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Mamata Niyogi-Nakra: Dance and the child
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

August 28, 2006

Alapana Trust headed by musician O S Arun, presented an illustrated talk on SHISHU SADHANA, ITS IMPACT AND IMPLICATIONS, in Chennai in the second week of February 2006. The presentation was made by O S Arun and Mamata Niyogi-Nakra of Kala Bharati, Montreal, the two persons who are responsible for the creation of this child - friendly Bharatanatyam repertoire. A research work spanning about 10 years, its publication has been dedicated to Mamata's late gurus U S Krishna Rao and U K Chandrabhaga Devi and Arun's father, musician O V Subramaniam.

Two items from the DVD, the Thillana and 'A letter to Lord Nataraja', demonstrated by dancer N Srikanth, were screened and the thought process explained. Kala Bharati raised money to produce Shishu Sadhana, and in a gesture of generosity, the book with DVD is available through free distribution, so it will reach everyone.

For Arun, Shishu Sadhana is not a project, but a movement, "And in a way, a contribution to the art world, especially Bharatanatyam, concerning items from a child's perspective. I had to use child friendly ragas, understand the movements. It was a learning process that can only be experienced, not expressed." Since every discussion was documented, it was easy to follow the thought process of how an idea or movement evolved.

Founded in 1981, Kala Bharati strictly follows the tradition of the Pandanallur style. Its founder Mamata Niyogi-Nakra speaks to narthaki about a project close to her heart - dance and the child.

What made you undertake to create a child friendly repertoire?
I like to think that Shishu Sadhana was born out of a need and a desire. The need was to find something so that I could make teaching Bharata Natya to children in Montreal, Canada, not only a learning process but also a fun activity. The desire was to create age appropriate items the children could relate to. It is very difficult to find age-appropriate material to teach the very young, especially in a part of the globe where Bharata Natya is not part of the mainstream culture. Simply put, I felt I needed to do it.

It is also related to a philosophy very aptly put by Stacia Tauscher, "We worry about what a child will become tomorrow; yet we forget that he is somebody today." It is a favorite quotation of mine, which I firmly believe in. I sincerely hope by creating a child-friendly repertoire I have been able to do something special for the dancer in every child.

How did you go about it?
I have often wondered about that myself, even after I had completed the repertoire. It can truly be attributed to a moment of Zen I experienced that prompted me to think about doing this.

Very soon after I started teaching, in the beginning of 1980s, one morning while going about my routine I heard, for the first time, the well known classical piece "Le Carnival des Animaux" by the French composer Saint-Saens. Images of various animals dancing conjured up in my mind's eye. I right away set about to create an item with animal movements based on an available Tillana from the traditional repertoire. It was an immediate hit among my young students who got a lot of pleasure imitating movements of a deer, elephant, monkey etc.

The success with this child friendly Tillana made me feel I had chanced on something that might help me come up with a few more age-appropriate Bharata Natya items for training children.

How do you make something child friendly?
It is a very pertinent question that does come up whenever we discuss child-friendly dance. If I were to answer your question in a sentence, I guess, I would just say, one makes it child-friendly by coming up with something that a child can relate to and has fun doing. But then, while making something child friendly, there are other points that need to be looked into while retaining the essential characteristics of a traditional item. For example, themes should deal with subjects that are within the range of a child's experiences, it should have an element of humour, exits and entrances have to be varied and interesting to execute as also a child's ability and limitations have to be kept in mind so that the item does not tax his physical capabilities thereby turning him off.

What about identifying the lyrics and composing the music?
As mentioned in the book Shishu Sadhana, I had given O S Arun, the music composer of Shishu Sadhana, an outline of all the items at an early stage of the creative process. Arun had visited Montreal quite a few times since 1993, during which we had sporadically discussed and worked on the repertoire. In October 1999, he visited Montreal specifically to work on Shishu Sadhana. During this visit, details related to all the items were finalized and the basic structures of the compositions for the entire repertoire were worked out with him. Arun went back with the notes on the theme and choreography of each item as well as the added responsibility of finding lyricists to give these items suitable forms. By the time I arrived in Chennai in January 2000 to tape the music, the lyrics were written out and the music fully composed.

It is sheer brilliance when the musician can put into tune what you have in mind. I was so very fortunate to have a versatile and gifted musician O S Arun, work with me on this repertoire. He has accompanied several leading Bharata Natya dancers and has composed music for quite a few full-length dance productions. I felt he was ideally suited to take up this challenge, in which one has to retain all the required and essential elements of a Bharata Natya repertoire while composing it from a child's perspective.

You feel strongly about including dance in the education curriculum. What is the basis for this?
Yes, I do. Through my participation over the years in the daCi activities, I have been exposed to the debate in which various arguments have been put forward in Europe and North America to include dance in the school curriculum. These arguments have underlined the important role dance plays in the development of aesthetic sensibilities, along with the development of creativity and imagination. This is, of course, in addition to the development of skills associated with physical education and mind-body co-ordination.

