This is an image of Bharatanatyam dancer Jyotsna Vaidee. She is seated, wearing a pink saree and green blouse. (Photo courtesy: Jyotsna Vaidee)
Bharatanatyam artist Jyotsna Vaidee (Photo courtesy: Jyotsna Vaidee)

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Decades of dedicated Bharatanatyam 

Jyotsna Vaidee, a Los Altos-based exponent of Bharatanatyam, has been dancing since the age of 5. Over the past 25 years, she has established herself as a critically-acclaimed soloist in India and North America. Her upbringing, which spanned countries and continents, has nurtured the creative fabric of her performances. On the 30th anniversary of her arangetram, Vaidee kicks off this year’s performance season with an original solo concert, Abhilasha: The Longing on May 19 at the Cubberly Theater in Palo Alto. She then takes off for a multi-city presentation, Earth Speaks 2.0, by her dance company, Samudra Dance Creations, with the next Bay Area show on June 18, at the BRAVA Theater in San Francisco.

In an exclusive, Vaidee tells India Currents about how growing up on multiple continents colors her creativity, the highs and lows of straddling full-time her two worlds of tech and dance, and the challenges of being a soloist and a full-time Bharatanatyam professional in North America. 

IC: What was the motivation behind your solo performance, Abhilasha: The Longing?

This image is a poster for Jyotsna Vaidee's solo, Abhilasha: The Longing.  It has a picture of her seated, with information about the performance around the image. (Courtesy: Jyotsna Vaidee)
A poster for Jyotsna Vaidee’s solo, Abhilasha: The Longing. (Courtesy: Jyotsna Vaidee)

JV: A Bharatanatyam concert already has a beautiful format, or  Bharatanatyam Margam – a beginning, a middle which is usually the centerpiece called the Varnam, the second half, and a specific kind of ending, which is Tillana, and so on. 

With Abhilasha, I wanted to reinvestigate this Margam at this point in my life, with all the experiences I have had so far.

The Varanam I picked is a rare Thanjavur Quartet in Telugu. As is usually the case, in this Varanam, the Naaikaa (actress) is longing for Lord Brihadeshwara in Thanjavur.

While this may seem like my modern senses speaking, the idea of the Naaikaa longing for her Lord seems to be cliched. But I rediscovered the whole concept and realized why this sense of human longing and desire is so timeless and universal. As a human, no matter what we achieve, we are always longing for the next thing, there’s always the next goal, the next wish, the next desire. Love is obviously at the heart of this piece. And I think that is also at the very core of human nature; we desire to be appreciated, we desire to be validated. Love is something each human being wants to receive and give. 

In the second half, we explore alternative poetry and stories, which are not always explored in a Margam. I’ve chosen to do a story from the Mahabharata, representing one of the powerful female characters, Kunti. She is actually quite instrumental in the whole story, but her story stays in the background.  Kunti has a very complex story of having a child out of wedlock. To me, her story is also about longing. Throughout the Mahabharata, she longs for her son and Karna longs to understand his identity and to know who his mother is. 

The music for this was composed by Bay Area violinist, Anuradha Sridhar. The lyrics were by the well-known Tamil lyricist, S Raghuraman.

In Abhilasha, we’ve tried to explore both traditional poetry and also what I would call alternative poetry, which isn’t very commonly done in dance. So while the song lyrics are in Telugu, the story of Kunti is written in Tamil. And, I’m going to end my performance with an Abhangh in Marathi. I am fortunate to have some brilliant local instrumental and vocal talent performing with me live. 

IC: So how did your dance company, Samudra Dance Creations, come to be?

JV: I have been a very serious performing artist. I think that is a different path than choosing to run a big school with hundreds of students. That’s really my passion: performing, choreographing, and researching. For most of my life, I’ve actually been a soloist. I’ve lived in different countries. Growing up, I danced for many different professional dance companies. Unlike any other place, the California Bay Area is like a cultural melting pot. I spent the first five years of my time here continuing my solo work. I would go back to India to perform because that’s really where you can regularly do full-length solo concerts. 

