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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

In the spotlight: Sheila Rubin - celebrating Bharatnatyam heritage

In the spotlight: Sheila Rubin - celebrating Bharatnatyam heritage

Bharatanatyam is an ancient theater art from India, meaning ‘bha-bhava’ ‘ra-raga’ and ‘ta-tala’, a combination of all three of these forms.

Utilizing brilliant colors, complex steps, and dramatic expressionism with an incorporation to spiritual narrative, it is no doubt that Birmingham has taken notice of this celebration of heritage with Sheila Rubin at the rein.

Sheila Rubin is a Bharatnatyam guru and dancer who has made Birmingham, Alabama her home for more than three decades.  Sheila Rubin’s  dance lineage can be traced back to the illustrious and legendary Bharatnatyam dancers Shri Dhananjayan, Shrimathi Shantha Dhananjayan, Prof C.V. Chandrasekhar and Kumari Meenakshi of the Kalakshetra style.

Sheila, who studied and performed Bharatanatyam in India for 12 years, has captivated Birmingham audiences for many years with her dance company Natyananda’s prolific performances. Sheila’s Natyananda dance company has been a cornerstone of Birmingham’s thriving Asian community since 1978.

Sheila Rubin in blue outfit with her gurus Professor C. V. Chandrasekhar and Jaya Chandrasekhar and other performers
Sheila Rubin in blue outfit with her gurus Professor C. V. Chandrasekhar and Jaya Chandrasekhar and other performers
“Overwhelmed by Sheila’s debut performance in Chennai, Kamala Lakshman, who had been in the audience, came backstage after the show, hugged Sheila and openly declared that Sheila was much better than the Indian dancers! ,” said her guru Dhananjayan.

"What personally captivates me about Sheila Rubin is her transcendence amongst all cultural and religious definitions in her continued passion for Bharatanatyam. What sliver of intuition is conjured in order for a young white American teenager to travel halfway across the world and become a devotee for life in such a magnanimous ancientness? That same transcendence, that same relentlessness is also vested in the young children of her dance group, many of them second-generation Indians, who share her delight and enthusiasm as they affectionately refer to her as ‘sheila akkā,’ or sister Sheila, and gracefully graze the stage with their agile techniques", says Gautham Sambandham.

Gautham’s mother has been learning from Sheila for the past four years. He sat down with Sheila for a candid interview for Pravasi and gives us a glimpse into her life and art.

PRAVASI: So tell me, how does a white lady in Birmingham, Alabama become not only interested, but also entrenched within such an elaborate and ancient foreign culture?

SR: Well, I entered the University Of Texas at the age of 15. My mom was doing research in India and one of her instructors, the novelist and philosopher Padmabhushan Raja Rao suggested this particular arts school in Southern India. It sounded intriguing and exotic, so I made the journey with my family.

PRAVASI: Wow, and so began an illustrious career...

SR: Yes, many teachers, many years...

PRAVASI: So describe Bhartananyam for the uninformed, the origins of this intensive art form.

SR: We don’t know exactly the precise year or date of its origin. Perhaps about 2,500 years ago? Of course, when it was written down in the NatyaSastra, the definitive treatise on theatre art it was already well formed. And we still use those same shlokas from the Natya Shastra. All of the dance forms of India come out of that treatise. The forms have traveled as well over into Thailand, Indonesia, Bali; you can see the same mudras, the same stories and the same aesthetic in the dance from the peninsula farther east.

PRAVASI: On that note, you were talking about how Bharatanatyam influenced other countries in Southeast Asia. I read on your website you have incorporated other styles, other music from various countries. How do you continue to innovate? What do you constantly bring in, what are some of the newer things you brought in since you vested in this dance company?

SR: Well, I have found the Indian aesthetic and philosophy so fulfilling for myself over the last forty-five years. But after all I’m an American, and here I am, living in America. So I felt for many years as if I was a split person with one foot on either side of the Earth. About 25 years ago, I started studying Joseph Campbell, Heinrich Zimmer, Carl Jung and many other scholars that have worked with world mythology and dream analysis. The motifs that are so perfectly elaborated in Hindu mythology are universal. And so that really helped me integrate within myself the conviction that these speak to me not just because I’m a displaced Indian, but because I’m a human being.

PRAVASI: Right, I have noticed that with my culture, Hinduism seems more universal than particularly orientated to India. I know my mom always lectures me in the morning, “Our culture’s just so great, so rich and vivid,” and I am like, “Yeah, it is.”

SR: It really is; it gives you so much material for working on yourself--and understanding yourself. And, in fact, that’s what I’m working on right this minute, I’m reading a lot of Carl Jung, Heinrich Zimmer, and all of those guys, again, because Neha, whose Arangetram I’m working on right now, and I have really been working on connecting the dance imagery with one of the psychological ideas of Carl Jung. His hypothesis in this case is that that every man has an inner being, you could say, that’s feminine. And every woman has a part inside of herself that’s masculine. He postulates that it’s only when we integrate those inner and outer parts of ourselves that we become complete and fully functioning human beings.

There are many, many ways of looking at the lover and beloved motif that runs throughout a lot of sacred literature all over the world, but is particularly well developed in India. You can say that the lover is the human soul and the beloved is God. You can also say that we should see God in everybody. If you see Krishna, the god, as a little child, you can see that divinity in any little child. That’s one of the easiest ones. If you are really, deeply in love with somebody, you see that divine essence within him or her.

So, you can see it as an outer process of being in love with something outside of yourself, but you can also see it as an inner process of integrating all of your own potential, your being, into every action that you do. A typically brought up man, may not be so much in touch with his emotional life. A conventionally raised woman, on the other hand, may not be so in touch with her possibilities for assertiveness or intellectuality, or for all of those things we think of as masculine qualities. You can think of it is as a process that is really all within each one of us, that we are trying to find God within ourselves, that we are trying to become complete, self-realized human beings.

PRAVASI: Arangetram, it means ‘ascend the stage.’ What is the preparation like for the final performance – The Arangetram?

SR: It usually takes my students about 10-12 years to prepare for it. After a student has gotten to a certain technical proficiency and maturity, I usually start to talk to the parents and say, “We can think about having an Arangetram in two years, or three years.” Then we start making the plans. The musicians we have to book at least a year, preferably two years beforehand. Then we choose the items. We create the whole performance to fit the personality of the dancer, and also to give her or him room to grow.

We might take an idea that the dancer and I are very interested in and choose the dances around that idea. Alternatively, we might say, “Well, this dancer has one particular artistic weakness, so we have to use these dances that would help her or him strengthen that weakness, to become a completely well-rounded performer.” The last two or three years we are really, really working on technique, expression, on understanding the philosophy, on understanding the deeper meaning behind the stories. It’s a process for me as well as the dancer. I learn at least as much as they do, if not more.

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