Law student Anjali Narendra and HR executive Reena Ashok Kumar on how their dance helps them stay one with India
Born to a Bengali mother and Odiya father in Sydney, Anjali Narendra, in her final year of law at the University of Sydney, says incorporating her east Indian heritage with her western lifestyle has been an enriching experience. She, like a number of other Indians born in Australia, is constantly seeking ways to stay connected with her heritage.
“My journey into my own cultural heritage began recently when I visited Odisha’s Jagarnath temple and the Konark Sun temple. I felt a strong connection to the East Indian artistic expression as depicted in these sacred structures. My curiosity ignited a desire to incorporate Indian culture into my life. This was the impetus to reignite my childhood passion of Odissi classical dance,” says Anjali, and adds that she believes it will be the future generation’s loss not to understand and value the teachings from Indian culture.
Despite completing a rigorous tertiary degree, travelling and working in various law firms, Anjali says she yearned for an expression that would be physically challenging, culturally enriching and spiritually enlightening, and eventually found that in the Guru SurendraNath Jena Style of Odissi as practised by his son Nirmal Jena, artistic director of the Odissi Dance and Music Company in Sydney.
“The power and strength of this style of Odissi resides in its ability to reconcile spirituality and dance in its purest form, linking back to the historical context of Odissi dance when it was performed purely as a form of devotion to Lord Jagarnath. The authenticity of the dance has not been lost and its sacred aspects motivate me to learn it more deeply,” she says, and adds that it has helped her appreciate what distinguishes Indian classical arts – the interconnectedness between music, dance, art, scriptures, folklore, traditions, knowledge, wisdom and all centred upon the spirit.
Unlike Anjali, Reena Ashok Kumar was born in Chennai, India, but now lives in Australia, studying political science, while simultaneously working in an HR firm. “Knowledge is a treasure, a gift passed down, and we are the keepers of it,” says Reena, who calls her Indian heritage the “defining element” in her life.
“It is my heritage that grounds me and gives me the spiritual foundation I rely upon. I grew up in India and I understand its diversity; a country with the capacity to hold many cultures and traditions with respect. There is something incredibly enchanting about its history, and I have always been mesmerized by the richness of Indian culture – layers upon layers of ancient wisdom, knowledge and expressions,” she says.
Though she learned Bharatnatyam in India, Reena thought she would lose touch with her art after moving to Sydney. “In fact, there were times when I was frightened of losing touch with my traditions,” says Reena.
“My mother gave me a set of DVDs on the different forms of Indian classical dance. This was my introduction to Odissi and to Guru Nirmal Jena,” she says. “Finding a guru in Sydney who is prepared to invest so much in his teaching is precious. To students who are committed and prepared to invest equally, Guruji and his family give generously so that the process of learning Odissi becomes an anchor for emotional and spiritual growth,” says Reena, and adds that the high energy holistic dance form helps her connect to diverse cultural influences.
Like Anjali, Reena says that she too honours Nirmal Jena’s father and guru, Guru Surendra Nath Jena, for creating such a unique and pure art form. Inspired by temple sculptures, ancient manuscripts and the essence of life in Odisha, the Jena family’s Odissi is an expression of inner ascendancy and spiritual resilience, so acutely needed in our modern world, says Reena.
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