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Meet the Aussie practising one of India's oldest dance forms

Christopher Gurusamy
Christopher Gurusamy was introduced to Bharatanatyam by his mother in Perth.

Supplied: Christopher Gurusamy

Perth-born Christopher Gurusamy is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer and a former student of Kalakshetra Foundation, one of the most prestigious Indian classical dance schools in the world.

His love for the south Indian dance form took him halfway across the world at the age of 17.

Bharatanatyam involves hand and arm gestures, physical movement and the use of one's eyes to tell a story. It is always accompanied by Indian classical music, often of the carnatic tradition.

"I started Bharatanatyam in Perth because my Mum was a dancer. I also did jazz, tap, ballet... but it wasn't till I was 16 that I kind of became more serious about Bharatanatyam," Christopher says.

At the time, he enrolled into Kalakshetra as a full-time student and was meant to be there for just a month.

The Australian dancer has been based in the south Indian city of Chennai for a decade now. He works for the Spanda Dance company, run by former Kalakshetra director Leela Samson.

"Being at Kalakshetra was the most difficult I've ever done in my life. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know how to wash my clothes. I didn't like eating Indian food. I just really loved to dance so I put up with everything. No hot water, no TV, no internet access."

-Christopher Gurusamy, who spent seven years at Kalakshetra

Rama and Lakshman in Ramayana
Rama (2nd R) and Lakshman (2nd L) using Bharatanatyam to tell the story of Ramayana.

ABC: Shivali Nayak

There are references to Bharatanatyam that date back to the 1800s but the dance form has "stood the test of time" according to the director of Kalakshetra Foundation, Priyadarsini Govind.

"Bharatanatyam is a performing art now. It's an art that has moved from the temples to the... stage. The form has evolved over time and it retains that element of its origin but it has also moved with the times," Priyadarshini says.

Kalakshetra Foundation, which was founded in Chennai by Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1936, has been instrumental in helping preserve this dance form though it was banned during the colonial period in India.

The dance company returned to Australia after almost 25 years to perform 'Jatayu Moksham' earlier this month. It an episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana, which was the closing act for the Confluence - Festival of India in Australia.

"One of the remarkable things about Kalakshetra is that whatever has been done, the original has been kept. So truly it's like a vintage production... and it's one of the best dramatic presentations of the Ramayana which is part of the cultural history of [India]."

-Priyadarsini Govind, director of Kalakshetra Foundation

Even though it is an ancient dance form, interest in Indian classical dance continues to grow in India, Australia and around the world. There is also a growing demand for Indian music lessons in Australian cities because of the rising Indian population in cities like Melbourne.

Here in Australia, leading exponents, including Dr Chandrabhanu from the Bharatalaya Dance Academy and Anandavalli from the Lingalayam Dance Company, have incorporated other cultures and dance forms in their productions to reach a wider audience.

Christopher Gurusamy on stage
Christopher Gurusamy on stage.

Supplied: Christopher Gurusamy

Bharatanatyam used to be performed mostly by women, and men used to be teachers, but that has changed with more men now taking up the dance form. Still, Christopher Gurusamy says they face some challenges. He often finds that the audience expects male dancers to perform male roles, but as a dancer he enjoys performing both male and female roles.

"If I'm choosing a piece that I want to perform, work on or learn, I look for the meaning of the song regardless of the gender intonations that are present."

-Christopher Gurusamy

Christopher hopes that more people become interested in and supporting Indian classical dance forms in Australia.

"If you compare Australia to the United States, you see that the US has so much going for it. There are so many fantastic dancers in the US right now and there are so many organisations promoting Indian classical arts in the US," Christopher says.

"There are only a few festivals in Australia whereas in the United States, at one time there will be two troupes and two soloists performing."

"I hope that the dance form gets promoted and we're able to bring Bharatanatyam up to the level of ballet and other great forms because it is such a wonderful art form. I feel it's not getting the due credit that it so rightly deserves."

-Christopher Gurusamy

Christopher says he misses his family back in Perth but is not yet ready to pack his bags and return home soon.

"I have a year's supply of vegemite that people bring over for me to keep me going in the meantime," he says.

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Watch Christopher Gurusamy perform Bharatanatyam in India. Source: YouTube

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