The dancer moves across the stage, and the bells on her anklets jingle with each step until she halts mid-stage in a bow-legged position. The pleats of her mustard silk sari fan out. A crown of jasmine flowers adorns her jet-black hair. But it’s her eyes that have captivated the audience. They dance and twinkle with mischief and glee. She is playing baby Krishna, the naughty Hindu cherub god, who has just been caught with his hand in the buttermilk jar. Her abhinaya (facial expressions) and mudras (hand gestures) transport the audience to the land of cowherds and their antics in Mathura.
But, this is not Mathura. Not even close to it. Half way across the world, in California, Indian-American exponents of bharatanatyam, a classical dance with origins some three millennia ago in India, are enchanting audiences.
The Indian diaspora has matured. Its impact is felt not only across foreign lands, but also on the motherland. Bollywood has embraced Indians in the diaspora like Lisa Ray and Katrina Kaif. Music videos frequently show videos by British-born Bally Sagoo and Canadian-born Raghav. The tides of culture are changing, and change is evident not just in the movie and music scenes, but also in the classical arts.
Once upon a time, Indian-American immigrants flocked to catch a glimpse of eminent visiting artists from India. Today, second- and third-generation Indian Americans are evoking similar responses from audiences not just in the United States but also back in India. One review titled “Aesthetics Preserved” in Indian-based The Hindu newspaper claims, “It is obvious that Nitya Venkateswaran loves to dance. An Indian American from California, she exhibits confidence that lends a sheen to every movement and expression.” Venkateswaran, a student of the Shri Krupa Dance Company of San Jose, is one of the many Indian-American classical dancers who is captivating audiences across India with her dedication to and mastery of Indian classical dance. Once considered raw and marginally passable due to their place of birth and residence, these dancers are sometimes even better than their Indian counterparts, and are more likely to preserve the authenticity of the art form.
Yes, the tides are truly changing. While India adopts Western attitudes and cultural norms, desi grocery stores in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada advertise a multitude of bharatanatyam and kathak schools and recitals. Whereas children once had to be cajoled, coaxed, and coerced into attending bharatanatyam or kathak classes, today, many look forward to perfecting their form. Some students, like Venkateswaran, have taken this interest even further, choosing the classical arts as a career rather than a hobby.
One can usually spot a doctor, engineer, IT professional, and even a lawyer among the Indian diaspora, but a professional Indian classical dancer is a rarity. However, according to guru Vishal Ramani of Shri Krupa Dance Company, Indian classical arts are gaining recognition. “Thirty years ago, when I first started Shri Krupa, dance was not seen as a financially lucrative career choice. But today there is more monetary support,” she says, “and so students are encouraged to look at their passions as a potential career.”
MULTICULTURALISM VS. MELTING POT
Niharika Mohanty, a professional odissi dancer in the San Francisco Bay Area, believes that the increased funding and the emerging interest in the Indian classical arts is a direct result of the growing acceptance of multiculturalism. “This has been happening in Canada for quite some time,” says Mohanty, a native of Toronto. “There has been funding available to artists for training as well as performing, and as a result many dancers have been established in Canada for quite a while. America, on the other hand, had adopted the ‘melting pot’ approach, which did not allow for individual cultural expression. People were proud to be American, but not Indian.”
Lately, however, attitudes are changing in America; there is a strong trend towards multiculturalism. “Whereas before they were forced to assimilate,” says Mohanty, “today the second- and third-generation Indian Americans are becoming very much involved with their culture, and in fact, are proud of it. This is due to the acceptance of our culture by the mainstream as well as by the Indian community.”
Venkateswaran agrees that the changing American attitudes are paving the way for the younger generation. “It was hard growing up in America and trying to assimilate. How could I pursue something I liked that made me even more different than I already was?” It was her parents’ encouragement that helped Venkateswaran to embrace her passion.
