After a point, the costume fades away: Archana

Bay Area-based dancer, Archana Raja,  recalled how one of her dance performances in collaboration with Kuchipudi exponent, Kasi Aysola, left her near and dear ones astonished. It wasn’t because she, a well-known trained  Bharatanatyam dancer, was performing Kuchipudi; it was her costume of netted clothes depicting plastic pollution. “After a point the costume faded away. It’s about the conviction of the artist as to what one is really trying to say with honesty,” Raja said, with the smile of an assured artist unafraid to reinvent herself. The show, presented by Maryland-based Prakriti Dance, was about plastic pollution, ocean conservation, and marine life preservation. 

Raja, who is also the marketing lead of Prakriti Dance,  is determined to tell similar socially relevant stories despite any reservations classical dance purists may have.

This year, Raja – a resident of Santa Clara and a professional dancer for the last 20 years -has been invited to perform Kuchipudi in the prestigious Krishna Gana Sabha’s Pongal Dance Festival in Chennai in January, 2024. But first, Raja will perform stateside, in two upcoming festivals—a duet with Kasi Aysola at the TriNethra-the third eye festival of dance on November 4 in Lexington, MA , and in 5th Edition of Prakriti Dance Festival on November 11 in Aurora, CO. 

Raja is also working on her solo project on women’s issues called, “The Accidental Goddess – Yellamma”, which she aims to premier in the Bay Area in 2024. Speaking enthusiastically about the project,  Raja said she discovered the titular character Yellamma – a Kannada Goddess – when she came across Shilpa Mudbi’s Urban Folk Project. Yellamma is worshiped by trans people in the Saundatti community. Raja was intrigued to learn that they were priests in the temple and narrated the story of Yellamma as a nata or street play. “What struck me was the story of who she was before becoming Yellamma. She was actually born as princess Renuka and went through a tumultuous life before she became a goddess. She never wanted to be one, but they make her a goddess.” That, she said, explains the title of her show. Not many of us know her as Parashurama’s mother, she lamented. “We all just extol him as Vishnu’s avatar.”

Raja is trying to break out of her comfort zone and adapt the story of Yellamma into the vocabulary of Kuchipudi. “It’s a feminist work for the first time,” she said, as most of her work prior to this explored the traditional margam, or repertoire of Bharatanatyam.

Art chooses you

Raja was born and raised in orthodox family in Chennai, where she found her calling in dance, not in the music classes her mother enrolled her in when she was 5. “My family is not inclined in the arts in any way. In fact, my dad wanted me to be a part of a modern western dance class. It was just destiny that I picked Bharatnatyam,” she said.

Raja credits her school and her teachers for making her fall in love with dance. A big influence on Raja was her teacher at Temple of Fine Arts, Sheela Unnikrishnan, director of Sridevi Nrityalaya, with whom she trained for two decades and made her Arangetram in 2006. “ I have done around 300-400 shows with her.”

 For the young Archana growing up in Chennai, dance simply meant fun. “That sort of fun I don’t think I can expect from this generation because I am teaching now and it has come full circle. When I look back I feel so thankful that I didn’t have social media, I didn’t have a smartphone when I was training.” Nothing distracted her focus from dance.

Raja fervently believes that art chooses you. Approaching her 30s has made her realize that the cliché is true. Even while handling the business side of a yoga studio with 70 centers across India, she continued to dance, working as a freelancer with renowned actor and dancer Shobana, performing with her troupe in Dubai and Ireland.

From Bharatanatyam to lockdown to Kuchipudi

An Indian classical dancer in a blue costume strikes a pose.
Dancer Archana Raja strikes a post (Photo courtesy: Archana Raja)

Raja first came to the U.S to pursue a Masters degree, but moved back to India to follow her calling in Bharatanatyam. But, as fate would have it, marriage brought her back to the Bay Area right before the pandemic lockdown

That is when Raja took up Kuchipudi. Raja met Aysola when he was short of a dancer while performing with his ensemble in India. Raja trusted Aysola’s words that Kuchipudi form suited her body and agreed to give it a try despite fears that she might not be as successful in Kuchipudi as she was in Bharatnatyam. “In classical dance training, if you don’t start when you are young, it just doesn’t hold on to you. A strong conviction and family’s support is required,” she said. She is training in the ‘Vempati Bani’, named after Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam and Vempati Ravi Shankar

Learning Kuchipudi as a beginner has been an exhilarating experience for Raja. Without any agenda, goal, or objective, “I just fell in love with the art form,” she said. Embodying two different classical dance forms is no mean feat, even for a dancer like Raja who had performed with renowned dancers like Anita Ratnam and Shobana. She said, “Pursuing two dance forms, especially in my field and in my generation, is tough, because people categorize you.” Nevertheless, she is thoroughly enjoying both dance forms.

Raja made her Rangapravesam in Kuchipudi at the age of 28 in January this year in Chennai. She found the positive feedback very encouraging, and wishes to continue to represent the art form.

Breaking the mold, and patriarchy

Raja hopes to bring her unique dance theater work to a wider audience next year . “I am trying to take traditional forms, traditional music but treat it in a way that will reach the audience,” she said. “Because this story of motherhood, of a woman’s true feeling and anger and agony is a universal theme.” 

Raja believes that conventional Bharatnatyam vocabulary is heavily codified and not a lot of people, including her husband, connect to it. She wants to present the story of Yellamma as her first out-of-the-box, unconventional project. “I think much of it comes from a reflection of who I’m growing into as an artist. Much of it comes from experiences after marriage—sort of navigating who I am as a woman, as a married woman, as a daughter, and managing a career as an artist, while coming from an extremely orthodox family,” she said. Throwing light on limitations that certain traditions impose on women, Raja find’s inspiration in stories like Yellamma, and many women like her who have been waging silent wars on patriarchy. 

“We all had examples in all our families,” she said.

Suman Mudamula, a long-time resident of the Bay Area, is a freelance writer. She is fascinated with the power of words in all its forms. In addition to contributing her writing skills to nonprofits,...