(September 8, 2023) Ukraine’s Ganna Smirnova embodies unwavering resilience and indomitable courage in the face of the Russia-Ukraine war. One of Europe’s well-known Bharatanatyam dancers, Ganna was shaken but bravely chartered a new path. Having moved to Hastings, Ganna has been teaching Bharatanatyam in the UK, and is also contributing to a cultural project that unites the creative worlds of India, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.
“Namaskaar, I am living in the UK. I moved here one year ago with my nineteen-year –old twin daughters Catherine and Elizabeth Rajhans because of the war,” Ganna Smirnova says, as she connects with Global Indian.
The leading European Bharatanatyam dancer has performed and taught extensively for more than two decades. She has graced prominent stages around the world with captivating performances that have enchanted audiences and critics alike.
“Apart from teaching here in the UK, I am also involved in a cross-country cultural project exploring English medieval writing paired with the famous Ukrainian poems through the language of Indian classical dance,” she says. This project is a collaboration with ExploreTheArch, an organisation in Hastings, and Kyiv’s Indian theatre, Nakshatra.
Art and the war
Ganna founded Nakshatra in 2003. Although she has moved to the UK for the time-being, her theatre stands tall amidst the war. It is being looked after by one of her disciples, Victoriya Burenkova. “In 2014, an opportunity to teach at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Centre led me to stay in Moscow for extended periods of time. But I used to visit Kyiv regularly. During that time, I had handed over Nakshatra’s baton to Victoriya so that Nakshatra’s functioning remains unhindered,” Ganna, shares.
It was just after seven months of her relocation to Kyiv from Moscow that the Russia-Ukraine war broke. However, Ganna continues to support and advise Nakshatra and Victoriya online. “Due to the war, some of the Nakshatra students left the country, but those who chose to stay remain actively involved. Their dedication not only keeps them mentally resilient but also prevents them from succumbing to the prevailing sense of despair in Ukraine during these trying times,” she says.
“Victoriya is a graceful dancer, an inspiring teacher, and a dedicated organiser. She deserves special recognition for her unwavering commitment to dance and her role in fostering this resilience despite the numerous challenges,” Ganna says, in praise of her disciple.
Ganna’s journey in flashback
During her time as a student in Ukraine, Ganna immersed herself in Eastern philosophy and actively engaged in the practice of yoga, Tai-zi-chuan, and Shigun. She learned ballet and Ukrainian national dance under the tutelage of the acclaimed dancer Lilya Melnichenok.
After earning an ICCR scholarship to learn Bharatanatyam in India, she came to New Delhi where she spent five years between 1998 and 2003 learning the classical Indian dance form from her Guru Smt Jayalakshmi Eshwar.
She also received training in Carnatic vocal music from Guru Vasantha Sundaram, studied Chhau, a semi classical dance with martial and folk traditions, under the guidance of Guru Janmey Jai Sai Babu, and gained introductory knowledge in Kuchipudi from Guru Seetha Naagjyothi. She also learned the basics of Sanskrit, Indian mythology and philosophy, the history of South India and yoga.
“Under the influence of my studies, and daily communication with my gurus, new habits formed and gradually changed my lifestyle and even the process of thinking,” she remarks, adding “From my own experience, I realized that the constant practice of Bharatanatyam as Natya Yoga, and especially its spiritual aspect – Abhinaya, based on a deep sense of bhakti, transforms the adherent’s consciousness.”
Taking Indian classical arts forms to Ukraine
“After finishing my study in India, I felt the need to share my expertise with those who had an interest in Indian art forms in my country. When I returned to Kyiv in 2003, I started teaching Bharatanatyam at the Centre of Aesthetic Education of Kyiv State University,” she shares. “Following that, I established the Nakshatra Indian dance theatre group and led numerous performances. In 2010, Nakshatra was honoured with the title of Ukraine’s National Amateur Collective, an accolade it continues to uphold.”
Since founding Nakshatra, Ganna has tirelessly devoted herself to fostering a deep appreciation of Indian art and culture. Her unwavering dedication has been centred on creating substantial cultural awareness of India in Ukraine, creating numerous pioneering milestones in this endeavour.
“With the support of the Indian Embassy, we implemented a very interesting and successful project for several years – the annual Nrityaanjali international dance festival. Over the years, it was attended by many famous Indian dancers, and professional performers of Indian classical dances from other countries as well,” she tells. The purpose of the creative and informative project was to show the possibilities of adapting Indian classical dance to the needs of modern society in the global world. “A regular guest of honour at our festivals was the writer and dance critic late Padmashri Sunil Kothari.”
