As San Jose’s Abhinaya Dance Company celebrates its 30th Anniversary, founder Mythili Kumar is honored with a lifetime achievement award.

How do we tell the story of diaspora? How do we mark the coming-of-age of the Indian community in the United States? In the past few years, there have been numerous seeming signifiers of Indian “arrival” in the American imaginary: from Bobby Jindal to Slumdog Millionaire; from Nikki Haley to Outsourced on NBC. But the true pulse of the community cannot be heard in the hubbub of electoral politics and exoticist trends, which reveal only what the mainstream perceives. Rather, the pulse dances to the beat of another drummer, one which sounds a lot like nattuvangam.

In 1980, a young, newly married, professional bharatanatyam dancer from India found herself in the SF Bay Area, with few outlets for her art. She had managed a professional dance career while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition. Losing touch with dance was not an option, so, nearly 10,000 miles from home and without the infrastructure to which she’d grown accustomed, Mythili Kumar began teaching informal bharatanatyam classes to a group of young girls. That fledgling effort would eventually be incorporated as the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose.

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Thirty years later, Kumar’s American-born-and-raised daughters, Rasika and Malavika, have assumed leadership roles in the thriving company. Kumar’s husband, B. Kumar, who is himself a trained Karnatik music singer, has provided support and even occasional vocal accompaniment for the company’s programs. And Abhinaya productions consistently feature the highest caliber orchestra comprised of award-winning vocalists and artists on violin,mridangam, veena, kanjira, tabla, flute, and nattuvangam (the conducting of the orchestra through the playing of small cymbals).

In the early years, Kumar had modest aspirations for her venture: “At every stage,” she says, “I felt, ‘Oh, I’m not really doing this as a career. I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a homemaker…’” But as the students kept coming, as other dance aficionados and community members recognized the caliber of Kumar’s instruction and productions, the casual classes took on a distinctly professional air. In 1986, Abhinaya presented its first full-length dance drama, Shiva: The Cosmic Dancer, which featured Kumar’s original choreography. In the years since, Abhinaya has won grants from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the city of San Jose, the Arts Council Silicon Valley, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Kumar has taught at universities including Stanford, San Jose State, and UC Santa Cruz. Although Abhinaya’s focus has been bharatanatyam, Kumar is also versed in odissi and kuchipudi.

The San Jose Mercury News estimates that over 1,000 students have passed through Abhinaya’s doors. Abhinaya has also presented over 100 arangetrams, or solo dance debuts, and many of Kumar’s earliest students—including Radhika Kannan, who performed Abhinaya’s 10th arangetram in 1990—continue to perform with the company. In the interest of full disclosure, I presented the 49th arangetram, and although I am not presently dancing, my aesthetic, kinesthetic, cultural, and spiritual sensibilities have been marked by the many years of tutelage I received from Abhinaya. I remember with fondness and gratitude my first bharatanatyam class with Mythili Aunty—my awkward, five-year-old’s namaskaram and offering of fruits as guru dakshina—and I wonder if I sensed then how much I would receive in return.

The Work of a Lifetime

In June, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival awarded Mythili Kumar the 2010 Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award. If you have never seen the presentation of a lifetime achievement award, it is something to behold: a life’s work honored with the admiration and thanks of a broad community of celebrants. Kumar’s younger daughter, Malavika, reflects on what moved her most, “There were at least 60 people there [in San Francisco] just for my mother, including certain students who had begun learning at the company’s inception in 1980. The fact that they felt a strong enough connection with us, and with Abhinaya, after all those years, really meant something.”

Kumar has also been reflecting on the early years of Abhinaya and the balancing act she had to perform as mother, wife, homemaker, dancer, teacher, and company director. “Now that this 30-year milestone is finally upon me,” she says, “all that is past! This is it; this is my career. What am I supposed to do next for this dance? For this organization?”

Kumar’s relationship to the company, her company, has evolved considerably over the years. For the better part of the last three decades, she has been the primary teacher, company director, and principal performer. As Abhinaya has grown, however, select senior students and company dancers have taken over the instruction of beginning students. Most recently, Kumar has made space—material and psychic—for daughter Rasika to emerge as the company’s principal dancer and a key choreographer. “I had to earn [this role],” Rasika says. “It wasn’t just given to me. I had to fight for my ideas to be heard and accepted. But now, my mother trusts me with running rehearsals and having a vision for pieces.”

