Then the first wave of COVID struck. All of my teaching opportunities evaporated as lockdown measures were announced. I clung to my home practice to preserve my equilibrium. As the months stretched on, I fell into digital escapism, and found myself wandering through videos of Indian classical dance on YouTube.
Randomly—although I would now say providentially—! came across a recording of Supratim Talukder, a Bharatanatyam dancer based in Kolkata, West Bengal. It stopped me in my tracks.
Bharatanatyam is a highly codified and demanding dance style. One of the oldest classical dance forms, it originated in Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu, in the southern part of India. The dance, with its intricate footwork, hand gestures, and facial expressions, is usually done by women dressed in the style of Tamil brides—draped in brilliant saris and heavily adorned with jewelry. During British colonial rule, Bharatanatyam was disdained, discouraged, and eventually banned. But it never died. Today it has reemerged not just as a temple dance, but as a secular celebration of cultural artistry practiced by both men and women.
In the first video I watched, Talukder was dancing an interpretation of the Shiva Tandava Stotram, a hymn celebrating Lord Shiva's power and beauty. In another of his dance offerings, I was drawn into a narrative world where Lord Krishna dances with peacocks in an enchanted grove. Talukder's abhinaya, the emotional expression that is so critical to this dance form, allowed him to play multiple characters within a solo performance. In one moment he was Krishna, bestowing his blessings on the forest of Vrindavan; in another, he was a dancing peacock.
Talukder had mastered the technical elements of bharatanatyam—the rhythmic physicality, intricate hand gestures, and expressive mime. Using these skills, he seemed to shape-shift, and incarnate Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. As I watched him, I felt as if I were no longerjust idly checking out another YouTube video; I was receiving darshana, a glimpse of the Divine.
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