In Step with Tradition| Sheela Chandrashekar has spent over three decades nurturing Indian classical dance
by Bhavana Gopinath
The Nepean Creative Arts Centre, home to several dance studios, is very busy on weekends. Kids of all ages scurry about, peeling off their street clothes and changing into dance costumes. Girls in bright salwar kameezes and saris stand out among the pink tutus. They are here to learn classical Indian dance traditions such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Kathak.
India’s classical dances, including Bharatanatyam, are forms of musical theater. Dancers don dazzling costumes and elaborate makeup for performances. They also follow strict conventions for body movements, and use nuanced hand gestures and facial expressions to portray emotion. The repertoire comes from India’s rich mythology, with sagas of divinity and tales of humanness. These traditions have evolved over centuries, each following a template handed down from ancient texts. Students are undeterred by the demands of Bharatanatyam; even in 21st century India, girls are expected to be familiar with the performing arts.
For immigrant Indian families and their children, classical dance provides an important connection to their heritage. About four per cent of Ottawa’s population has South Asian (largely Indian) roots. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh also share many cultural traditions with India. This vibrant South Asian community is served by several dedicated instructors of Indian classical dance. Sheela Chandrashekar is one such guru. A highly regarded teacher of Bharatanatyam, she’s the owner of Rathi School of Dance.
“Bharatanatyam is what I am,” Sheela says. “I can’t remember when I first danced, just like I can’t remember when I first took a breath. I’ve always danced.”
Sheela grew up as the youngest child in a multi-generational household in Bengaluru (earlier known as Bangalore), India.
Her family blended their adherence to tradition with a very modern outlook. Sheela’s mother, an accomplished singer and dancer, instilled in her a deep love for the performing arts. Her physician father, a very progressive man for his milieu, encouraged a strong sense of independence. While she dreamed of a career as a professional dancer, her father insisted on the foundation of a solid education. So they made a deal: Sheela would maintain her grades, and her father would support her aspirations.
Both kept up their ends of the bargain, and Sheela went on to pursue dance for the rest of her life. Back in the day, dancers followed the “guru shishya parampara” (guru student tradition), in which a student lived with the such as hand gestures, leg movements, rhythm, posture and stamina. She would also search within herself for that extra spark to transform her dance from technically adequate to divine. After years of such rigorous training, she would be ready to perform for an audience.
Though Sheela lived with her parents, she spent most of her day with her gurus as a shishya, even helping train other students. She absorbed everything about Bharatanatyam her gurus could teach and barely noticed the hardships—the homework done in the long commutes to the gurus’ studios, or the strain of dancing several hours a day. She found purpose and deep inner peace in her art. “The world stood still when I danced. Nothing else guru’s family as part of the household. This was immersion at its most intense. A student would learn the mechanics of dance, mattered,” she reminisces. She would draw upon that feeling for strength years later.
In 1979 at the age of 20, Sheela migrated to Canada to join her brother, to whom her elderly father had entrusted her care. She welcomed the opportunity to build a new life on her terms, but also felt rudderless at first. “I’m from a large extended family. Some days, there would be 40 people at lunch in my Bengaluru home. And here I was with only my brother and sister-in-law for company,” she recalls.
Dance eased the loneliness. She performed at the events of various Indian associations, and offered lessons out of her brother’s basement. What started then with a handful of students has grown into a reputed studio. Sheela estimates she has taught more than 400 kids over the years.
“Dance came to my rescue,” she say
s. “It was my anchor; it kept me sane and gave me the courage for everything else.” Her dance lessons financed computer science courses at Algonquin College, which led to a temp position in 1981 with Bell Northern. That job led to a 20-year career with Nortel, and now to her current position with JDSU. She has kept up with her dance lessons through all of life’s stages: career, layoffs, marriage and a child, a temporary move to the United States, and the death of close family members.
“I have the energy to keep going,” she says, “because this is not just a job, it is a responsibility.” Most of her students are second-generation immigrants, born and raised in Canada. Unlike their parents, “Indianness” is not deeply embedded in their daily lives; some of these kids may not even speak an Indian language, for instance. Their weekly Bharatanatyam classes help connect them to the Indian part of their heritage. Sheela tries to keep tradition alive by celebrating important festivals at the studio, requiring her students to wear Indian cloth
es for lessons, and even demonstrating the art of draping a sari.
Supporting her at every step is her beloved husband Cudavalli Chandrashekar (Chandru). They met at a party in 1977 in Bengaluru, and had an on-again off-again relationship over the next few years. The sparks flew during Sheela’s visit to India in the early 80s, and they were married in 1984.
Chandru was discovered in his early teens by a talent scout and quickly became a rising star in the Kannada movie industry. (Kannada is the language spoken in Bengaluru’s state.) His movies were commercially successful and earned critical acclaim. At first, Chandru was reluctant to relocate to Ottawa, concerned about leaving behind a thriving career. Sheela didn’t want to leave Ottawa, as she had set down roots here with her career at Nortel as well as her dance lessons.
The impasse was broken when Chandru visited Ottawa, and was immediately charmed by the city. Warmly welcomed by Sheela’s network of Nortel and Bharatanatyam friends, he soon felt at home. The decision was made; Chandru settled here. “I came to Canada for love, and then I fell in love with Canada,” he quips. Chandru worked with the Indian High Commission, and found ways to pursue his artistic interests. “In Canada, I got opportunities to make the kind of films that resonated in my heart,” he says. These projects, including corporate films and telefilms, brought him professional recognition and satisfaction. His work schedule also enabled him to spend a lot of time with their daughter, Tanya, when she was a young child.
Tanya’s earliest memories are of Bharatanatyam. Drawn to dance, she stepped up her formal lessons with her mother by sitting in on other kids’ classes. Outside the studio, she and her friends enjoyed Indian dress-up and dance sessions. This Indian side of her personality was and is matched by a fierce Canadian pride: as a child, she would tease her parents that they were merely “made Canadian,” while she had the privilege of being “born Canadian.”
Sheela and Chandru encouraged Tanya to follow her own path. She studied international development and business at Dalhousie University in Halifax, then decided to apply her knowledge by way of an NGO in Bengaluru. There, when not working on fundraising and grant proposals, she taught dance to kids in the villages where the NGO operated. Today, Tanya is with an advertising agency and continues to take Bharatanatyam lessons in Bengaluru. And when she comes to her mother’s studio in Ottawa, she is no longer a student but a dance guru.
Now that Tanya has left the nest, and Chandru spends large chunks of time in India for his movies, what are Sheela’s plans? “To keep dancing, of course,” she says. “As long as I have dance, I need nothing else.” After working all week at her day job, she is at the Nepean Creative Arts Center on the weekends for her bliss: teaching Bharatanatyam to new generations of children.