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Sisters make traditional dance relevant

In the early 1970s, two little Winnipeg girls -- three-year-old Sowmya and four-year-old Shyamala -- learned their first Indian dance steps from their mother in the family basement.

The Dakshinamurti sisters were soon part of a small local group of second-generation Indo-Canadians who trained rigorously in Bharatanatyam.

Sowmya and Shyamala Dakshinamurti, both medical doctors, are principal dancers of Manohar Performing Arts.

CURTIS CARLSON PHOTO

Sowmya and Shyamala Dakshinamurti, both medical doctors, are principal dancers of Manohar Performing Arts.

It's the 2,000-year-old classical style from southern India that uses stylized steps, gestures, poses and facial expressions to tell stories based on Hindu mythology. The barefoot dancers traditionally wear bells around their ankles.

In 1991, after the Dakshinamurti girls and about five others completed their highly disciplined training, they formed a dance theatre company, Manohar Performing Arts.

Two decades later, Sowmya, 43, and Shyamala, 44, are the only original members still in Winnipeg. Both medical doctors, they juggle demanding careers while serving as the principal dancers and main choreographers of Manohar.

The troupe, which has received city and provincial arts grants, is currently all-female. It has added the northern Indian Kathak style to its repertoire and is affiliated with the Jhankaar School of Dance. It mounts a full-length production about every two years, with a cast size ranging from five to 18.

Manohar often performs at Folklorama. But if anyone thinks it exists to preserve quaint, frozen-in-time folklore, they're mistaken, the sisters say.

Just as ballet has spread globally and evolved, everywhere that classical Indian dance flourishes -- from England to Australia to Malaysia -- it takes on local flavour and contemporary influences.

"It's not about old, dusty, dead things," says Shyamala. "It's here and now."

Manohar strives to blend the historical style with narratives that are relevant for today's audiences. "We don't want them to be museum pieces," says Sowmya.

The company first started to innovate in the mid-1990s when it created a story about an abused woman searching for strength. The sisters did extensive research to find ancient scriptural songs and poems to fit the idea. But they also wrote poems and "mythological inserts" of their own.

"The thing that was absolutely priceless was, some of the things people complimented us on for being very progressive, we were like, 'Yeah, that one is 2,000 years old,'" says Sowmya.

"And other ones, people told us, 'Wow, when you did that traditional item. . .' and we were like, 'We made that one up!'

"That opened our eyes that we can do this. We can make stories that draw on an astonishing classical tradition, but aren't exclusively just that tradition."

Subsequent productions have included one that followed a pair of ankle bells through generations and one that highlighted the connections between yoga and dance.

The next full-length performance for the troupe will be Oct. 6 at the Pantages Playhouse. It's a reworked version for 12 dancers of The Game, a production Manohar created in 2006 about women in the context of war.

"Dance is a living, breathing entity," says Sowmya. "I'm not doing it because I'm Indian, or because I want people to see that this is Indian. I want people to see that this is art, as opposed to me holding onto the old-country ways."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 J14

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