Mythili Prakash, an MFA student of choreography at UCLA and a professional bharatanatyam dancer in the greater Los Angeles area, has noted a growing acceptance of Indian culture. “We have to paint our hands and feet with henna for a performance. When I was younger, I was embarrassed to go to school with henna on my hands. Now, children are much more appreciative of their culture at a younger age.”
This acceptance is not only propelled by the growing number of Indian Americans, but also due to the mainstream Americans’ exposure to things Indian. From henna tattoos to tandoori chicken to yoga, Indian culture has become the “in” thing. But appreciating Indian classical dance, with its roots in Hindu mythology, takes more than a passing interest. So one would imagine that it doesn’t have the same crossover appeal as Bollywood dance or chai lattes.
Prakash, however, refutes this assumption. Not only are non-Indians more aware about Indian culture, but “the themes in bharatanatyam have a universal appeal and can be made accessible to a mainstream audience,” says Prakash.
Venkateswaran agrees, and adds that “they [non-Indians] do see the emotions. Passion, involvement, and drama in bharatanatyam cross cultural boundaries.”
Jaiwanti Pamnani, a kathak dancer with the Chitresh Das Dance Company in the San Francisco Bay Area, feels that it is the “acceptance of the mainstream that has sparked interest in our [Indian] community.”
HOBBY OR CAREER?
With these changing sensibilities, parental attitudes have also shifted significantly. Before, parents pushed their children into financially stable careers while encouraging dance only as a hobby. Pamnani comments that while she was “growing up in Hawaii, my parents considered dance as a hobby and a way to keep in touch with my Indian heritage. I was supported to take dance classes, but first I had to do my duty as a wife and a mother. In the Indian diaspora,” she adds, “you first have to cook and take care of the children. Only after that you can dance.”
Today, however, the community has matured and is no longer operating in an immigrant survival mode. Consequently, parents are accepting, if not encouraging, their children’s choices to follow their hearts. Prakash was asked by her mother to make a choice. “Though I always knew that dance would be integrated into my career, I did not know how. While going to UC Berkeley, I saw my peers pursue traditional degrees. Consequently, I too pursued such degrees, and danced only when I had the time. After graduation my mom told me that I had to make a choice. If I wanted to dance, then I had to give it my all and not worry about the financial implications.”
Venkateswaran, too, attributes her career choice to the support she received from her parents. “Because they were interested in [bharatanatyam], I was able to pursue it as a career.” Venkateswaran’s mother, Shyamala Venkateswaran, supports her daughter’s choice wholeheartedly; she has toured with Nitya Venkateswaran, helping her with the logistics of arranging performances in cities across India.
NSPIRED BY THEIR GURUS
Teachers are another motivating entity for these dancers. Pamnani says that she had the passion to dance since she was 8, “but there was no teacher in Hawaii. In the early 1990s, I met Guru Chitresh Das. I recognized the passion he had for teaching, not just kathak, but about life in general. From then onwards, I became intensely involved in dance.”
For Venkateswaran, it was her guru’s level of training and faith. “Vishal [Ramani] encouraged me to perform in India, and even accompanied me there. Because of her level of training I was able to succeed there. Her pieces are tailored to bring out the best in each dancer.”
Mohanty, too, acknowledges the inspiration she got from her legendary guru. “Learning from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra has been a life-changing experience for me. I am not sure that I would have continued this far in odissi dance had it not been for his influence.”
Prakash has the unique experience of training under her mother, the acclaimed dancer and guru, Viji Prakash. This mom-guru combination enabled Mythili Prakash to launch her performing career at the tender age of 8.
A DEEPER CONNECTION
However, no matter how much support these dancers received from society, family, and gurus, it is their own passion and dedication that drives them. “I love the storytelling aspect and the emotion [bharatanatyam] evokes from the audience,” says Venkateswaran. “Unlike ballet and modern dance, bharatanatyam is not abstract, but completely tangible, and because of that, the audience has a deeper involvement with the performance. It is invigorating when I can communicate with the audience age-old themes and see that they get it.”
