for ISKCON News on Feb. 1, 2013
Second generation ISKCON devotee Goura Prema Riggan moved judges and an audience of 35 million on Season 4 of the talent show India’s Got Talent late last year, depicting Queen Draupadi’s surrender to Lord Krishna in one performance.
Her dance company Natya Nectar follows in the footsteps of devotee rock group “Madhava’s,” who sang Hare Krishna and verses from the Bhagavad-gita to great acclaim on Season 3.
Bursting ahead of the hundreds of thousands who audition, Natya Nectar reached the semi-finals, giving the already successful group a powerful springboard for presenting Krishna conscious entertainment to the masses.
Doing this through dance is something Goura Prema has been focused on since the very beginning of her life. Growing up at the New Dwarka ISKCON community in Los Angeles, she says her mother, Gurukula teacher Mahadevi Dasi, swears she would do dance mudras (sacred hand symbols) in her sleep at age three.
At five, she already knew she wanted to be a dancer, and studied traditional Bharat Natyam dance at BG Prakash’s Shakti School of Dance. She continued studying various forms of dance, including ballet, jazz, and hip-hop, throughout her childhood and early teens.
Then, at the age of sixteen, she and her sister Chaitanya Nitai landed small roles in American Blend, a low budget Bollywood movie filming in LA and featuring renowned actor Anupam Kher. After receiving free training on the set in Kathak, the North Indian devotional dance form, Goura Prema decided she wanted to pursue it more seriously.
In 2003, at the age of 21, she finally made her way to India to find a Kathak guru. After auditioning, she was accepted into the Sri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK), one of Delhi’s oldest and most renowned schools for classical music and dance.
Natya Nectar's first appearance on Indias Got Talent, performance which received a standing ovation from both the judges and the audience
That very night, however, as she returned home from her audition, disaster struck.
“I was hit by a car on the streets of Delhi,” Goura says. “I sustained four fractures in my leg. After three surgeries, doctors told me, ‘You’ll never dance again.’”
Goura was heartbroken. But she wouldn’t listen to the doctors. She moved to the sacred village of Vrindavana, where her mother lived, and took shelter of Lord Krishna. Then, as devotees all over the world prayed for her, she returned to Delhi to do a year of physiotherapy. Against all odds, she made a full recovery, moved into SBKK, and got her four-year diploma in Kathak.
“It was a miracle,” she says. “It’s only by the power of prayer that I’m dancing today—that’s for sure.”
The only foreigner in her school, Goura Prema picked up Hindi quickly, and soon felt at home in India.
“It was like coming back to my roots,” she says. “The things that were difficult for me growing up in America—being a vegetarian and a devotee of Krishna, having the name Goura Prema—were immediately accepted.”
With her upbringing as a devotee, Goura found that the sacred dance form of Kathak, which told “Katha,” or stories of Radha and Krishna, came naturally to her. “I can see that when you’re telling these stories through your dance, you have a deeper emotion,” her guru Kavita Thakur would say in appreciation. “Because you know the pastimes.”
Natya Nectar's second performance on India's Got Talent, showing Lord Krishna saving Queen Draupadi
Upon graduating from SBKK, Goura Prema began traveling around India with Lokanath Swami’s festival tour, performing at various temples. During this time, she began to think about how performing with a group, rather than as a solo artist, would be a more powerful way to present the sacred stories of the Mahabharat, Ramayan, and Bhagavad-gita.
In 2007, Goura was booked to perform Kathakali dance at an Indian-themed company launch in Hong Kong. Gathering a group of Indian classical dancers for the performance, she found that they worked well together.
The group, known as Natya Nectar, developed their own unique “Cirque De Soleil meets Indian classical dance” style, and began to pursue more opportunities, performing in the corporate world. While not all the shows could be as directly Krishna conscious as Goura would have liked, they created a base for her dream of the future by earning Natya Nectar a living and a name for themselves..
Each performance was completely different, featuring diverse skills such as aerial silks, acrobatics, parkour, and an Indian martial art called Mayurbanj Chhau.
Over time Natya Nectar grew in popularity, gaining bigger and bigger gigs almost solely through word of mouth. They’ve performed at Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bhacchan’s 70th birthday party, opened for American music star Lady Gaga, and appeared at fashion shows presented by top designer Tarun Tahiliani.
While all performances are sacred for Natya Nectar—who hold hands in a circle and chant loudly before each show—some do deal with directly spiritual themes. A performance at New Delhi Fashion Week, for instance, featured a Radha and Krishna Kathak duet in which Lord Krishna, playing his flute, approached Radha on a floral swing.
