Stepping away from India into the US led me to a stage where I was frantically searching for some semblance of my culture to hold on to. It was at this time that Bharatnatyam — an Indian classical dance form — crept onto me subconsciously.
First and foremost, I am a major klutz; reactions that I usually get from people range from bewildered gasps to adorable fawning. Hence, one thing I had believed for the longest time was that dancing was not my cup of tea. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself suddenly signing away all of my Sundays into the unforeseeable future towards relearning this classical dance. In case you are interested, you should check out the Triveni school of dance in Brookline. The cherry on top of this entire experience is the incredible set of friends I have along with a flourishing life outside of MIT. Bharatnatyam has indeed become a true outlet outside of MIT.
Looking back, I remember being fascinated by multiple aspects of Bharatnatyam, and I have now come to respect what it represents in my life. It was my first arena to discover science in action. To the uninitiated, this dance consists of a series of rigid and precise movements in the background, generally in multiples of four. It has progressively difficult movements, which are seamless composites of simpler parts. The feet generally follow the beats of the music and have the steepest learning curve. The hand motions are seemingly exaggerated, as if telling a story dramatically. The finishing touches are from the subtle swaying of the body and exaggerated eye motions driving your story home. A nice Bharatnatyam piece can be found here.
Growing up, this dance provided my first lessons on symmetry, factorization, geometry, visualization and presentation skills. For instance, Bharatnatyam involves a lot of rotational movements leading to facing audiences at specific angles — giving me my first glimpse into n-fold rotational symmetry. For presentation skills, I was taught that a subtle tilt or, say, a startled look strategically timed could give a dramatic rendition of the story. This highly underrated but crucial piece, storytelling using body language, is something I caught on to pretty early. Once in a while, a difficult concept that I can comprehend with ease can be traced to an idea I had unconsciously picked up while dancing. Over time, I have become more mindful of these connections and ultimately deeply appreciative.
Bharatnatyam has three overarching rules:
1. always maintain your center of gravity
2. keep a sense of personal space
3. synchronize with the other performers on stage.
Personally, I find that the gist behind these rules profoundly parallels maintaining individualism while functioning in harmony with society. My dance teacher is a step ahead: she has likened it to meditating dynamically, a state of oneness or equilibrium with the music, if you will. The seamless flow while dancing can be best expressed in the following Sanskrit quote (and she quotes it often) from Natyashastra, a guide on Indian dance:
"Yato hasta stato drishti"..."Where the hand is, the eyes follow"
"Yato drishti stato manaha"..."Where the eyes go, the mind follows"
"Yato manaha stato bhavo"..."Where the mind is, there is the feeling"
"Yato bhava stato rasaha"..."Where the feeling is, there is mood"
True tranquility is the internal equilibrium one can have even when the world is rampaged with chaos. This is also a recurring theme in one of Rabindranath Tagore's songs "Mamo chitte", a song my mother loves to hum. The song talks about the mind as if in an eternal dance, pulsating to the beats of every opposite quality, which in turn dance in harmony with each other.
The moment the music starts playing, and I am on the stage ready to perform, is when I feel like I have reached a safe space. This irony of feeling at home when subjected to an audience’s attention never ceases to crack me up. I feel like I have donned a role that I now get to play to the best of my abilities. Dance has become a medium to channel my excess emotions outwards. Deep within, I feel graceful and beautiful, and I can imagine a perfect world where everything is in its rightful place.
Bharatnatyam has now become more than a mere outlet outside of MIT; I recognize it as a framework for understanding some of the more complicated sciences intuitively, a source of pure tranquility, and the nursery for all of my future budding inspirations. I treat Bharatnatyam much like how Einstein treated his violin or Feynman his bongo and art classes. After all, where science and “magic” intersect, creativity blossoms. One definite lesson that being at MIT has instilled in me is that there is no end to learning and trying out new things. Our brain gets really creative in developing ingenious connections. So I hope to spread my wings further and find other nooks of inspiration. On the mission of finding my dynamic equilibrium amidst the chaos of the world!