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Ganna Smirnova: Mesmerized by the beauty of Bharatanatyam
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

March 28, 2010

The old adage that "culture transcends boundaries," holds true for Ganna, who was smitten by the all encompassing Indian classical culture. Ganna obtained a dance scholarship from ICCR, to undergo intensive training in Bharatanatyam. At the end of her stay in India, she was chosen as an empanelled artist in the ICCR reference list, a distinguished acknowledgement from the premier body of art and culture in India. She is one of the few non-Indians to receive this honor and has taken the appreciation as a responsibility and faith statement to work ceaselessly for the promotion and propagation of Indian classical culture through various endeavors. Ganna has been teaching in the Art Center of TG Shevchenko National University, Kiev, for the past 3 years with great success. The students of her dance studio Nakshatra are mainly university graduates and young corporate professionals.

As a choreographer, one can see the distinctive imprint of her Guru and the Kalakshetra bani; she is innovative, yet quite traditional. She lays great stress on the comprehensibility of this genre of art and ensures that the subtlety of emotions and intricacies of movements should be in harmony and made intelligible to the corresponding appreciative strength of the non-Indian connoisseur of Indian dance. Among her acclaimed choreographic endeavors are Devadarpana, based on the Natya Shastra and Kumarasambhavam.

When the beautiful Ganna visited Chennai, she spoke earnestly about her work in Ukraine and wanted to share her vision with readers of narthaki.

Being from Ukraine, how did you get interested in Indian classical dance, especially Bharatanatyam? Are you trained in any other dance form?
I have been learning dance from the age of five - classical ballet and Ukrainian and Russian folk. I had the privilege to learn ballet for more than 12 years in Kiev from one of the very prestigious teachers, Lylya Malenchenok. Though at that time in Soviet Union, religious studies was quite a taboo, I was practicing yoga nevertheless but it was rather a risk to talk about it. I had adequate exposure towards Indian cultural studies, mainly Upanishads and history of India, which were thankfully available despite the Iron Curtain and then in the mid eighties, the Festival of India was organized in the erstwhile USSR; the year was 1987. I witnessed the greatest names of Indian performing arts coming and performing here. I was totally mesmerized by the sheer beauty of Bharatanatyam. It seemed to me such a great combination of philosophy, devotion, mythology with such a rich background of music and movements. It occurred to me that this is all that I wanted to pursue and serve in my life. Besides having learnt Bharatanatyam for more than 6 years intensively under Guru Jayalakshmi Eshwar, I learnt Mayurbhanj Chhau from Janmay Jai Sai Babu for a few years.

How have you continued your Indian classical dance training over the years?
As said previously, the six years of rigorous learning under Guru Jayalakshmi akka had been quite intensive. A background in dance certainly helps but just to a certain extent because the whole takes and texture in Indian classical dances are so different. She was quite kind to take me regularly for most of her workshops, lecture demonstrations conducted under CCRT and I was part of most of her group compositions during my stay in India. I took up learning Carnatic vocal under Vasantha Sundaram to get not only the right ear for my dance but to get into the understanding of the bhavabhoomi of nrithya. I was fortunate to optimize my time well in India by going to the great institutions like Sangeet Natak Akademi and IGNCA library after my classes as well as conferences and seminars conducted by such institutions to understand and feel at first hand, the minefield of treasure on the subject of Indian performing arts.

Well, New Delhi, besides being a political capital of India, is quite a happening place and a great center for classical performing arts and to become a serious audience for those hundreds of performances of the stalwarts of Indian classical dances gave me quite an insight. I remember that period of my life as extremely rewarding and enriching in the context of my development both as a dancer as well as a student of Indian way of life. Even after returning to Ukraine, that punishing schedule of self training and studying continues and while I train my students, I can see in what way I was missing things myself in the initial stage.

When did you start teaching Bharatanatyam in Kiev? Are there that many interested students?
I am extremely grateful to the learning years that I had in India, the kind words of encouragement by legendary dance critic late Subuddu Sir who suggested I pursue Bharatanatyam with all my seriousness and take it as a full time work - that motivated me beyond words. Post my arangetram in the year 2000, I continued practicing and performing with Jayalakshmi akka till my scholarship period was over in the year 2003. Akka encouraged me on the other hand to start teaching younger students of her dance school in Triveni Kala Sangam. With the empaneling as an ICCR artist the following year, I felt morally duty bound to do my bit for serving it with all my sincerity in Ukraine. When I came to Ukraine, I felt that this is the next logical thing to do - to share it amongst my countrymen who have a great impression about Indian art but the empirical understanding of this knowledge of the performing arts of India is simply missing. So from 2003, I started to teach with five students and The Indian Theatre Nakshatra was born the same year. Nakshatra is situated in the TG Shevchenko National University, the premier academic institution of Ukraine. At present I have more than forty students and they are very hardworking and serious in their learning. It is a seven year old institution with many firsts to its credit and though the journey has not been the easiest one, it is extremely satisfying to the soul. We do perform quite regularly and I travel for lec-dems and presentations.

