Ambika Docherty is the Deputy Director of the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Dance Academy. Besides being an accomplished exponent of both Bharatnatayam and Odissi, she teaches the junior classes and oversees all production design and costumes for all perfomances and productions.
In the autumn of 1974, a sulky seven year-old was ushered into Chandrabhanu’s lounge room in Orwell Cottage for her first lesson in Bharata Natyam. Little did she know that this marked the beginning of what would be an exceptional career in Indian dance and a lifelong passion for the art form.
Ambika’s parents, Philomena and Bernard Docherty, met Chandrabhanu at a wedding reception in 1973. Then a young anthropology student, Chandrabhanu told them of his training in Indian dance, and they implored him to teach their daughter Bharata Natyam and introduce her to Indian culture. Chandrabhanu was already active on the Melbourne dance scene by this stage and had started Bharatalaya a few months earlier. Soon after their meeting, Ambika was brought to train under his care.
At first, the discipline and effort required for training was met with attitude from the youngster, who was dragged to classes by her parents. As the years progressed however, Ambika matured and her dance education grew beyond her twice-weekly classes. Chandrabhanu and renowned Melbourne artist Geoffrey Goldie introduced her to a world of culture, dance and art previously unknown to her, and she absorbed every last drop of it. As her relationship with her gurus grew, so did their involvement in each other’s lives; in Ambika, the two artists had found a willing novice through which they could channel their artistic vision.
Ambika was initially trained in Bharata Natyam and later commenced lessons in Odissi. Chandrabhanu also educated her in religious theory and the concept of theatre arts and Geoffrey worked with her to explain the finer nuances and aesthetics of the art form and the culture it was from.
At the dawn of the 1980s, the idea of multiculturalism had gained widespread acceptance throughout the Australian community and was greatly celebrated. Bharatalya was invited to perform at various community events and cultural festivals. These events were among the first of many performances that Ambika would do with the school and gave the young dancer an opportunity to develop her performance skills and put her training to the test. In1981, Bharatalaya held its inaugural Nrityanjali, and Ambika performed front and centre, its star pupil.
In 1982 at the age of 15, Ambika completed her arangetram – the 9th graduate of the school at the time. Soon after, Chandrabhanu started training her in the basic teaching methods that he had developed. Ambika also began accompanying her guru on trips to India where she trained extensively under his guru Adyar K. Lakshman, whom had taught her intermittently during his earlier visits to Australia. In 1983, she was presented by Adyar K. Lakshman in a solo recital at the Mylapore Fine Arts Academy.
It was during these trips that Ambika began learning the details of costuming and jewellery; Chandrabhanu would take her to the jewellery stores and sari shops of Chennai, Delhi and Orissa, teaching her about fabrics, colours and various types of adornments. Though she was young, Ambika had a keen eye for detail and quickly understood the aesthetics of attire and presentation. Ambika, Chandrabhanu and Geoffrey, fresh from a trip to India, would spend hours at Orwell Cottage trying to replicate the stitch of dance costumes they had seen or sewing paper flowers for the dancers’ hair. It was clear by this stage that Ambika wanted to be completely involved in running the school and that she was capable of assuming the mantle of leadership.
Chandrabhanu started taking his students on annual tours around Australia in 1984 as part of the Dance-In-Education program and Ambika got a chance to put her skills in performance and production to use. The troupe of dancers travelled to schools located all over Australia. These shows developed her dexterity in costuming, make-up and stage management. Subsequently, she accompanied Chandrabhanu on a tour to Malaysia alongside Ganga Narayanan, Tamara Eliezer, Joyoti Das, Rehana Weereratne and Arun Munozz.
In 1985 the Bharatam Dance Company was established, and Ambika was admitted as one of its first full-time professional dancers. After years training under Chandrabhanu and with the guidance of Geoffrey Goldie, Ambika brought with her a highly developed technique accompanied with a thorough intellectual understanding, not to mention the full suite of production skills in costume, make-up, set-design and stage management. She was appointed to the position of Associate Director and Rehearsal Mistress of the company and undertook the responsibility of coordinating and organising group productions, a position she held over its 15-year reign. Alongside the highly adept performers of the Bharatam Dance Company, Ambika succeeded in distinguishing herself as a dynamic and versatile dancer, with excellent skill and precision. The company completed several seasons at the Victorian Arts Centre, and toured both across Australia and internationally to the Philippines, Great Britain, New Zealand and Malaysia. Ambika was also in high demand by dance schools, both in Australia and overseas, to manage their productions. As part of these activities, she was invited to tutor and direct an Odissi production by Dance Exchange Company, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
While working at the Bharatam Dance Company, Ambika completed her Bachelor of Performing Arts Degree at Monash University, Clayton, and continued her work with Bharatalaya, training junior classes.
Since the closure of the Bharatam Dance Company in 2001, Ambika has tirelessly focused her time and efforts on building the school that she loves so dearly. While officially she is the school’s Deputy Director, any member of Bharatalaya will testify to her abilities as production master, costume seamstress, make-up artist, stage manager, lighting and sound technician, and most importantly, Chandrabhanu’s right-hand. On a personal note, she has not only inspired and guided students through her dancing and teaching, but supported them at every step of their dance journey, as counsellor and confidante; mother, sister and friend.
Every year at Nrityanjali, Ambika plays an integral part in running a successful show, managing every aspect of the production and coordination. With a guru such as Chandrabhanu, who believes in leaving nothing to chance, it is Ambika that covers every last detail; from the bangles on the students’ hands and the flowers in their hair through to the alta on their fingers, their jewellery and their make-up. Every colour coordinated flower on stage and every impossibly placed decoration or ornament is there because of Ambika. Chandrabhanu once referred to Ambika as Bharatalaya’s ‘Rock of Gibraltar’, and indeed it is a fitting title. While she is not one to take the limelight, it is without doubt that like the thread that holds together the seams of a gown, it is Ambika that holds Bharatalaya together. The love and passion for dance, theatre and production that Ambika has brought to the school is amongst its most inspiring gifts and she remains Bharatalaya’s most cherished treasure.