Vrinda Sheth

Vrindvrinddance

My Time at Kalakshetra

Kalakshetra is a legendary school for Bharata Natyam located in the outskirts of Chennai with a beautiful campus overlooking the Bay of Bengal. According to The New York Times, Kalakshetra has “produced some of the country’s most revered modern-day dancers.” Rukmini Devi, the founder, went through monumental challenges to restore Bharata Natyam as a sacred art-form and Temple Dance (an extremely brief summation of Bharata Natyam’s complex history, including its name-change in the 20th century!). I saw my first dance-drama at Kalakshetra when I was 11, and as we left the theater, I felt a deep stirring within and made a promise to myself that I would one day study there.

Driven by that promise and by a longing that was harder to pin-point, I applied for admission just as I was turning 20. I learnt a Carnatik song, a geetam, for the first time and learnt a new dance in praise of Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, nervous to pass the entrance-audition. All they asked me to do, however, was the first tat-adavu, which entails stomping one foot then the other. I did get to sing the geetam, at least. I didn’t sleep well until I got the message 2 days later that I was accepted!

I submitted to the training much like a baby submits to the world, taking in everything with few questions and being molded by it. I was determined to prove that I had what it takes to become a full-fledged dancer, and I made any sacrifice in the first few years towards this end. Living in the hostel proved to be the biggest challenge but was also a supportive framework for practicing and studying.

The training I recieved at Kalakshetra is invaluable, as my entire body and mind were trained and re-trained to fully express the vocabulary of   Bharata Natyam. I still have moments of suprise when (perhaps after some time of not dancing) I feel how naturally my body accomodates the movement vocabulary. And it was, simply put, an amazing journey and adventure, both culturally and emotionally (not to mention physically!)

Two years into my training, Leela Samson, alumni and renowned dancer, became the director of Kalakshetra taking the place of Rajaram Sir. For me, and I believe for Kalakshetra even more so, this was a life-changing event. Finally there was someone that understood me and the world of Kalakshetra and beyond. With her presence on campus, I started acknowledging a certain conundrum that had been churning within me, the questions “Why am I traditional?” and yet “Why am I not traditional?”

In short, I feel a great sense of gratitude that I’m connected to Kalakshetra and that I’ve recieved its blessings, so to say. I’ve received so much guidance and encouragement from all the teachers and staff at Kalakshetra, but a special heartfelt thank you to:

My classmates (and 36 batch-mates) whose sweating and persistence gave me the resolution to always continue.

Hari Padman Sir, my teacher for 4 years, for teaching me the foundation, the importance of discipline, punctuality, and transmitting all of that with vigor, humor, and energy.

To Jyolsna Menon for saying “Be who you are.”

Sheejith Nambiar for initiating the transformation from student to performer.

Leela Samson for being a friend and for infusing new life into my dance-journey with her thought-provoking views.

My father, Yogindra Doherty, for sending me to India and funding the first 2 years of my studies and living

To ICCR – Indian Council for Cultural Relations for a 2-year scholarship

Teaching:

Although my near constant travel schedule doesn’t allow me to accept many students, I do facilitate learning in several different formats. My preference is for intensive workshops, although I do also teach online through skype, when the student demonstrates significant interest and sincerity.

Teaching is very thought-provoking, and I feel that I see the dance from a completely different angle, and my own understanding of it has become much more thorough. In a way, teaching has always been a part of learning. As early as when I was 10, my first teacher Uma Sundaram would ask me to take other students aside and help them with tricky steps. In our evening-practices at Kalakshetra, we always took turns conducting the class.

Currently, my main student is Gayatri Khatwani, whose parents are commendable in their initiative and dedication towards her training. She began with me in 2008 when she was 7. I go to Panama, Central America at regular intervals to enhance her learning experience. Teaching Gayatri is like re-living my early days, as I give her the dances that I initially learnt, and transmit to her everything I know about the intricacies and theory of Bharata Natyam.

