Intersections of Bharatanatyam and Neuroscience

An Interview with Sloka Iyengar, PhD

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Sloka Iyengar is a Bharatanatyam dancer and neuroscientist originally from India and currently based in New York City. She has become interested in questions about the intersection of Bharatanatyam and neuroscience, as well as practical applications of Bharatanatyam in creative aging. Here, she shares some of the possible ways Bharatanatyam might be interesting to study from a neuroscience perspective, as well as how she has used Bharatanatyam in a variety of settings with seniors.

Sloka bends over one leg, gesturing toward her flexed foot. She wears a green and red sari.

Photo by Elyse Mertz

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Can you tell me a little about your dance history? How did you get introduced to Bharatanatyam and how long have you been studying and practicing it?

I grew up in a city in India called Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat. The state is known for many things, but most famously it is known for Mahatma Gandhi. I grew up a couple minutes away from the place – Gandhi Ashram – where he did his work on nonviolence against the colonization.

The form of dance I practice is Bharatanatyam from the southern part of the country. It’s hard to say how old it is because it has evolved, but people say it is about 2,000 years old. That said, there have been many changes to the form as it is practiced now. It started as a temple dance. Typically, there would be a family with a dancer, a musician, and a percussionist. In Ahmedabad, there’s an institution called the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts. The founder of the organization Smt. Mrinalini Sarabhai is credited with bringing the art form outside South India. I was privileged to be born in this city with this historical institution. At Darpana, there was Bharatanatyam, India marshal art (kalaripayattu), folk dance from various states of India, puppets, and a performing arts library. My mother was a Carnatic vocalist; she sang traditional southern Indian music. I started dancing because she was interested in me being immersed in dance. I started learning when I was about five. In Bharatanatyam, you study for seven or eight years for three times a week, and then you perform for your family and friends. It’s a big celebratory event called an Arengetram. It’s a 90-minute performance that’s supposed to be the beginning of your dance journey. I did mine when I was 14, and then continued learning from my gurus through high school and college.

How did you get interested in the intersection of Bharatanatyam and neuroscience?

My love of the brain comes from my love of animals. My mother loved animals and taught me how to administer first aid to stray dogs, birds, and wildlife. I did my bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, after which I helped set up the first humane spray/neuter shelter in Ahmedabad at around 21 years of age. I was responsible for the wellbeing of hundreds of animals every day. By observing animals, I started to wonder about how a mother cat knew how to take care of her babies, or how raptors know there is food when they fly so high. Observation of animals is what got me interested in neuroscience. I came to the US in 2005 for my graduate work. I didn’t dance for seven years while I worked on my PhD and my post-doctoral work. Coming back to it as a practicing scientist made me interested in the convergence between arts and science in general, and Bharatanatyam and neuroscience specifically.

What has your neuroscience research focused on?

For my doctoral and post-doctoral work, I focused on epilepsy. I was focused on a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is in the temporal lobe. I was interested in what happens to the hippocampus during seizures. The hippocampus is important for learning, memory, and spatial awareness.

About eight years or so after being in the lab, I realized the lack of connection of my academic work with patient and caregiver experience, so I switched from basic research to clinical research. I worked with children and adults with epilepsy. One of the things that makes epilepsy uniquely challenging is the variability in symptoms; individuals can have seizures very frequently (think, several seizures per day) to one seizure every six months.

Now I work more as a freelancer with organizations in the US and India. I teach at the Museum of Natural History here in New York and work as an adjunct professor at St. Josephs’ University. I also work as a consultant for several epilepsy organizations and a palliative care organization in India.

What would you be interested in researching with regard to Bharatanatyam and neuroscience?

Bharatanatyam is an expressive dance form that has many components. It has a systematic way of thinking about rhythm. One thing that would be very interesting to understand is: How does the brain perceive rhythm and time? Rhythm is a way of keeping time. I’d be interested in this question both from the perspective of a practitioner responding to rhythm and from the perspective of an audience member. In Bharatanatyam we have counts of seven and five, so some interesting counts and patterns.

Bharatanatyam also has a systematic way of thinking about emotions. We have this language called Navarasa. “Rasa” means essence, and “nava” means nine. So the Navarasa consists of nine emotions that are universal. The thing about Bharatanatyam is the systematization of how practitioners over thousands of years have thought about these emotions as a meter of life. Either as a practitioner or as an audience, it would be interesting to look at how the language of emotions affects the brain.

Sloka stands on one leg with the other flexed and extended out. Her hands open in a welcoming gesture. She is wearing a green and red sari.

Photo by Elyse Mertz

What are the barriers to conducting this research?

One, having institutional support. Two, thinking about the arts as a way of providing and generating knowledge instead of only being aesthetic. The fact that art forms like Bharatanatyam can tell us something about how the brain works is an emerging field, and there’s a need for funding to do this work.

