When We Dance, We Embody Our Culture

By Subarna Bhattacharya

As first-generation South Asian Americans, it’s often difficult for us to connect to our cultural roots, particularly when it comes to religion. While I may believe in certain concepts like reincarnation and follow along with pujas at home, I struggle to connect to Hinduism at the level my parents do. Realistically, it’s probably impossible for me to ever truly understand our religion like them. I didn’t grow up in the environment my parents did; while they had weeks off to celebrate Durga Puja and the like, my brother and I have had to haphazardly take a day or two off of school, travel home from campus in the middle of midterms, and sit down to study in between breaks to participate in pujas. While I wish I was more in tune with my bright and colorful religion, the environment I’ve been placed in is making it particularly difficult, especially since I’m a person who needs to give her full, undivided attention to something to truly internalize it.

The part of my life that has given me the clearest connection to religion is dance. I’ve been training in Odissi since 2006 under my Guru Enakshi Sinha, and the past fourteen years have taught me not just dance movements and postures but also the deeply rooted religiosity of the form. Odissi originated in the temples of Orissa centuries ago, and the first Odissi dancers performed only in temples for the gods and goddesses.

Even today, visitors to the temples of Orissa can see sculptures embedded in the architecture that depict the various poses of Odissi. Our dance is built on the foundation of religion, and to me, understanding dance is understanding a part of our religion.

When we dance, we embody the gods and goddesses of Hinduism. We begin every single practice session and performance with a Namaskar, where we seek the blessings of the Earth before beginning our performance. One of the two main postures of Odissi, chauka, is a square-shaped formation; the dancer must keep both of his or her hands at 90-degree angles, making a boxed shape. This reflects the pose of Lord Jagganath himself, the deity of Odissi. Aside from this, abhinaya pieces depict the personas of various Hindu deities. For example, the piece I am currently learning, Lalita Labanga Lata, shows the love between Radha and Krishna, particularly as Radha experiences the pains and joys of being his lover. To do this, I must pretend that I am Radha or a gopika myself, and become them.

As dancers, we never dance as ourselves. We dance as the beings we are portraying, and in most cases this is a deity. We need to know who the gods and goddesses are to do so; dance has taught me the emotional side of the stories we have all grown up with, and has allowed me to start learning the experience of truly immersing myself into a story. It’s one thing to tell a story; it’s another thing to be the story. Doing this isn’t easy, but I hope I’m slowly getting there. Throughout my training, I feel myself growing closer to my religion in a way that I struggle to do otherwise. Dance is a way to connect us to our religions from the depths of our souls, and in a way, it is what is keeping me rooted to my culture while living in the United States. 

I’m so excited to take you all along on my journey as a South Asian American college student as I explore my passions and expand my art through this platform!

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