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Meet the Melbourne artistes promoting Indian classical dance to western audiences
To be innovative and relevant is a driving inspiration for many dancers, but for Melbourne dancer Ghirija Jayarraj it is an all-consuming passion, and one that she aims to share with the world. Not content with immersing herself in the glorious artistic traditions of Indian classical dance, Ghirija hopes to take the mainstream modern and western audience along with her.
Ghirija Jayarraj is both Founder and Creative Director of Shastram, an initiative established to promote, market, discuss, share knowledge, and present Indian classical dance forms in a new light to the masses. Rapidly building a discerning fan base, Shastram explores the mystical proportions attached to Indian classical dance forms with a view to dispelling myths and enhancing experiences.
Combining various mediums of expression, including photography, filmmaking, movement vocabulary and dance, Shastram was created by Ghirija in 2010 as a result of her personal journey to capture ‘dance’. Using her personal savings she embarked on a quest for inspiration, to tell her story and to hear from others. The recording she made became the Shastram series, available online for everyone who likes dance and is drawn to its emotive core. Serving the dance community, Shastram now also includes workshops, blogs, television appearances and other efforts to spread awareness of Indian classical dance and western fusion efforts.
Ghirija herself is an Indian classical dancer who has spent over three decades specialising in Bharatanatyam under renowned teachers like Madurai R Muralidaran, Smt Bhavany Shivakumar, Girish Panicker and Urmila Sathyanarayana. She credits her mother Dr Shaantha Jeyaraj as being her first and chief dance guru. She also learnt Odissi under the Temple of Fine Arts in Western Australia and as a disciple of Monica Singh in Melbourne.
“Dance has been in my life from a very young age,” Ghirija says. “Dance has given me strength, identity and balance in life, and it has helped me to find equilibrium during tough times. I wanted to contribute something towards the art form and sing its praises, which is what Shastram is all about.”
Her passion for dance clearly reflected in her articulation, Ghirija continues,
“I am doing various projects under the name of Shastram that are trying to popularise the art form to an audience who hasn’t heard of it or who does not understand it or who thinks it’s too high class.”
Indian classical dance was historically used to convey stories through the vedas to the common man. Dance forms like Mohiniyattam, Kathak, Odissi and Bharatanatyam offered a form of spiritual emancipation, with an emphasis on creative freedom and the chance to express through nuanced physical language. Every human emotion was depicted through dance, be it sensuality, evil, mothers love, war, peace and many other concepts. Ghirija feels that today’s audience is disconnected and does not always understand the philosophies behind these art forms. Shastram was created to bridge that communication gap.
Perth based Bharatanatyam dancer Christopher Guruswamy agrees with Ghirija’s assessment. “I very strongly believe that Indian classical arts are right up there along with any of the western classical arts. It’s just that they are not given the time and focus that they so rightly deserve,” Christopher says. “Ghirija, through Shastram, is creatively linking the past and the present and is bringing Indian classical art to the forefront in a very contemporary way.”
Half Scottish and half Tamil in origin, Christopher started learning Bharatanatyam from his aunt Jayalakshmi Raman at the age of six. He graduated from Kalakshetra Indian Arts and Cultural Academy, a prestigious arts institution in Chennai. He is currently a member of Leela Samson’s Spanda Dance Company and has performed extensively in many countries around the world. His most recent Bharatanatyam performance was at the Sydney Dance Festival in April 2016.
“I think it is important that we don’t allow dance to take a back seat in Australia,” says Christopher, who has studied many forms of dance from ballet, jazz and tap to acrobatics and gymnastics. “It’s a big commitment to pursue this art with the diligence and intelligence that is required. The sahityam or learning the lyrics will make one value the culture of India so much more than simply treating Bharatanatyam is an exercise,” he continued. “I feel we need to appreciate the beauty of our writings and poetry and give them the respect they deserve.”
Tall and graceful Odissi dancer Lillian Warrum from shares these sentiments. “Odissi classical dance demands a tough discipline and people don’t always find the repetitive nature of it exciting, Lillian explains. “However, it all becomes worthwhile when they perform and are able to experience the richness of this dance form.
A senior disciple of renowned Odissi exponent Monica Singh from Gisborne in Victoria, Lillian is studying for her Masters in primacy teaching while also learning Sanskrit in order to understand the in-depth meaning of Indian lyrics and music. A trip to India and a chance meeting with an Odissi dance teacher sparked an interest that is now an integral part of her life.
In her fifth year of learning and performing this graceful dance Lillian says feedback from audiences has been incredibly positive.
Lillian is currently involved in the production of The Magic Hour with Arjun Raina, which will be on at the Footscray Community Arts Centre in August.