The journey of Kathmandu’s classical and folk dancers
In the cool, quiet streets of winter, Subima Shrestha’s lively rendition of ‘rangi saari gulabi chunariya’ breathes and dances.
“It was not my turn, but my Guruji Shikha Khare beckoned me to the stage, and we danced to this thumri together,” she says.
As a young girl, Subima performed at her mama ghar in a village in the district of Makwanpur.
“The old house was made of mud, and I would dance as the village people watched. That bina kinare ka balcony was my stage. I think I was always a performer,” she adds with a hearty laugh.
Growing up in the streets of Mangal Bazar, Subima was surrounded by the ancient arts. “In the Newari culture, music and dance were all around us,” she says. “I still do not need to think too much about the forms or mudras of gods and goddesses in dance. Art was everywhere.”
‘That bina kinare ka balcony was my stage. I think I was always a performer.’
“Our grandmother would wake us early for our prayers. We would only get tea after that,” she reminisces. “Even in the winters, our fingers would freeze, but the routine was the same,” she adds.
Subima studied dance at the Padma Kanya Campus. One of her first gurus, Honey Shrestha, encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to study the Kathak dance in India, where she later learnt under the guidance of Shikha Khare.
Since her training, Subima has studied and experimented with many different dance forms, including those from the Newari and Tamang communities.
“I feel a kinship and oneness with traditional Nepali forms of dance,” she says.
“In our urban society, dance and music are considered exclusive in some sense. But traditionally, art and culture are not special to communities. It is a part of their very lives. They work on their farms, eat food, and then gather in the community halls to practice the naach.”
“Our dance forms are the heart of the country,” she adds. “There is less discrimination here in the arts. When we like something, we open up our hearts fully. It is a beautiful thing about us Nepalis. Our openness is precious.”
But amidst the praise of her homeland’s culture and traditions, Subima’s eyebrows furrow.
“The encouragement from the government is just not there,” she says regretfully. “There is plenty of potential in Nepal, but we always feel that we are less than others.”
To the inexperienced eye, it is a gathering like any other. Murmurs fill the hall at the Nepal Nrityotsav until the sweetly ringing sound of a cymbal begins to resonate from a corner of the wooden stage.
Suddenly, one sees the divine.
Tara Manandhar dressed as the Sapta Lochani Tara, or the seven-eyed Tara, is a vision in white. Her powerful, pure movements mesmerise and tell the tale of the Buddhist saviour-goddess.
“The sacred, tantric dances of the valley of temples are about gods and goddesses, their weapons and ornaments, and the philosophy behind each element,” she says, referring to this once closely guarded dance form, the Charya Nritya.
“The gurujus (Bajracharya priests) did not want people to misuse the dance, so it was earlier confined to those from their caste,” she adds.
‘Our gurus are the most important people in our journeys. We worship them.’
Previously, the nritya was performed in sacred spaces alone, such as temples. But today, it is accessible.
Young children gather in monasteries and classrooms where they learn Buddhist scriptures in the forms of Charya geet and mudras.
“There are so many Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries in the valley and different gods and goddesses. They each have their own Charya dance,” she says.
“The five elements are integral to Charya,” she adds, speaking of the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space that are considered fundamental universal energies.
“It is all about enlightenment through dance,” she smiles.
Tara holds an MA from Padma Kanya Campus and trained under Guru Suresh Prasad Mishra and Guru Yagya Man Pati Bajracharya over the years. Today, she teaches dance academically at Sirjana College of Fine Arts and Padma Kanya Campus.
“My gurus supported me in this journey of two decades. One needs a guru to differentiate between what is right and wrong. Our gurus are the most important people in our journeys. We worship them,” she says.
Tara stresses the importance of preserving dances like Charya and others with Nepali heritage.
“We need more research, and we need to protect these forms. Otherwise, some of them might become extinct,” she reflects.
Sita Subedi grew up in Chitwan, a district located in the warmer, inner Terai region.
As the eldest daughter in her family, she put her dream of becoming a dancer on hold to take on her most pressing responsibilities.
“I wanted to pursue dance academically, but my parents didn’t understand this at the time,” she says.
At a young age, Sita was diagnosed with cancer.
Her leg was amputated, and her dream felt even more distant.
“Through the encouragement of a few, I heard of dancers like Sudha Chandran who continued to dance with one leg,” she recalls. “I had a strong conviction then that I could still dance.”
Sita advocates for improvements in the educational system. She believes that all learners should be able to access curriculum and universities and governments should create enabling environments – free from the discrimination she once faced.
“No other individual should go through the same hardships to achieve their dream of pursuing dance academically.”
“I started studying Kathak since I believed it was better for my body, but I had to do it outside of these institutions,” she says. “It hurt a lot. No other individual should go through the same hardships to achieve their dream of pursuing dance academically,” she adds.
“It was tough. I practiced just the tatkaar (footwork) for over a year,” she recalls.
“All throughout, there was pressure from the gurus or teachers to reconsider practising Kathak. They felt that I needed both feet to dance, and my actions went against the shastra,” she states.
Sita met her guru, Ravi Rana Magar, at the Kalanidhi Indira Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in Lalitpur, affiliated with the Prayag Sangeet Samiti of Allahabad in India.
“Whatever I am today is because of him and his teachings,” she says.
While many challenged the guru’s faith in his student, this did not deter their resolve.
“When I wore the ghungroos for the first time here, I felt that the ghungroos were blessing me,” she says.
Sita now wears a pair with 150 brass bells and teaches dance at a local academy.
She says that being close to her dream every day reminds her that she could give up anything over the years but never her love for her dance.
In the month of Shrawan, devotees congregate on the banks of river Bagmati, where the sacred, ancient site of the Pashupatinath temple sits.
A young group of performers perform the Bharatanatyam dance, an ancient dance form originating in the state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India.
The devotees lose themselves in worship.
One of the young girls, Sangita Budhathoki, considers herself lucky to perform amidst the
Mahadev or Lord Shiva. She twirls, gesticulates, and joins the devotees with a prayer of her own.
“Dancers lose themselves in the dance, whether at a temple or on a stage,” she says. “I cannot explain how it feels,” she smiles.
Sangita has been training under the renowned Indian artiste, K Bhavya, for the past few years.
“It is through your Guru that you know of your potential. Your learning is in the Guru’s hands,” she says.
“In Bharatanatyam, we depict the Shiv Tandav, the childhood of Krishna, the love between Radha and Krishna, and so much more through expressions, costumes, and mudras,” she adds.
Sangita’s mother belongs to the Rai or Khambu community, an indigenous group from eastern Nepal whose traditional dance is the Sakela.
“I follow my mother’s traditions as well. One generally follows their parents’ traditions in Nepal,” she says.
“The happiness that comes from performing and preserving your culture cannot compare to anything else. We dance freely,” she shares.
But outside of traditions, expectations from young girls often discourage them from taking up dancing as a profession.
“They think, ‘Oh, you are just dancing. What is the big deal?” she claims.
“Maybe we cannot change the mindsets of the older generations, but we can of the ones to come, because I know that dancing is something that I cannot live without,” she concludes.