For Pamnani, dance is the “integration of body, mind, and soul.” Suffering from a chronic illness, Pamnani has also used kathak as a vehicle for healing. “It is an integration of meditation and movement which helps me reflect on the unpredictable nature of life.” Similarly, Prakash considers “dance to be an expression of spirituality. It is a high form of yoga where you have to be conscious at every moment.”
So what prompted these passionate dancers to form a deeper connection with their chosen art form? The turning point for most has been a trip back to the motherland.
Even though the American metropolis encourages different expressions of multiculturalism, there is a disconnect between the classical dance and the larger society. Indian classical dance—be it bharatanatyam of southern India, kathak of northern India, or odissi from the eastern state of Orissa—is highly stylized and rich with cultural, religious, and historical references. It is difficult to portray the disrobing of Draupadi without the knowledge of Mahabharata or the many cultural taboos present in that scenario. These dances are just not precise movements, but rather an intricate combination of symbolic movements, expressions, and rhythm. The expressions are directly impacted by the dancer’s personal experiences, knowledge, and emotions. Indian-American students of classical dance live in a bipolar world; they operate, for the most part, in a completely Western society, while attempting to submerge themselves for a couple of hours each day into an ancient Eastern world of gods and goddesses, epic loves, and wars.
Mohanty recalls a teacher who realized how difficult it was for children to transport themselves to a different world and era for one hour. She attempted to bridge this gap by “insisting that everyone wear traditional dance garb and have a bindi—physical cues that would help them enter the world of classical Indian dance.” Mohanty adds that due to multiculturalism “no one even bats an eyelid when I walk out of my studio today in my odissi sari.” This helps her integrate her dance seamlessly into her American lifestyle.
She believes her confidence and ability to integrate this dichotomy comes from making numerous trips to India. “You get the full experience when you are there. You can still see some of the traditional cultural expressions such as shyness, something that is alien to the West. It is then easier to bring those expressions into the dance.”
For Pamnani, going to India was important because it exposed her to the subtleties of culture and history. She attended a goat sacrifice at the Kalighat Temple in Kolkata. “They did a little prayer to respect the soul of the goat, and then chopped the head off in one flash. The reality was very different from what I had envisioned. I was able to understand the different feelings and subtleties of Indian culture, and how it pertains to my dance.”
The decision to perform in India was a turning point for Venkateswaran and helped her choose bharatanatyam as a career. “I was completely immersed in the culture, religion, and music. Things that I had heard about the temples, the processions, the festivals, were finally a reality. The synergy of all these experiences made the dance pieces more authentic and meaningful. I now dance with utter joy and happiness because I am able to reach that level of understanding and dedication.”
Similarly, for Prakash, the trip to India “convinced her to follow her dream of dancing professionally.” There she was exposed to different performances and dancers, and more importantly, to the “spiritual aspect of dance.” She was also able to dedicate all her time to her art—thinking, rehearsing, and breathing bharatanatyam, something that would be impossible while living in the United States. In fact, Prakash is moving to India for the next few years in order to perfect her art form.
In an age when Western attitudes are becoming the norm in India, and cultural fusion is the rage, these Indian-American dancers are preserving the classical arts. As one reviewer wrote in The Hindu, “Only when she talks you know that Nitya is foreign—her dance is pure unadulterated bharatanatyam.” Thus, it came as no surprise to Venkateswaran when a friend mentioned that his two little girls, Ramya and Anjali, were invited by a cultural association in Vancouver to give a performance. They were, after all, following in their Nitya didi’s footsteps. Today, Vancouver, tomorrow, the Americas, and soon … India.
For more information about the dancers, visit their websites: Nitya Venkateswaran, www.nityav.com; Niharika Mohanty, www.odissiniharika.com; Jaiwanti Pamnani, www.kathak.com; Mythili Prakash, www.mythiliprakash.com
Rinoti Amin is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.