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Mythili Kumar, director of the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose says, “I always tell everyone who comes here—arrange a performance for yourself and start out that way.” Kumar moved to the United States in 1978, and founded the Abhinaya Dance Company in San Jose, which is currently celebrating its 25th year with special performances. Self-producing their programs is the norm for Indian-American dancers. This is a shift from what dancers are trained to do in India, where there are many organizations that support artistic work. With the added responsibility of producing shows, the immigrant dancer faces the challenge of building an organization capable of handling publicity, auditorium reservation, and ticket sales, while also handling choreography, rehearsals, and performance. Speaking from that experience, Katherine Kunhiraman, director of Kalanjali: Dances of India, attests, “As a dancer, I spend most of my time answering emails and phone calls.” In the early years of Kalanjali she recalls pushing a shopping cart with kathakali costumes in them to an event.
The initial years were difficult, concurs Chitresh Das, founder of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, which performs kathak, a classical dance form of North India. “Driving to teach every single week, maybe 500 or 700 miles, was not an easy task. Now the rewards come in, but the initial years were not easy.” Das moved to the United States in 1970 on a Whitney Fellowship to teach kathak at the University of Maryland, and started the Chhandam School in 1980. From these humble beginnings, the Chitresh Das Dance Company has grown to a point where it now has a full schedule of performances and workshops throughout the year.
Viji Prakash, director of the Shakti Dance Company of Los Angeles, says, “When I first started living here, I remember there would be days when all I could do was to nibble at a cookie, and think, how am I going to start dancing in Los Angeles after having so many performances in Bombay?”
For these gurus a lifelong commitment to dancing began with their own early dance lessons. Prakash vividly remembers her lessons growing up in Bombay with guru Kalyanasundaram, with her executing basic steps alongside other students, while her guru walked around the room, correcting their movement. The Shakti Dance Company celebrated its silver jubilee in 2002-03 with a dance production Bhagavad Gita.
For Katherine and K.P. Kunhiraman, the journey started in their late teens at the famous institution in Madras, Kalakshetra, under the guidance of the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale. Katherine remembers that before going to Kalakshetra she learned and performed a kathak piece in Calcutta. On seeing an American dancer ascend the stage, her mother who sat in the audience, heard someone exclaim loudly, “What is she going to do now?” implying that her dancing would not meet acceptable standards. However, her performance changed the skepticism into raving compliments and an auspicious beginning for her.
Today, Katherine and Kunhiraman are respected gurus in the Bay Area with three decades of disciplined teaching and professionalism behind them.
And, for all those mothers who feel quiet despair when their children refuse to show serious interest in dance lessons at a young age, these words of Ramya Harishankar, director of the Arpana Dance Company of Irvine, will provide solace: “I remember vividly that when I protested about the discipline involved in dance lessons, my mother told me: You do not have an option. You will continue these lessons. And, you will thank me for this one day.”
PRESERVING THE TRADITIONAL
Today, each of these dance gurus have 30 or more years of teaching experience, enough time to build and maintain classical dance traditions in their adopted land. One of their challenges is to communicate the spirit of their art forms to their students and audiences in California.
Harishankar says, “Tradition, to me, means what my teachers taught me. Whenever I choreograph something, I always think, is this something that they would approve of?”
“Even when we moved here,” says Katherine Kunhiraman, “we were sure that we would teach exactly what we had been taught,” echoing the same sentiment. It is this commitment to preserving classicism that has helped the integrity of the classical dance forms through the process of assimilation in America.
On the other hand, subtle changes have seeped into the way the gurus teach these classical arts in California. Katherine Kunhiraman says, “Children who grow up here are conditioned to think that everything has to be fun, and everything has to be appreciated. That is very different from the atmosphere in India. If your teacher stopped screaming, then you knew that you had at least the first set of steps right,” she recalls with a burst of laughter. As a result, the Kunhiramans have modified the bharatanatyam curriculum, introducing the adavus (basic steps), then working towards the first item, the alarippu, and then continuing with training in the adavus. This is different from the widely accepted practice in India where the training in adavus is completed before the student moves on to learn dance items.
The Chitresh Das Dance Company draws an eclectic mix of students from different ethnic backgrounds, united by their love for kathak. Das has introduced Indian philosophy into the curriculum. Students explore Vedic philosophy, become familiar with the meaning of “Om,” and recite slokas (Sanskrit verses from Hindu scriptures) with unerring ease. Charlotte Moraga, one of the principal dancers in the Chitresh Das Dance Company says, “My guru would say that this is innovation within tradition. Even though he probably did not recite these slokas in his own classes, we repeat them, thus reinforcing the connection between Indian dance and spirituality.”
In fact, classical dance lessons here follow the traditional approach, and also take on the mantle of providing a window into India’s culture for second-generation Indian-American and non-Indian dancers. Mythili Kumar cites an example. “When I did a dance production on Mahatma Gandhi, some dancers from India commented that what they saw on stage was similar to what children watched on TV programs in India. That’s when I realized that the work that I do in America might be the primary source of information on Gandhi for children growing up here. There are no readymade TV programs talking about Indian life for them to watch and learn about Indian culture.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Even as the present state of these dance forms looks vibrant, with talented dancers and a supportive community, one wonders what is the future of these dance forms in California. Katherine Kunhiraman says, “My dream was that some university would be able to support the teaching and propagation of Indian dance. But that has not happened in close to three decades.”
Ramya Harishankar adds, “There is a widespread perception in the community that only dancers who have learnt in India are somehow more genuine in their adherence to tradition, with a parent once telling me that he would send his daughter only to someone who has trained in India.”
Shantha Raman, an active supporter of the arts in the Bay area adds, “We cannot expect the children growing up here to pursue this full-time. But there are dancers who come from India and who are eager to start new schools here.”
This reality begs the question of whether the survival of this cultural heritage rests on new waves of immigration, or whether some other changes will take place to keep this valuable Indian cultural heritage alive. Listening to a radio disc jockey recounting how Jewish radio programming in New York in the 1920s catered primarily to Jewish immigrants got me thinking, “What changes will impact the field of Indian classical dance in America decades from now?” That’s a question for artists and the larger community to ponder over, for they hold the answers.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a dancer and the founder of the Sankalpa Dance Foundation. She was a merit scholar at the graduate program in communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
This article followed from a nine-month project “Living Heritage” sponsored by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities. Co-produced by Sankalpa Dance Foundation and World Arts West and with help from its executive director Julie Mushet, the project included research and oral history interviews by Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, and photographs by Vijay Kaushik and Raj Lathigara (www.imageraj.com).