It was a life-changing moment for Anuradha Nehru. Her guru, the late Vempati Chinna Satyam, the man who taught her Indian classical dance, was touring the United States with a solo dancer. He invited Nehru to perform with them on their final night in Washington.
Nehru practiced for two months to prepare for that moment. When her dance was over, Nehru says her guru said to her: “What are you doing with your life? You’re wasting your time. Anyone can do a job, but not everyone can dance like you.”
And with that, Nehru, the founder of Kalanidhi Dance — a Bethesda-based company celebrating its 25th year — embarked on a journey that nurtured her lifelong passion for dance in a country more attuned to ballet and Bollywood dancing than to Kuchipudi, a form of Indian classical dance.
The company is the subject of a short film, “Why We Dance,” by local filmmaker Ellie Walton. She says she was captivated by the courage it took for Nehru to pursue this art form and “that process of how are you simultaneously losing yourself in the art form you love and how are you building a community through it.” Her film aims to show how even if viewers are unfamiliar with the form, the dance “goes to a deeper core that people can connect to.”
Even within the larger classical Indian dance world, Kuchipudi, which hails from southern India, is something of a niche market. But Nehru, 55, has found ways to overcome that, in part through collaborations, with Washington’s Opera Lafayette and with modern dancer Seán Curran, who is chair of the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
A dancer who spent 10 years with Kalanidhi in Bethesda is today one of India’s top Kuchipudi dancers; “I’m known in India today as Amrita Lahiri’s guru,” Nehru says with a laugh.
In fact, that’s not a bad place to be for a woman who wants to help Indian classical dance take off in the United States and make it possible for young dancers to become professional Indian dancers.
It may seem to be a quixotic goal. But Nehru has tilted at bigger windmills than that. As a young woman growing up in southern India, she studied Kuchipudi. College, marriage and family forced her to set aside her vision for a while, but she was always working on ways to get back to dance.
She says she didn’t have a choice. “I think the only thing is that I can’t imagine not continuing,” Nehru says in her Bethesda home, which doubles as a school and dance studio. “I never set out with a goal in mind. I always did it because I loved doing it.”
Kuchipudi demands that kind of devotion. It’s a complex art that combines storytelling, music and creative expression. Besides the 28 single-hand gestures and 13 double-hand gestures, there are six foot positions and 108 different units of movement, not to mention moves for the nine basic emotions portrayed in many of the dances. Even that description is an oversimplification, Nehru says.
The discipline requires hours of practice, physical conditioning, rhythmic know-how and a sense of maturity to be able to convey a story or an emotion. No movement is without meaning.
Dancers, Nehru says, need five or six years just for body conditioning and learning the basic dance vocabulary. “It’s five years before we even start teaching the expressive dance aspects,” she says, “because expressive dance comes with maturity, too. Indian dance has so many layers of complexity to it that it does take 10 to 12 years to even begin to get a grasp of it.”
If that’s what dancers must do, imagine what a U.S. audience must know to fully appreciate the performance.
She has found creative ways to reach wider audiences. In 2013, Kalanidhi performed with Opera Lafayette in a production of “Lalla-Roukh,” a 19th-century opera that is set on the road from Delhi to Kashmir. Director Ryan Brown says that when he decided to use an Indian dance company in the show, he did a search online and discovered Nehru “in our own back yard. It was almost unbelievable that a group of that quality could exist so close by and kind of under the radar.”
Even though Nehru knew almost nothing about opera, Brown says, “she was just so attuned to every musical gesture in this music and style that was previously unknown to her.”
Opera Lafayette later used Kalanidhi in another production of an 18th-century opera-ballet by Jean-Philippe Rameau based on Egyptian mythology. “Even though those two aesthetics in Western music are very different, she had the same kind of careful listening and reaction to the musical gestures of that language,” Brown says. “On top of that, I find that she not only comes up with beautiful physical images but that they are really pertinent to the dramatic storytelling that’s going on.”
“She’s an astounding artist,” Brown says. NYU’s Curran, who worked with her on that second collaboration, says Nehru also invited him to lead a modern-dance workshop with her dance company. “Anu is kind of fearless,” Curran says. “She watched every hour of every rehearsal.”
Besides her collaborations, Nehru is known as “auntie” to a host of young Indian American women in the D.C. area. One of them, Chitra Kalyandurg, 33, has danced with the company on and off since she was 6.
“It’s totally shaped my life,” she says. In 2008, her love of Kuchipudi dance prompted her to quit her job and go to India for three months to study choreography. She says of Nehru: “I recently saw her practice for the first time in a while. When you see your teacher, your guru, up there dancing, you’re always in awe. She represents the best of everything that you want to have as a dancer.”
Another of the early students, Silpa Nanan, 32, says that Nehru would bring in teachers from India for workshops with the dancers. “I can’t describe the feeling, being there all day and dancing with people you just love being around,” she says. From early on, her summers were consumed by Indian dance.
The company will reprise one of its popular performances this month, as part of its anniversary celebration. “Rasa Revisited” (Saturday at the University of the District of Columbia Theater of the Arts) uses the backdrop of the Indian epic “The Ramayana” and will depict nine emotions through dance: love, happiness, fear, sorrow, disgust, wonder, anger, courage and peace.
The name “rasa” is deliberate. “The whole purpose of Indian dance is to create what’s called ‘rasa,’ ” Nehru says. To describe it, she says to think of the consumption of food. “When you consume a really flavorful meal, the kind of both physical and psychological satisfaction that you get is the same as when the spectator has watched this performance and he has not only been able to appreciate the physical beauty but is able to have that emotional sense of well-being or connection to whatever it is that the dancer is portraying.”
Although U.S. audiences may not grasp the full range of the poetry behind the dance, “what amazes me is that we have been able to come to a point today where we are making connections,” Nehru says. “The more you see it, the more you begin to appreciate it.”
It may also be easy to see what fed Nehru’s lifelong passion. Lahiri, one of Nehru’s former dance students, says that Nehru taught her to love Kuchipudi dance “for the sheer joy of it and for no other reason.”
Nehru now has a goal, though. She wants Kalanidhi Dance to grow and nurture professional dancers. “If you can produce even one or two students who continue Kalanidhi,” she says, “my life has been worth it.”