Alongside their careers in the technology space, there is evidence that generations of Bay Area Indians have benefited from upbringings in a culture that has deep roots in dance, arts, and music. There are many women who have great careers in science and technology and continue to devote time to the Classical Arts. In fact, the roles that Indian women in the Bay Area take on to maintain a balance between their STEM careers and preserving the traditions of Indian Classical dance are remarkable. This is what I’d like to call STEMinism.
Dipanwita Sengupta says one of the reasons why she began pursuing Kathak was because it has a lot of mathematical calculations ingrained within the dance — in Kathak, she finds the union of STEM and the Classical Arts.
Bidisha Mohanty alludes to Odissi dance as her passion. She describes Odissi as a major part of her mental/physical growth and development. “Odissi dance gives me peace of mind, happiness, and acts as a distraction from daily life. If I’m busy and want to take my mind off something, I dance,” she explains.
Chandna Veturi explained how Kuchipudi was a form of meditation for her. She describes the work-life balance as taking a break from each other. “After working on one side for a while, you go back to the other side with a different approach and energy than before,” she says.
Selvi Pragasam pointed out that on a personal level, Bharatnatyam dance has enabled her to manage a lot of hardships.
All four dancers instruct their students bearing in mind the transferable, everyday skills that can be learned from Indian Classical Dance.
STEMinistas and Their Support Network
It’s notable to point out that one main commonality between these women who pursue dual careers in the Arts and STEM is that they all rely on a strong support system. These support systems are extremely individualized, and without them, many feel overwhelmed and quite fearful. Interviews with Bharatnatyam professionals relayed stories of how it took the support of all those involved in their lives to pursue a career in the Arts.
Naina Shastri recalls how her whole family was part of her Bharatanatyam endeavors from the start. Her mom envisioned her learning, her father would drive her to practice, and both were always in the first row for every show. There was this perception that women from respectable families shouldn’t dance, but when she got married, her husband encouraged her to continue dancing.
Rasika Kumar describes the support that she received from her family through her teen years as extremely motivational. Her mom’s dance school was something she could lean on to pull her career forward and it gave her a clear focus. To this day, she feels a sense of belonging when she practices with other students and loves that she is part of something bigger than herself.
Similarly, Shreya Iyer always knew she had the support of her parents from the start. They encouraged her to continue dancing through the toughest times of her career.
A Different Point of View
While many women have maintained an incredible work-life balance, it’s important to also consider their male counterparts (who also concurrently pursue Classical dance training and a career in STEM).
Rajesh Chavali revealed that at first many people discouraged him from learning Kuchipudi. This prompted him to work extra hard to keep up with his Kuchipudi dance training. His STEM career has allowed him to take a very scientific approach in his dance.
Bharatnatyam dancer Ryan Nathan states how his love for the art form stemmed from the fact that it teaches self-discipline and history. “Indian classical dance is tied to spirituality, Hindu religion, art, and culture,” he says. The support which he’s received from his teacher and a few other notable temples, the priests, and board members have encouraged him to keep on going, in addition to fostering his passion for spreading Indian classical dance throughout the community.
Advice for the Next Generation
The inspiration we can obtain from Indian classical dancers is not something we can take for granted. The time, dedication, and love that they’ve put into their respective art forms, while also pursuing a career in the STEM industry, is incredible. Gayatri Joshi, an Odissi dancer and instructor, says that whether you are studying, working, cleaning or, cooking, it doesn’t matter — dance always compliments whatever you do.
Chinmayi Arakula, an Andhranatyam dancer and instructor, finds that dance gives you relief from your STEM-based career. Furthermore, she believes that everyone should get an opportunity to learn Indian Classical Dance forms because the many years of extensive training add to the love of Indian culture as a whole.
This is the kind of dual-ambition that the next generation should live by, and it’s something I am concurrently pursuing in my day-to-day life. In addition to being an Odissi Classical Dancer, I am interested in CS and STEM — just like my mother. I believe that both of these aspects of my life come together to make me whole — a psychological mechanism to help me cope with the challenges of a complicated society.
Shreyaa Karan is a rising senior at Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose, California. She is an Odissi Classical Dancer and a 2nd-degree Taekwondo Black Belt.
A celebration of legacies – a festival of bhava, rasa, tala, laya – was recently hosted virtually by Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient Srimati Aloka Kanungoand Eastern Zonal Cultural Center (EZCC), and powered by Kadambini, the popular Oriya magazine.
Parampara unfolded over twelve days like twelve gemstones, each day shining with the lustrous hues of established and promising Indian classical dancers from India and abroad. Guru Aloka Kanungo successfully visualized and conceptualized the festival with five days dedicated to the celebration of Odissi, and seven days of other classical dances such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Sattriya, Kathak, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, and Gaudiya Nritya. Each episode was introduced by Baishali Bhuniya. The festival featured EZCC director Gouri Basu, diplomat and dancer Rajashree Chintak Behera, Media personality Sadhna Srivastav, and Dr. Sangita Gosain.
The first five days presented a very commendable range of artists of Odissi, from scholars, researchers, to dancers and choreographers from various parts of the globe such as Rohini Dandavate (USA), Supradipta Dutta (USA), Kaustavi Sarkar (USA), Niharika Mohanty (USA), Rajashree Chintak (China), Supriya Nayak (Canada), Maya Devalecheruvu (USA), Maya Lochana, Pompi Mukherjee. Interesting ideas and discussions came up in the Nritya Kovid chapter where senior dancers and researchers, namely Dr. Snehaprava Samantaray, Daksha Mashruwala, Dr. Rohini Dandavate, and Niharika Mohanty, presented their choreographic or research-based works through slides and video snippets.
