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Text & Photos: Richard Turner, London

April 28, 2005

“I didn’t know what stage fear was,” says Navia Natarajan. Richard Turner meets the child prodigy turned accomplished adult.

“Basically we are Malayalees. We are from Kerala. My parents are from Kerala but I was born and brought up in Madras. That’s where I started my dancing.” Resplendent in full Bharatanatyam costume and make-up, Navia Natarajan explains a little of her background. We are sitting backstage at London’s Nehru Centre, shortly before her enthusiastically received solo performance there on the 12th of April. The grey, watery light of the late afternoon seeps in through the sash windows of the Georgian building, to be confronted by vivid purple and gold.

Navia started young. Very young. “That’s basically because I was quite keen on dancing,” she says, evidently making an understatement. “At the age of three I used to go on stage. Of course I wasn’t doing the professional dancing. I was just doing folk dancing then. And at the age of seven I got the professional training under Guru Radhika Kalyani and she was a student of Chitra Visweswaran. She was an excellent teacher and I was kind of committed at that age. I didn’t know what stage fear was, what commitment was, but I was quite keen on doing what I pursued. And then I went on stage at the age of ten and my parents were very encouraging at that time.”

She speaks rapidly but softly, her Indian accent as yet unsullied by two years in Denver, Colorado, where the 26 year-old now lives with her husband. The only clue lies in her occasional lapses into American phraseology: “Otherwise I’m gonna end with a mangalam,” she tells me later, discussing her programme.

The Menon family moved to Bangalore soon after Navia’s early triumph, and the precocious youngster continued her training with Padmini Ramachandran at her institute, Natyapriya. Navia’s ability had been confirmed when she secured the first rank in the Karnataka Bharatanatyam Junior Examination in 1990. She went on to take first prize from South Zone Cultural Centre at Belgaum in 1999. She has appeared at many festivals in India, Europe and the USA. This was her second performance in London. Navia had previously appeared here in November 2004, as part of the Soorya moveable feast of music and dance.

In the light of the trend towards fusion and Contemporary Dance influences in the UK, I ask Navia where she stands. Is there a conflict between being conservative and being innovative? “I definitely am innovative,” she insists. “I would like to do a lot of different themes, but I strictly go by the rules of Bharatanatyam. You know, I wouldn’t go out of the way and do things which I am not comfortable doing. I will definitely stick by the rules and do different themes through Bharatanatyam. You can use Bharatanatyam as a dance media to explore different themes and also bring it out to the public. You don’t have to get into any other way of dancing. You can always stick to this and do wonders in it. It’s very flexible.”

© veena magazine 2005. Used by permission. A more detailed version of this profile will appear in the summer edition of veena Indian Arts Review.