Logo: Susquehanna Folk Music Society
Presenting fine traditional arts in Central Pennsylvania since 1985

Folk Artists Gallery Rachita Nambiar: Classical South Indian Dance

About Rachita Nambiar:

Rachita Nambiar of Dauphin County, PA, practices and teaches Bharatanatyam dance, an intricate, centuries-old classical dance tradition from southern India. In September 2020, she spoke with folklorist Amy Skillman about the joy she finds in dancing and in working with the next generation of dancers.
Her name is pronounced Rah-CHEE-tah NAHM-bee-ahr, and the dance form is bah-ruh-taa-NAA-tee-uhm.

“Every time I dance, I feel happy. I go to my happy place.”
A head-and-shoulders portrait of Rachita Nambiar. She appears to be in her thirties, with smooth dusky skin and long black straight glossy hair pulled away from her face and falling well past her shoulders.  She is smiling brightly; her dark eyes are wide open. She is wearing lipstick and eye makeup, and has a gold bindi (dot indicating she’s Hindu) between her eyebrows and a thin gold ring in her right nostril. Her sari is mostly cherry red, with gold on the right sleeve and purple on the left. She also wears a pendant necklace of gold beads and colored stones.

portrait of Rachita Nambiar by EG Photography

About Rachita Nambiar

Telling stories without words

Grace, strength and precision combine with engagingly expressive facial features, stunning costumes and lively music to bring Hindu mythology to life — this is Bharatanatyam dance.

If you like a good story, you will love this art form. But you will need to pay attention. The details of the story are in the hand gestures and facial expressions, which Rachita Nambiar has more than mastered. Her performances, and those of her students, show that this ancient traditional art form is as relevant today as it was two hundred or even a thousand years ago. It has found resonance in any era. And it’s as central to Rachita’s life as breathing.

A head-to-toes shot of Rachita performing a dance. She is a slim, pretty woman with dusky skin and dark hair under a black covering, wearing a spectacular silk dress of dark magenta, black and gilt. She is smiling serenely and her eyes are closed. She is standing with her feet together, bending slightly to her left in the dance, arms raised gracefully over her head with the palms a few inches apart.  Her dress is short-sleeved and floor-length, with wide black-and-gilt patterned bands around the arms and arcing up the sides of the bodice, as well as on the skirt. Sharp pleats make a triangle from her waist to her left shoulder. The skirt is a wrap design with at least 25 pleats in each of two layers. The top layer arcs up from floor to hip in many, many pleats, repeating the black-and-gilt pattern. Below knee level, the bottom layer of the skirt fades gradually from purple into black-and-gilt at the hem.

Rachita Nambiar performs for Center Stage, Penn State Hershey - photo courtesy of the artist

“I love dancing so much that I could never imagine my life without it.”

Rachita began dancing as a young girl in Pune (POOH-nah), in central western India, under the tutelage of Dr. Mrs. Sucheta Chapekar, a well-known teacher of Bharatanatyam who is still dancing at 71 years of age. Rachita completed her arangetram (a dancer’s debut public performance after years of private instruction) in Pune before her father moved the family to Chennai in southeastern India. In Chennai, the heart of Bharatanatyam, she furthered her training under Natyakalabhushanam the late Mrs. Nirmala Ramachandran, a popular exponent of abhinaya or the art of expression.

Nritta • Nritya • Natya

All Bharatanatyam dancers must master three key components: nritta (pure technical aspects of the dance), nritya (expression or abhinya of the dance), and natya (drama, where the technical aspects come together with the expression). “The dramatics that the dance form brings to the stage are so compelling that the audience ... is just amazed by what they see. The face of the dancer is telling so much with their expression that I think it is relevant even today. And it is such a beautiful art form, with so many components...”

“...It is telling a story every time you stand on stage.”

The story has multiple levels: the ancient narratives of rascals and warriors passed down through generations ... the story of a community holding onto what is most beautiful about their culture ... and the tale of a young girl pursuing her passion as a dancer.

Resurgence of a 2000-year-old dance tradition

Bharatanatyam originated in the Tamil Nadu state of southeast India. The earliest description is found in an epic from the 2nd Century Common Era, but most scholars believe it is over 2000 years old. The dance was initially performed only in the temples for ritual purposes by the devadasis. A devadasi [servant (dasi) of divinity (deva)] was an artist who dedicated her artistic services to the temple and who maintained the traditions through teaching and practice from generation to generation. The dance was supported through the patronage of kings and rajas who enjoyed the dance so much that it eventually found its way onto the public stage.

