Text and Photos by Sherwood Chen, Associate Director and Apprenticeship Program Manager
November 26, 2008

Master artist Viji Prakash (left) and apprentice Kasi Aysola in Prakash’s West Los Angeles dance studio.Los Angeles-based master artist Viji Prakash is a current participant in the Alliance’s Apprenticeship Program alongside 17-year old apprentice Kasi Aysola of Reseda, conducting lessons in South Indian Bharata Natyam at Prakash’s studio in Cheviot Hills, West Los Angeles. 

Bharata Natyam is one of the oldest performing art forms from Southern India, originating in temples and handed down over millennia through the Devadasi and Nattuvanar traditions.  The form plays a vital role in temple rituals and prayers and draws heavily from Hindu texts and scriptures.  Bharata Natyam portrays Hindu mythology and deities through rhythmic footwork, stylized hand gestures and postures and incorporates nritta (pure dance), nritya (a mixture of pure dance and interpretive dance) and natya (mime).  Abhinaya—the nuanced facial expressions needed to covey emotion—plays an important role in the form.  In its totality, Prakash explains, “Bharata Natyam keeps its students in touch with the roots and heritage of India through the storytelling and morals and values that further reinforce Hindu values.”

The apprenticeship focused on improving solo repertoire for Aysola.  As a male practitioner of a predominantly female art form, Prakash wanted to take the opportunity in the course of the apprenticeship to refine choreography and develop repertoire that would be appropriate to Aysola, an opportunity which would differ from working with her other female students.  The skills developed in the course of the apprenticeship included strengthening Aysola’s stamina and endurance, exploring the emotions of Abhinaya, and perfecting a solo repertoire suitable to Aysola’s body, capacity and potential.  Additionally, Prakash has encouraged Aysola to develop choreography on his own, as a way to develop movement and thought processes for himself.  Together, they intend “to produce a solo program that accustoms to the male physicality and energy in content, context and performance,” with an ultimate goal to allow him to perform solo repertoire in India.

Prakash began her training at age four in Mumbai, studying under Guru Kalyanasundaram in the Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kalamandir.  Her career as a performer, soloist, teacher and choreographer has spanned over forty years, and has taken her throughout the world.  “I have always aspired to make this art my career, and now I am living my dreams,” she states, “I continue to teach so that I can keep the tradition of Guru and Sishya Parampara alive.”

Aysola started to work with Prakash when he was six-years old.  With over a decade of training, including preparing for his arangetram in 2005, Aysola has mastered his basic training in the form, has toured with Prakash’s Shakti Dance Company (est. 1981) for four years, and continues to supplement his ongoing studies with Prakash by participating in Bharata Natyam dance camps and studying with other prestigious Bharata Natyam exponents. “Bharata Natyam plays the biggest role in my life,” Aysola notes “I always enjoyed the complex rhythmic patterns and fast paced footwork. [It] has given me a sense of identity and a place in this society.  I also learned discipline of the mind and body from this art.”

Prakash refines Aysola’s posture before a drawing of Lord Krishna in Prakash’s studio.Early on in his studies with Prakash, when he was still a boy, Prakash recognized in Aysola “an immense passion and drive for dance… Kasi would come to every performance that was being presented no matter what the circumstances were.  He’s talented for his age, and has an innate sense of music.”

For Aysola, Prakash is “one of the best dance exponents.  Her dancing is mesmerizing and grips the audience’s full attention.  I have learned so much from her already and know that there is an ocean of knowledge that I have yet to receive.  Her teaching method is intense and rigorous, allowing my full potential to blossom.”

With a traditional repertoire which is oriented towards female practitioners and often “not structured for the male physique,” the apprenticeship offered a fruitful challenge of reworking the classical repertoire’s framework to accommodate Aysola.  Aysola represents a second or third generation of male Bharata Natyam practitioners in India and elsewhere, still considered a minority in his field and amongst his female Bharata Natyam colleagues.  Considering the “male perspective” has allowed the pair to question and learn what that very difference is of “what works and what doesn’t work with the male body,” Prakash explains.  Further, their investigation extends into the realm of narratives.  Traditional song lyrics which often accompany the choreography have been written by men, rife with narratives of a woman longing for a man. But what of other points of view, including the perspective of a man who longs unfulfilled for the company of a woman?  Prakash has addressed this question in drawing from lyrics which demonstrate Lord Krishna’s full and complex spectrum of emotions when he is spurned by his lover, and adapting it choreographically for Aysola to forge a portrait of a god.

Aysola will be performing on December 6, 2008, at the University of California Los Angeles Northwest Campus Auditorium from 6:00p to 8:00p.