Since the age of 4, 17-year-old Radha Pandya of Edison has been perfecting a 3,000-year-old Indian dance to carry on the legacy of her culture and ensure its transmission to future generations.
The dance is the culmination of 13 years of practicing Pandya Bharatanatyam, the ancient classical dance originating in South India that has tied South Asian peoples to their history and culture.
The community cemented the tradition in New Jersey, home to nearly 385,000 people of Asian Indian descent.
Generations of women have trained to dance Bharatanatyam, a source of pride for their families. But few reach the level of Pandya.
“She has so much talent and interests, and I could see that even when she was a little girl,” said Guru Srimathi Selvi Chandranathan, who trained Pandya at the Bharata Kala Nrityakshetra dance school in Piscataway. “I know she has this special talent, so I chose her to play.”
Pandya, 17, has danced at cultural, religious and community gatherings around 40 times since she started her practice. His most recent performance was this month at the Nallur Festival, a 25-day event honoring the god of war Skanda. In September, she will perform during the Navratri festival, which honors Goddess Durga.
“When we grow up in America, away from our Indian backgrounds or other areas around, I think sometimes we lose our connection to our culture,” said Pandya, a high school student from Piscataway who plays the violin. “That’s what keeps us tied to this…dancing and teaching this to young children is a way to preserve this legacy, especially this super old and ancient dance form.”
Bharatanatyam, pronounced baa ruh taa naa tee uhm, is one of the oldest documented classical dance forms in the world, dating back to 1500 BC. It started in Hindu temples in South India as a traditional worship often used to express religious stories and devotions through rhythmic footwork, abstract body movement, hand gestures and facial expressions.
The dance movements, characterized by bent legs while the feet keep the rhythm, require skill, precision, strength and discipline.
Many of the stories told through this art form are familiar to the older generation, people like 70-year-old Shah Sundaram, an art teacher from Sri Lanka who grew up hearing them.
“I love this dance, the music,” said Sundaram, who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania. The dancers “finally arrive on stage, in the world.
“Dancing comes very easily, but it’s not easy,” he added. “The dances sometimes last 20 to 30 minutes. The [is] a meaning or a story related to the song, a religious story, and they can show in dance all the facial expressions.
He noted that dancing promotes good health, saying it is “an exercise for mind and body.”
Recently, Pandya took to the stage in bright hues for her Bharatanatyam Arangetram, the debut performance of a former Indian classical dance and music student.
In her moves to a live orchestra, she tells an ancient story of the god Krishna saving a king’s wife. The woman is taken away after her husband loses her in a game of dice. She screams for help, but no one comes to save her except the god Krishna.
“Acting this scene was very emotional because you play these different roles. You play the bad king, the good king, and then you play the woman trying to save herself and her dignity. And then you play the savior,” Pandya said.
“For me, I’ve always wanted to do this,” she added. “It’s also very different from my friends. A lot of them do Bollywood dances or things that are seen on TV and commercialized, but it’s a completely classical dance, so it’s a bit different from what you normally see.
Pandya plans to continue dancing and teaching, something she has done on occasion when Chandranathan asked her to teach a class for 8-12 year olds.
She inspired children like 6-year-old Meera Kaushik from Piscataway, who saw her Bharatanatyam Arangetram.
“I want to learn like her,” said Meera, who watched Pandya’s recital at the Jo Ann Magistro Performing Arts Center in East Brunswick in July.
“I loved it, she added. I like the singing. I like the dancing. I liked the movements. I even like the instruments, but my favorite part was the stories.
Sundaram says the value dancers bring to the community goes beyond entertainment.
“Mainly they do more community service afterwards,” he said of those who learn and perform Bharatanatyam. “They serve. They stand out in the community. That’s something I’ve noticed all these years.
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