Fall arts preview 2018: Arno Kamolika's bharata natyam journey takes her from Bangladesh to B.C.

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      From afar, Indian classical dance is easily perceived as a homogeneous art form marked by dramatic facial expressions, articulated hand gestures, and sparkling costumes. In this context, it might not be at all surprising to hear a story about a Bengali girl who fell in love with bharata natyam.

      But in Bangladesh, a largely Muslim country, that dance was a rare pursuit when Arno Kamolika was young. After all, the storytelling form of bharata natyam has its roots in totally different cultures—Buddhist and Hindu ritual and mythology. Other classical styles like kathak and manipuri were much more popular in Bangladesh, and Kamolika studied those in a fine-arts school as a girl. However, when she was about 16, a bharata natyam guru came to lead a two-month workshop, and Kamolika says she was hooked for life.

      “It was the storytelling of it,” she says with passion over the phone to the Straight from her home here. “And that was when I decided I won’t do any other dance. What triggered me about bharata natyam was I could see the artists who were getting so emotionally involved with their character—and I always have been a great fan of movies and theatre. I thought, ‘This dance lets me become a dancer and at the same time a character as well.’ ”

      Flash forward to Vancouver, the last place Kamolika expected to pursue her art form when she arrived here from Bangladesh in 2010 to continue her architecture studies. But soon she found Mandala Arts’ bharata natyam master Jai Govinda here, and delved even further into the classical dance, touring to festivals everywhere from India to Germany and the U.S.

      This fall, watch for her to take her specialty to wider audiences, pushing bharata natyam into new territory with her most ambitious project to date—one that ties her beloved Indian dance to the heritage of her homeland.

      Shyama—which debuts at Diwali in Vancouver on October 27 at the York Theatre, in a copresentation with the Vancouver Tagore Society and the Mandala Arts & Culture Society—tells Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore’s epic dance drama through bharata natyam dance. The Nobel laureate’s 1939 work follows a courtesan who saves the hero from the scaffold and runs away with him. Shyama is the fruition of almost three years of work, featuring direction by Rohit Chokhani, original choreography by Jai Govinda, a score by Bengali-Canadian composer Shankhanaad Mallick, and four other bharata natyam dancers.

      “I feel so close to both these things,” she says of the dance and Tagore’s poetry, which her parents often read while she was growing up. “I was a bit nervous when I started. But bharata natyam is not an ancient form; it has its roots in ancient text and temples, but it is as contemporary as any other dance,” she adds, likening the style to ballet.

      Kamolika hopes to expose new audiences to the dance’s beauty and technique, as well as to Bengali literature and music. “It’s been such a journey to make this production. It’s so Canadian,” she says, referring to the mix of cultures the show brings together, including its French-Canadian choreographer, dancers from diverse parts of India, and a director from Mumbai. “So bharata natyam is connecting all of us. It makes me very happy.”