, we tend to have a confidence. We tend to have the belief to hold onto that. That keeps us going in life as such. All of these stories are depicted through various gods and goddesses.”
Learning these stories and the language they are expressed in are fundamental to learning and understanding the art form.
“When you understand the language, then it also informs your movements,” Ganesan said. “Only when you understand what you are doing, are you able to communicate that to the audience. One of the most important aspects of Bharatnatyam is Rasa, the emotion. You have to evoke in the audience. If you are able to do that, you’ve gotten the message through. But to be able to make someone else understand what you are trying to do, you first have to understand it. That is where understanding the language and understanding the meaning of what we are showing, the story that we are showing has to be there in you in order to evoke that in the audience.”
The dance form is very physically and mentally demanding, requiring adherence to rules that are as old as the art form itself.
“The art form is very physically demanding,” Ganesan said. “That’s the best part of it because I think apart from learning the hand gestures and eye movements, you learn how to do your Aramandi, which is the squatting position to get a diamond formation between your legs. And to tap your feet, it is interesting to see how as a six-year-old, when you tap your feet, you don’t get that crisp sound that comes over the years of practice. We would dance on a floor in India. It was a concrete floor, sometimes marble. Sometimes it would have a nice soft texture. The more sound we would make, the more proud we would get in class that we had reached that level in terms of our work.”
The dance recitals can be just as structured.
“It is just a beautiful work,” Ganesan said of the recitals. “For the dancer, most of the dance aspect is rehearsed. In the dance recital, which is a Margam, which has a series of seven traditional dances. You start with the musicians. You have the Varnam, which is the centerpiece, which goes on for 20-25 minutes. After the finale, which is the Thillana. There is a rehearsal that we do. Things are choreographed in three sets.”
And yet there is also an allowance for improvisation, especially if there is a live orchestra where there is a sort of conversation between the violinist and the dancer, something that isn’t possible with recorded music.
“Little Krishna breaking into the homes of the Gopikas and stealing butter,” Ganesan said using a tale of mythology expressed in a dance to serve as an example on improvisation. “We are trying to show this 8-9-year-old little boy. That is not done to the lines of the music. That is where the violinist or the veena player just plays music while the dancer is trying to emote this little Krishna. The specialty of having a live musician is that you don’t have to do the entire action based on the mood that I have. I start with a really happy, excited mood. I could actually steal butter and show the expression and then change slowly for perhaps 10-11 lines of the music within the beat. But if I have a CD, they only play the music eight times, my creative abilities are restricted to eight times. That is the most beautiful aspect. And there is such a teamwork going on between the musicians. The violinist’s name is B. Anantharaman. I’ve grown up with his violin in Mumbai, India. When I was 5-6 years into learning the dance to even now, his violin is good enough for us to bring the emotional because he knows what stories and their specifics. It just goes on for a while. And when we come back to the set portion of the dance, it is easy to find. Improvisation capacity and opportunity are much more when it is done with live musicians. We can bring our creativity out there based on our mood and the musician’s mood on the day of the performance. That brings about such a unique essence to each performance unlike a CD or audio recording, with which you are limited to what is on the CD.”
Ganesan works to expose her students from around the Indian Diaspora to get a feel for the different interpretations that musicians and dancers apply to the art form. Within an artistic world of structure, there is a variety of perception and application.
“When I have a recital of my students here, we have a couple of vocalists and a violinist here in Madison,” Ganesan said. “But we bring a percussionist from Minneapolis and sometimes from California or Toronto. Nowadays, I bring musicians from India when they tour every summer, the entire orchestra team. The beautiful aspect of presenting an Arangatram or a recital in Madison is the orchestra from India. Today’s technology has also helped us connect with various musicians. It’s a beautiful feeling because when you work with musicians from different parts of the world, you learn so much along with them in terms of how they choreograph, how they compose, what positions they have. When we have musicians from India, each Arangetram, the musician comes with suggestions. ‘Why don’t you show this story in a little different way? I think a Sanskrit prayer before this song makes it sound so beautiful.’ Bringing that to the audiences here is a gift to India. Working with different musicians, it has given me a lot of learning over the years. It gives a lot of exposure to the students because they realize what we have at our event is there is so much more outside of that too. It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with different musicians. You learn their way of work and we share a little of the work that we do. It’s been an amazing experience. Overall, it keeps you really humble because you know that there is so much more out in the world that we are actually not aware of.”
And while there are the strictures in movement, hand gestures and eye expression, it doesn’t mean that Indian classical dance can’t express a moral about modern day life.
“For my annual day in 2018, we brought the five elements of nature together,” Ganesan said. “We addressed water, fire, earth and addressed that to Earth Day and how we need to preserve our resources and be more aware of how to save and keep them so that we all have a green world going forward. So even in today’s concept, even though it has been here for so long, I think the five elements talk to us in our pictures. But to put it to the audiences of today, I actually had a bunch of my high school students in the production who brought up so many points that I could actually had a power point along with the presentation. Working with different genres of dances with the Kanopy Dance Company, it is beautiful to see how they have their structure and we have our structure. Yet there is so much room to creatively put forth a social message, put forward a universal message to the audiences, yet keeping the styles intact. There is a lot of room for growth. There is a lot of room for innovation, yet maintain the basic techniques.”
While the Kalaanjali School of Dance provides in-person classes after school and on the weekends, Ganesan had to adjust when the pandemic lockdown occurred. She kept as much as she could going over the internet because dance and its movement can have such a positive impact on the human soul.
“I’ve had a few students who have dropped out because the parents are just exhausted trying to keep them in the house and keep them busy,” Ganesan said. “But when you get up and dance, it is such a happy feeling. I see these students when they join in every weekend, they are exhausted and sulking and they are a little unhappy. But once the dance lesson is ending, they are bubbling with energy. They want to share so many things about what they eat and what they did and what movie they watched. Art can make the difference. If you have started with any art form, especially with dance, keep up with it. Dancers keep up with it. As adults, if you have given it up, get back into it because I think ultimately it keeps your mind happy. And I think we need that a lot in today’s world.”
It is beautiful that something so ancient can have such an impact on our modern world.