In recent years, UNESCO has started promoting the idea of the arts in education for quite another reason: that of maintaining the cultural heritage, which in some parts of the world may be under threat due to the overpowering influence of globalization.

These are plausible and valid arguments but there is an even more important one that has emerged recently resulting from new thinking in the field of psychology which studies child development. It is now believed that the term intelligence used in the conventional sense is limited because it reflects abilities only in the domain of language and logic-mathematics, abilities that are targeted for measurement in IQ tests. This is so because human beings have capabilities in several other domains equally important in life. Relatively speaking, they get overlooked in the current state of academic affairs.

According to the Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory, the human child is endowed at birth with a certain potential for development in each of a number of domains, of which language and logic-mathematics are but only two, and education should be directed to the cultivation of all of these multiple intelligences. The argument for including dance in the school curriculum is based in the belief that it serves as an effective tool or vehicle for developing these multiple intelligences.

How can one develop intelligence through the arts?
It is a rather complex issue in the context of child development and should be discussed at greater length than this interview will permit. So let me try to put it as succinctly as I possibly can.

The long-held belief was that Intelligence is something one is born with and that's it. Some may still believe that it is so, but modern thinking has evolved and the current view is that what one is born with is a potential capacity and that the actual Intelligence one may possess at a particular point of time is a product of nurturing and developing that capacity. For example the study of language and mathematics develops one's Intelligence in these areas that are reflected in the IQ measure. It is argued that in a similar fashion, the study and practice of dance can develop intelligences associated with body kinaesthetics, mind-body coordination, emotional behavior, music and spatial awareness among other human potentials.

"Multiple intelligences can be developed through dance." Could you elaborate?
We know from experience that all learning is achieved through the acquisition of knowledge and practice of its applications. Language is acquired and perfected through reading, writing and oral communication. Logical and analytical capabilities are developed through the study of mathematical concepts and repeated exercises in their applications. Similarly dance serves as the medium for developing one's potential in the other intelligences such as those mentioned in my reply to your earlier question: kinaesthetic, emotional etc. For example, it teaches a child to emote, express sentiments.

You have spoken about Shishu Sadhana in Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata. What is the feedback you have received?
Also at The Hague, where the 10th Dance and the Child International Conference was held this year from the 2nd to the 9th of July. I presented a lecture demonstration on the creative process of Shishu Sadhana, and was pleased to find that several dance teachers and specialists in dance education from all over the world were present and expressed their genuine appreciation of the work.

The response to Shishu Sadhana has been fantastic, beyond my wildest expectations. I am deeply touched by the fact that it has been so warm and enthusiastic even among those who are not involved with Bharata Natya or Indian dance, for that matter. The positive feed back I have received from dancers, educators as well as persons who have nothing to do with dance has been overwhelming. I feel that Shishu Sadhana has addressed a much needed and perhaps an oft-neglected area in the training of dancers - that of imparting dance training to the young learner in classical forms.

You are a member of the organization Dance and the Child International (daCi) affiliated to UNESCO. Why do you think there's no representation from India even though so many small countries are represented?
I have wondered about that and I can't honestly claim to have an answer. Indian culture is so well endowed in the art of dance with so many different dance styles, so many dancers, dance gurus and dance schools, but as you say, so few have shown an interest in an international organisation such as Dance and the Child International. It could be that there isn't an awareness among Indians that such a body exists.

It also could be due to a lack of appreciation of its benefits, or perhaps because taking full advantage of membership in daCi requires travel abroad which could be somewhat expensive.

What are your plans to take your creative process further?
A few projects have emerged from the presentations in different cities as a follow-up on Shishu Sadhana. I am looking into pursuing them to further some of the objectives of the creative process. One such initiative is called Dhitang, a collective formed in India by young dance teachers after my presentations at Delhi and Kolkata.

I had given workshops in schools and to groups during my last visit. Prompted by the enthusiasm of these dance teachers and prodded by their interest I have embarked on developing material and modules for classroom use in schools as part of their curriculum. As a matter of fact, two dancers from India, Sanjib Bhattacharya and Purva Dhanashree are presently here in Montreal for two months during which they are working with me towards preparation of suitable teaching material based on Shishu Sadhana.

Another promising development since the daCi conference at The Hague is the interest Shishu Sadhana has generated among dance teachers from other parts of the world as well who are teaching children dance in styles other than Indian. I am hoping that some of these will lead to working on an international level with others in the field of dance and the child. One such collaborative project I am looking forward to is with Brigitte Westkemper of Germany, who, based on Laban's approach, has been teaching dance to children in Berlin for over twenty years. She attended the presentation in the Netherlands and was particularly fascinated by the way I had used animal movements in the Tillana. Brigitte is coming to Montreal for ten days at the end of September to collaborate with me on producing teaching material, as she also uses animal movements in her dance training for children.

I am glad to find that the creative process of Shishu Sadhana is continuing to chart its own course in different directions.

Dr. Mamata Niyogi-Nakra
'Kala Bharati'
3410 Sherbrooke St. East
Montreal H1W 1C6, Canada
Ph: (514) - 522 - 9239
Fax: (514) - 522 - 4186