Dr. Chandrabhanu

Operating from the original studio in the historic Orwell Cottage, on Lennox Street in Richmond, Victoria, the Bharatalaya Dance Academy exists today as a testament to Dr. Chandrabhanu’s passion for Indian Classical Dance and his enduring belief in its place in modern Australia and the global arts community.

Chandrabhanu left his native Malaysia and arrived in Melbourne in 1971 on a scholarship to study Social Anthropology at Monash University, Clayton. Having already completed a year on AFS student exchange in Janesville, Wisconsin, USA during high school, Chandrabhanu was no stranger to the cultural landscape of the Western world. Socially progressive values borne in the ‘60s were beginning to emerge in the culturally conservative Australian environment, and Chandrabhanu landed right in the middle of it.

The young dancer already had a well-developed understanding of theatre and the performing arts from early studies of Malaysian Classical dance, Bharata-Natyam and Shakespearean theatre. He furthered these skills from his time in Wisconsin. He had taken choral music and acapella choral music as well as theatre and dramatic arts in his senior year at Craig High School in Janesville, performing in productions such as Fiorello, Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof. The experience enabled him to understand ‘theatre arts’ and he became determined to further the reach of this medium through dance.

Within days of arriving in Melbourne, Chandrabhanu got to work on assembling a dance group from students within the university as well as other Malaysians and Australians he had met. Known as Suasana, the ensemble was trained in both Indian and Malaysian style dance under Chandrabhanu’s guidance. He continued to produce works for the troupe throughout his time at Monash and they would tour both throughout Victoria and interstate to Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Tasmania. Otherwise, university life was spent studying and working night shifts at Coles to fund annual visits to India to study dance further. In 1973, he met Melbourne artist Geoffrey Goldie who encouraged him to forge a career in dance and to continue teaching and establish a school for dance. That spring with a handful of students in the lounge-room of Orwell Cottage in Richmond, the Bharatalaya School of Indian Dance and Music was founded.

Upon completing Honours in Social Anthropology and Sociology in 1974, Chandrabhanu was offered a Monash graduate scholarship to complete his Masters degree, which he accepted. Over the following two years Chandrabhanu spent extensive time in Langkawi, Malaysia, conducting fieldwork for his thesis. However, this did not indicate a shift in his ultimate pursuit of dance; Chandrabhanu continued to perform throughout Malaysia and made regular trips to India to develop his dance education, studying further in Bharata-Natyam under Guru Adyar K. Lakshman in Chennai, and commencing his training in Odissi under Bijoy Kumar Senapati in Puri, Orissa.

Returning to Australia at the end of 1976 to present his paper, Chandrabhanu’s supervisors decided that the keen intellectual had more than enough material to work on a PhD, and further extended his scholarship. Chandrabhanu once again returned to Malaysia to complete additional fieldwork for his paper. It seemed though that Malaysia had other plans for him: In 1977 Chandrabhanu was awarded the lead role in a production by the National Dance Company of Malaysia. He was also asked to teach performing arts at the Universiti Sains, Penang, and was appointed guest director of a local dance group in his homestate of Perlis. The time he had spent studying traditional Balinese and Javanese dance meant Chandrabhanu now had an impressive repertoire of knowledge in Asian dance practices and what’s more, Malaysia knew it.

The following year Chandrabhanu returned to Melbourne and focused on developing the Bharatalaya Academy, which he had been doing intermittently on his visits back whilst in Malaysia. He was also appointed Artist in Residence at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in Perth (now Curtin University), where he lectured in performing arts and dance and participated in the renowned Indian Ocean Arts Festival alongside several international artists. In 1983 he was again invited to be artist-in-residence at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

After completing his PhD in 1980, with a dissertation entitled ‘Islam and Magical Animism in North Malaysia’ Chandrabhanu thoroughly immersed himself in performance and touring; he participated annually in the Madras Music Dance Festival and was involved with prestigious arts institutions such as Krishna Gana Sabha, Mylapore Fine Arts, Karthik Fine Arts and the Shankarabharanam Arts Trust. He performed countless shows across India, throughout Tamil Nadu and in Bombay. Simultaneously, he was invited back to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia and was also invited to perform and teach in Great Britain and the Netherlands. During these formative years, Chandrabhanu gained valuable experience in solo performance, while establishing his name on the international stage.

