Story by Sandra Davidson
Asha Bala is on a mission to make Bharata Natyam – an ancient South Indian classical dance – a celebrated American dance form. In this special 50 for 50 podcast, meet 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient Asha Bala.
Asha teaches the history and technique of Bharata Natyam to girls and women of all ages at the Leela School of Dance in Cary, NC. The dance began in the temples of South India, and it communicates ancient Hindu spiritual fables and messages. Performers are trained to convey nine sentiments – love, laughter, sorrow, fear, heroism, disgust, anger, wonder and peace – through intricate hand gestures, facial expressions, and footwork. Bharata Natyam can be traced back thousands of years.
"This dance form is one of the oldest dance forms in the world," says Asha.
"It used to be done by a particular segment of society, a group of people called Devadasis. These were servants of God. These were temple dancers and dance was a part of temple worship. These Devadasis were highly talented and highly accomplished not only in the dance, but in all the related arts of music and history and philosophy. They had the responsibility of preserving this tradition."
The dance’s story is filled with drama around religion, culture, and politics. It was banned during British colonial rule and revitalized during the Indian independence movement, during which it was taken from temples into secular spaces. Asha, who was born in Mumbai in 1952, first encountered Bharata Natyam during an era of national cultural revitalization in a newly independent India.
"I started learning dance when I was very young. My mother and my grandmother tell me that my early classes they took me in the perambulator…so I was that young," says Asha. "Many people were doing it. We didn’t have television, we didn’t have computers, there was no digital media. So, you could just soak yourself into this dance form, and it was still a time when we had these masters…these teachers. They belonged to the traditional caste of gurus. They gave you a very strong foundation, but along with this art form we learned a whole way of life."
The dance's rich traditions and complicated techniques have enchanted Asha since she was a child. Her mastery of the form enabled her to travel and perform extensively across India as a professional dancer. Her desire to understand the dance's history and place within the broader dance community led her to pursue two graduate degrees in dance – one in India and one in the United States at American University in Washingto D.C.
"When I came to American University as part of our assignments we had to go to performances and write about them. I realized that as much as it was interesting and exhilarating, there was very little presence of our dance form in these colleges," says Asha.
"They were happy offering them for one semester, but not [as] a regular instituted program in dance, and that set me thinking. I did my master's thesis within the context of multicultural education [and] how do you make dance education more inclusive? The argument is that it is a multi-cultural society, but the education system is still Eurocentric.”
Asha moved to North Carolina after completing her degree at American University to teach modern dance in the Cumberland County School system. She taught students about many different types of dance including Bharata Natyam. From there, she went on to teach at Fayetteville State University, the India Foundation, and finally at Leela School of Dance in Cary. Many of her students are Leela are part of our state's Indian diaspora community.
"They are very much a part of American culture," says Asha, "But for the time they are with me…there is a switch, and they become connected to their roots in India.”
All told, Asha's educated over 500 North Carolinians about Bharata Natyam, and she wants the dance to reach new audiences beyond the diaspora community. Asha views winning the North Carolina Heritage Award as a victory for the dance itself.
"Growing up in India, being a dancer, you are a part of a cultural environment where this dance is so highly respected, and it has such a presence in the country, such a standing in the country. It is the cultural heritage. It is respected as one of the national treasures of the country," says Asha.
"When I came over here, I was surprised to see that there was very little presence of this dance in this national cultural stage of this country. A dance form of this complexity, of this richness, of this depth, needs to be front and center, and this is one step that gets it closer to the national cultural fabric of this country. It shouldn’t just be limited to diaspora. It should become part of a bigger conversation of this country, and that is what I want to be able to do, to advocate for this art form. If I’m able to do that, that will be great. I don’t know if I can, but I will try.”