Dance Credentials:

I started performing when I was 6 with intuitive movements and improvisation. A few years later, my formal training began in Bharata Natyam (the classical dance of Tamil Nadu, India):

  • Laban Movement Analysis – University of Florida – 2012
  • 5-Day Yoga Immersion with Shiva Rea – 2012
  • Touring with The Mayapuris. 2011 – Present
  • 8-months touring and performing with Gaura Vani & The Mayapuris in USA, South America, and Europe – 2010
  • 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Certificate, 2010
  • 1-year Advanced training at Kalakshetra – completed in 2008
  • 4-year Diploma in Bharata Natyam from Kalakshetra (Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts) Chennai, India – Graduated with a First Class Diploma in 2007
  • 1-week intensive in Improvisation with Jean-Marc Hiem, Swiss Choreographer and Contemporary dancer, 2007
  • Workshop Intensives with Anapayini Jakupko & Indira Kadambi in Florida, USA 1999 – 2000
  • 1 ½ month Intensives in Chennai, India and Sweden from 1993 – 1997 under the guidance of Uma Sundaram

Current Explorations:

  • Choreography – giving form to my thoughts, dreams, and prayers.
  • Kuchipudi – the playful, inviting, fast-paced dance from Andra Pradhesh, India – which I’m studying privately with Swathi Mahalakshmi in Gainesville, Florida.
  • Kirtan-dance – a long-time friend of mine, a place where I can let go and just move about like crazy for the Lord.
  • Self-Expressive Free-form Dance (No Rules!) – This is a healing, transformative dance which has many different names and practices. So far, I’ve been drawn mostly to 5Rhythms (Flow, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness). I join this dance-tribe whenever I get a chance.

Wrapped in my dance is every thought I’ve ever had about myself. As I stand before an audience, no matter how big or small, my internal thoughts are magnified. I know just how authentic or inauthentic I am at that moment. The instinct to open or close my heart is often instantaneous, but once the gates to my being are closed, all that remains is a hollow echo of what I intended to express. What I’ve come to experience is that dance, performance, and artistry don’t flourish when the heart is disconnected or shielded. Emotional expression does not allow for a closed heart. Dance has therefore never been a light undertaking for me, rather something intensely personal, very much a reflection of my inner world.

It’s easy to hide, less easy to reveal. So it is with dance, especially Temple Dance, which is controlled and beautiful. As a classical Indian dancer, you seldom throw yourself on the ground in a contortion or let your limbs hang loose with spastic abandon. The ways to express your inner feeling state is modulated by the style you dance, and since Bharata Natyam aims for aesthetics and beauty of movement, all expression is contained within those boundaries. There is, for example, a right and a wrong way of doing a movement. Hence Bharata Natyam doesn’t immediately lend itself to self-exploration the way Contemporary Dance or other forms do. Even the enactment of a monster isn’t quite grotesque, as sometimes our inner demons can seem to us. Because of its refined nature as an expressive tool, it took time for me to discover how personally wrapped up I am in it. But Bharata Natyam has always probed me at a very deep level, asking, why are you dancing? Why are you moving like this? What is your motivation?

I continue to sense this inner dichotomy: yes/no, insistence/resistance, traditional/iconoclastic, movement/paralysis etc etc And I’m interested in finding ways to explore this through dance.

For me, the most important thing is to feel alive in my dance, find myself in it, and find ways to have it accesible and relevant.

This sense of connection through dance is what matters most to me.

“… A superb dance by Bharat Natyam artist Vrinda Sheth.”
Voice of Asia, 2014

“Breathtaking…  visually mesmerizing…  enriching…”
The Times of India, May 2011

“Her precision and elegance is similar to western ballet.”
The North Florida Herald, August 2011

“To see Vrinda dance is to see emotion in disciplined motion; she dances not just with technical expertise, but with the joy of bhakti. Indeed, Vrinda, through her art, transports the viewer to Vrindavan.”
Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, University of Florida.

“Vrinda’s energy is that fire which kindles the soul and imbues it with rigor and renewed zest.”
Swathi Mahalakshmi, scholar, performing artist and Guru of three classical Indian dance-styles. 

“I was so moved by Vrinda’s dancing – so filled with breath and light.  Just the grace of her being touched me also – in a very subtle and gentle way, she modeled for me and has entrained in me, a more aware, more refined, more kind way of moving in the world.”
Cheryl Kindt, yoga teacher, co-founder Vishnu’s Coach Yoga Center, Binghamton, New York.