Celestial dancer shares heritage

With a name meaning celestial dancer, 12-year-old Menaka R. Ramprasad was born to express her South Indian heritage through graceful movements.

In early June, Menaka performed the 4,000-year-old Bharata Natyam Arangetram, a classical Indian dance solo, before an audience of 300 people at La Jolla’s Jewish Community Center.

The invitation-only event involved tremendous planning on the part of the Carmel Valley resident’s parents, Malini Rajagopalan and Mysore Ramprasad. They provided appropriate decor, lighting, an Indian ensemble and food for the 90-minute event.

Menaka, a seventh-grader at Mesa Verde Middle School, began her rigorous dance training at age 5 under the tutelage of Uma Suresh, artistic director of the Natyapriya Dance Academy. For the last six months, Menaka practiced four times a week, three hours a day to prepare for her performance. On the days she didn’t attend class, she practiced at home and did vocal training (via Skype and webcam) with her Indian grandmother, Mrs. Madhavi.

“This event was like a graduation for Menaka,” Malini Ramprasad said. “This meant a lot of commitment on the part of the artist in terms of hand, foot, eye and facial expression movement and coordination and also a sense of commitment, passion and understanding of the lyrics in order to present those expressions in the dance appropriately.”

Throughout the 90-minute series of dances, Suresh provided an oral interpretation of the meaning of the dances for the benefit of the international audience. Many of the songs are stories dedicated to the different Indian gods and goddesses, including Brahma the creator; Lord Shiva, the God of death; and Lord Ganesha, the elephant God, known as the remover of obstacles.

In ancient times, these classical dances were performed in sacred temple environments by dancers who devoted themselves to serving God. But over the years, the dance form evolved into a more cultural nature, and people began learning the dance form as a performance art.

The evening flew by for the young performer.

“By the time I got to my last dance, it seemed like it had only been five minutes, but it was really an hour and a half,” Menaka said.

That last dance of the evening was her favorite part of the program.

“It talked about world peace and the need to be friends with everyone and not have anger or aggression,” Menaka said.

Dance is a large part of Menaka’s world, and she plans to keep it that way by continuing to learn different dances and performing them.

“Bharata Natyam is just the beginning; there is so much more for me to learn,” Menaka said. “A lot of students might quit, but I am so passionate about it that I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

Dance is clearly a transforming experience for her.

“It means so much to me; every moment that I dance makes me feel like a better person,” Menaka said. “It expresses all my feelings, and I use dance in many parts of my life through all the expressions.”