An Unswerving Faith in Dance

In our divided world, some stories need to be told.

On Sat 14th July, Settle Stories is proud to present one such tale. Soldiers of the Empire. This is the true story of over a million Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Gurkhas, rarely remembered for their contribution to WW1. More than 74,000 sacrificed their lives. This is their story, told by Annapurna Indian Dance Company, through their performance of 'Soldiers of the Empire'  using dance, storytelling and music. 

Annapurna Indian Dance are based in Halifax. Their vision is to achieve harmony and understanding between people of different cultures through Indian dance. The company aims to introduce the rich artistic and cultural heritage of India through performances of graceful and rhythmic Indian dances and storytelling. The company work with international Indian composers and choreographers and produces vibrant dance projects. 

The company’s main dance form is drawn from an ancient classical style called Bharata Natyam which is famous for its crisp rhythmic footwork and telling stories using stylised facial expressions and beautifully intricate hand gestures. Depending on the project other styles are also used especially Kathak, folk and creative.

Annapurna Indian Dance company are perfoming their show 'Soldiers of the Empire' which has recently been performed at venues such as the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, with Settle Stories at the Joinery, Settle on Sat 14th July. We caught up with Shantha Rao, Director of Annapurna, ahead of the visit to find our what motivates her and why this is a story that needs to be shared.

Q: What is your greatest accomplishment and why?

A: My dance work in Yorkshire with Annapurna Indian Dance company of course! I founded my company in 1993. All the projects which I conceived and delivered since then I have involved exceptionally talented artists (some were internationally renowned from India whenever funding permitted.) Another satisfying feeling is that over the years I have given opportunities to several young artists and mentored them. The company has toured extensively with many village rural touring schemes actoss the UK reaching  hard to reach communities and making Indian dance and stories accessible and enjoyable for all. Running the company which has a strong strong community spirit has been the greatest adventure in my life -every day a new discovery and a celebration in this journey.

Q: What problems have you been faced with?

A: It has been a steep learning curve from the very start and still is!  It is not just about dancing – I suppose all passionate cultural entrepreneurs face this in their career. I had to learn an endless range of skills from artists’ management, fundraising, to be comfortable whilst learning from failures, to be confident when tackling challenges and managing risks and relentlessly trying better approaches.

One of the on going practical challenges is marketing the work. Finding promoters who want authentic original and traditional Indian dance projects is never easy! I have to be proactive, patient and stay focussed to find that perfect project idea which blends both traditional and contemporary sensibilities and is relevant to current British life. This is a permanent test for my creativity. “Bicycle with Barefoot” –was one such project which was commissioned by Yorkshire Festival 2014 and was one of the headline events.  

The current project – “Soldiers of the Empire” is a real story of Indian soldiers and it is perfect timing to do this project as it is the final centenary year for WW1.

Q: How do you keep motivated?

Obviously dance is the driving force that is behind everything I do.  Each time I dance and share stories and communicate with people something beautiful happens within and around me and I am tempted to do it over and over again. Such is the magic of dance ….

Q: What inspires you to dance?

A: This is a classic question!

The world around excites me.  Grand sunsets, rainforests, waterfalls, monsoon rains, oceans, people- their culture and traditions, places, books, music, cinema, theatre, markets, cooking, good food with fresh coffee …everything!  I am especially inspired by the exquisite architecture of the ancient Hindu temples and intricately carved sculptures of Gods and symbolism of stories behind them. I have just come back from a trip to Bali mesmerized by the graceful Balinese Hindu dancing and the stunning beauty of the lush rice fields and locations of some old temples there which are in the middle of lakes and in the ocean…… I am still in a state of euphoria!

I have unswerving faith in dance and its amazing potential to transform lives. It is an incredibly powerful medium of communication and can bring such strong messages to people. Besides the therapeutic benefits, dance helps people keep fit and alert and brings harmony and balance in thinking.  

I must tell you about my favorite inspirational story. It is the classic epic RAMAYANA which has been the inexhaustible source of ideas behind all my education and community work.  I have taken this story to literally hundreds of schools in Yorkshire and theatres and village halls across the UK. I am still  as excited and thrilled as I was on the very first day I started this storytelling project.

However, since 2015 -the real story of WW1 Indian soldiers has completely taken over my life. I am not just inspired by it but I I am driven by it! I have taken a self imposed responsibility to share this story with as many audiences as I possibly can. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the first year. This allowed me to research the subject with resource material from  the Common Wealth War Graves Commission’s. I called the project “The Unknown Becomes Known” because not many people know that Indian soldiers were also involved in the WW1. 74,000 Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives in this War and it pulled my heart strings and touched me like no other story did. On a personal level I relate to the legacy of the project –it is because of the sacrifice made by these volunteer soldiers I am here now in Britain. The picture of multicultural Britain and why and how it has evolved into becoming one -becomes very clear if one knows this precious shared history. The project has evolved since then I have changed the title to “Soldiers of the Empire”. I am very much looking forward to bringing it to Settle Stories in July.

Q: If you could go back in time, what advice and lessons learned would you had given your “younger self”?

A: I would certainly be calmer and would have spent more time with family and I also would have performed more!

Q: What was your most challenging dance routine? Do you have a favourite?

A: I started learning a highly structured disciplined dance style called Bharatanatyam at the age of 30. Every movement in this dance form is a challenge for me- really precious and divine. The magic and mystery of its rhythms and the spiritual overtones behind the expressions has never failed to fascinate me.  I practise a lot of Yoga for being able to do execute movements in my dance.

Q: Do you have favourite personal quotes you either heard or have made yourself?

A: My own quote:

Eat, Prey and Dance!  

Q: Do you have any memorable experiences?  

A: My first dance bursary from Arts council England in 1992. (then called Yorkshire and Humberside Arts) This was for training in the community arts. I resigned my full time Primary School teaching job in Rochdale that same day I heard the news that I was successful in getting the award after my interview.  And  I have no regrets whatsoever!

BOOK NOW to see Soldiers of the Empire on Sat 14th July. Info & Booking, CLICK HERE.