Day one of Parampara started with Odissi on June 17th. There was a galaxy of promising dancers of Odissi from all over India who presented their craft quite gracefully. Rudraprasad Swain, Debashis Pattnaik, Arushi Mudgal, Panchanan Bhuniya, Paulami Chakraborty, Rudra Prasad Swain, and Saurav Samanta were among the Odissi dancers in the Parampara series who showed considerable promise.
The sixth day celebrated Kathak and presented dances by various promising Kathak dancers of the current time namely Indrayanee Mukherjee, Shinjini Kulkarni, Sandip Mallick, Souvik Chakraborty, Paramita Moitra, and Vishal Krishna. Souvik’s elegant presentation of dhamar, Indrayanee’s nuanced ashtapadi and crisp pancham sawari deserve mention. Srimati Uma Dogra’s scintillating choreographic essence was visible clearly in Indrayanee’s presentation. Shinjini was elegant as ever in her poise and dexterity with a dignified presentation of abhinaya. Finally, Sandip’s subtle but chiseled movements left the audience asking for more.
The seventh episode highlighted Bharatanatyam by dancers from India, and USA. The artists were Sharanya Chandran, Shweta Prachande, Anuradha Vikranth, Himanshu Srivastava, Samrat Dutta, Uttiya Barua, and Piyali Biswas. Technical precision in form and appropriate usage of bhava and rasa in the presentations of Shweta, Himanshu, Sharanya, and Anuradha was mindboggling. Piyali chose an unusual and challenging locale to show the mayura alarippu. Samrat’s dhumavati , and Himanshu’s kaalbhairav stood out for the sheer power of concept, choreography, and execution.
On day nine, the audience witnessed Kuchipudi and Gaudiya Nritya. Srimayi Vempati, Minu Thakur, Prateeksha Kashi, Gururaju presented scintillating Kuchipudi, while Kaberi Putatunda and Ayan Mukherjee showcased traditional Gaudiya Nritya. Prateeksha kashi and Gururaju were breathtakingly sharp in their performances.
The tenth saw the two most prominent classical dance forms of Kerala – Kathakali and Mohiniyattam. Priyadarshini Ghosh, Mom Ganguly, Smitha Ranjan, Methil Devika presented Mohiniyattam with utmost precision and nuanced expressions, While Diptangshu Paul and Ramyani Roy brought out the elements of Kathakali nicely in their presentations. Methil Devika’s sarpatatwam took the rasika to an experience of mysticism and Priyadarshini’s lasya aspect was presented beautifully.
The pandemic has closed some doors but opened many windows into the world of art and culture. The entire event showed how the virtual windows can be used successfully to showcase the brilliance of classical art and rising artists of the various dance forms. Hope this enterprising festival reaches its goal of including more artists and audiences from around the world.
Hats off to Aloka Kanungo and EZCC for this great enterprising event. Looking forward to more such events in the future.
Nandini Mandal is a Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher, choreographer, Founder & Artistic Director of Nandanik Dance Academy in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the host of the Facebook talkshow, Shetubondhon, and a social activist, cancer survivor, and freelance writer.
New York-based award-winning choreographer and performer Preeti Vasudevan is known for creating provocative contemporary works from Indian tradition. Founder and artistic director of the Thresh Performing Arts Collaborative, her mission is to create experimental productions that foster a provocative dialogue with identity, and our relationship with heritage cultures and contemporary life.
Preeti has been recognized by a number of prestigious institutions in the US for her outstanding contribution to dance. Cultural diplomacy is key to her work through education. As an artist alum of the US Department of State, she leads groundbreaking educational initiatives encouraging self-expression and artistic risk through cross-cultural creative exchange among artists and the community.
Preeti partners her educational and creative leadership with world-impacting organizations, such as Silkroad founded by legendary musician Yo-Yo Ma and the National Dance Institute founded by celebrated dancer Jacques D’Amboise. Recently, she started The Red Curtain Project (RCP), a new initiative from Thresh dedicated to sharing stories from around the world. Born during the NYC Covid lockdowns, RCP’s innovative digital stories highlight universal tenets, inspiring children to see connection and unity between cultures, while also encouraging them to live by the principles featured.
In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about her earliest influences, her new operatic musical theater production, and the process of presenting ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop.
How did you get interested in Bharatnatyam, and who were your earliest influences?
I was always interested in dancing, any dance would motivate me. My mother always says that she saw me dancing even before walking! I had this high energy that would make me want to move all the time. As we are from the south of India, I think my mother wanted me to learn the culture from where we are. At that time, I was growing up in New Delhi. So, it was all the more reason not to lose the connection to one’s roots.
My earliest influences were dances I saw through the cultural exchange programs between India and China and India and the USSR. Living in the capital, we were exposed to some of the most incredible dances, something I had never seen before. The dynamism and costumes all were mesmerizing. I grew up watching some of the Indian greats as well from Kelucharan Mohapatra to Birju Maharaj to the Jhaveri sisters, teachers from the Kalamandalam.
My first proper influence was my own teacher, the late Shri U.S. Krishna Rao who made me see dance for its own beauty and didn’t make it over precious. He loved cricket and was a chemistry professor, so he put it all in perspective as something all humans must do – dance! My own gurus, the Dhananjayans, were like my second parents. I owe a lot to them beyond dancing. They taught me how to look at life and where movement can come from. These further opened my eyes to the world of human expression through movement.
How did your dance evolve with the influence of a western and eastern range of dance and theater forms while you were teaching in Japan?
