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Prabha Ravi: A Journey Through Dance

By Leah Maclean

In 1999 Prabha Ravi emigrated from India to New Zealand with her husband and two children; three weeks later she established the Natraj School of Dance in Lower Hutt. “I come from a community that gives priority to arts and culture. From the age of three I was singing and dancing,” says Ravi, who was born and raised in the East Indian capital of Chennai. For nearly two decades now, Ravi has been teaching classical Indian dance (Bharatanatyam) and contributing to the arts and education landscape in New Zealand; and she says she doesn’t intend on stopping. So, it comes as no surprise that she is a Queen’s Service Medal (QSM) and Hutt City Civic Honour recipient.

Over the last 18 years Ravi estimates she has taught over 700 students, she says that her satisfaction is derived from being able to retain and pass on her culture, and to create awareness around one of the world’s oldest art forms. Every year Ravi and her students, aged anywhere between five and 50, put on a production which is the full Bharatanatyam experience. Ravi explains that most of what you see on stage – costumes, jewellery, music, props and make-up – is all sourced from India, with the help of a team of her family and friends based there.  It’s an incredible job to take on but it is one Ravi is set on doing year after year. “If you love something passionately I think you will find time to organise yourself well and be able to manage it. That’s my philosophy. And if you do it, do it properly!”

This years’ production is about Ravi’s own culture, Tamilian culture. Tamil, which is being staged 15 July by over 50 performers, explores the rich culture and its many facets – literature, song, poets, food, and the Tamilian way of living. Ravi explains that New Zealand’s eclectic demographics are exactly why cultural performance is a vital part of our society. With so many people migrating to New Zealand, seeing art from their place of origin a is way for them to stay connected to their identity and of course for Kiwis to experience the culture of the people they share the country with. Ravi has taught a diversity of students in the last 18 years and they all come to her for differing reasons. Whether it’s because they have a connection to Indian culture, they want to learn something new, they love dance or they do it for the spiritual value; Ravi is just happy to be able to offer the opportunity.

It is evident that Ravi has committed her life whole-heartedly to dance. She talks about travelling the world to perform, directing her first production at 21, running a studio from her home in Lower Hutt and never missing a class. “I lived in Rotorua for 15 months and every weekend I would come back to my dance school, I didn’t want to give that up. Every Friday night I would take the bus at midnight and reach Wellington at 7am. I would cook a meal for my family and start classes at 8:30am and finish at 6:30pm. I told my students and their parents that classes would go on no matter what.” Not even working three other jobs or international travel has got in the way of her teaching. “I never want to compromise my dance school for anything.”

In its 18 years of existence the Natraj School of Dance has established itself as one of New Zealand’s finest classical Indian dance institutions. Ravi’s students have performed all around the country on a variety of stages and for many different audiences; opportunities, she maintains, which enable her students to become better and better. “There’s no point in having all the talent for yourself; talent is something you’re blessed with and something you need to share with everyone else and pass it on to the next generation,” she says. “It’s about giving back, sharing your knowledge, your expertise, and your culture and showcasing it to the wider public.”

It has been years of hard work and sacrifice for Ravi, and it is this determination and passion that made her a shoo-in for the 2017 QSM award. But she says the honour is really for the community, her mentors and gurus in India, and of course for her family, who supported her every step of her dance journey and took the time of day to nominate and recognise her work. Ravi says she cannot imagine a life outside of the arts and plans on continuing to contribute to the community in this way, “art is me, it's just another identity I have.”  

Tamil shows 15 July 2017 @ 6:30pm
Sacred Heart College, Lower Hutt
For tickets and further information please contact Natraj School of Dance / 021 817252

Prabha Ravi: A Journey Through Dance

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