Indian Classical Dance Performance Shares Story of Resiliency

The production features 40 students performing to music in five different languages.

Two female Indian classical dancer performers
Photos courtesy of Dhirana Academy of Classical Dance.

Megha Rao remembers dancing anywhere and everywhere as a child. After officially beginning to study the artform at the age of 6 or 7, she never looked back. 

“It’s just me. I don’t know anything else,” she says. “You ask me why I dance, I don’t know. It just makes me feel complete.”

Today, Rao has danced professionally for about two decades and is the artistic director of Dhirana Academy of Classical Dance in Bentonville. On Saturday, 40 of her students ranging in age from 5 through 18 will perform in the academy’s 5th annual fall production, Baala: Tale of Kanha

The academy was founded in 2011 on the principles of instilling a deep understanding and strong foundation in Bharatanatyam, one of the oldest Indian classical dance forms, Rao says. Initially, students did not have a lot of opportunities to perform so Rao launched Pradarshana (the annual fall production) in 2017 as a solution. 

This year’s show tells the story of Krishna, a well-known Hindu god. The production begins with the divine prophecy surrounding his birth and progresses through his childhood antics as a cowherd boy.

“Krishna is basically a very young boy who’s suffered a lot in his childhood,” Rao says. “He’s the naughtiest kid that you can find, but yet charming and very determined.”

Krishna overcomes the struggles he faces and Rao was inspired to share that story with the audience because of the challenges children have faced during the pandemic.

“I thought this was the perfect theme to narrate these stories and when I told my students, oh God, it was worth choosing this,” she says.

Instead of hosting an in-person event in 2020, Rao invited an artist from Seattle and one from St. Louis to perform virtually. Rao is not only celebrating a return to in-person performing this year, but also being a recipient of an Artist 360 grant. A program of Mid-America Arts Alliance made possible through the support of the Walton Family Foundation, Artist 360 provides grant funding and professional development opportunities to individual artists of all disciplines in the Arkansas counties of Benton, Carroll, Crawford, Sebastian and Washington.

The grant is giving her peace of mind because in the past, Rao would spend a large portion of her annual income on this one production because she felt giving her students this platform to perform was so necessary.

“Every year I spend thousands of dollars out of pocket to create this opportunity for my students and it is overwhelming…now we can peacefully connect all these events and we don’t have to worry about a lot of these costs,” she says.

Rao choreographed and is directing the 90-minute dance drama, which includes English narration and classical music set to five different Indian languages. The family-friendly performance is appropriate for all ages and any language speaker, she says.

Baala: Tale of Kahna is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 20 at Bentonville West High School, which is located at 1351 Gamble Road in Centerton. General admission is $10 per person and children four and younger are free. A limited number of VIP tickets, which include seats in the first two rows, are available for $50. A household can also stream the event online for $20. 

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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.