Japan made me grow up! I was used to traveling by then, touring and performing a lot. But these were mostly in India or the west. The Far East was still a mystery to us in the 90s. When I got a cultural scholarship to go there, I was partly nervous and excited – I love adventures! Japanese dance, Nihon Buyo made me experience my own body differently. The kimono, which first confined my body, taught me how to use my spine to liberate myself from the inside; the fans held during dance taught me how to channel the energy of emotions through my fingers onto them as an extension of my body. Thus, when I did perform the Bharatanatyam, I felt all these changes from the inside and made my dancing more three-dimensional and alive than before.
Prior to Japan, I was a cultural delegate at the India International Dance Festival where the American dance festival came to New Delhi for three weeks to teach Indian dancers modern dance. Almost everything was new for me – falling, lying down, and moving, touching another dancer…between giggles and shocks, I learned to open my eyes to see movement as one of the most amazing energies there is! After these two crucial influences, I felt it seamless to collaborate and continue investigating my own approach to dance. Over the years, I have cross-trained in various forms of movement, theater, and voice to keep searching for the next meaning.
What is the idea behind your company Thresh, and tell us about some of the work that you do with it?
Thresh is like the threshold – it is about the present – the now. We come with a past and we go into an unknown future. What’s important is how we see and experience the present. It’s the liminal zone. That’s how Thresh came about in 2005 after I completed my Master’s from the Laban Centre in London. It’s an experimental platform to bring international artists together to create a provocative dialogue on identity and our relationship between our contemporary lives and heritage cultures. It’s about finding the universal experience and truth from the diverse voices as a collective.
Tell our readers about the Red Curtain Project, your recent initiative of sharing stories from around the world that was born during the NYC Covid lockdowns.
The Red Curtain Project (RCP) was born due to Covid. When all performances shut down, we had to find out what we stood for and what we could do for the larger society. Digital storytelling came out of this. My husband, Bruno Kavanagh, does online learning and therefore, he jumped in to help Thresh develop this amazing online platform. We have created 14 stories to date including one of our highlights with the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Through RCP, we have also done similar work for a Lebanese organization on stories from the war. Now, we are embarking on a new social impact venture called First Voices where we are working in partnership with the Indigenous people of Montana in the US to create a series on ancestral creation stories. This will lead into school workshops within the reservations to empower the youth with leadership skills through the arts.
Describe the process you use to present ancient, contemporary, and mythological digital stories through movement, theatrics, music, visual art, and a simple red curtain as a prop?
Thresh has a great network of artists globally who share a common mission of sharing a story. For RCP, we work with children’s book publishers to select stories based on chosen themes and then license them. We then seek composer and visual artists to work alongside me as I do the choreography. This year, I have been the sole dancer due to distancing and restrictions. But from next year, I will be seeking other dancers who can be a part of this incredible sharing. The Red Curtain is a metaphor – in theater, we reveal everything once we open the curtain and the color red has multiple symbolisms the world over. In my apartment in New York, we have a red curtain. I simply used it, and it became the indicator for our project!
What are you working on next?
As mentioned, we have created our project First Voices. On December 10th, we launched the first performance online. We welcome everyone to come to see this and be part of our new adventure. Apart from this, we are also in residence creating a new operatic musical theater production called L’Orient: Search for the Real Lakme. This is a 21st-century take on the 19th-century French opera, Lakme. It looks at gender and Orientalism, and plays with Bharatanatyam, ballet, opera, and Carnatic music. It hopes to be a really fun production with a lively cast of unusual performers. We have received a residency commission from Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum, NY.
Why I Dance – A monthly column, in collaboration with IndianRaga, in which we uncover the variety of Indian Classical Dance forms and their lineage.
“Why do you dance?” asked Anuradha Nehru, Founder and Artistic Director of Maryland based Kuchipudi company Kalanidhi Dance, “It was such a profound question that it made me introspect and look deeper into my source of inspiration for dance. Upon further reflection and discussion with my fellow dancers in Kalanidhi, we realized there were four motivations that drove us – connecting to our heritage; the sense of liberation that dance affords; the ability to tell stories; and the strong bonds of friendship and community that dance builds.” This simple yet complex question prompted the creation of her 2016 production Why I Dance.
Six months ago, the world underwent an unforeseen change. Everything came to a halt, and the world of dance had to overcome an obstacle. Dance classes, workshops, performances, and productions were all canceled. No one knew when they would be able to return to the stage. Hoping to re-energize her dance community, Kalanidhi dancer Sahiti Rachakonda suggested that they start an online campaign called Why I Dance. Kalanidhi Dance partnered with IndianRaga to take the campaign global. The campaign launched August 22nd, on the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, and the #whyidance gained traction.
Their participation inspired many dancers from over 65 countries to join this movement, turning the initial wave of dancers into a tsunami,” IndianRaga Founder and CEO Sriram Emani adds “I was amazed by the willingness of some of Indian dance’s senior-most maestros to learn how to shoot a video from home, in the midst of a pandemic, to help inspire dancers globally.”
Pragnya Thamire, a Kalanidhi Dancer said, “It was absolutely phenomenal to have edited the ‘Why I Dance’ videos of some of the legends in Indian classical dance… I learned so much through their words!”
The response to the campaign was indeed unprecedented. Dancers from around the world were eager to post their own videos; from the youngest dancers having only been learning for a few years, to the seasoned professionals, everyone wanted a chance to share their story, why they dance.
IndianRaga team member Isha Kulkarni felt, “The campaign was one of the most exciting and challenging things I have ever worked on and nothing less than a privilege. We got to talk to these legendary artists, hear their thoughts, their experiences and that was definitely one of the things that inspired me to keep pushing harder in spite of the limitations in the current scenario.
