When Visiting Instructor of Dance Smitha Magal moved to the U.S. from Chennai, India in the early 1990s, she didn’t know anyone nearby, except her husband, whom she had met through an arranged marriage. Feeling homesick, she turned to a form of dance that had been an important part of her life since she was nine years old: Bharatanatyam.
“I had to find some anchor,” she said, “and that was dance.”
Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance that can be traced back to around 200 B.C.E. Magal said the name is an acronym of three different terms: the Bha, or expressions, the Ra, or melody and the Ta, or rhythm. Natyam means dance. Dancers make specific hand and face gestures while maintaining the dance’s distinct bent-knees position. In the Nritta component of the dance, movements and gestures are purely for aesthetic beauty, but in the Nritya component, each gesture has its own meaning and can be combined to tell a story. Magal came to Kenyon this year to teach Bharatanatyam as a beginning dance course.
“The main function of Bharatanatyam is to tell stories,” Isa Mojares ’20, one of Magal’s students, said. “What’s interesting for me in class is to see how it’s been codified.” She compared the meaningful steps in Bharatanatyam to those of ballet, with which Mojares is more familiar.
A year and a half after her move to the U.S., Magal received a message from her guru of Bharatanatyam back home to start teaching. Magal was surprised by the message. She had just given birth to her first child and was expecting to devote the rest of her time to being a mother, but nevertheless, she heeded the call. In Bharatanatyam, the guru is more than just a teacher of a dance; they set an example for how to live. It is an important role and one cannot teach until their guru tells them they can, according to Magal.
She started by teaching weekly classes from her kitchen and now runs a dance school in Dublin, Ohio called Silambam. This year will be her twenty-fifth year of teaching.
Magal has a close relationship to the history of the dance form. Guru K.P. Kittappa Pillai, a descendant of one of the founding fathers of Bharatanatyam, was the guru for Magal’s guru, she said. Magal can proudly recount the details of the dance’s past, from its formation to what she called “the dark ages.” She hopes that all of her students feel the significance of this ancient tradition too, especially those of Indian descent.
“Culture and history is passed down through arts,” she said. “It’s like a connection to their roots.”
The student’s growth also doesn’t stop with dance. Magal wants her students to become not just good dancers but disciplined and responsible individuals. For the past 17 years, she has been collecting food cans with her students at her Dublin studio to donate to the Dublin Food Pantry. Last year, they collected over 350 pounds of food.
In one of her favorite memories from her time as a teacher, Magal said that one student, whom she taught outside of Kenyon, turned those values around and presented them back to her. The student had undergone surgery to correct her scoliosis and she was forbidden to dance by her doctors for two years. She still went to class every week and recited the steps aloud with the other students as they executed them. When she was finally cleared to dance, she had to relearn all of the physical movements that she had forgotten. It was an intense process, according to Magal. But finally, this past week, she was able to dance her first solo performance.
Magal attended the performance along with several of her students and colleagues from Kenyon. When her student completed her dance, Magal said, “She was in tears. We were all in tears.”