“For me it’s a surprise,” Kumar confesses, “that Rasika’ has come back [after finishing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at M.I.T.] and taken so much interest in the company. She says, ‘Mom, leave, go—I’ll do the choreography!’ And she’s doing such a fabulous job, putting things together, with a wonderful memory, quickness, and a logical mind.”

The mother is patently proud of the daughter, the teacher of the student. Nevertheless, there is considerable pathos in the passing of the proverbial baton. “I am not dancing as much,” Kumar says matter-of-factly, but her face lights up when she discusses early performances of “Bo Shambo” and “Sudha’s Story” (choreographed to a poem by Chitra Divakaruni). There is a big difference between choreographing for oneself and choreographing for one’s students, and “as a soloist,” Kumar says, “I know precisely what I want to do.”
Rasika nods in agreement as she addresses her mother: “When I do your choreography, when I perform ‘Bo Shambo,’ I feel that it’s built for you, for your personality.”

Telling Stories

Kumar and  Rasika now often choreograph collaboratively, a dynamic process that necessitates the meeting of both minds and bodies, visions and aspirations. Thematic considerations must be addressed in conjunction with formations, character development, rhythmic patterns, technical and other visual elements, not to mention the varying strengths of the company dancers. The dancer must communicate with the audience on a narrative level, as well as, as Rasika says, appeal to some aesthetic on the level of “abstraction.”

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As a bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer, Kumar has had to negotiate the demands of contemporary audiences while adhering to a rigorous, even orthodox, classical tradition. “The audience is the reason for me doing (particular shows),” Kumar says. “In the initial stages, when I did theRamayana, people would come and tell me, ‘I had tears in my eyes when I saw Bharata.’ I felt good about creating that kind of rasa in the audience.”

But how many times can one perform the Ramayana? How does a company like Abhinaya strike the balance between the traditional and the new? Kumar laughs as she describes the imperative to revisit old stories: “My young students say to me, ‘Oh, we love Krishna!’ But I’ve done Krishna for 30 years! Every year, the children are new; the families are new. They are just getting exposed, and they want to see Krishna eating butter.”

Of course, it’s not just children who find solace in the familiar. My father, Raj Srinivasan, shares this desire: “I watch bharatanatyam because it is a very aesthetically satisfying way to hear a story, through graceful movements, striking poses, and facial expressions. The stories are usually those we have grown up with and love to hear again and again.”

This, then, may be the greatest of Abhinaya’s successes: the consistent ability to maintain impeccable standards of classicism whether retelling old stories or addressing new themes and pressing modern concerns. Abhinaya productions have explored Hindu mythology (including The Splendor of the Infinite, 1987;Mayiladum Azhagan, 1998; Surya: The Sun God, 2003), the range of human experience (The Rhythm of Life, 1987; Epic Emotions, 1990; Love Exquisite, 1999; Saakhyam: Friendship, 2005), topical issues like domestic violence (Jagriti: Awakening, 2001) and the environment (Prithvi: the Earth, 2007; Rivers: A Mystical Journey, 2008), biographical explorations (Gandhi—the Mahatma, 1995), as well as all-time favorites like the Multi-Splendored Ramayana (1996).

Malavika shares her perspective: “The primary thing that sets Abhinaya apart from other companies is the ability to be innovative (whether in theme, format, or otherwise) without losing the tradition and quality of the dance form itself. Many companies nowadays see innovation as complexity or fusion, but they do this at the expense of the art. Abhinaya performances always focus on precision in movement and technique, and yet are never limited to the confines of the traditional bharatanatyam margam.”

Kumar is keenly aware that audience members have different levels of exposure to the classical arts; not all are fluent in the vocabulary of bharatanatyam. Abhinaya shows therefore, always feature detailed descriptions of the stories being told, as well as comprehensive programs and sophisticated off-stage narration. The only thing Kumar won’t do is compromise the dance for the sake of accessibility: “We won’t show someone picking up a phone and talking; I won’t bring it down to that level.”

Hers is a different kind of calling, a spiritual connection which requires an intense level of training in the dance form. “It’s like internal meditation,” Kumar says. “You are forgetting the self in the dance; you are forgetting yourself.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Radhika Kannan joined Abhinaya Dance Company before there was a company to join. For her, Kumar has been more than just a dance teacher. “Mythili Aunty is truly my guru,” she says. “She has known me for 30 years and has been there for every milestone in my life. She has given me sound advice as a parent would and helped me become the well-rounded person that I am today.”