Although the campaign was started as a way for dancers around the world to reflect inwards in light of the global lockdown, it is far from the end. Sriram says, “We definitely intend to continue – There is no planned conclusion to this campaign. Dancers can continue to post as per the guidelines and tag us, and we will share as we go along. Many people who used to dance before and left it for multiple reasons are now picking up dance again and participating in the campaign, and we welcome everyone to join in!”
Tune in next month to learn more about the Indian Classical Artform, Sattriya, featuring Why I Dance participant and exponent Prateesha Suresh!
Tarini Kumar is an IndianRaga Bharatanatyam Fellow and Why I Dance team member. She is a disciple of Smt. Divyaa Unni, and currently studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Trying to create a space in the United States, Indian Americans rely heavily on the Arts to remain connected to their roots. Instead of soccer practice and baseball lessons, the minivan drives kids to Kathak (Indian Classical Dance) class or Tabla (Indian percussion/drums) lessons. What our parents understood, that took me till my adult years to grasp, was that culture was identity. And we would only be comfortable in our skin, in alien territory, if we could see the beauty of who we inherently were.
As a young brown girl, I found a sense of camaraderie and belonging with my peers through the Classical Arts. Some learned Bharatanatyam dance and some took Kathak. Some learned to play the Tabla and some, the Sitar. Some took Carnatic Classical Music and some took Hindustani Classical Music. But all of these Arts drove one point home – no matter the geographic location or style of the Art, we were deeply connected to our culture. At times when I was ostracized for that same thing – being too Indian – I took solace in what I knew to be true. I am who I am and there was no reason to resent something so pure- so unifying. I continue to cherish it.
A lifelong Kathak dancer and student, I saw the strain the Arts went through when my classes at the Chitresh Das Institute went online due to the shelter in place orders. Many students dropped off, our teachers struggled to teach online, and our performances were canceled. I felt myself become uninspired.
But Art cannot be stopped. Art keeps pushing along like the little engine that could, to give meaning to that which is inexplicable. One Bharatanatyam teacher found purpose in embracing the messiness of online teaching and musicians like Sunny Jain began putting their music on Youtube. IndianRaga and Kalanidhi Dance collaborated during the pandemic to rejuvenate classical arts through their Why I Dance campaign. However, an artist’s career comes to a halt when spaces to perform are limited and they are faced with the reality of a declining income.
The artistic community, many working as freelancers and independent contractors, requires life support. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 11, 2020, LA Based Actor, Kristina Wong told us of the moment that her livelihood came into question. Her one-woman satire, Kristina Wong for Public Office, that she had spent three years researching and running a real election in preparation for, was running on the college/university circuit when the pandemic hit. Colleges and university campuses made the decision to go fully online, as to mitigate the pandemic, and Wong was stuck scrambling to find alternatives to cancelation.
“I’m witnessing a lot of artists just leave Los Angeles. Some are working for the census. Some are just scrambling, ” she noted, emphasizing that her ability to adapt to the online format was a unique luxury and that she still wouldn’t be able to recoup the losses of canceled performances.
Appreciation of the arts is crucial in inconsistent, unclear times. Art gives context, an escape, a safe space to feel uncertain, and to empathize with others.
Minority arts are quickly disappearing. Jose Luis Valenzuela, a UCLA and community college theater professor, met with artistic directors who cater to communities of color and were worried about the survival of their companies. They are the few sources for access to the arts for minority populations. Representation matters and when that diminishes, so do the voices. Graphic designer and Muralist, Roberto Pozos of Imperial Valley resonates with this message. Living in a space that has been a hotspot for COVID related death, Pozos wants to commemorate the suffering and lift the spirits of those around him. None of this can happen without funding.
I think about what I would do without Kathak. Kathak is not just a form of Indian Classical Dance. Kathak is the best parts of me. Kathak accepts me and grounds me to the reality I am in. Kathak reminds me to forgive myself and others. Kathak is a guiding force, teaching morality and mythology. Kathak is music. Kathak is discipline and learned knowledge. Kathak is Indian history. Kathak is me.
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
Like other performance artists, dancers and dance instructors depend on human interaction to convey their artistry to their audience. COVID situation presents unique challenges for dance instructors. Most dance teachers have had to replace their studio-based classes with online sessions, in line with the “stay-at-home” state guidelines. As they move their classes online, they are finding innovative ways to keep their audience and students engaged.
I am an Indian dance instructor based in the Greater Seattle area, teaching Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dance. As I have transitioned my classes to Zoom, it has been somewhat of a challenge due to various technical issues, as you can imagine.
Some funny moments arise from online classes:
Recently I have noticed a funny development…
My students were performing their mudras (hand motions) while chanting Sanskrit shlokas. As most of my younger students are US-born and lack fluency in their native tongues, I take time after each class to make them practice both the mudras and their accompanying shlokas. I teach my classes on a laptop connected to a large flat screen tv, with the sound ramped up. My daughters join me for some of the classes too and we perform together.
My husband, who is an IT professional, sometimes sits and works in the adjacent kitchen area while I take classes. It seems that our shloka recitations have started affecting him too, as I can hear him repeating the mudras with us as we practice. During one of my online classes, I remember quizzing my students. “What is this mudra?”, I asked. “Kartarimukhaha” (a scissors shaped hand gesture), chipped my husband before the student could answer. The students and parents attending the call broke out laughing. He keeps humming these shlokas as he works around the house these days. I successfully implanted the Shloka bug in him finally after 16 years of our marriage during lockdown!
