By Milan Patel
Bharatanatyam is generally defined as a classical Indian dance form originating in Tamil Nadu. In my household this definition needs to be extended to include the words “and our parents make us do it”.
Many parents, if not all, will hear this additional phrase countless times in their lives—a phrase that is designed to provide maximum embarrassment in a room full of your closest friends and present you as the most evil set of parents for making your child do something incredibly cruel or ridiculously unfair. In this situation, you wait for the conversation to change or hold out hope that another child will use the phrase, redirecting the disapproving looks to another setting of unwitting parents…
So why do we put ourselves through this? Why did we choose Bharatanatyam?
In all honesty, I suppose it is linked to growing up listening to my own father providing me with “guidance” including various versions of “because you are not White you have to study even harder to prove yourself in the workplace”. The theme was always around studying hard and passing exams. Academic success was the be all and end all. There was no room for manoeuvre. This cycle of life now dictates that it is me and my wife’s turn to pass on our guidance. Our mantra to our daughters is based on our opinion of how important it is to develop skills outside of just academic ones. Skills based on creativity and expression that we believe better define a person— music, dance etcetera. That is how Bharatanatyam has become a part of our lives.
When I say a part of our lives, I should define what it actually means to me. Although my wife introduced my daughters to the Bharatanatyam class, after a couple of years the chauffeuring duty has now fallen to me to drive our 2 eldest daughters to the class: 45 minutes there and 45 minutes back with two 1-hour classes sandwiched in between. This effectively wipes out the concept of a relaxing Sunday afternoon. I’ve often bought a copy of the Sunday Times with the knowledge that it might be Tuesday before I tear open the plastic covering.
Initially, it was just our eldest who I would take to the class. I was the only dad there but playing taxi-driver was good for me as I got to drive my 2-seater sports car. But with time, or more accurately when our second daughter started the dance class, the option of driving my car disappeared, and was replaced with the family bus, aka the wife’s car.
Prior to my newfound Sunday driving duties, my involvement had been conveniently restricted to either copying Bharatanatyam music CDs or shopping for relevant DVDs when in India on business. However, I then found myself in a role that required more than just chauffeuring—it required a level of commitment. Taking notes, videoing dance steps, creating DVDs, and researching the Internet for dance theory became regular activities. It did not take long before I realised I really was enjoying this and more importantly my girls recognised my efforts and the amount of time that was being channelled to help them. I also had to purchase a shiny new Apple iMac. Of course I needed this for the superior video editing tools—well, that’s the excuse I used. My girls also appreciate me helping the dance instructor with techy things: copying music CDs for the class has now evolved to editing music for dance shows—a recently acquired skill.
Avni, our 8-year-old, is currently studying grade 4 of her Bharatanatyam curriculum and Sachi, the 6-year-old, is on grade 2. The demand on us as a family has become greater as Bharatanatyam has to compete with other school activities. While the main dance class is on a Sunday, there are often revision classes for dance shows or exams mid week—not a problem if you live close to the dance class, but we don’t. Not only has the material become increasingly harder for the girls, but the demand it has placed on our lives has significantly increased. The easiest option would be to stop—a topic my wife and I have discussed a number of times. However, we always come back to the same conclusion: what sort of a precedent would we be setting by giving up when the going got tough for us—not a very good one. The girls would recognise this straightaway. We are now in it for the long haul—not that we have been successful in determining what the long haul is. Our youngest, Kushi, is 3 in March. Incredibly, she seems the most mesmerized by Bharatanatyam. We definitely are in it for the long haul.
While my English friends and colleagues are ever increasingly amazed at my newfound activity and the dedication and importance that I place on it, it is in fact my Indian friends and colleagues that have surprised me the most with their reaction. Rather than the mockery I expected for being so interested in this female-centric activity, I have a sense there is a level of admiration albeit with a hint of envy.
Therefore, going full circle and basing my views on evidence: I firmly believe my father’s guidance, however well intended it was, and it certainly was, proved to be incorrect. Will my guidance prove otherwise? Only time will tell. In the meantime, watching my girls grow with confidence and seeing them perform on stages in front of audiences over 500 at such a young age leaves me with an incredibly immense feeling of pride, and also importantly a belief that they will do well, whatever they choose to do in their lives…