Sohini Roychowdhury’s Sohinimoksha Artes de la India is situated in the heart of Spain in Madrid, which provides a platform to all its citizens to learn Bharatnatyam. She mixes this Indian classical art form with Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Flamenco believing that dance surpasses all geographical boundaries and religions.
This weekend, we were fortunate to have a conversation with the woman who made it all happen. Sohini has been passionately devoted to Bharatnatyam since she was four after she watched Yamini Krishnamurthy on stage in Kolkata. She calls each lesson a celebration of life and before she was fully conscious, her career in this art form was made.
One could see that she had a lot of influences in her life which have made her the artist she is today to which she had to say, “The relevance of art in life, and art induced sensitivity, was imbibed in me almost from the time I was born. Born to sitar maestro Pandit Subroto Roychowdhury and sculptor Uma Roychowdhury, breathing in the notes of AhirBahirav, Jhinjhoti, Desh, Behag and Rageshri, dawn to dusk was a way of life. When I was around 8 years old, my father was in the process of popularizing Indian classical music in Europe. It was a very exciting and interesting phase of my life, where, along with the taste for Schnitzel and Frankfurters, the flavour of Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Brahms, had got into my blood.”
Her inspirations along the way have been Yamini Krishnamurthy, Birju Maharaj, Michael Jackson in dance; Ustad Ali Akbar Khan´s music and the poetry of Tagore, Rumi and Neruda.
When she moved to Madrid about ten years ago, her passion for Bharatnatyam led her to open her own dance school Sohinimoksha. We asked her about this journey, “Bharatnatyam,” she said, “was likened to some strange form of Belly dance, Bollywood or to an evolved few, ‘Indian spirituality’, that they revered, but would not care to learn, or buy a ticket to watch. An organizer of a street festival asked me if we disrobed while dancing, akin to a male Bollywood dancer peddling his wares in Spain – which apparently “middle-aged women in the audience loved!” She called this her moments of acute pain, darkness, and frustration which almost led her to pack up her ghungroos forever. “But, that one question,” She continues, “immediately fortified my resolution to create a platform, in Madrid, where an accurate representation of the classical form, steeped in tradition yet, borrowing and blending seamlessly with local and world flavours, would be present and available on a permanent basis.”
One of the biggest hurdles she faced while setting up her school was that Bharatanatyam as an idea was way out and farfetched in Spain and people there didn’t relate to it as a structured classical dance form. “Also, we battle cultural racism in Europe all the time. The ballet was and is accepted as a serious classical dance form, Belly Dancing and African folk dances were the ethnic flavors of the month. Therefore, we first, had to create awareness and supply, and then the demand followed.”
A major question which surfaced here was if the art form then, remained faithful to its origin, “A pure classical form can be married to other traditional forms without changing its essential character. It just becomes more consumer friendly with the infusion of local elements – which is an essential necessity to reach out to a larger audience. That is what Sohinimoksha´s core essence is all about.”
Sohini vision has always been to make dance more fluid. One of her significant achievements here has been the mixture of Bharatnatyam and Spanish Flamenco. As Flamenco is a very passionate, fiery dance form, and lends well to storytelling, she fused it with Bharatanatyam quite seamlessly. “Our Aditaal matches very well with their Buleria and the intensity and the expressions can be married very well with ours. I think, it has something to do with the sun shining most of the year in both Spain and India brightly. The warmth of the hearts match and the thus, the arts blend together. It was not just about technical similarities of differences.”
This year, she performed in the historic and iconic Cabalgata de Reyes (Cavalcade of Kings) parade on the streets of Madrid on January 5th, with her troupe of 30 dancers. “Dancing Bharatanatyam and yet being a leading and integral part of such a traditional Christian event in such a Catholic city, in front of a live audience of more than 50,000 and a television audience of millions, was definitive proof of the fact that we have made a difference and a dent!”
We asked her about how she promoted this art form among the people of Madrid, “Through my own cultural center -Sohinimoksha Artes de la India, my classes in Casa Asia, and performances with my students at all leading events, film festivals, Indian Embassy events, at Museums, lecture demonstrations and seminars at Universities and many events that are not at all related to India!” She also, worked a lot with children – not only teaching them about our craft and culture but, in the process expanding their minds and souls to a world outside their daily lives.
When asked about the role she prefers – of a performer or a teacher, “Both equally.” She says, “Audience applause, stage lights, media curiosity and fan adulation makes me fall in love with myself every time. But I guess there is a degree of vanity and narcissism that creeps in with all that. As a teacher, transferring knowledge is 100% selfless – like the relationship between a mother and her children. So, it’s a balance.”
One can see that these days, the West seems more interested in Indian culture while we appear to move away from it, “Our schools, colleges and universities do not do enough to promote and sustain our own music and dance in any structured manner.” She continues, “An average Indian child does not know the difference between a Sitar and a Sarod unless, there is a tradition of classical music in the family. But in the West, an average child would know the difference between a violin and a guitar – because of basic music training in elementary schools. But at the same time, India is one of the only countries in the world where Hollywood films have not been able to take over local box offices – Bollywood and regional cinema still rule in India. The same is with film, folk, classical and fusion music. So, India has over the years, adapted from all over but, has still retained and cherished its own culture.”
In the end, when asked if she would have done anything differently, she replied, “Absolutely not!”
Website – www.sohinimoksha.com
Twitter – @sohinimoksha
Written byShraboni Dutta
Shraboni is studying English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She has a knack for telling stories which comes from her love for theater. Extremely curious in nature, she is passionate about learning more about people, culture, and heritage.