(November 3, 2023) Viktoria Burenkova, who goes by the stage name Vijaya Bai, is a passionate Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher based in Kyiv, Ukraine. Even during the tough times of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she’s kept the spirits of her students and herself high through Bharatanatyam. Viktoria deeply connects with the soul of this ancient Indian dance form and has been pouring her heart into it. For the last ten years, she’s been a key figure at Nakshatra, a dance school started by the famous dancer Ganna Smirnova Rajhans. The school even got recognized as a ‘National Studio’ by Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture.
“My father chose the stage name ‘Vijaya’ for me, as ‘Viktoria’ and ‘Vijaya’ have the same meaning (victory),” she shares with Global Indian while connecting from Ukraine. Her father, who has once visited India, holds a deep fascination for yoga and Indian classical culture, a passion that he and Victoria’s mother shared long before the birth of their two daughters.
Born and raised in Kyiv, the talented dancer has deep affection for India, a place that she is yet to visit. “From our earliest days, our lives were steeped in classical music, dance, and yoga. Our natural affinity for these Indian arts grew organically,” she remarks.
Carrying forward the legacy
Viktoria holds a deep sense of gratitude towards her guru, Ganna Smirnova Rajhans, who introduced the art of Bharatanatyam not only to Viktoria and her sister when they were just seven and five years old but also to their mother. Due to Ganna’s extensive international commitments, the responsibility of managing her dance school and studio, Nakshatra, fell upon her accomplished student, Viktoria. With Ganna’s relocation to the UK owing to the war, the entire onus now rests on Viktoria’s capable shoulders. Her guru is more than impressed with the way Viktoria has skilfully carried forward the legacy.
“One of the most rewarding facets is our ability to stage dance dramas in the Ukrainian language, incorporating Bharatanatyam hand gestures that visually convey the narrative,” Viktoria tells Global Indian about Nakshatra. The approach, she says, allows their mainly Ukrainian audience to comprehend and appreciate the ‘hasta’ language, because they don’t know any Sanskrit. “Our dance dramas are presented in such a way that they do not pose a challenge to the Ukrainian audience in following the storyline.”
Nakshatra has been also connecting with its audiences through a series of video lessons and master classes available on their YouTube channel. “Our online classes are open to anyone in the world as long as they are eager to dance,” Viktoria remarks. The option has been a blessing to many students who live outside of Ukraine and to those who had to leave the country because of the war. “Irrespective of circumstances our classes have always been on schedule,” she says.
Bharatanatyam amidst war
Talking about the current situation in Ukraine, she says, “It varies depending on the region. We all believe that God is with Ukraine and the victory of Ukraine is predetermined.” As an educator and performer, Viktoria has faced challenging moments in the past year, but has never given up on her passion and purpose of life due to the moral support of her family, her Guru, and the entire Nakshatra community.
“The Embassy of India in Ukraine has always supported all the activities and initiatives of Nakshatra. We feel very honoured to be part of cultural events and celebrations organised by the Embassy,” says Viktoria.
Dance classes have been the most constant part of my life for so many years. So in many ways for me and for Nakshatra students the art has been a huge moral and psychological support during the hard times. We restarted the classes online two-three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. Ever since it has been either online or offline depending upon the situation but we have never stopped.
The performer and teacher has received several recognitions for her craft but what she finds most fulfilling is that her students continue to attend the classes even during the turmoil, enjoy the art even in these trying times, and have not stopped exploring its wonders.
Bharatanatyam is life
Viktoria has devoted her entire life to Bharatanatyam. “My entire life is structured around Bharatanatyam. My schedule, plans, and goals are all centred on it,” she says, adding, “Even the modest sewing skills that I have are dedicated to stitching dance uniforms for classes and costumes for performances.”
Although she finds performing in public ‘amazing’, dancing in solitude is an ‘absolutely surreal experience’ for her that she savours. “I have tried Kuchipudi as well but my heart always felt that Bharatanatyam is the dance I want to continue pursuing lifelong.”
The performer prefers group performances over solo. “Whenever we organise programmes, my mother says ‘Vika, do a solo at least once.’ It always brings a smile to my face looking at her desire as a parent to see me perform solo, even when she understands how much I cherish dancing in a group.”
Apart from ‘feeling truly blessed’ to have found such a ‘world-renowned guru’, Viktoria acknowledges her parents’ pivotal roles. She credits her father for initiating their Bharatanatyam journey by seeking out a teacher in Kyiv for both her and her sister. Moreover, when her guru entrusted her with the role of a teacher, her father’s knowledge of Sanskrit and Yoga proved invaluable for translating and comprehending the Sanskrit texts used in dance pieces. Her mother has always provided support, constantly believing in Viktoria and offering valuable guidance.
Love for India
While Viktoria has yet to set foot in India, she had started learning Hindi at the age of 18, followed by a bit of Telugu. Currently, she is also in the process of acquiring proficiency in Punjabi.
India has an outstanding culture that is deep, spiritual, and meaningful in so many ways. Every note, every musical instrument, and every ornament has such a profound meaning connected to the structure of the Universe. It is absolutely astounding and I wish more people could see, understand, and experience all the aspects of culture, which my father so correctly calls a ‘Universal’ one.
Viktoria’s biggest goal is to keep working, keep dancing, and keep promoting the art of Bharatanatyam in Ukraine. “By God’s grace, the community of classical dancers and the understanding of the true meaning behind the art will continue to grow in Ukraine as well as in the world,” she says.
Currently all the students attending Nakshatra’s offline classes are Ukrainians. Before the war the student group was more diverse with Indians in Ukraine attending the classes as well. “Hopefully, soon we will have Indians coming back to Kyiv and joining the classes,” signs off Viktoria.