An ISKCON devotee Bharatanatyam dancer has received a long term engagement with the Indian Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic; not only performing in front of politicians, ambassadors and other VIPs, but also teaching classes at the Embassy.
Prague native Rasabihari Dasi started everything young: she began to dance in different styles at the age of four, and met devotees and began to follow the principles of Krishna consciousness in 1990, at just fifteen years old.
“I wanted to move into the temple, but my parents were against it,” she says. “So I had to wait until I was seventeen, when I finished high school. That was their condition.”
In the meantime, Rasabihari was introduced to what would be her life’s work. In 1990, when the Gauranga Bhajan Band consisting of Sacinandana Swami, Bhaktivaibhava Swami, Krishna Ksetra Prabhu and Harikesa were performing around Europe, she attended one of their shows. Part of the act, it turned out, was a dance of Bharatanatyam, the classical devotional dance form.
“It combined the two things I really loved in my life—Krishna and dance,” Rasabihari says. “I was completely captivated.”
But there was no opportunity to learn Bharatanatyam… at least not yet. There were no teachers in the Czech Republic, and Rasabihari’s parents didn’t have the money or inclination to send her to India.
“So I just left it in Krishna’s hands,” she says. “I was thinking, if this is what Krishna wants me to do, it will happen one day.”
In the meantime, she joined the temple in 1993 at the age of seventeen, and served as a book distributor and pujari (priest).
Sure enough, in 1998, Rasabihari’s destiny came calling. She was sponsored by an Indian family to spend three months studying Bharatanatyam at the Kalangan Centre for Classical Arts in New Delhi. There she met her dance guru, Jamuna Krishnan.
“It was really Krishna’s arrangement, because she comes from the Sri Vaishnava tradition, and is a very nice devotee of Lord Krishna,” Rasabihari says.
At first, Rasabihari thought that she would only spend a few months doing Bharatanatyam, and that would be the end of it. But with encouragement from her teacher as well as her spiritual master Bhaktivaibhava Swami, she continued her studies, traveling to India for three to six months every year.
Rasabihari in front of an Udaipur monument
Meanwhile, she began to perform at ISKCON events in the Czech Republic, as well as in neighboring countries such as Germany, Ukraine, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, and England. And she was invited to perform at various open air festivals and exhibitions outside of the ISKCON community, doing around fifty performances per year.
In 2004, Rasabihari completed her Arangetram, the two and a half hour debut solo performance that is a Bharatanatyam dancer’s graduation and certification as a dancer and teacher.
That same year, she was asked to dance at the Indian Embassy in Prague.
“Until then, it was impossible for ISKCON to reach out to the Embassy here,” she says. “Whenever we invited them for a program or festival, they were always very polite, but they would never show up.”
Then one of Rasabihari’s friends, a Bollywood dancer who had done some performances at the Embassy, told the staff about her. Not knowing what to expect, they somewhat reluctantly invited her. Upon seeing her perform, however, they were blown away by her expertise and devotion.
Rasabihari began to perform Bharatanatyam regularly for the Embassy’s national holidays such as Indian Independence Day and Republic Day, as well as for its other functions and receptions.
She has performed for up to 200 VIPs at once including the Vice President of India, the Czech Prime Minister, and various delagations and ambassadors of different countries. The venues she has appeared at include the Embassy itself, Indian Ambassador Venkatesan Ashok’s residence, and an assortment of specially-booked five star hotels.
Rasabihari performs at an Indian Embassy function in Prague
“But the most important thing is that I really see these Bharatanatyam performances as opportunities to preach Krishna consciousness,” Rasabihari says. “My husband [Prague temple president Narakriti Das] always accompanies me in a dhoti, kurta, and tilak so it’s obvious we are devotees. And I always perform dances about Krishna, and give a short speech before each dance in which I try to preach as much as possible.”
In 2010, as Rasabihari’s relationship with the Embassy and its staff deepened, she was asked to also teach classes there in Bharatanatyam.
Currently, she teaches one and a half hour classes every Monday. Her students are mostly young Czech women in their twenties and early thirties with an interest in India, yoga, spiritual life and dance.
“The wonderful thing is that when you are teaching them, you have to preach Krishna consciousness,” says Rasabihari. “Because like all the other dramatic arts of India, Bharatanatyam is about rasa [a theological term meaning devotional emotion or taste]. But one cannot understand rasa without knowing tattva, the philosophical truth behind it. So before teaching people unfamiliar with these concepts, one has to explain to them who is Krishna, and what is behind all these emotions that we are trying to learn and portray through dance.”
While some people approach the dance as a light hobby and leave after a few months, others become dedicated students, in it for the long haul.
Double PhD graduate Zuzana, for example, came to study with Rasabihari after she learned from her Baroque French dance teacher that Baroque had its origins in Bharatanatyam.
Falling in love with the devotional dance, she’s now been studying it for four years, and has developed a deep appreciation for the art and the devotion behind it.
Rasabihari at Prague's Happy Fest
“One time we stopped the class, and were learning a bhajan by [the saint and Krishna devotee] Mira,” Rasabihari says. “It is a very sweet bhajan. Zuzana was taking notes, but then she closed her notebook, and said with such taste, ‘I really love it. I really enjoy it.’ It was very nice for me to see.”
Some students also take classes on Fridays at Govinda’s restaurant in downtown Prague. Afterwards, they eat prasadam [sanctified vegetarian food] and sometimes purchase Srila Prabhupada’s books.
“I keep stressing to them that they have to read the books, otherwise they won’t understand the dances and their performance will just be superficial,” Rasabihari says. “So they are buying and reading Prabhupada’s books! It’s very nice.”
Rasabihari says that her students have become like family, as have the staff at the Indian Embassy, which is now like a second home to her.
“We have very friendly, personal relationships with the ambassador and the first secretary—they come to the temple, and they invite us to their home,” she says. “They are very, very favorable.”
Currently, Rasabihari is working on a unique fusion event sponsored and organized by the Indian Embassy. The Indian-born director of the Czech Philharmonic is behind the event, which will be held at the Kampa Theater in Prague on September 26th, and will feature Bharatanatyam set to a series of piano compositions by early 20th century French composer Claude Debussy. Rasabihari plans to perform expressive “Abhinaya” pieces on the Ramayana, Lord Ranganath, and Srimati Radharani meeting Lord Krishna to the music.
As far as her long term plans go, Rasabihari expects Bharatanatyam to be her life far into the future—and when she is no longer able to dance, she hopes to serve as a teacher and choreographer.
“For me, the happiest moments are while dancing for Krishna,” she says. “When you depict the different Krishna lilas, you really feel like you are there. You see Krishna in front of your eyes. It’s a very intimate connection with Krishna—just sheer joy and happiness.”[ bharat-natyam ] [ czech-republic ] [ prague ]