In another incident, two adorable sisters, Aleyssa(8) and Ameyssa (5), were in the middle of their online Bharatanatyam class, working on a movement called “Araimandi” (a half-sitting posture where the dancer creates a typical diamond shape with her legs). As Alyessa was practicing, her Labradoodle, Sugar, decided to run through her legs. She took it in stride and exclaimed that Sugar was her “Horsey!” So, in the middle of our class, there was my student, Aleyssa, riding atop her dog Sugar, like a princess on her horse! This ended when her 5-year-old sister, Ameyssa, came and held sugar’s ears and finally managed to stop her. Usually, an online session is very stressful for both teacher and student, but this incident made me laugh and brought in a much-needed bit of joy in this pandemic crazy homestay.
I am also inspired on a regular basis by my adult students. Most of them have kids at home and have to squeeze out time out of their daily schedules to attend classes.
My student, Pallabi, has two active girls aged 4 and 7. Normally, when Pallabi would attend Bharatanatyam class, her daughters would play at the church nursery or at the park. After I moved the classes online, Pallabi decided to continue attending the online sessions. One day she was learning a complicated travel and sidestep, where she was trying to create a V shape on the ground with her feet, and as she danced, both her little girls were using that V-shape as a zig-zag path to run around.
How she learned that complicated step amidst all the chaos that was going on at her home, is beyond me. This is funny as well motivating too, as it shows that if we are resolute in our focus, no chaos can be considered as an excuse.
I have also started teaching Bollywood dance lessons. I am currently teaching a sequence of Warrior queens from Period Bollywood musicals. For these lessons, students need to use props as swords. We were about to order these props and distribute them to the students but the lockdown came about before I could hand them over. However, the energy and positivity of my senior students came to the rescue. They decided to meet online and finish learning that sequence. For the prop swords, they turned to whatever they could get their hands upon in their respective homes. One took a rolling pin from the kitchen, another picked up her husband’s cricket game stick. Someone else picked up her kid’s toy arrow from a bow and arrow set, and another person grabbed a Jedi’s sword from her son’s desk.
I am blessed to have these passionate people in my life. When I moved my classes online, I offered a discounted fee structure. However, all my students waived off these discounts and they pay the full fee amounts as they all think that more labor and prep time is involved in teaching online classes. I decided to contribute some of these earnings to other artistic communities, as a way of giving back.
Theatres, auditoriums, and other dance studios shut down across the country in response to COVID-19. Many studios are quickly exploring the option of teaching classes online. Many non-profit studios are asking for donations to help them stay afloat. Being a freelance Indian dance instructor with a decent IT job, I decided to donate online dance earnings to a dance studio named “Da Vinci”, which always provided space to people like us to continue our passion.
As the world continues an uncertain battle against the invisible COVID-19 virus, performing art communities worldwide have been among the first to be affected due to restrictions on public gatherings and concerts. The virtual world is flooded today with free offerings of all kinds of art, movies, museum tours, music festivals, dance concerts, music festivals, to keep up the morale of the world as it copes with the lockdown and the cultural climate. As a society, we need to help the arts survive as it helps with inner healing.
Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps.
Ding Ding TV, in partnership with India Currents and Civic Leadership USA (CLUSA), presented the next panel in a series to create a dialogue around how average citizens evolve from their roles as parents to civic leaders. In a panel moderated by Jeff Chow, Associate Vice President at Morgan Stanley, on September 27, 2019, the attendees of the event and the speakers explored education as a means for entering current community activism. The panelists were Nancy Alvarez , College Access Family Liaison at East Palo Alto Academy; Pragati Grover, former Board member for the Saratoga School District and Team4Tech Operations Manager; and Anjali Kausar, former Board member for the Cupertino School District and current CEO of the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce.
Three impressive women, mothers, and immigrants are bound together by their thread of passion for education. All three happened upon this mutual interest through their own children. Alvarez, who came from Mexico twenty two years ago, found herself advocating for her children who had been placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. Her children were regressing and falling behind because they were in ESL. She proposed that her decision to pull her kids out of the class eventually benefited them; she has one student at Stanford and one at UC Merced and continues to advocate for the next generation of under-resourced students at East Palo Academy.
Similarly, Anjali Kausar and Pragati Grover, began working in their children’s classroom and discovered that the teachers faced many difficulties. In order to be proponents of change, both became board members for the school district in their region. Kausar came from Africa thirty years ago and found it hard to navigate the school system. It was when she became entrenched in the school that she found not only a means to support her children but also her identity as an American. Grover shared this sentiment and stated, “One should give their time, not their money” and that “I want to give back because this is my community.” As immigrants, they both found their sense of belonging and identity by being a part of the school system and having a voice in their communities.
Once the panelists left the stage, we were graced by storytelling through the art of Bharatanatyam by Nirupama Vaidhyanathan. She came with a narrative that continued the message woven throughout the discourse of the night–a narrative of resilience, passion, and social activism. Her first performance was a journey in time to her ancestors who took part in the Salt Satyagraha with Gandhi. Her grandfather protested against the salt tax imposed by the British and had exchanges with other revolutionaries on the caste system, sanitation, and other barriers that Indians were facing under colonial rule.
Vaidhyanathan’s second piece was based on a Tamil poem by Sugathakumari. The poem encapsulated the evils of pollution on the environment and was interspersed with the Indian myth of Shiva churning the ocean to drink the poison created by the evil on Earth. It was clear by the end of the performance that this forum had left an impact on every person in the room.
In a day and age in which civic engagement may seem like a fruitless task, it was wonderful to see engaged and empowered women of color take the stage. One can only hope that the next generation can embody the tenacity of the three women who spoke on the panel. Keep checking in with India Currents to see when the next panel discussion will be and how you can become an engaged leader in your community.
