The Navatman School, located in downtown Chelsea, is one of several projects that falls under the umbrella of the greater organization Navatman. Founded by Sridhar Shanmugan and Sahasra Sambamoorthi, Navatman is an organization dedicated to supporting and teaching South Asian performing arts. The Navatman School offers a variety of music and dance classes, such as Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani (North Indian) vocal lessons, several kinds of instrumental lessons, and multiple types of dance, such as bharatanatyam and kathak. My project focused on Navatman’s well-attended bharatanatyam classes for adult students, largely those taught by Navatman founder Sahasra Sambamoorthi. Classes generally range from three to five people, offering a small, friendly atmosphere in which to learn.
Bharatanatyam is one of South Asia’s best-known classical dance forms and is said to have originated in the sage Bharata’s Natyasastra, “a classical text on dance and mime, which may have been written around the beginning of the Common Era.” Modern bharatanatyam, however, can be traced back to the dance’s “reform” at the beginning of the twentieth century. Prior to this, bharatanatyam was primarily performed in temples by hereditary devidasis, or temple dancers. Over time, these “localized devadasi traditions were transfigured into the pan-Indian form of classical dance” that people today know. During the British colonial era, devidasis and their dance began to be associated with vice and temple prostitution, leading to backlash against the tradition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, bharatanatyam underwent a radical reconstruction into an art form acceptable for middle class, upper caste women to perform. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the daughter of Theosophist parents,
was a leader of this reform movement, which brought bharatanatyam out of the temples and into other public performance spaces. She founded the famous dance school Kalakshetra in Chennai in 1936. Kalakshetra still exists and continues to teach and influence multiple forms of classical South Asian dance, most prominently bharatanatyam. Navatman, for example, uses some of Kalakshetra’s institutionalized methods of teaching bharatanatyam, like practicing exercise at three increasingly rapid speeds.
Unlike Kalakshetra and other more traditional learning environments for bharatanatyam, Navatman’s dance classes bring together a variety of interested students, from many different backgrounds, including recent South Asian immigrants, people of South Asian descent raised in the international diaspora and people from a variety of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Within the class, there is also a range of previous exposure to bharatanatyam, so that one class may have both interested newcomers and people with years of previous training who have returned to an art they love. Within the intimate space of their studios and classes, Navatman offers a fascinating example of how performing arts offer a link to a culture from which performers may either have come or in which they hold a deep interest.
While the other sites studied this year in “Hinduism Here” are temples, Navatman is an explicitly secular institution. Though bharatanatyam historically was closely aligned with Hinduism, at Navatman, Hinduism is the background from which students and teachers may build, rather than a central aspect of their learning or performance. During my first visit, Sambamoorthi explained to me that Navatman’s instructors maintain a “separation of
church and state” in their classes. Although the pieces they teach their students are often about Hindu gods and goddesses, Sambamoorthi says that in the context of Navatman’s studios, these are “just stories,” even for teachers who themselves are religious.
What, then, does Navatman have to do with “Hinduism Here”? Perhaps nothing. But to simply accept the idea that the bharatanatyam taught at Navatman and the Hindu tradition are entirely separate as clear and obvious would be to dismiss the many fascinating questions that Navatman’s existence raises and to misunderstand the complex history that allows a place like Navatman to exist and thrive. As a cultural institution and place of learning, Navatman sees its goal as being the preservation and continuation of South Asian performing arts in the American diaspora. Given the new American context of the art forms Navatman teaches, the school offers insight into the ways that religious connotations are and are not preserved. Navatman’s existence invites further questioning of how closely aligned with religion these art forms originally were and where the line between secular and religious art even lies, if it exists at all. Across the world, the arts have had a long-standing, close association with religion and dance is mentioned in Vedic texts. Defining art as simply religious or secular would be simplifying the situation.
Navatman is specifically designed to bring together people who might have otherwise struggled to find teachers. After graduating from Columbia University, where she was a member of the “semi-classical” fusion Indian dance group Taal, Sambamoorthi wanted to make performing and teaching dance her career, leading her to create Navatman. Traditionally, bharatanatyam and many other South Asian performing arts are taught to
students by a single guru, whose parampara, or lineage, students then join. At Navatman, however, students are exposed to and taught by multiple teachers, all of whom have their own distinctive styles, even while they teach the same material. Sahasra explained that she personally liked learning from multiple teachers and wanted to give others the same opportunity.
Navatman is unique in offering a large variety of classes for adult students as well as for children. Traditionally, dancers begin learning bharatanatyam at a young age and train for arrengatrem, a solo performance that tests the dancer’s abilities, somewhat equivalent to the kind of testing a karate student might have to undertake in order to earn a black belt. On a more religious level, an arrengatrem might be seen as the dancer’s equivalent to the upanayana, the Hindu initiation ceremony in which young Brahmin boys (and occasionally girls) are given a sacred thread, thus allowing them to participate in certain religious duties, studies, and ceremonies. At Navatman, the adult students may or may not have previous experience with bharatanatyam, but have the option to work towards their own arrengatrems in the future. In the traditional dance world, it is
unusual to begin dancing after early childhood, but the Navatman School offers the opportunity to learn regardless of age, subverting both the usual of the guru-student relationship and opening up the world of bharatanatyam to a larger group of people.
Though the Navatman School is a new addition to the larger dance world, it is already a place to which its students enjoy coming, both to learn and to create a community.