0b144001d988371837730db5a4acf511-1Last September, Anjani Ambegaokar became the first Indian dancer to be recognized with the country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts: the National Heritage Fellowship. Other Indian-American artists who have received this award in the past are the late T. Viswanathan, Ali Akbar Khan, and Zakir Hussain.

The 59-year-old performing artist, teacher, and choreographer has dedicated all her life to kathak. Ambegaokar is the founder of Sundar Kala Kendra Dance School, where she has trained hundreds of dancers in this classical dance form of North India. Her company, Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India, has performed around the world.

Anjani Ambegaokar recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she was presented the fellowship on Sept. 30 in a Capitol Hill ceremony. She talked to India Currents from her home in Diamond Bar, Calif.

You came to the United States in 1967, didn’t you?

Yes. I was engaged and came here to get married. My husband was in Chicago and we lived there for 10 years.

I already had my master’s in kathak dance from the M.S. University in Baroda [Vadodara] and some 18 years of training. In Chicago I taught a credit course in kathak dance at Columbia College, a private school well known for its liberal arts program. I was also performing.

I had a degree in economics, too, and worked in an accounting department. At that time I did not know how to approach art, so I did several part-time things.

When did kathak become a full-time pursuit for you?

Over the years I started realizing that I wasn’t happy, that what would make me happy was really doing kathak. I started getting more opportunities to perform at universities. I was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune and realized that this is what I want to do.

The hardest part was how to find the avenues to get into the mainstream. Who do you ask? Where do you start? I found out that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has a touring program. I applied, got on their roster, and did some performances in the early ’70s.

0b144001d988371837730db5a4acf511-2Then, in 1978 my husband got a job in the Los Angeles area and we moved here. Amrapali was 9 months old when we came to California.

You have taught kathak to hundreds of students here. Are the classical stories in kathak relevant in the lives of your students, or do you see them incorporating contemporary themes?

We have done a lot of contemporary work. In 2000 we did this big production, Soul to Sole, a collaboration between Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India, Jazz Tap Ensemble, and Adam & Laila del Monte. World Music and Kathak Rhythms is another ongoing choreographic work we do with different genres of music.

I believe in collaborations. We collaborated with Ramaa Bharadvaj and Nandita Behera and their ensembles in a production in 1997 to celebrate India’s 50 years of independence, 1947: Bharat Sanskriti. Of course, collaborations can also drive you crazy. When you collaborate you are working with everybody’s preconceived ideas and egos. There can be frustrations. But you learn so much. When it is over, you look at it, and it is always an amazing experience.

We did Mahabharata: Sons of Kunti with Viji [Prakash] in 1990 for the Los Angeles Festival. It was probably one of the first kathak-bharatanatyam collaborations. I developed great respect for Karnatik music, the rhythms, and how they do riyaz.

How do you keep a balance between maintaining the classical tradition of kathak and experimenting with contemporary themes?

I am very traditional but I always like to push the boundaries. The authenticity of the form is very critical, but taking it from there, pushing the boundaries and looking deeper into your form are among the most challenging tasks of a traditional artist. If you don’t push your limits, you stagnate. You don’t grow as an artist.

Look at our classical art forms. Our gurus have also pushed the boundaries. Look at kathak, how it was 200 years ago, and then 100 years ago, and how it is now. We are all continuously trying to expand and explore. I remember 50 years ago when I started learning kathak and compare it with how the dance is performed today. It has evolved. Of course, we have to make sure we don’t lose the truth of the form.

My guruji, Pandit Sundarlal-jee Gangani, said to me, “Your mind is a mirror. It will tell you what is going right or not going right with whatever you are doing with your art.”

I believe that you must remain a student as a professional artist because you must continue to learn. If you stop learning then the ego comes in and you start thinking “I am the best,” because you have stopped learning from others. Then, where do you go from there?

I tell my students, “Go and see performances. Learn from everyone.”

What are some of the ways in which you push the boundaries or operate beyond your comfort zone?

I am currently teaching kathak to troubled teens as part of the HeART Project in Los Angeles. They bring in different artists—painters, sculptors, filmmakers, musicians, and dancers. I am teaching a 10-week program called Sacred Music Sacred Performance, at the end of which these kids perform what they have learned.

This is in Lincoln Heights in downtown Los Angeles, a Hispanic neighborhood, a very low-income, high-crime area. There are 12 high-school teens in the 16-18 age group—three boys and nine girls—all Hispanic. These are failing-grade kids, some have problems with drugs, broken families; anything that is not right is what they have. Some of them go in and out of jail. One kid just stopped coming and I asked them, “What happened?” They said, “Oh, he is in jail.”

