Bridging cultural diversity through Bharatanatyam

Anusha Singh Wednesday 03rd April 2024 06:53 EDT

Chitraleka Bolar MBE is the Artistic Director of the Chitraleka Dance Company and with over thirty-five years of experience as an artist, teacher, and choreographer, she has performed extensively in theatres, schools, and community venues.

Her innovative approach to creatively adapting the classical art form has played a pivotal role in fostering cultural diversity and understanding through dance in educational settings. This has earned her a distinguished reputation as both an artist and an educator, alongside her accomplished career as a performer and choreographer.

In an interview with Asian Voice, Chitraleka discusses her art, how it has influenced her life and her academy.

Can you share with us your journey as a dancer and how your training in Bharatanatyam has influenced your artistic vision?

I resided in a small village in Kerala, near the border with Karnataka, called Kasargod. My journey into Bharatanatyam commenced with the influence of my father. He was a Kathak dancer in his youth, and though I never witnessed his performances, his past remained a picture in my mind. His experiences as a young dancer touring with a company instilled in him a fervent wish for me to follow in his footsteps, particularly in the realm of Bharatanatyam. Thus, at the tender age of five, he initiated my dance education. My Bharatanatyam journey progressed alongside my academic pursuits.

Upon marriage, I immigrated to the UK in 1978. Initially, the landscape for Bharatanatyam in Birmingham was barren, with scant resources or fellow practitioners. Yet, my passion for the art propelled me forward, despite the initial struggles to establish its presence. Thankfully, the support of my community provided essential resources and my art evolved into a personal passion, a dedication to preserving and promoting this rich cultural tradition.

What inspired you to establish the Chitraleka Dance Company, and what are the core values that guide its artistic endeavours?

Actually, I didn't have any set plans initially; I just knew that I wanted to have my own dance school. It has been a dream of mine for many years and I started with the primary idea of sharing my dance knowledge. That was my main goal. My father instilled in me the importance of sharing knowledge when you enjoy something, so I began teaching in community centres. Initially, I followed the ISTD syllabus, which stands for the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance. They offer exams in Bharatanatyam. I helped my students prepare for these exams, and that's why we call our classes an academy. We follow a structured progression, starting from primary grades and then advancing to higher levels as students show interest and commitment. I also offer additional training for students interested in pursuing further examinations or independent performance careers.

As an advocate for arts education, what are your thoughts on the integration of dance and cultural expression into school curriculums in the UK?

Here, children acquire what they call UCAS points, which are crucial for university admissions. While not all universities consider these points, some value the well-rounded development of young individuals who engage in various activities alongside their studies. They appreciate youngsters who demonstrate organisational skills and involvement in extracurricular activities like dance, arts, and sports. This trend has led many students to pursue dance alongside their ambitions in fields like medicine or engineering. They find value in balancing academic pursuits and arts and sports interests, including volunteering. Therefore, students have the flexibility to explore different paths and choose what resonates with them. In my experience, many of my students have pursued careers in medicine, and they have excelled in their studies while continuing to engage in dance.

How has your background in dance influenced your approach to interdisciplinary collaboration?

I've worked across various settings, from countless schools nationwide, spanning London to Edinburgh and Cardiff. I've engaged in diverse subjects like science, mathematics, literature, and culture, often collaborating with schools to develop projects aligned with their curriculum. Dance, especially my dance form, has provided me with a versatile toolset adaptable to any challenge. For instance, during my time at the university, I collaborated with the science department on projects like carbon research. I’ve also made diverse explorations, from delving into novels to incorporating folk dance tours and Panchatantra stories. Each project has been an enriching experience, allowing me to delve into various domains and expand my horizons.

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers and choreographers who are looking to make a meaningful impact through their artistry?

If you commit yourself to the art form, it will demand your time. Teaching youngsters, for example, may require a significant investment of time. Many youngsters may shy away from teaching because they fear it will hinder their own progress. However, teaching has actually strengthened my own dance practice. When you teach, you must articulate your techniques clearly, which helps refine your own understanding. Conducting workshops also allows for continuous learning and self-development.

My advice is to pursue your passion for dance with dedication and find joy in every aspect of it. Don't make money your sole focus, although financial stability is necessary. Fame and recognition will come in due time if you remain patient and dedicated. 

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