Draupadi (Goura Prema) surrenders to Lord Krishna
Meanwhile at World Dance Day 2012, the dance company presented “Jiv Jago,” featuring acro-yoga, breakdancing, and aerial silks at the National School of Drama.
But it was after being selected for India’s Got Talent that Goura Prema got her chance to bring bhakti to the largest audience.
Her group, Natya Nectar, was introduced on television with a vignette showing Goura’s life as a devotee of Krishna.
“The film crew wanted to interview me in my Delhi studio,” she says. “I told them, ‘No, you go to everyone else’s village to film them, so you must come to my village too—Vrindavana!’ I took them to Krishna Balaram Mandir, then on a boat ride on the Yamuna. They saw my mother in a sari and tilak, they saw that I had been raised studying Sanskrit and singing bhajans. I even took them to my house in Delhi, and they filmed me offering puja to my Radhe Shyam whom I’ve had since I was five. They saw that I wasn’t just another foreigner coming here to do Bollywood. I wasn’t faking it. They could see that this culture was deep, it was in my roots.”
Speaking in her interview, Goura Prema talked about how she hadn’t really felt like she belonged in America, but in India it was like she had found her home.
“Everyone calls each other bhaiyya or didi or uncle,” she said. “Everyone’s family here.”
Kathak dance by Natya Nectar. Photo shoot by Amaar
India’s Got Talent itself, meanwhile, was a new, and sometimes grueling experience for Natya Nectar. “We’re used to rehearsing night and day for a full month before putting on a show,” says Goura. “On India’s Got Talent we had two weeks.”
Still, the group’s first performance, demonstrating an incredible aerial silk show combined with hatha yoga and Chhau martial arts, received a standing ovation.
After the performance, Goura shocked the judges by speaking to them in Hindi, saying “Meri body angrezi hai, but meri dil Indian hai”—“My body is white, but my heart is Indian.”
Judge Karan Johar, one of Bollywood’s biggest movie producers, commented, “No, not only your heart is Indian, but you are Indian. Thank you so much for the way you’re representing our culture.” The other judges, actresses Kirron Kher and Malaika Arora Khan, agreed.
“I was crying on stage, because I was feeling so validated after being here for so many years working on my dance,” Goura says. “When you’re a foreigner in India—whether it’s at the market or trying to do Indian dance—you’re made to know that you’re different all the time. So it was a beautiful experience to be validated for all my hard work.”
Pop and locking and break dancing as part of Natya Nectar's Jiva Jaago performance.
Natya Nectar were then passed straight through to the semi-finals. For the show, they had prepared a piece wherein a person searched for more than the nine-to-five life, and discovered the process of yoga and meditation.
However, at the last minute, even as they rode the train to the studio to rehearse it on the India’s Got Talent stage, they were told by producers that they had to do a different piece instead.
The new piece was one they had planned for the finals, and they weren’t ready for it at all. Feeling that it was what Krishna wanted her to do, however, Goura Prema threw herself into rehearsals, even though she had less than four days to prepare.
In the new piece, the devotee king Yudhishtira and the evil Duryodhana descended from the ceiling on wires and began playing the Mahabharat’s famous game of dice. Yudhistira’s wife Draupadi, played by Goura, was then dragged onstage by Duryodhana’s brother Dusashana, having been ‘won’ in the game.
Then, as the song “Hey Krishna Govinda Hare Murari” played, she surrendered to Krishna, who appeared on a platform above the stage, and supplied her with an endless stream of sari cloth, until Dusashana collapsed to the ground in exhaustion.
“Playing the part of Draupadi was very intense,” Goura says. “Feeling her hopelessness, that broken battered sense of loneliness. Then realizing that we are never alone, and Krishna is always right there with us.”
Goura Prema performing Kathak at Couture Fashion Week.
Despite the judges being clearly riveted and moved during the performance, they declared in their verdict that Natya Nectar had not given them what they were looking for, and the group did not move on to the finale.
Still, the experience has sent the group into a new level of public recognition, and has also garnered Goura Prema appreciation from many ISKCON devotees, including Indradyumna Swami, who personally came to her studio in Delhi to give his blessings.
Next up, Goura and Natya Nectar are working on a major production called Bhumi Pranama, which they hope to debut in Delhi and Mumbai this year. The show, with a cast of forty, will aim to instigate respect for Mother Earth and the cow in a world that badly needs it.
In the future, Goura hopes to move on from corporate engagements to produce Cirque De Soleil-level shows on the Ramayan, Mahabharat, Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam and perform them around the world.
“That’s the dream,” she says. Natya Nectar is currently looking for ISKCON sponsors to help them put on high-quality spiritual productions. If you would like to help, please write to Goura Prema at firstname.lastname@example.org.