At the age of 21, Singaporean-born Veshnu Narayanswamy decided to give up his struggle with Computer Science and leave for India to learn Bharatnatyam. While his parents were mighty upset with their son’s decision of choosing dance as a career, his extended family members gave him money for his travel to the home country.
From mastering Bharatnatyam in Chennai to learning Odissi in Melbourne to going on to become the only male Odissi dancer in Singapore, Veshnu’s two-decade long journey with dance continues.
As he gets set to perform in Auckland on March 16 – New Zealand being his home now – the artiste gives us a lowdown on what it’s been like to hold his own in a woman-dominated world and choosing Indian classical dance as his profession overseas.
“It’s been quite a struggle with everyone from my parents to my gurus in Chennai discouraging me to take up dance initially. In India, the gurus discourage you at first to test your determination and passion towards the art form. And once they know you are focussed, they will train you and take care of you like their own child,” Veshnu narrates.
As for getting drawn to Bharatnatyam, despite being born and brought up abroad, Veshnu says it was a very natural inclination. “Singapore is one of those few countries, which has a dominant Tamil population. Hence, my linking towards our culture was very strong. Having said that, I have a Westerner’s perspective. And so, I try to imbibe a theatrical form in my dance,” he says, adding, “For instance, Bharatnatyam overseas has been slightly stagnant and restricted to Aarangetram standards. I want to take it to another creative level and show my people what Indian classical dance actually is.”
Keeping that in mind, Veshnu has been consciously teaching students at his ‘Sri Vidyalaya Foundation’ in Auckland to approach Bharatnatyam as “a creative dance form, which has a classical base”.
Also, as someone who has broken norms, this artiste doesn’t believe in practising the age-old ritual of using Indian classical dance forms as a medium to worship gods and goddesses. “Even though I am a devout Devi worshipper, I regard dance as an open concept. When you portray God in a particular form while dancing and say that God is that way, you are stinting growth and restricting yourself. When I am dancing, I am creating the form. Hence, I am the creator,” Veshnu observes.
“Besides, I also feel that you cannot be complete as an artiste unless you go beyond the boundaries,” he continues.
For his contribution to the dance scene, he became the first Indian recipient of the prestigious ‘Young Artiste Award’ in Singapore. “Before I won, the focus was only on ballets,” he informs.
Talking about Odissi, another classical dance form for which he has earned much appreciation, Veshnu credits only one man for making him the renowned Odissi dancer that he is – Dr Chandrabhanu. “I learnt Odissi from Dr Chandrabhanu after performing in his Melbourne-based dance company’s production ‘Buddha – The Light of Asia’. As I was brainwashed by my gurus at Kalakshetra in Chennai against all the other dance forms, I wasn’t willing to learn Odissi. People at Kalakshetra believe in being dedicated to just one dance form and so, they discourage you to take up any other. But Dr Chandrabhanu convinced me to learn Odissi and I couldn’t have been more thankful,” Veshnu reveals.
And it doesn’t stop at Bharatnatyam and Odissi for this dancer. Veshnu has also been actively involved in contemporary dance and has been merging Malaysian and Balinese dance forms with Bharatnatyam and Odissi.
“That’s from an Asian perspective. I basically link the languages of these different dance forms to create my own language. Contemporary dance may not be a very popular genre but it’s about how you seduce the audience to watch you. I interpret my language in an intense way, measure my movements and to be able to do all of this, you must know the language really well,” he says on a parting note.
It is perhaps this intensity in his performances that got Veshnu most recognition for his solo works and broke the myth that male Indian classical dancers cannot attract audiences as solo artistes. Watch him present his unique creative vision in an open air performance at TAPAC (100, Motions Road, Western Springs) on March 16 at 7.20pm. The entry is free.