The first three weeks are the most challenging. The hardest part is asking them to take their shoes off. They say, “Why do we have to do this?” They don’t even want to get up from their chairs. They are very disrespectful because they have no self-respect, yet they are wonderful kids.

So you manage to get them to take their shoes and socks off. Then you ask them to put on ghunghroos, and they ask, “What are these bells for? Why do we need to do this?” They also use foul language. There are times when I ask myself, “What am I doing here? Let me get out of here.” But then I push myself, “You can do it. You can do it.”

To take them from this kind of negative approach to eventually do a performance at the end of the program is one of the most challenging things I have ever done as an artist and yet I keep coming back. This is the fourth time I am teaching in the HeART Project. I feel this is my way of giving back. If I can make a difference in the life of one kid through my culture and traditions, I feel I have achieved something as an artist.

When I start singing the Guru Vandana there’s a transformation. Everyone becomes quiet. The bolder one among them will say, “Miss Anjani, this is very peaceful. We kinda like this music.” Then they do the poses of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, raising their left leg in Shiva’s posture. Can you believe that? I teach them to do pranam, the guru pranam.

They have learned the entire Guru Vandana, five toras, and a small tatkar, and will do a 10-minute performance. The salvar-kameez costumes for them are bought by the Project. The girls wear bindis, the guys kurtas. And yes, they all wear ghunghroos.

By the end of the 10 weeks they are with you. I feel blessed.

When you learned that you were selected for the National Heritage Fellowship you said, “I feel certain responsibilities as an artist.”

There are a few thoughts there. I am the first Indian dancer to receive this honor in the 22-year history of the award. There are many other Indian dancers also who are doing great work in bharatanatyam, kathak, kuchipudi, odissi. I feel responsible to maintain the quality of my work and improve on it.

Also, it is important to continue teaching because the award is about passing on the tradition to the next generation and I hold myself responsible for that.

The third thought is that I want to continue performing. People say, she will be 60 next year and has not stopped dancing. That sets an example for the younger generation that this is possible.

You were at Capitol Hill on Sept. 30 to receive the award. What thoughts came to your mind there?

It was very overwhelming. I could not believe it. They told me that they would treat me like a queen and they did. From the moment you land at the airport to the day you leave, it is like, they send you fruits at the hotel, welcome you, “We are looking forward to seeing you,” and many such small touches.

0b144001d988371837730db5a4acf511-3The NEA and the Council for Traditional Arts join hands to produce these four days of festivities. They had a banquet the night before, a very formal affair where they honored all the artists, at the Library of Congress. The people involved truly believe in the artists, their lifelong commitment to their art, their passion, love of life. There was a moment when they were talking about the 12 award winners. Amrapali was sitting on one side of me and my husband on the other side. I was holding their hands and my tears started running. I thought, oh my god, I can’t believe it. Is this actually happening?

I thought back about all those years in the early ’70s of teaching at schools in Chicago in the morning at 8, driving in the snow, taking this art to an all-black neighborhood where kids would sit there and say, “Look at this Indian dancer.”

The movie Shaft had just been released and its music was very popular. I composed a piece to the rhythms of that music and showed them, “See, we can do this in kathak, too, besides the stories of the little boy Krishna.”

All these thoughts flashed in my mind. About my Papa, who had a dream that his daughter was going to learn dance. I feel very honored, very grateful. It is a very humbling experience. At the same time, it is a blessing.

At the award ceremony we did a spontaneous collaboration. The gospel steel guitarist Charles Campbell was singing gospel music, while Jerry Douglas played the dobro guitar. The drums were playing a four-beat rhythm, and Amrapali and I entered the stage and started dancing improvised kathak rhythms. There were 1,500 people in the packed hall in George Washington University. Everyone was on their feet, clapping, singing, and dancing with us for the last seven minutes. It wasn’t about any religion. It was about art and artists coming together.

What are you doing next?

The Art of Basketball, Kathak Style. That’s one of my projects for next year. The idea came to me one day when I was watching a basketball game with my huband, who is a Lakers fan. I saw how Kobe Bryant moves on the court; he is so graceful, like an artist. So I thought, “I would like to show the artistic aspect of playing basketball.” In this piece I plan to incorporate different drum sounds with tabla and kathak footwork.

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