Under British rule (1858–1947), propaganda against all things Indian began to portray the dance as crude and inferior to the concepts of Western civilization. This influence alienated the patronage of royal courts and dissuaded Indian families from practicing their traditions. Eventually the devadasi system declined and by the early 20th Century, this beautiful classical dance had almost disappeared. Fortunately a few families bravely kept the traditions alive and by the middle of the 20th Century, dance schools were being re-established all over India. The end of British rule brought renewed support for things Indian and Bharatanatyam returned to its current status as a revered dance tradition emblematic of India’s best artistic practices. (More history and context at www.rangashree.org)

Rachita dancing in a studio shot against a solid black background. Her torso is upright but her knees are bent so she’s close to the ground, with her right leg extended to show a broad band of little bells buckled around her ankle, and her bare foot with red paint on toes and sole.  She’s looking to her right, smiling coyly and cutting her eyes even further right, but her arms are held out to her left, at shoulder level.  Her elbows are bent and her hands are close together, fingers extended in a complex gesture. Her fingertips are painted red. Her dress is bright magenta pleated silk with gilt overprinting and black on the bodice front and behind her hips.  She’s wearing gold bracelets, a gold metal belt, a black hair-covering with gold and white ornaments, and a large maroon bindi low on her forehead.

photo by EG Photography

Rachita is accomplished in all three key elements of Bharatanatyam dance: technique, expression, and drama.

“My whole life growing up has been learning dance.”

Rachita grew up in an arts family. Her mother played the veena, a stringed instrument essential to the Bharatanatyam orchestra, and her father was a connoisseur of Carnatic music (a system of music particular to southern India). “I grew up in a family where there was a lot of support towards classical arts. And so I always had that backing.” She continued her education, pursuing a BA in Nutrition and an MA in Biochemistry, but she never stopped dancing. “I always knew. I had that love for science, but I also knew that I never wanted to quit dance. I was very clear during my college years that I never wanted to give up dance.”

“I think it was meant to be.”
“No matter what I took up in college, I found ways to continue performing, and continue taking classes and learning. And so I think, this decision now, to run a dance company, was a decision in the making, if I can say it that way. I think it was meant to be. Really deep down, I love dancing so much that I could never imagine my life without it.”

Teaching the next generation in America

Rachita met her husband in 2000 and they came to the US in 2001, settling first in West Virginia and then Delaware before finally moving to Harrisburg, PA in 2006. Two months after the birth of her second daughter, Rachita gave a performance at the HARI (Hindu American Religious Institute) Temple in New Cumberland, PA. It was well received and she was flooded with requests to teach, so she began leading classes in the temple. Soon she had so many students that they had to find a studio space, and the Rasika School of Dance came into being.

The South Asian community is quite large in central Pennsylvania, and Bharatanatyam dance is one way that Indian immigrant communities are able to hold onto their cultural identity. Through dance, the generation growing up in America learns important history, values, aesthetics and beliefs. As Rachita says, “I love to pass this down to the next generation... It should be taught; it should be made visible to other people...”

Five teenage girls are dancing onstage, wearing saris of silver and gold silk and ornamented black hair coverings.  Each girl wears a different jewel-toned tee-shirt and matching sash: magenta, purple, orange, red and saffron. They are all jumping up, about a foot off the ground, showing red-painted toes and bell bands around their ankles. Each is holding her right arm up at an angle with wrist bent and fingers together so the hand forms a teardrop shape. Each is holding her left arm with elbow bent, palm near her face and palm facing out, displaying red-painted fingertips and a red dot on the palm.  They are all girls of color, though it’s not clear whether all are of Indian descent.

photo by Quang Phan (Win Photography)

Rachita’s students dance as part of a public production in 2018

Rasika, the name of the school, means to appreciate or to enjoy, and that is Rachita’s goal. In the U.S., where her audience might not be familiar with Bharatanatyam, it is especially important for her (and her students) to engage that audience in ways that foster appreciation as well as enjoyment. She explains, “There is no dancer if there is no audience... When you don’t get that encouragement or you don’t get that feedback from your audience, there is no dancer.”

A close-up of the bells worn for Bharatanatyam dance, being fastened onto Rachita’s daughter’s ankle to complete her costume.  These are a three-inch-wide band of blue leather, with about 40 half-inch-diameter jingle-bells sewn on.  Rachita’s hands are buckling the thin straps that hold the band around her daughter’s ankle.  The girl’s foot has red paint on the toes and around the edge of the foot, and she’s wearing a silken garment of many colors.

photo courtesy of the artist

Rachita buckles the bells onto her daughter’s foot in preparation for her arangetram (debut performance).

