Ukraine is not exactly an India-centric country and its capital Kiev is a patently European city. It is therefore remarkable that Kiev is home to a thriving school of Indian classical dance. It is even more remarkable that it came about through the efforts of a lone Ukrainian enthusiast of Bharatnatyam, the South Indian ancient temple dance.
Over the past eight years, the Indian Theatre Nakshatra has given countless performances, organised Indian art festivals and trained scores of Ukrainians in the art of Indian classical dance.
Nakshatra's founder Ganna Smirnova, praised by Indian art critics as an accomplished performer of Bharatnatyam, is not only its artistic director and main teacher but also the soul and moving spirit of the theatre.
She had her first glimpse of Indian classical dance during a “Year of India” festival organised in the Soviet Union in 1987. By that time she had 12 years of training in classical ballet as well as in Russian and Ukrainian folk dance behind her. She was also practicing yoga, and familiar with the Upanishads and the history of India.
“I was totally captivated by the beauty, rhyme and depth of Bharatanatyam,” says Ganna. “It was a fantastic blend of philosophy and mythology with music and movement. I wanted to make it my lifelong artistic endeavour.”
In 1998 she went to India on a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). For the next five years she learned Indian classical dance intensively under Guru Jayalakshmi Eshwar at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. She also took up learning the Mayurbhanj Chhau dance and Carnatic vocal music.
Her mastery of Bharatnatyam was so amazing that by the end of her stay in India, the ICCR added her name to a panel of best performing artistes, a rare distinction for a foreigner.
Eager to share her passion for Indian classical dance with fellow Ukrainians after her return to Ukraine in 2003, Ganna set up the Nakshatra dance theatre at the Taras Shevchenko State University in Kiev, Ukraine's premier educational institution. More than 200 students have since attended her dance classes; five of them later went to India to improve their techniques and two have started teaching in Ukraine.
For Ganna's students, Nakshatra Theatre is more than just dance classes.
“Bharatnatyam rouses their interest in Indian culture and history,” Ganna says. Besides teaching the theory and practice of Bharatnatyam, she gives master classes, lecture demonstrations and seminars at different educational institutions in Ukraine. Thanks to her efforts, Indian classical dance has become an indispensible feature of Kiev's cultural life.
The Nakshatra Theatre has staged several dance dramas based on the Indian epics, organised international festivals of Indian classical dance and music and invited famous Indian gurus of dance to teach local students. Nakshatra has turned into a veritable oasis of Indian art in the heart of the Slavic world.
Two years ago, Ganna wrote a book on Indian classical dance titled Indian temple dance — Tradition, legends and Philosophy, the first such book in Russian by a practicing local performer. She is now doing further research on the aesthetics of Indian temple dance at the Shevchenko University.
How can one person cope with so much work? Part of the answer is because of Ganna's Indian husband, Sanjay Rajhans who provides inspiration and support in all her endeavours, besides teaching at the Shevchenko University.
“I try to give a sense of encouragement and logistical support to my committed and god gifted wife,” says Sanjay, who met Ganna at a music class in New Delhi.
Sanjay and Ganna have twin daughters named Kate and Liz, aged 8, who are being raised in the dual Indian and Slav culture.
“They read Pushkin and the Ramayana and learn from Mama the basics of Bharatanatyam and Russian ballet,” he says. “We are trying to expose them to the very best of values of our two great civilisations.” Who knows, the first dynasty of Slav performers of Indian classical dance may be on its way up in Ukraine.