Shiphony Pavithran’s Bharatnatyam dance academy in Noida, in India’s national capital region, is unusual for many reasons. She not only accepts students of all ages, genders, professions and body types, she also offers online classes so her students are not limited by geography either. Further, she integrates yoga and meditation techniques into her courses so that students experience the holistic spiritual aspect of India’s ancient classical dance.
Even so, it was another level of inclusive dance education for Shiphony when she was approached by a 58-year-old former schoolteacher with Parkinson’s disease who wanted to learn Bharatnatyam.
Shuchi Bhasin, a Noida-based grandmother who took premature retirement from her job teaching science and maths to middle-schoolers, was advised by doctors to ‘learn something new’ to keep her brain active. Having just recovered from covid in the height of the second wave in India in 2021, and seeking to move forward in her spiritual journey, she reached out to Shiphony’s dance school to know if it was possible to learn Bharatnatyam at her age and with her condition.
Turns out, it was.
Not only did Shuchi become one of Shiphony’s most regular and punctual students – she has not missed a single class in over a year, and often logs into the online class a few minutes ahead of time – she also performed on stage at the prestigious Kamani Auditorium in Delhi as part of an annual dance festival held by Shiphony’s school last month.
BHARATNATYAM SANS BOUNDARIES
Shiphony, an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former journalist, holds a post-graduate degree in Bharatnatyam. “Dance is the most beautiful thing to happen in my life. Even while working in the media, the kindle of dance was always burning as I never gave up on my riyaaz (dance practice), engaging in dance productions and teaching in the initial years,” she says.
Unable to suppress her inner calling, Shiphony decided to quit her job and embrace Bharatnatyam entirely. “My inner desire has become a beautiful reality in my life. I have let my body, mind and soul fly free! I have taken up dance as life sadhana (spiritual exercise),” she explains.
She adds, “Words and books give you intellectual supremacy but spiritual connect with dance is beyond intellectual awareness. Bhakti (devotion) remains constant – it gives you a terrific energy pushing your inner strength that transcends the physical world. I am finding newer ways to explore body movements, penning my own poetry through dance.”
Shiphony has combined meditation with dance very closely in her teaching modules, defining it in the sphere of movement therapy. India’s classical dances are known to impart grace and a deeper perspective to life, far beyond physical fitness.
As Shiphony puts it, dance uplifts you at all levels – physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual. It is a serious pursuit that requires years of patience, dedication and hard work. “I treat nritya (dance) like a prayer with my entire being, which leads to transforming experience – truly a joyous celebration of life,” she says.
She firmly believes in the healing power of dance for people of all ages: “Negativity automatically grows – it needs no fertilisers. Positivity needs to be cultivated, nurtured in order to create a culture of love through performing arts. There is a saying, Nritya Chitta Vritti Nirodhaka, which means dance can remove internal debates by making the mind silent and calm.”
Besides her own dance school, which was launched in 2018, Shiphony is a movement therapist and an active guest faculty at National Institute for Mentally Challenged (NIMH). She conducts lectures and seminars for special educators pursuing B.Ed, training them in music and dance therapy for persons with disabilities.
SCHOOL WITH A DIFFERENCE
Shiphony’s school, Swaroop Kalaniketan Foundation, has students as young as five, and as old as Shuchi at 58. Besides children and teens, she has a number of working professionals who see dance as a way to find personal and creative fulfilment in the course of their busy lives. At the school’s annual dance festival, Nritya Moksham, dancers follow choreographed pieces conceptualised by Shiphony, in which she blends classical fusion music without altering the traditional Kalakshetra technique of Bharatnatyam dance.
Covid necessitated the need for online classes. “It’s a great challenge to teach Bharatantaym online, to show body alignments, expression, mudras (hand gestures) through the digital medium,” says Shiphony, who had to modify her curriculum to suit the online format.
She has a special place in her heart for her adult students. “My teaching has no age barrier. I observe that older students pick up abhinaya faster than younger students, as good amount of life experiences help them easily to get into the inner life of character. We go through a journey to experience melody, rhythm, emotions, story, philosophy and poetry. I tell my students to simply surrender yourself to the floor – leave the rest to me to bring out the best from your body and soul,” she says.