Aug 25 Festival to Bring Immersive Experience to BharataNatyam Lovers.
On Sunday, August 25th, Bay Area will experience a whole day’s worth of BharataNatyam – Lec-dems, a panel discussion, expert talks, and of course, performances by visiting and US-based artists – at the IDIA event, a festival of BharataNatyam. I got a chance to catch up with the performers. (For more details on the whole program, visit: (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/idia-i-dance-hence-i-am-2019-tickets-64541376996)
I asked Chennai-based Navia Natarajan who will perform in the evening, when it was that she first knew she wanted to dance; what was it that drew her in. She said, “Joy. That is what I remember about watching my first performance – and all others since, actually – the joy. How much the dancer enjoyed the dance. I always want to get into that space.” Indeed, her goal for her solo debut/ arangetram in her teens was not, perfect technique and not forgetting a step; but rather, to get to a point where she could feel the joy.
We get to experience her joy in a piece that was an exploratory journey for her mentor the revered Bragha Bessel too. Turns out, Bessel had been on the lookout for a specific piece Pichaiku vandiro, a lovingly derisive piece on Lord Shiva, and was in the process of choreographing it. “I got to see Bragha-akka chiseling the piece; I got to, sort of, be a part of her process, watch her develop it for the the first time.”
That piece is in contrast to the varnam/ main item Natarajan will present, where she has interpreted Swami ninne kori nanura through the emotions of a maturing nayika. As a child, she’s enthralled by Lord Shiva, graduating to a crush; then an all-pervading love to finally, an acceptance of the supreme and steadfast one-ness.
Bangalore-based Praveen Kumar will anchor the second evening presentation. For him too, dance was related to happiness. “I was working with a Chartered Accountant, shuttling between work & dance (watching and performing)…There comes a time for everyone, when you decide how to proceed with life & for me it was Dance.” Kumar chose dance also, to stay connected with people in all walks of life. According to him, dance is a representation of Life and it helps him evolve every day.
This reflective side of him will be presented to us in Maate malayadwaja, speaking of the Goddess protecting not only the outer world but also the inner world. Kumar likens it to the realities of living in current times, “every human being is constantly trying to keep up with the pace with the outer world & their homes (inner world). [Only] when there is a balance in both places, can one find serenity within oneself.”
Kumar portrays male characters every chance he gets, he believes them to be a vehicle for personal as well artistic exploration. It will be interesting to watch his javali, will his Krishna succeed in wooing back a sulking lover?
The nuances of expression are what drew Shweta Prachande, acclaimed artist-Priyadarshini Govind’s student, to the art-form. She says, “The way someone smiles, the way they turn their head, the way they say NO, the way they laugh, the way they express anger, all of these, when presented through expression/abhinaya help create a character.” We can look forward to her presentation of a strong willed and feisty woman through a Padam.
Like Kumar, Prachande too, sees dance as an interplay with life. According to her, “…the outside world is changing so quickly and society is perpetually in a state of flux…dance helps me look deeper to find a balance, to be resilient, to be more compassionate.” This centeredness, is what she brings to her performances, even when rapid footwork and precision technique are called for, such as in the Mishra Chapu Alaripu she will present on August 25th.
IDIA will present another male artist, Chennai-resident Christopher Guruswamy, who literally learnt BharataNatyam from the womb: His mother danced through her pregnancy and would take him to class after he was born. His awakening to the fact that he couldn’t possibly be anything but a BharataNatyam dancer came after he’d applied to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Gurusamy grew up in Australia) to learn ballet. In an interview, he’s said, “It was in this audition while doing ballet bare work that I realized how much I really hated ballet, loved BharataNatyam and wanted to go to Kalakshetra. So, I asked the panel to not accept me into the course which would let me go to India and study (something I only told my mum YEARS later).”
Gurusamy will present what he calls a happy varnam. “Many people consider Manavi to be a simple piece, but to me, it represents innocent, pure, stupid love. I see the nayika as this confident young girl…she could be Miss India, you know?…she just doesn’t understand why the Lord will not respond, there is after all, no reason for him to be so angry.”
Anwesha Das is the on-shore artist at IDIA. A Seattle resident, Anwesha’s dance journey began when her family lived in Chennai when she was a child, it so happened, close to the famed Urmila Sathyanarayanan’s classes. She remembers being enthralled by Sathyanarayanan’s Panchali Shapatham then.
Angayyar Kanni is the varnam through which Das hopes to bring out the beauty of Bharatanatyam, saying, “I enjoy presenting this piece because it portrays the nine emotions or Navarasas. I am in awe of the musicality & lyrics, as they give me ample scope to delineate small episodes of Devi in her different forms – Angayarkanni, Mahakali, Dakshashayani, Umai and so on.”
In Aduvvum Solluval, Das will portray a heroine animatedly talking about the rags to riches story of her rival while also dismissing her rival’s taunts.
Natarajan, Kumar, Prachande, Gurusamy, and Das, each will allow us to coinhabit a joyous, connected space along with them. This feeling of community was what IDIA co-founders Kavita Thirumalai and Ganesh Vasudeva are striving to achieve. In a facebook post, Vasudeva says, “We have a dream/vision where Bay Area is one of the best centers for Bharatanatyam. We want Bay Area to produce our own Mythili Prakash. Not just one, but many. We want SF Bay Area to be inspired by quality and strive to attain that quality. We want dancers, and dance students to think critically and produce works that in turn makes audience think.”
Thirumalai is emphatic about the experience: “The mission of IDIA is to spark an immersive environment for aspiring artists, students, and lovers of BharataNatyam. IDIA was our way of creating vibrancy and currency to an otherwise rushed experience of learning and watching this beautiful art-form. IDIA is a whole day of immersion into the why, how, and what of BharataNatyam.”
