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Making Indian Classical Dance Inclusive And Intriguing

Nehha Bhatnagar

Nehha is a prolific internationally recognized Bharatanatyam danseuse. A senior disciple of stalwarts Padma Bhushan awardee Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan and Guru Rama Vaidyanathan, Nehha brings honesty and passion to her dance. Her dancing success, gave her an opportunity to participate in TEDx talks and the idea of teaching dance to the underprivileged girls took root through these talks. Nehha began training girls from a nearby slums at an NGO called Nai Disha Educational and Cultural Society.

In 2012, a spark of sorts struck and Nehha hosted her first TEDxTughlaqRd event to give a stage to lesser heard voices. Seeing the success of the collaboration, she began organising new themes and out of the box ideas in the arts. This is what led to the formation of Sarvam Foundation -  'Sarvam' the Sanskrit name means 'all encompassing' and is also an acronym for Saroja Vaidyanathan Arts Mission.
We talk to Nehha about Sarvam, her interests and future projects and the state of Indian Classical dancing in India and abroad.


1. Nehha, you are one of the youngest arts Impresario in India. Sarvam Foundation was founded by you at the age of 25 to unleash a wave of inspiration for the Classical arts of India. ‚Äč At such a young age what gap could you identify in the classical arts that inspired you to start Sarvam, and since then how much progress have you seen?
I was seriously training in dance from 2009 onwards. For three years I performed incessantly under my Guru Dr Saroja Vaidyanathan.  However, in Delhi too, I saw the same audience members attend shows-and generally the enthusiasm amongst the youth was always low about Classical Arts. I saw very traditional photographies and invites of shows, very stymied traditions of chief guests and garlanding and sycophantish protocol at performances. It all seemed a bit stifling and unappealing for the youth of today--but I also loved the Classical Dance and Music tradition of India. For its sheer beauty-form-aesthetics- and I wanted this to translate to more people. I wanted this to be infectious energy! And hence the idea of Sarvam Foundation which began in 2012 and gosh what a whirlwind of inspiration it has been!! From hundreds of new audiences for the arts, ten new arts organizers, new photographers and technicians in the arts- more dancers and musicians taking their professions full-time--I’ve been overwhelmed by the response!! I have full faith-given the right team and funding now-Sarvam and any such organization will flourish for people are starved for soul experiences. Especially today.

2. Young classical dancers, now more than ever, are trying to use new tools and vocabulary from within their dance itself to engage and get the attention of this restless generation. In our conversation with Shinjini Kulkarni, a couple of months back, she mentioned how she bringing to life a fictional series: The Dancing Feet, to cater to a larger audience. How important do you feel, as a dancer and entrepreneur, to experiment with choreographic works and step out of the strict traditional shadows?
I think your grounding and your training has to be extremely solid and rooted for you to dare to venture into unchartered territories. Because only when you know where you come from and what you represent, do you know where you're headed or where you want to go. So, the first step for any artiste, is important to first follow to the T your Guru's sampradayam. Once you have firmly demonstrated your ability to showcase your grounding, you should then begin to think of new ideas, using that medium of training. I feel it is extremely important to cater to this restless generation but also remember Cater ONLY if you don’t compromise on your art forms, neev, your art forms beauty and uniqueness--because if you are intelligent and passionate about the way you present even traditional pieces--you can convert restless audiences into ardent admirers--you often don’t have to drastically rework your art. Passion is contagious.

3. Your TED Talk 'Dance to Dignity' speaks of how important it is for us as artists to give back to the society. Sarvam also works for the underprivileged and there are several inspiring stories of girls who from grassroot levels in slums rose to performing even on international platforms. Do tells us more about this work and how our readers can contribute?
I began teaching Classical Dance to slum children in my vicinity a few years ago- these girls were given free remedial classes by an NGO called Nai Disha Educational and Cultural Society. Literally, under a big tree, I began this formal education in Bharatanatyam for a few young girls. From that day of shaky steps in an open maidan to the girls receiving formal and professional training in different styles of Classical Dance in professional dance schools-this project has come a long way. 10 of those girls have already been for three week projects to Poland to exchange their art forms with marginalized children from around the world. I am blown away by their confidence, their hard work and their enthusiasm to be ambassadors of their country. What is most remarkable though is the change in the attitudes of their families and their communities towards the girl child. Suddenly, she is seen to be of value, of something which is not a burden--she is a force for progress. I really want Sarvam to focus on growing this project en masse, so that the arts can literally seep down to the masses and not stay enmeshed in the classes. Else, these children only have access to today's unfortunate item songs from Bollywood. If music and lyrics be the food for the soul, Heaven Forbid, these girls are consuming utter rubbish! The Classical Arts provide a wholly different sheen to their minds, bodies and souls. I would urge our readers to help this project grow. Contact me for more information on how to do so. 


4. Being a student of Political Science and having interned under Dr Shashi Tharoor's when he held office as Minister for External Affairs, has it been a conscious effort to advocate the benefits of 'soft power' as means to success in world politics. And do you feel the government recognizes this, and supports and promotes the Indian Classical Dances to their maximum capabilities?

Yes, from Dr. Tharoor, I first hand observed his passion for India's strength through her soft power. I also saw my Guru's conviction in her art form and the sway it held over foreign audiences. I realized we have SO much to offer the world through our spiritual wealth. Just see the proliferation of Yoga, Ayurveda and Meditation the world over. Our Classical Dance and Music needs that kind of patronage too- we have so many foreigners who come here to learn our art forms and also the Indian diaspora the world over is eagerly propagating and promoting these forms -sometimes more than us. What we DO NOT have is adequate government support-policies-and a support system for our arts or artistes. Young girls would rather aspire to be a Bollywood starlet than a full-time Classical Dancer. Only because she knows her worth and compensation will only be gauged by her cine presence (even if it’s questionable or doesn’t require skill). It is truly a sorry state of affairs-and IT NEEDS to change now.
5. What do you think the future holds for Performing Arts in India? Any words of wisdom for the many aspiring dancers across the world?
Thankfully, the power and sway of our ancient art forms is too strong and too sacred to die out. They can’t become extinct, that is impossible on many levels--
1) their sheer beauty and intrigue will capture the minds and hearts of many
2) the demand for soul experiences around the world and here has only grown-and our arts fill help plug in the gap
3) technology is a big boon in the dissemination of teaching methodology, propagation of these forms-and more. It will only grow.
4) the affluence of the Indian diaspora and also the middle classes in this country, and its consequent disposable income for arts and sports.
I think the future for the arts will hold strong. However what needs to be helped is the relative growth of the arts in comparison to other avenues of soft power- and this is what we need to help accelerate, so that the Classical Arts can impact many more individuals than it might, if it is left to just be.

Thank you Nehha, for your time and your beautiful insights into the Indian Classical Art form. Keep up the amazing work with Sarvam and continue to inspire millions.

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