Another relevant point is the history of India. Since India was colonized and since all art forms of India have been impacted by the force of colonization, the over-arching question is how to do the work in a way that is respectful to practitioners. That’s one reason I haven’t been more proactive because I am not sure what form the research could take in a way that is respectful to the thousands of practitioners who have been doing this and many of whom have suffered for it.

You’ve also used Bharatanatyam with older adults to facilitate creative aging. How did you begin this application of Bharatanatyam?

It started after I lost my mother and mother-in-law in 2020 in a span of six months. Through witnessing the lack of safe ways to move when people are sick or old, I thought it was a human rights violation to not allow for safe ways for people to move. We know all the ways in which movement is beneficial to the body, mind, and our spirits.

I started here in New York City with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council with a program called Su-Casa where they pair artists with different senior centers. I was placed with one in 2022 which was my first entry into creative aging. Over the years, I’ve been to various senior centers as well as done this work online. I facilitate a group with people who have early dementia. As part of that group, we do a variety of activities such as art appreciation, brain games and of course, movement.

How have you seen the use of Bharatanatyam affect older adults in terms of creative aging?

Bharatanatyam has a language of gestures. We use our hands, similar to yoga mudras. They are called hastas. Telling stories through the hands is intuitive for people with all sorts of mobility disabilities. That’s something I’ve found powerful as it allows a novel way for learners to relate to their (changing) bodies. I created the option to make our own hastas. There are 50 or so that are codified. That doesn’t stop us from creating new meanings for the existing hastas, as well as creating new ones. The fact that there’s this structure along with the freedom to create is pretty marvelous.

Then we have this very complex way of thinking about rhythm in Bharatanatyam. When we think of rhythm, we think of gaps in addition to movement. Incidentally, the neural mechanisms for stopping movement are just as nuanced and complex as those for creating movement! For an individual with Parkinson’s, for example, where they may be issues with initiation and termination of movement, we can respond to rhythm and then stop in various speeds. When there’s an external rhythm, it helps regularize movement in folks with movement disorders.

Bharatanatyam is also a very wholistic dance form. My teachers expected me to learn how to sing, learn about colors and props, learn mythology, symbolism, and philosophy. As a practitioner, Bharatanatyam engages so many artistic avenues. Those are all available to me as a practitioner, but I can also offer them to my older adults.

Sloka stands and performs in a white room with people sitting in fold out chairs. She is wearing a green and red sari.

Photo by Logan Hughes

Have most people you’ve worked with been interested and open to Bharatanatyam, even if they are not familiar with it?

The best bet is to talk about its universality. The language of emotions is an intuitive way into tracking people. We all feel. Rhythm is another universal experience, like the rhythm of the subway or a heartbeat. For individuals who may not be very familiar with Indian culture and mythology, it’s the expressive components of the dance that stand out.

As I am trying to publish my work in the use of Bharatanatyam for creative aging, one question that comes up often is the connection of the dance form to Hinduism. As an art form that originated in India, Hindu mythology is an integral part of the Bharatanatyam. That said, there are deep symbolic and philosophical meanings as well that I use with my students. This approach is one that is used by my gurus, and makes the dance form inclusive and expansive.

What is it specifically for you about Bharatanatyam, as opposed to other dance or movement practices, that is interesting to you as a neuroscientist?

The systematization along with the freedom. Given that it’s a 2,000-year-old form, we have access to all that wisdom and knowledge; but as practitioners, we also have the freedom to use the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam to express individual and contemporary stories. Having access to all the literature and history, I think it’s unique.

There’s also the relationship between guru and the student. I have the privilege of still learning from my guru, who I’ve known all my life. The close personal relationship evolves from dance to life; they become mentors in everything. That relationship is built into the dance. Students of Bharatanatyam become part of the lineage of the dance, and I consider it a privilege to learn from my gurus and teach my students at the same time.

Then there’s the fact that Bharatanatyam is built for communication. If you see a Bharatanatyam show, the costumes are beautiful, but at the end of the day, it is a form that is built for communication. We are using our bodies and our minds to communicate with the audience. There is a philosophy called bhakti that translates to intense devotion. It could be devotion to the dance itself or devotion to a higher power, but that is the guide for everything we do. In a way it takes away the physicality. Especially for older bodies, you’re using the physical body, but the physicality is secondary. The primary aspect is the feeling of communication and devotion. It is introspective in a way that is communicative. If you’re portraying a character, you embody the character and communicate it to the audience.

Sloka leads a group of seniors as they lift their arms in front of them.

Photo by Logan Hughes

Any other thoughts?

The role of Indian folk dances should also be mentioned. India has hundreds of folk dances. While visually they might seem very different, it’s cool to think about how Bharatanatyam evolved from folk. There are similarities between the more codified forms and folk forms.

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