Nakshatra also held the Raganjali music festival, where stars such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Ronu Mazumdar, Pt. Debu Chaudhury, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, and others performed. “We wanted citizens of Ukraine to see the best of Indian classical art,” Ganna remarks.
Under her guidance, Nakshatra has introduced Indian classical dance and yoga lessons in various cities across Ukraine. She brought renowned gurus to conduct master classes in Indian art forms. It orchestrated festivals showcasing Indian classical dance and music, curated exhibitions featuring the works of Indian and Ukrainian artists, and facilitated students’ journeys to study Indian arts in India.
Embarking on a global journey
As time passed Ganna started taking the magic of Bharatanatyam to prestigious venues like Berlin, Moscow, London, Lisbon, Milan, Colombo, Kandy, and Prague. “I also taught Bharatanatyam in dance groups founded by my students in Odessa and Crimea, which were then part of Ukraine”.
“We organised many interesting performances that took place not only on theatre stages, but also in significant historical places, such as the ruins of the ancient Greek temple of Apollo and the ancient Greek amphitheatre in Chersoneses (Sevastopol, Crimea). There have been occasions when Odessa, Crimea and Kyiv’s artists have collaborated and performed together in big events in Kyiv,” she says.
For the love of India
Despite leaving India after her five-year ICCR-sponsored training, Ganna’s heart always yearned to return to the country, this time seeking to deepen her enrichment. She fondly refers to her second sojourn in India from 2007 to 2015 as a pivotal chapter in her creative journey.
“I was travelling across India, from north to south and from west to east. I was fascinated by the cultural diversity of traditions of different regions of this vast country and the warm hospitality of its inhabitants,” she remarks.
From the lively streets of Ahmedabad in the west to the tranquil landscapes of Imphal in the east, and from the bustling city of Chandigarh in the north to the enchanting charm of Pondicherry in the south, the danseuse immersed herself in the captivating beauty and artistic richness of the country.
Her pursuit led her to perform at prestigious cultural gatherings such as the Mahabalipuram dance festival, Modhera dance festival, Taj Mahotsava, Rajgir dance festival, Uday Shankar dance festival, Natyanjali dance festival in Chidambaram and Thanjavur, the Bharath Kalachar Dance Festival, and the Dasyam Festival, to name just a few.
Traveling from one district to another, by rail and road, Ganna immersed herself in the living traditions of folk culture. She encountered the soulful street singers of the Bauls in Bengal, listened to the captivating tales of Tamil storytellers, marvelled at the vibrant folk dancers of Rajasthan and Gujarat, delved into the artistic ambience of Shanti Niketan in West Bengal, and had the privilege of meeting the custodians of the exquisite dance styles of Uday Shankar and Rabindra Nritya. These experiences quenched her creative thirst and left an indelible mark on her artistic journey.
She earned recognition from esteemed cultural institutions and Sabhas in Tamil Nadu – the place from where Bharatanatyam originated. “The vivid hues of Rajasthan, the perpetual lushness of rainy Shillong, Kerala’s verdant hills and cascading waterfalls, Tamil Nadu’s awe-inspiring temples, the serene ambience of Nagar, the Sun God’s revered shrines in Odisha and Gujarat, the formidable fortresses of Agra and Delhi, the tranquil ashrams in Rishikesh and Pondicherry, the illuminating lights of Ganga-puja in Varanasi, the peaceful Shanti Niketan groves, the bustling sari emporiums in Chennai, the vibrant celebrations of Durga Puja in Calcutta, the enchanting Mysore fairy-tale palace, and a myriad of other cherished memories form a vivid and sparkling kaleidoscope in my mind,” she says.
India – a part of her identity
Ganna Smirnova has also written a book, ‘Indian Temple Dance – Tradition, Legends and Philosophy’. “It’s the first of its kind in the whole of CIS region which received appreciation from scholars and academicians alike for its depth and quality,” she mentions. “To me, India is a country of sacred ideas, mystical transformations, where the metaphysical and everyday life are inextricably linked. It’s a place where tradition and modernity complement and enrich each other, and where the Platonic ‘world of ideas’ and ‘world of things’ are not yet disconnected and people feel the presence of the divine,” she explains.
Deeply in love with the memories of her late husband, who was an Indian, the Bharatanatyam danseuse has been working and living in Hastings with her twins. “They are studying classical music (harp) in London at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, and are my only family here. I miss my country, Ukraine and would like to go back once the situation gets normal.” Ganna signs off.