Vishakha Iyer lives and breathes dance, Bharatanatyam in particular. And so it was a no-brainer that she picked Dance as an HSC subject.
Only weeks ago, she was selected to perform at the prestigious ‘Callback’, a showcase of the most meritorious compositions of HSC Dance students, to beheld in Feb 2024.
The 17-year-old Pymble Ladies College student peformed a Bharatanatyam fusion dance for her Year 12 major work, with an elegant and modern touch to it.
With it, she will now become the first-ever Callback Bharatanatyam dancer.
“I was very excited to be chosen for Callback,” Vishakha Iyer told Indian Link. “It made me feel validated and seen, especially because I wasn’t sure if Bharatanatyam would suit or appeal to my audience.”
She elaborated, “Through my Bharatanatyam major work, I wanted to show my Indian classical dance skills to the outside world”.
Yet she admitted it felt like “diving into the deep end” at the beginning.
Bharatanatyam as a craft is highly sophisticated, and quite vast, given the sheer depth of the mythology from which its content is sourced. Added to this is Vishakha’s own extensive experience, having performed on stage since she was a child. (Under the tutelage of her guru Chidambaram R Suresh, Vishakha presented her arangetram or formal debut at the tender age of 10, which must be a record of sorts.)
Ultimately Vishakha’s teacher helped her in incorporating a contemporary component.
“Bharatanatyam is very similar to ballet,” Vishaka described. “It has a few of the same techniques with the stretches. For example, the plie, which is the aramandi in Bharatanatyam (the starting position with the knees bent). My teacher and I realised there were ways in which we could blend the two forms to fit my presentation with the required criteria, so that’s where the modern part of my dance came from. I chose to do the Shiva Tandava Stotram.”
It turned out to be an excellent choice: as the cosmic dance of the Hindu god Shiva which eliminates all negative energies, it gave Vishakha full opportunity to demonstrate her skills, in choreography that was high in physicality.
Dynamic and powerful, it saw Vishakha cover the breadth of the stage with leaps and spins. For someone of small frame, the sheer energy and intensity of the performance was simply captivating.
Only days later, a select gathering of guests would get to see it again, at a Diwali event hosted by NSW Premier Chris Minns.
As she covered the floor with her vibrant and pulsating choreography, the audience stood transfixed, drawn into the enthusiasm fuelling her every movement.
This performance made her dig deeper into how she felt about her joint Indian and Australian heritage.
“I felt a deep connection between my Australian identity and my Indian ethnicity because of the location. Performing in the open, with the Sydney Harbour behind me and the bridge watching over, was a highlight.”
Vishakha’s Bharatanatyam practice started at a young age. “My mum noticed that I enjoyed moving as I watched her classes at her institute, the Samskriti School of Dance. She put me into classes when I was 3 and a half.”
As Vishkaha’s Year 6 selective examinations drew near, her mother gave her two choices: to take her exams or to complete her arangetram, a dancer’s first performance in the Bharatanatyam community, which signifies the end of their training and the start of their professional dancing career. “I eagerly said I wanted to do my arangetram. That’s when I realised I want to be a dancer.”
Hours upon hours of practice followed, in a dedication that continues to this day and looks set to be a part of her life well into the future.
“Dance is my life – it helps me express myself,” Vishakha revealed.
Vishakha has demonstrated appreciation for her culture, even though many young Indian Australians her age find it difficult to express their cultural identity due to fears of racism or judgement.
“Sometimes I did feel like an outsider at school,” Vishakha shared. “There were times I left out because Bharatanatyam was the only dance I knew compared to my peers. I kind of felt lost for a while. But I was wonderfully supported – by all my peers and teachers. I’m lucky to have a lovely group of people around me.”
Her biggest support though came as no surprise.
“My mum is my biggest inspiration,” smiled Vishakha.
It is clear that Vishakha’s dance experience so far has brought a greater sense of security in her culture, and gratitude for the loving community that has supported her throughout her journey thus far – her mother, her Bharatanatyam teachers in India, and classmates and teachers for enhancing her performances. The future holds many possibilities for this young and talented, Indian-Australian, dancing superstar.
This article was produced by Vya Pulavorty as part of her work experience at Indian Link. She is a Year 10 student at Cumberland High School.