February in Italy is synonymous with Milan Fashion Week and the Venice Carnival, where fashion shows and colorful festivals take center stage. In Rome, Apsara Bollywood Dance founder Valentina Manduchi curated a weekend program celebrating Indian dance and culture. Two days of beginner classical dance workshops were accompanied by the Apsara Indian Dance and Fashion Night at the Indian Embassy in Rome.
I discovered Valentina’s work to promote Indian arts in Italy when she hosted renowned kathak dancer Anurekha Gosh for an evening commemorating the arts and culture of Moghul Emperor Akbar’s Court.
A lack of general rhythm did not deter me from trying out the kathak workshop. My Bollywood obsession stems in part from the beautiful choreography in the lavish kathak performances seen in films focused on Moghul history. The workshop provided an unintimidating atmosphere to learn about this classical dance form. (In India, even introductory courses are filled with students who have spent years practicing.)
Painting of Singer at Akbar’s Court by Italian artist Piera Cuccia
Fashion Show Celebrates Iconic Women of Valor
The fashion show featured stunning silk and cotton sarees, sequined lengha and choli outfits, and regal Moghul Anarkali suits — all with a historic twist. The catwalk celebrated iconic women leaders throughout Indian history from Rajput princess Padmini to the warrior queen of Jhansi and Moghul empresses Nur Jahan and Jodha Bhai.
Jhansi ki Rani (Queen of a north-central state who served as a symbol of resistance against British colonialism) wore a feminine pink silk saree while wielded a warrior’s sword with finesse on the catwalk.
Bharatnatyam is a classical South Indian dance originally performed in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu. It was traditionally performed by solo female dancers and traces its origin to the ancient Sanskrit Natya Shastra texts on the arts and dance. Religious themes and spirituality form the foundation of Bharatnatyam. Years of training are required to learn the facial expressions and delicate gestures. This dance form has inspired Indian art, cave paintings, and sculptures for centuries.
Thiruvadhira Dance from Kerala
A traditional dance from the Southern state of Kerala, Thiruvadhira is performed by a group of women around an oil lamp (nilavilakku). The dance serves as a celebration of marital fidelity and female energy. The dance is performed in a circular pattern accompanied singing and clapping of the hands.
Garba is a traditional dance from the Western state of Gujarat. It is usually performed around a clay lantern and honors the goddess Durga, the feminine form of divinity. Dancers revolve in circular formations to represent the cyclical nature of time in Hinduism — birth, to life, to death and again to rebirth. Whether it is Garba or Sufi whirling, you clearly notice the theme of circular formations in dance forms influenced by the diverse regions and religions prominent in India.
Valentina closed the show with the sufi kathak influenced Deewani Mastani dance from Sanjay Leela Bansali’s opulent Bajirao Mastani film, which depicts the love story of the Marathi Peshwa (minister) Bajirao and his second wife Mastani. Sufi kathak combines the storytelling techniques of kathak with the spinning meditation prominent in Sufism. Bansali is a popular Bollywood director famous for recreating sumptuous period stories that showcase both Indian traditional and folk dance in painstaking detail. The dance, choreographed by the legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj, continues to bring kathak (a North Indian dance with Sufi aesthetics) to modern audiences around the world.