This image is a poster of Earth Speaks 2019, a group presentation by Samudra Dance Creations. It shows a group of five Bharatanatyam dancers, mid-pose. (Courtesy: Jyotsna Vaidee)
A poster of Earth Speaks 2019, a group presentation by Samudra Dance Creations. (Courtesy: Jyotsna Vaidee)

But at some point, I realized that Bay Area has immense talent. There are a lot of dancers who train in India and come here, a lot of professional musicians. And I started to think, what does it mean for me to create work that isn’t only for the community, but can also be mainstream? Is there work I can create that involves multiple bodies and the synergy of bringing multiple dancers together? Can that tell a different story than what you can tell as a soloist?

So in 2018, I founded the Samudra Dance Creations. I audition dancers and I work with professional dancers for my group dance company. I’ve been lucky to work with some very talented Bay Area musicians as well. 

IC: Your performances in India, were they at the Chennai winter kutcheris ?

JV: Yes. It’s called the Margazhi Kutcheri season. Despite its cultural vibrancy, there aren’t that many places in the Bay Area where one can perform multiple kutcheris. For the last 15-16 years, I have mostly performed at kutcheris and concerts in Chennai. In the U.S. I do shorter solo or ensemble work. With Abhilasha, I will be performing a kutcheri concert in the Bay Area after a very long time.

IC: Tell us more about your group performance,  Earth Speaks 2.0. 

JV: Earth Speaks 2.0 is a presentation of my professional group, Samudra Dance Creations. It successfully debuted in 2019 and we returned this year after a pandemic hiatus. It’s a family-friendly, fun story, a multi-disciplinary work that has, spoken word poetry, dance, and music, and raises awareness about climate change. It tells the story of this woman who is a metaphor for the Earth. Many of the musicians who will perform live with me at Abhilasha have worked with me on Earth Speaks.

IC: So how did this all begin? Tell us about your childhood.

This image has three photos of Bharatanatyam dancer Jyotsna Vaidee in various moves at a performance during the Chennai Margazhi festival in 2019 (Photo credit: Sai Photos)
Jyotsna Vaidee at a performance during the Chennai Margazhi festival in 2019 (Photo credit: Sai Photos)

JV: I was raised in India, and then Kuwait, and finally Canada. There was a point when I was in a different school almost every year for six years. 

My mother was the driving force behind my dance. She made sure that all my dance training happened in India so that I didn’t have any discontinuity. No matter where we lived, every summer, she would take me back to India to learn. So despite all the churn in terms of where I grew up, I always trained in Chennai, which is the heart of Bharatanatyam. 

I did my arangetram close to 30 years ago in Chennai. My professional training was under Padma Bhushan Professor CV Chandrasekhar, and also an abhinaya expert, Bragha Bessell

IC: Do you dance full-time?

JV: So that, I guess, is the crazy part of my life. I am a director of product management at Google. I’ve been at Google for 10 years. I think part of it is consistency. I’ve always been dancing, without a break. Practice makes progress. That is what has helped me evolve. I do think that my technology background helps. As a product manager, a lot of skills that you develop around bringing teams together, bringing people together, and creativity, are all useful for my dance performances. Creativity is at the bottom of tech.

IC: So you have two full-time jobs.

JV: It’s intense and a fair bit of sacrifice.  Weekends are not my own. My family also has to make sacrifices. It’s a choice I’ve made and I’ve come to terms with it now. 
I have two daughters.  One of my daughters is going to be part of the Thillana. This is the first time she will be performing with me. I don’t teach much, but I do have a handful of dedicated students. Two of my students, including my daughter, will be joining me for one piece. They’re really excited about it. 

IC: I don’t know how you do it. But I guess co-opting your children into your dance is a good idea.

JV: I think what makes it challenging is that I am performing all the time. Being a performer requires a lot of isolated time. You need to spend a lot of time just visualizing, thinking, working, and re-working things. I think consistency and discipline is the only thing that made this possible. If I had stopped even for a few years, I don’t know how I would have fitted back.

IC: Do you identify yourself more as a dancer or an engineer?

JV: I’d say as a dancer. But I also think that the synergies of the skills I learned on both sides have helped me succeed in both. I started as an engineer, but then I shifted to product management because product management at Google is much more of a creative role; you are really designing the product. A lot of the skills needed are similar, like bringing out the strengths in people, having a vision and being able to drive towards it. That is very important.

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Snigdha Sen

Snigdha Sen is Contributing Editor at India Currents and Co-Founder & Head of Content of video strategy startup, She holds a Master of Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism...