Monday, December 23, 2013

From Croatia, with Love

When Nikolina Nikoleski was 13, she saw a Bharatanatyam dance and was smitten. Years later, the Delhi-basedNikolina is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer herself

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, in 2010, Croatian dancer Nikolina Nikoleski was doing a Bharatanatyam recital on a stage at the banks of the river in Varanasi during the Ganga Mahotsav festival. To one side she could see small boats in which sat people, holding urns, that contained the ashes of their beloved ones.

A little strip of water separated me and the boats with the grieving relatives,” says Nikolina, at the conclusion of a dance recital at the JT Performing Arts Centre, Kochi. “In India, death and life lie next to each other. I would not have this experience in Europe, because I would be performing in an enclosed environment like a theatre hall. In Europe, we do not see pictures of death, nor do we talk about it. But in India you are constantly reminded about it. And that is why I like India so much. It is emotionally so intense.”

Nikolina was only 13 when, as a student of the High School for Dancing and Rhythmics, she had an interaction with classical dancer Sonal Mansingh at Zagreb. “Sonal explained to us the how and why of Bharatanatyam, and the meaning of the mudras,” says Nikolina. “She had an aura around her.” Fascinated, Nikolina did extensive research on Indian dance and mythology.

After further stints of Western dance training in Austria and Germany, Nikolina came to India in 2004 and spent six months at the now-defunct Bhaskara College of Fine Arts in Payannur in Kerala. 

Thereafter, in 2005, she secured a five-year scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. So she re-located to Delhi and trained under her guru, Padmabhushan Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan at the Ganesa Natyalaya Dance Institute.

She says that it was not tough to learn Bharatanayam. “The only difficult part was that I had to learn to have an expressive face,” she says. “In western dance we are introverted and the hand movements are simple and subtle. What helped me was that I was living in India. So I could see, 24x7, the way people shook their heads and used their hands so expressively.”

Asked the difference between Western and Indian dance, Nikolina says, “In contemporary Western dance it is all about fighting gravity. So there are lots of leaps and pirouettes. Also, there are duets and we hold each other's bodies often.”

On the other hand, Indian dance forms are all about the individual, even though the performance takes place in groups. “There is no physical contact or partnering,” says Nikolina. “Even if it is Shiva-Parvati, he is never lifting Parvati up in the air and pirouetting. I think this has got a lot to do with Indian culture, where a rigid caste system has discouraged physical interaction between people.”

Despite this, India, with its multicultural and multi-religious society, reminds her constantly of what her country had been. After the 1991-95 War of Independence, Yugoslavia broke up into several countries like Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. “It was a difficult time, although personally I did not suffer much,” she says. “The families are mixed. My mom is Croatian, while my father is Macedonian. But my family decided to stay together, no matter what happened.”
Now many people are nostalgic for the old Yugoslavia. “There was no need for a break-up,” she says. “All of us speak the same language, eat the same food and have the same culture and climate.”

But, at this moment, all this is far away for Nikolina. She is enjoying her career as a classical dancer as well as a teacher in India.

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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