Her classes for adults focus more on meditative movement therapy and she adds unique ways of doing pranayamas, dhyana abhyasas and other body-conditioning exercises. She emphasises concentration on the breath and spine, which helps balance the entire body.
“My dhyana-based movement meditation brings brain waves into a calming state that soothes the nervous system, providing deep rest, long attention span and relaxation to the body and mind. A relaxed nervous system improves the body’s cardiovascular and respiratory system,” she explains.
Any creative activity, she says, needs to be practised every day with full dedication. “The dance has to reach down to your muscle memory. If you repeat something for a longer period of time, the brain-to-muscle connection speeds up,” she says, explaining that Shuchi’s diligence in dance has been an inspiration to many others.
“There are days when Shuchi is down with pain or fatigue, but she beats it with willpower. The joy of learning inspires her to do better. Students like her are young at heart. She practised twice a day, and a drastic change was evident in her body and mental state that elevated her to the next level,” smiles Shiphony.
DANCE OF LIFE
Born and raised in Delhi, Shuchi worked as a schoolteacher for three decades before her health began slipping. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, an age-related degenerative brain condition, and decided to seek new career options. Sadness engulfed her at times. She sought answers in spiritual workshops and healing therapies.
The pandemic dealt her a double whammy and she contracted covid herself. Just when she was at the lowest point in her mental and emotional space, she chanced upon Shiphony’s dance school that was open to seniors.
“It was really hard at first. I had a lot of tremors and it wasn’t easy to remember the sequence of mudras. I had never learnt Bharatnatyam in my life. But Shiphony was very patient with me, and I was very diligent in my practice,” says Shuchi, who has a two-year-old grandson.
Shuchi’s own daughter-in-law in Ahmedabad was so inspired to see Shuchi’s efforts in Bharatnatyam that she joined Shiphony’s online classes too. When Shiphony invited them both to participate together in the annual dance festival, they were stunned.
“I was so nervous, I didn’t think I would be able to perform,” narrates Shuchi. Her faith in the divine aspect of nritya eventually saw her through. “I used to cry at times, I was worried about not performing properly and letting others down,” she says.
Every day before the dance festival, Shuchi struggled with her body and mind. “Ultimately, I did not quit because it would have impacted my dance partner too, and she had worked just as hard,” she says of her 50-year-old dance-mate Priyamvada.
Finally, a miracle happened: “I surrendered myself to God before I went on up to the stage. And there was not a tremor, not a single mudra missed, everything went off flawlessly. I did my best.”
BALANCE OF BODY AND MIND
“With rigorous online training and consistent self-practice, Shuchi was able to bring balance in her body to conquer tough dance positions,” marvels Shiphony, who created a customised dance sequence for the quinquagenarian.
“Shuchi’s tremors have not improved but her legs-and-hands coordination has certainly been enhanced. Her self-confidence has got a huge boost after being able to present her individuality on stage. She feels mentally and emotionally stronger than ever before while dancing. Her endurance levels have largely improved,” Shiphony avers.
Shiphony looks forward to making a difference in more lives through her work. “It’s disheartening to find teachers who are strict about selecting only slender, younger bodies to perform on stage. Many give up on their passion after battling body shaming in the performing art space. I have been rebellious in my thought to question such biased construct of insisting on perfect bodies for dance. A performer must be judged as good or bad based on skill set,” she asserts. “I subscribe to inclusive art, free from any prejudices.”
For this reason, she welcomes even obese persons and has designed special training sessions to condition and tone their bodies to prepare them for the demands of Bharatnatyam. “Gurus must be extremely patient dealing with such students as any change takes its own time,” she says. She also urges parents to encourage their sons if they show an inclination towards classical dance.
Her grand vision, she shares, is to make Indian classical dance a powerful tool to harness the immense capabilities of the mind. “Every student can witness the mystical dimension of life with different bodily approaches.” For Shiphony, the journey itself is the destination, the effort its own reward.
Lead image: Shuchi Bhasin (in front) with her 50-year-old dance partner Priyamvada at their joint performance at Kamani Auditorium in November 2022