The fascinating aspects of Nava Dance Theatre’s “Migrations” is the communion between and the communication of the physical and metaphorical depictions of Movement: of a community (displacement), of people (making a Home), of a few individuals (collective depiction), of a dancer (personal musings), and finally, of an idea that moves the audience.

The piece uses the Bharatanatyam art form to examine the concept of homeland through personal accounts of South Asian migration stories, inspired by the lived experience of South Asians who migrated to the US since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Migrations can be experienced on Sunday Aug 21, 4PM, at Cubberley Theater in Palo Alto, CA, as part of the I Dance hence, I Am Festival (IDIA).

Here is a conversation with Nadhi Thekkek, artistic director of Nava Dance.

India Currents: What prompted you to explore this theme?

NT: It’s hard for me to think of a specific moment or prompt that led me here. As a dancer, learning Bharatanatyam, I was always interested in connecting pieces I learned to my real life experiences. It made those pieces feel more relatable and real to me. My teachers, especially Lakshman master, helped me make those connections. I believe the audience can feel when you are really experiencing a memory vs when you are performing one. I’ve kind of taken that to heart in many ways. (In Migrations,) I dig deeper into those personal stories – not just mine, but stories of my friends, family and people who I hold close.

For me, inspiration largely comes from oral histories, archival witness statements, memoirs, news articles, and poetry from the diaspora. Right now, I am collecting stories from Malayalee women who immigrated to the US after the 1965 immigration and nationality act, and that has significantly informed the direction of my work right now – which you will see glimpses of in Migrations. 

IC: What was the process of developing this theme? Did the research evolve with the development? Were there threads that emerged unexpectedly?

NT: It started with stories from my own family – my mother came to the US on a student visa but eventually became one of the many Malayalee nurses that came to fill a serious need in the US in the late 70s early 80s. Many of my Malayalee friends were in the same position, moms who came to work, spouses and children who followed. I explore this even further in another work, but in Migrations I wanted to think about the experiences of many South Asians when they make the decision to leave home and come to the US.

It made me think about the common themes across all of our communities. Waiting for a visa, being separated from loved ones, feeling the culture gap between parents and children, racism – so many of these are common to immigrants or immigrant kids of that time. Even the dreaded late night phone call – so many in the diaspora can attest to the fear that comes from getting a call from India in the middle of the night.

Because while we are so present here, making our lives and families, a part of us is still “back home” worried about elders and other loved ones. And of course the pandemic exacerbated this even further with many unable to visit in the last 2 years. I think these kinds of experiences are what keep us all connected in immigrant communities. Navigating this space together also makes us a family in some ways.

IC: Could you talk about a particular sentence from the lyrics/ narrative?

NT: In one piece we summarize some of the experiences of women I’ve/ been speaking with. You hear versions of their words through the voices of narrators, which sets the stage for one the pieces. “…the touch of a grandmother, the language, kids not understanding their grandparents, do these things matter?” In that piece, we examine how much work it really takes to make the American Dream a reality, and what we lose in the process. What is the trade off? What does that mean for the next generation?

There is also a line from Subramania Bharathi which translates to “We fostered this tree, Lord, not with water but tears. Have we the heart now to see it wither?” It makes me wonder, how does being in this extremely polarized America influence how I raise my kids? What happens when they are confronted with racism? This line is set as a virutham (improvised rendition) by composer GS Rajan and expertly rendered by Sindhu Natarajan. 

IC: How did you adapt Bharatanatyam to this abstract theme? What challenges or advantages did the medium of Bharatanatyam offer? 

NT: Bharatanatyam the way we learn and perform it now has created an incredible world of how to express stories that we hold dear. It’s important to preserve what we learned and continue to pass on that repertoire which many teachers are so committed to. I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation for that. In fact, many of the teachers/choreographers here in the Bay Area and all over the world have already explored many different kinds of themes both within and outside of the margam. It’s been such a critical part of the perspectives that have informed my work. 

Shruti Abhishek. (Photo by Lara Kaur)

In the past, composers/choreographers drew from their experiences to create new work which we still perform today. What would it look like if we added to that body of work with our experiences now? In terms of the form I am more often running into opportunities than challenges. I love exploring possibilities and working with dancers and musicians to make work that fully captures the narratives we are trying to share. I don’t feel like I am adapting Bharatanatyam to fit a particular theme, it often feels like they go hand in hand – otherwise I don’t think I would be working in this form in the first place. Now whether the audience sees it that way too, is up to them.

What I find to be a challenge is the complicated history of the form. I am still actively learning and will continue to seek out resources to help me understand this better. Moreover, bharatanatyam can feel exclusive at times and not in a good way. I am very conscious of how I might be inadvertently enabling some of that exclusivity as a Malayalee/Christian/American bharatanatyam dancer. With every piece I make and choose to perform, I ask myself, who is this for? Who is this work serving? By making this work, am I causing harm? I don’t have those answers but it’s critical that as artists we constantly ask ourselves those questions.

That said, I do have to say Ganesh Vasudeva and Kavita Thirumalai at IDIA are making every effort to support and encourage dancers at different stages in their careers through IDIA. Initiatives like these are critical in creating a more inclusive space for this artform. I hope there are more!