Many Abhinaya students describe Kumar’s teaching and the Abhinaya “ethos” in  terms of precision and rigor. Priya Sripathy, who performed Abhinaya’s 51st arangetram in 2000, describes Kumar as a “kind, yet tough teacher. She is honest and, despite her tremendous talent and achievement, so very humble.” Madhuri Sharma, who studied with Kumar for many years before moving to India, notes that, “Abhinaya dancers’ strength lies in a solid foundation of the basics. [You can] recognize a student of Mythili Aunty by how good their jathisand adavus look.”

Sharma recalls Kumar’s high standards and effective pedagogical style, relating a story that will resonate with many dance students:

“When I was 10, I never took practicing seriously. Any good teacher knows what a prepared student looks like, so Mythili Aunty decided to test me. She asked me if I had been practicing and of course I said I had. She then asked me to videotape all the pieces I had learned by the next week. I hadn’t practiced for a long time and had a week to relearn six pieces. That week was very hard for me, both emotionally and physically. The night before class, I stayed up late, crying, struggling, and recording all the items. The next day I felt prepared for anything we had to do in class, and I couldn’t wait to hand Mythili Aunty that tape. To my shock, she simply took it, put it in her bag, and never mentioned it again. Looking back, I realize the brilliance in her method.”

Abhinaya in the World

In the past three decades, as Abhinaya has grown and other dance schools cropped up throughout the United States, there has been an attendant increase in interest in diasporic bharatanatyam on the part of academics. Numerous dissertations have been written on the Indian classical dances, including Avanthi Meduri’s “Nation, woman, representation: The sutured history of the Devadasi and her dance” (1996); Janet O’Shea’s “At Home in the World: Bharatanatyam’s transnational traditions” (2001); and Priya Srinivasan’s “Performing Indian dance in America: Interrogating modernity, tradition, and the myth of cultural purity” (2003). Scholarly treatises on Rukmini Devi abound, as well as papers on South Asian-American dancers and “embodied performativity.” Notwithstanding the trendy jargon, the academic treatment of the phenomenon of U.S.-based Indian classical dance further reflects the coming-of-age of the dance as well as the community in which it lives.

In the book that emerged from her dissertation, O’Shea examines

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Abhinaya’s 1993 production In the Spirit, a collaboration with San Jose Taiko, a Japanese drumming ensemble. She argues for the tremendous sociocultural significance of Abhinaya’s work: “In the Spirit ground a pan-Asian affiliation in a diverse local community, positioning bharatanatyam as an integral part of a California social landscape that looks westward to Asia … Kumar’s piece also counters a tendency in the United States to overlook South Asians as part of the social identity category of ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian American.’”

O’Shea describes bharatanatyam as “an entity capable of responding to the hybridity of its immediate urban environment. Through bharatanatyam, dancers establish social affiliations in the transnational city.” This sentiment is echoed by Abhinaya students like Vidhya Balu, who performed her arangetram in 2002, and says, “Growing up in the United States, I have found it difficult at times to understand my inherited Indian culture. Yet dance has helped me connect with others through the artistic portrayals of epic battles, love, and devotion.”

“As a child,” Malavika says, “being a classical Indian dancer was like my ‘cultural stamp’; it defined me as someone in tune with my culture and tradition. Now, as an adult, being a dancer is so much more than [that]. It’s my one constant—the unchanging part of my life.”

There is no question that Abhinaya has given much to many: a sense of the vibrant and dynamic culture and heritage of India; fruitful material for scholarly work; experiences of rasa and joy in the numerous productions staged over the years. Now, at 30, the company that Malavika rightly describes as a “constant” must reflect on the changes that lie ahead.

“Bharatanatyam here needs a different business model than in India,” Rasika says. As she continues to play a lead role in the company, Kumar’s older daughter is thinking strategically and practically, seeking to create incentives for the best dancers to continue on with the company and for the broader Indian-American community to better support the classical arts.

Malavika, too, wants to see the greater involvement of a younger generation of professional-quality company dancers, but not at the expense of her mother’s dance and direction. “[Mythili Kumar] truly is the life and spirit of the company,” she says. “Many people tell my mom that with Rasika’s choreography and my nattuvangam, she can retire. But no one seems to realize that we wouldn’t have those skills without her directing Abhinaya and providing us with opportunity.”

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

See our calendar for the 30th anniversary show listings of the Abhinaya Dance Company.

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