Dance is quite an integral part of our learning system from the period of the Soviet Union and Bharatanatyam is so rich in its content and texture that anyone searching for the depth and meaning in dance is bound to be hooked to it. Last year, my book titled 'Indian temple dances - tradition, philosophy and legend' got published and it is the first such work in the Russian language.

Ulrika Larsen
Dominique Delorme
Kalpana Raghuraman

Can you tell us about the Indian cultural festivals that you conduct in Ukraine?
Well, these festivals came into being owing to the joint vision and efforts of mine and my husband Sanjay Rajhans, who could see that there is such a need to promote the traditional authentic performing arts of India amongst India loving Ukrainians who have a great interest in Indian culture and they deserve to be exposed with the best facets of Indian performing arts. International festival of Indian classical dances named Nrityaanjali and concerts of great stalwarts of Indian music that is Raaganjali is organized by Nakshatra. The idea was to create a platform for workshops, master classes and lec-dems along with it to invite hundreds of interested participants from all over Ukraine and to make them witness first hand what a beautiful thing Indian dance and music is. These festivals have in a very big way reinvigorated the interest of the common Ukrainian citizens, who had been on the staple diet of Indian films. One of the salient aspects of such festivals is that it has been going along with seminars, conferences and photo exhibitions on theme India and that really is important for the young generation of this part of the world to relate with Indian art in a major way.

Few years back, the Indian festival Deepavali and Eid ul Fitr coincided almost at the same time of the UN foundation day. We had the pleasure to present two of the stalwarts of Indian music, Aashish Khan and Ronu Majumdar on 24th of October 2006 named "a musical dialogue of cultures." This is one of my very satisfying moments in bringing the diversity and uniqueness of Indian culture. We had the pleasure to invite legendary flautist Pt. Chaurasia, Pt. Bhajan Sopori, Ustad Aashish Khan and Pt Ronu Majumdar, Subhankar Banerjee. With the help of ICCR, we could present the master of sarod, Amjad Ali Khan, at the historic Opera Theater last December with the highly representative crowd of Kiev and almost the entire international diplomatic representation came to witness this momentous occasion.

How do you select artistes for your festivals?
One of the guiding thoughts was to underscore in the former Soviet Union area, the well accepted fact about global acceptance and admiration for Indian classical dance which is no more exotic or romantically distant but very much the core of the global dance circuit. As for the selection of the artists - well, the Narthaki data bank has been of invaluable help for checking from the great lot of very good artists.

I must confess that it has not been very smooth to organize it but so far the artists have remained quite encouraging and positive in their support to us. We had the pleasure to get eminent artists Jayalakshmi Eshwar, Navtej Singh Johar, Sharon Lowen, Ramli Ibrahim Dominique Delorme, Pratibha Jena, Raka Maitra as well as Isabelle Anna, and Ulrika Larsen from Sweden. The criteria is a beautiful blend of Indian performing arts professionals of very high standard, both Indians and non Indians.

Navtej Johar
Sharon Lowen

Do you have any financial backing or govt support for your festivals?
There is a very vibrant India Inc to who we are most thankful to for their support and admiration for our work. We find that there is always a helping hand to make such endeavors a reality with the required fiscal muscle that is always a pre-requisite. The Indian Govt. represented by the Indian Mission has seen our ceaseless activity for all these years and have been quite a nice facilitator for making these efforts a reality. I have the highest pleasure to express that Nakshatra Theatre is one of the NGOs based abroad amongst the list of institutions that has been chosen under the NGO scheme for the promotion of Indian culture abroad by the ICCR, headed by the great visionary and a man of global dialogue of cultures, Dr. Karan Singh. This support was long overdue as the infrastructure creation and maintenance of such a labor of love can't be sustained for a long time without the support of governmental institutions, both local as well as Indian.

How have these Indian cultural programs been received in Ukraine?
Thanks to the concerted efforts from the side of the students and volunteers of the Nakshatra theatre, Indian Mission and friends of the Indian community, the response to these festivals and concerts have been overwhelming. The cross section of the print and electronic media have covered these events with great distinction and somewhere down the line, great fondness for Indian culture is rekindled in a major way both amongst the scholars and elites of the society as well as the new generation of the students. In previous events, we had the pleasure to invite the former first lady of Ukraine, who chose to sit all the three hours enjoying the performances of the great artists and transported to the other world.

How popular is yoga?
Hatha yoga is quite popular. Huge majority of the people are quite fascinated towards yoga and then they venture into something else about Indian art. There are lots of Yoga studios and the trainers are very qualified. In my dance classes as well, there is quite an emphasis on the yoga aspect before we start with the practice, to ensure that the dancers shall be well equipped with stamina and highly focused.

What are your future plans to promote Indian culture?
To keep serving India through its most beautiful thing, Indian dance and music, in this part of the world. I have just been to India and had the honor to perform in Kumbakonam, Thanjavur and Chidambaram Natyanjali festivals. I sincerely hope that we can remain dedicated to serve Indian culture in the best possible manner in this part of the world and the kind words of appreciation and encouragement shall remain as the leading lights rather than to blur the vision.