By 1 984, Chandrabhanu decided that his students, many of whom had now completed their Arangetrams, were ready to join him on the road. Bharatalaya embarked on its first tour around Australia as part of the Dance in Education program. The aim of the program was to perform at schools and communities around Australia that had never before experienced Asian arts. It also provided the students of Bharatalaya with valuable touring and performance experience. After delighting audiences across the East Coast and in South Australia, Chandrabhanu made the bold move to take Bharatalaya on an international tour to Malaysia. With the students well versed from their experiences at home, the tour was a roaring success and Chandrabhanu and Bharatalaya wowed audiences over 12 grand performances in different parts of the country. The tour demonstrated Chandrabhanu was not only a highly technical and captivating performer in his own right, but a capable teacher who could train dancers to an equally high standard. Chandrabhanu knew what he had to do next.

The Bharatam Dance Company was established in 1985: for the first time in Australia there was a professional Asian dance group whose dancers were paid full-time salaries and treated as professional performers under Actors Equity, a feat that is yet to be repeated. Under the vision and direction of Chandrabhanu, a cast of committed dancers and unwavering support of Geoffrey Goldie, the Bharatam Dance Company created its first production, Devi: Goddess Absolute. The Company completed two successful seasons at the Victorian Arts Centre, George Fairfax Theatre and was invited to return; the venue would serve as the company’s home theatre for the next nine years.

The years spent by Chandrabhanu touring Australia and building a reputation for himself in the Australian arts community meant audiences were now keen to see what the Bharatam Dance Company was capable of. The company worked rigorously to produce numerous productions in Bharata-Natyam, Odissi, Malaysian and Contemporary styles of dance. The first major large scale production, Milarepa, premiered in 1 987 and shortly after the company was invited to perform the work in Malaysia. Dong Son, Osiriad and The Dance of Shiva were created soon after, propelling the company into one of its most artistically productive periods.

Over its 15 year reign, the Bharatam Dance Company revolutionized the way Indian and Asian dance was regarded by the mainstream arts community. Australian and Indian audiences alike had never before experienced Indian dance to the level of expertise or professionalism that the Bharatam Dance Company delivered. Accompanied by Geoffrey Goldie’s bold sets and vibrant costumes, audiences were in awe at the depth and magnitude of each performance. The Company commissioned several traditional as well as contemporary music composers and musicians from Australia, India and Malaysia to create new music for the productions and this gave the productions even higher leverage. Moreover, Chandrabhanu possessed an ability to communicate the complex philosophy, religious ideology and cultural traditions reflected in the dances, in simple and understandable terms. This talent disarmed skeptical or culturally-unaware audiences and made the art form accessible to people from all walks of life; a skill that remains one of the hallmarks of Chandrabhanu’s performances. Bharatam developed a loyal following of fans across Australia and overseas. The company toured the Philippines, Singapore, Great Britain, New Zealand and Malaysia, while continuing to perform locally, completing two or three seasons annually at the Victorian Arts Centre. By now Bharatalaya had also established a deserved place in the community and the school continued to prosper alongside the successes of the Company.

Meanwhile, Chandrabhanu was appointed to the Dance Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, Arts Victoria and the board of Multicultural Arts Victoria. In these positions, Chandrabhanu finally had a chance to influence policy-making and decision-making regarding the unfair treatment of ‘ethnic’ artists – an issue that he was only too familiar with. There remained ingrained prejudices against non-English speaking background artists among the Australian arts community; cases where artists from different cultures were ostensibly acknowledged as equal to mainstream artists, but in reality were paid only lipservice, with notable disparities in entitlements to grants and funding. Chandrabhanu and his fellow compatriots in ‘ethnic arts’ were determined to change the attitudes of the funding bodies and formed the Australia Council Multicultural Arts Committee in 1989. From a personal perspective, Chandrabhanu was focused on establishing an understanding of postcolonial ‘Contemporary Asian’ arts and rallied against colonialist ideas of ‘assimilation’, which dominated mainstream attitudes. His emphasis of the importance of community in the development of dance cultures also attracted the cultural organizations of the City of Melbourne to appoint him artistic Director of two community dance projects involving the many cultural groups of Melbourne. The success of these two large projects (1993 & 1 997) attracted the troubled City of Fairfield (Sydney) and it appointed him to work with young people on another project in 1997.

In 1994 the Bharatam Dance Company was dealt a blow: the Melbourne Theatre Company took over the George Fairfax theatre and Bharatam lost the venue which it had built its reputation on. In the following years the company performed at a range of different theatres, including the National Theatre and the Malthouse, and continued to produce new works. Losing their space at the Victorian Arts Centre, however, meant the BDC had not only lost the venue which it had been associated with, but also its access to the audiences and publicity that came with such a well-respected establishment. On the bright side however, Bharatalaya found its permanent home in Hansavihar – the present studios and gallery – at first sharing it with the Bharatam Dance Company. As the ‘90s drew to an end, the funding cuts worsened and the Bharatam Dance Company could not produce the kind of works it had established itself on. So in 2000 Chandrabhanu and the Board of Management made the difficult decision to close it down.