“I love to pass this down to the next generation... It should be taught; it should be made visible to other people”

From dancer to teacher

To teach Bharatanatyam, it is necessary to know the nattuvangam, or vocal percussion: a rhythmic recitation with hand cymbals that guides the dancer. Rachita says, “I was fortunate enough to get training separately in vocal percussion, so I could assist my guru, sit behind her on stage, and gain some confidence.”

The vocal percussion must be completely synchronized with the dancer’s bells worn around her ankles. The bells, in turn, align with her footwork. A teacher with a strong command of the vocal percussion can guide the student’s footwork to align with the mridangist, the drummer in the orchestra. “The footwork is the connection between the bells, the nattuvangam, and the mridangist. So, unless you have this symphony between these three elements, your dance is going to be off.”

Three people sit together on a platform, providing accompaniment for an unseen dancer. The area is dark but the musicians are illuminated. At left, a young man beats a hand drum. At center, Rachita plays tiny hand cymbals; she is wearing a royal-blue sari and wide gold bracelet. At right, a woman older than Rachita, also wearing a royal blue sari, sings into her mic.

photo courtesy of the artist

Rachita (center) leads the arangetram of one of her students, providing the vocal percussion.

“I always think about my audience. How do I make it relevant?”

Innovation within an ancient tradition

“For me, as an artist, even though it is an ancient dance form that originated in India... when I perform, I always think about my audience. How do I make it relevant? ... Bharatanatyam can be used to tell any story; not just the stories of India.”

Rachita has created a program called Creative Movements, where she selects a well-known children’s story and tells the story using facial expressions and hand gestures from the Bharatanatyam tradition. But she doesn’t just tell the story. She teaches the children to use their own facial expressions and hand gestures to join her in telling the story. “So story time becomes more than just reading a book. It becomes as if you are jumping into that story.” And she believes that, in that process, children are finding new and perhaps better ways to express themselves.

An intriguing collaboration with Gamut Theatre in Harrisburg, PA found Rachita designing the choreography for two dance scenes in their production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre: one for a romantic reunion and one as a victory dance. These collaborations stretch her own creativity and broaden her audience.

Seven dancers spotlighted on a dark stage. Most of the costumes are tights and long tunics that vary in color and style. Four of the five in front wear chest plates resembling armor. The two dancers in front and three behind them stand with their feet more than a yard apart, knees slightly bent, arms held straight out to the sides at shoulder level and clenched fists out in front of them. Behind those dancers and to the left, two women appear to be seated; one is grinning with her head thrown way back; the other is gazing across the stage behind the dancers.

photo by Kelly Ann Shuler @ Gamut Theater

Victory dance in Gamut Theatre’s 2018 production of Pericles: Prince of Tyre, choreographed by Rachita Nambiar

“Even if it is just five minutes of peace of mind; five minutes to breathe and sit back and watch something beautiful...”

“Using dance in different ways is what I love to do,” says Rachita. And she’s always looking for different ways. She has recently become part of the Penn State Hershey Medical Center’s “Center Stage” program, which is using art to offer healing experiences for their patients. “Even if it is just five minutes of peace of mind, five minutes to breathe and sit back and watch something beautiful... I feel very satisfied after that performance. I feel in some small way I have done something in that person’s life.”

A peaceful space, a happy place

With its visual richness, engaging drama and mesmerizing rhythms, Bharatanatyam dance creates a space apart, where stories of the past intersect with present-day lives. Finding that space apart seems even more important than ever in 2020, when families and communities are facing challenges on so many levels. Rachita says, “I think I have realized it more and more, as I get older, that dance is not just a physical sport...

“[Dance] is not just an exercise for the body... it is definitely an exercise for the mind... It is my happy place.”

Rachita Nambiar in a still shot from the linked demonstration video.  She stands with her eyes closed; her expression is happy and serene.  Her elbows are by her sides and her hands are held in front of her at rib height, as if she’s holding an imaginary piece of string taut.  Each hand is held with thumb and index finger touching. She looks as though she’s meditating in the lotus pose. She’s wearing a magenta sari over a gold shirt, and she stands in front of a silk drape of aqua silk printed with gilt.  To her right is a piece of Hindu statuary.

Click to watch it on YouTube!

Watch "Ananda Natamidum Paadan," a virtual performance by Rachita Nambiar, from August 2020. This was part of a virtual celebration of Asian Indian dance called Natyanjali 2020.

Visit the Rasika School of Dance at www.rasikadance.com

Learn more about Bharatanatyam dance at www.rangashree.org