Some things are hardwired into our DNA no matter where we might travel across the globe. Language and vocabulary feature right at the top of the list. The words ‘Karnataka’ and ‘handcrafted puppetry’ jumped out at me from my email inbox one morning. I was intrigued and soon found myself driving up winding California hillsides to a home in Los Altos hills for a lecture demonstration on traditional wood puppetry of Karnataka. Hosted by Bay Area art & cultural organization SACHI, the event featured Anupama Hoskere, a familiar name I had heard during my visits to India.
Together with her husband Vidyashankar Hoskere, Anupama founded “Dhaatu” an organization dedicated to all things puppetry related – the first of its kind, in Bengaluru. In Sanskrit the word ‘Dhaatu’ means the root, the soul, the essence of everything. The Hoskeres established this non-profit organization with the aim of imparting traditional wisdoms that today’s world can benefit from. Annually, Dhaatu is also the venue of the famous Navratra Mahotsava – the pageant of dolls – depicting upwards of 5000 dolls displaying various scenes from Hindu mythology! It was one of those ‘must see’ items on my list that had slipped through the cracks over the years, and now here Anupama was in my backyard! Serendipity or what?!
On a small stage in an intimate home theater, a single chair sat occupied by a brightly clad puppet. She was outfitted in elaborately fashioned jewelry and draped in a beautiful sari, her large kajal-laden eyes taking in the gathered audience, as we sat eagerly awaiting the evening’s program. Even in stillness she seemed to fill the space with her presence. It made you wonder what she might be like when animated.
Walking onto the stage Anupama’s presence was just as magnetic, the passion for her life’s work, evident in every word she uttered. Over the next hour we were initiated into the elements of puppetry, mythology, and a behind-the-scenes peek into this fascinating world! Currently on a 20 city tour of the U.S, Anupama and her Dhaatu team is raising funds for the ‘Support a Child’ program. They are showcasing a novel concept with their production of “Malavikagnimitram” – a romance set in the second century BCE, which plays out in the court of King Agnimitra of the Shunga dynasty. The lecture concluded with the enactment of a scene from the production featuring the puppet on stage, who was joined by Anupama’s daughter Divya Hoskere – an established Bharatanatyam dancer.
Anupama graciously consented to an interview with India Currents in the midst of hopping across timezones on their hectic 20 city tour.
P.K:Thank you for speaking with me Anupama! The lecture demonstration was a wonderful experience. We would love to know more about the cause you are supporting with your tour of the U.S.
A.H:At Dhaatu, we like to involve ourselves with causes like“Support a Child USA” – an organization doing creditable work that needs our help and support. They came to us with the idea of sponsoring a puppetry production on a tour of the U.S, and the idea was both challenging and exciting! It also enabled Dhaatu to make a creative contribution to an already valuable cause. No questions asked when such an offer comes our way!
P .K: Indian mythology offers a plethora of subject matter. Why choose this particular story for your production?
A.H:Malavikagnimitram is a romantic comedy; an elaborate, many-layered story. It was originally a Sanskrit play written by the famous Kalidasa. It lends itself beautifully to a sophisticated production. And it also makes for great entertainment! It lets us showcase the exciting advancements in the field of puppetry that is being practiced today. Set in the 2nd century BCE, in Vidisha, in the court of King Agnimitra, the plot details the highly evolved artistic and cultural scene of the time period. The Indo-Greek war is mentioned – the war with the ‘Yavanas’! Details like a ‘Dolotsava’ ceremonial procession in a temple is depicted in great depth. It is a richly vivid portrayal of so many aspects of life of that period in history. Great material for a production!
P.K:Our life path takes us to interesting places. Yours has been more than just ‘interesting’ in every sense of the word! How do you go from a Masters degree in Engineering, a job and life in the U.S, to a totally divergent life hand crafting puppets?
A.H:Passion! That is the one ingredient that makes such a shift possible! I was on what was widely accepted as the ‘path of success’ in a competitive world. And I was doing very well. But I didn’t really know quite how I got there! A day came when I realized that the enrichment I received in my childhood, had ultimately led to my being where I was. Then the question I was faced with was, “how can I give back what I received to the next generation”? This was what helped make my choice to return to what I loved most.
P.K:And what was the enrichment in your childhood like? We would love to know more about it.
A.H:I was blessed to have grown up with my grandmother who told wonderful stories! Not just stories like Panchatantra etc that was common, but she also narrated scenes from Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays. She was very well read, and passionate about sharing her knowledge. Nowadays children have many more options if they want to familiarize themselves with mythological stories. Our choices were limited. That’s why my grandmother’s oral storytelling was precious to me! We also had traditional Yakshagana troupes perform near where we lived. Watching those plays, we saw old storylines being depicted in new ways all the time! Creativity was boundless. That sort of learning and enrichment is priceless!
P.K:Your audience is often comprised of children. How do you see their involvement in your shows?
A.H:The impact of real time entertainment in puppetry is very different from virtual entertainment and engagement. And children especially, they get involved in a very deep way! Puppets become more real to them than the people around them! Communication happens in a beautiful manner. Their minds open up differently and it creates a huge potential for self exploration with something they might go on to create by themselves. It is like opening a door to lifelong exploration!
P.K:What is their reaction when they connect with the characters?
A.H:Different age groups express in different ways. But all of them engage 100%! It is fun to watch them get into the scene and characters! When we staged Bhakta Prahlada, after the final scene, the puppet Prahlada was garlanded! No one else was given this honor! It just goes to show that if the right setting is provided for a puppet show, audience – no matter their age – can engage in a wonderful way!
