Varnika Bhat is a 9th grader at Oak Park High School. She is a member of Leela Youth Dance Company, and has been studying kathak with Leela Academy for the past eight years. When she is not dancing, Varnika enjoys singing with her older sister, reading books, and spending time with friends and family.
The lights glare down at me with the brilliance of a million stars. My cheeks ache from the wide smile on my face. My head turns around again and again, spinning me faster and faster. My chudidar and ghungroos weigh me down, becoming heavier with each beat. But in that moment, I can only feel one thing. Pure happiness. The joy of performing.
For as long as I can remember, kathak has been an integral part of my identity. Since the age of 5, I’ve had a strong desire to dance. Whenever my sister was dancing bharatnatyam, you could find me right by her side, dancing in her shadow. I watched each performance in awe, completely mesmerized by the beauty of the art form and I yearned to dance like that. Finally, my cries were answered when my mom enrolled me in kathak lessons. Eager to get my bells as soon as possible, I dragged my mom to every extra practice and rehearsal.
In kathak, dancers traditionally wear up to 200 bells on each foot, weighing multiple pounds. These bells are given to the disciple by the guru, along with their blessing. After 2 years of dancing, I received my bells after earning them through tireless practice.
All those years of practice cultivated not only patience, but important values like dedication, respect, and work ethic. These virtues are similarly found in Hindu culture. Old tales passed down from generation to generation have these ideals at their roots. In our Son of the Wind performance, we learn of Hanuman’s feats in aid of Rama, who seeks for his beloved, Sita. In one story, Hanuman is told to find a special herbal tree on the mountain Sanjeevi and bring back a branch. After relentless searching, he is unsure of which tree is the one they need and instead of coming back empty-handed, Hanuman lifts the entire mountain and flies it to Rama. This story teaches perseverance and dedication and I learned many of these tales through kathak.
Kathak originates from the word ‘katha’, which translates to story in English. Therefore, the word kathaka, a kathak dancer, means storyteller. Through our movements and expressions, we describe the emotions of these fables, passing them down to younger generations. With pieces like Kalia Dhaman, recounting the fight between young Krishna and the water serpent Kalia, and Hanuman Ghadbao, describing the story of Hanuman being struck by a bolt of lightning, I gained knowledge about the interesting stories my culture had to offer.
After many years of dancing, I really began to appreciate the amount of physical and mental ability of an artist. Dancers must focus on technique, emotion, expression, and rhythm, all while maintaining an effortless look. Musicians have to maintain a steady ground for dancers and singers, be on top of the rhythm, focus on their instrument, and stay in sync with others. Singers must focus on their voice, being on beat, and expressing emotion through their singing. Seeing different artists all interact with one another and play off each other during performances and practices truly kindled my love for India’s countless, vivid artforms.
As an American-born Indian, relating with others in my kathak class helped me have a better understanding of how to keep in touch with my Indian origins. We all had shared experiences, which helped us connect and create our own tight-knit community. We’re always happy to play a part in passing down the legacy of Indian culture to generations after us.
Not only do we share Indian classical music and dance with other Indians, we also advocate for awareness. Performing on multiple stages with American-dominated audiences helps us spread our love for our culture with others and gives them knowledge of the rich art of India.
So everytime I get up on stage, the lights shining on me, the audience looking up at me, I take pride in knowing that I have the privilege of representing Indian culture here in America.
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