P.K:Each of your puppets is created with such attention to detail! Where do you draw your resources for costuming, era appropriate jewelry etc?
A.H:All our puppets are handcrafted to the tiniest detail! We design them and use a lighter wood to allow better handling. There are various resources to research and collect information. Ajanta-Ellora paintings, research by scholars on various dynasties, the staff at the Mysore palace for example. And there is the internet of course. But because historical authenticity is very important to us at Dhaatu, we take extra care and go in search of verified information. Many of the Puranas and epic poems have historical details and visual imagery given in great detail. You just have to know where to find it. But it is available. And it is a treasure trove for us when we start creating our own puppets.
P.K:You have been involved with puppetry on the global scene. How do you see the art form showcased in Czech Republic or Indonesia? How does it compare to the way it is received in India?
A.H:I went to Europe as part of a scholarship. Then I realized that there is a division between art for children and adults. That is how it is perceived. Puppetry was mainly developed as an entertainment for children. There was a rebel movement which also developed alongside mainstream practices. Both thrived. Tourism is key to the survival of such artforms in Europe and Indonesia. In North India puppeteers had access to western and Japanese styles of the artform. So their styles became more contemporary. In South India we were untouched by such western influences and retained traditional styles. But with time, urbanization took away patronage for this artform. Without patronage puppetry cannot survive! Our numbers started dwindling. Today there is a new revival, a new energy on the puppetry scene. More traditional practices are being showcased and accepted once more.
P.K:Under lining your comment from the lecture demonstration, I would like you to address the reasoning behind your choice of basing a majority of your productions on mythology as opposed to current social issues.
A.H:It is my conviction that mythology is always a best seller! No matter what the storyline, and however repetitive, the manner in which you treat it will set you apart. South India’s Yakshagana is a great example of this! Yakshagana artistes depict so many subtle layers of the Puranas. Knowledge is important. And since mythology involves the use of all this knowledge, investing in this particular dimension of mythology stimulates the storyline.
Socially relevant subject matter needs financing and patronage. Also there is a limited timeline in terms of relevancy for many such topics. The Government of India has used puppeteers to implement their political agendas. If the government changes, their policies become irrelevant. And the patronage disappears! Puppeteers who invest considerable time and resources in the creation of specific puppets have no protection to weather such situations! It is a short-lived blip that leaves us high and dry! Mythology on the other hand, always endures and comes out on top!
P.K:With your current production Malavikagnimitram, you have an interesting concept of combining live actors and dancers with puppets. Highly engaging, as we saw from the scene enacted during the lecture. Challenging as well I am sure?
A.H:Oh sure! It is like putting the puppets to a litmus test when a live dancer/actor shares the stage with them. My main concern was whether the audience would ‘see’ the puppet at all?! Or would the actor/dancer upstage the puppets? The current concept was built up slowly over two or three productions. We are still working on polishing it further, that process never ends. But in the end we realized that the puppets could hold their own! The interaction between a live dancer and a puppet is magical! A great example of this type of interaction can be seen in our production “Vijayanagara Vybhava”. You will see what I mean by puppets managing to shine on their own merit! Yes, there are challenges, of course. Stage design is the obvious challenge. The Proscenium theater design means there is limited space for dancers when sharing it with puppets. So we had to redesign the stage and the placement of characters over several iterations to make sure we could create this magic!
P.K:Does India have guilds or cooperatives of puppeteers? And how difficult is it to procure funding for productions?
A.H:No, there is no such thing as a guild for puppeteers as yet. State level academies and a Government entity – Sangeet Natak Academy, do exist. And yes, it is a challenge to get funding. Private patronage what we have at the moment.
P.K:What types of workshops does Dhaatu offer?
A.H:Dhaatu offers workshops for all ages – starting at age 3 to adults! Puppetry and puppet making teaches aesthetics in a way that lego & robotics etc do not. They certainly have their positive points. But puppetry is multi faceted. Besides aesthetics, it also involves aspects of engineering and requires fine motor skills both in making and handling puppets. There is the aspect of movement with puppetry that needs to be mastered. When you are able to control a puppets subtle movements, it is a thrilling experience!
P.K:Your personal journey with puppetry started with a ‘leap of faith’. And you just found out you are the recipient of a prestigious award!
A.H:Yes! My phone was inundated with congratulatory messages since early this morning and that is how I discovered I had been awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! It is a great feeling of satisfaction that a Nation has accepted this artform! My Bharatanatyam guru, the late Smt. Narmada received this award from the hands of the late President Abdul Kalam in 2007. For me to receive the same award is a great honor! I am overwhelmed! All the growing pains and potholes that I have experienced with Dhaatu’s journey is validated by this acknowledgement and ultimate reward! It inspires us to do more and reach greater heights – in making magic with our puppets for the generations to come.
P.K:What are your plans upon your return to Bengaluru?
A.H:Maybe one day of rest and then it is back to work again! The festival season will start soon. During Dussera, Dhaatu opens it doors to showcase our incredible collection of dolls with ‘Dhaatu Navaratra Mahotsava’. We will have over 5000 dolls on display, depicting scenes from mythology. It is an annual event and we have been doing this for a decade now. There’s no resting until that is done!
Anupama’s enthusiasm gives new meaning to the term ‘pulling strings’! Her passion and that of her team at Dhaatu is definitely award worthy. Dhaatu’s workshops and productions bear the hallmark of true creativity while contributing a treasure trove of traditional & cultural knowledge to children and adults alike.
India Currents congratulates Anupama on the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award!
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.
The San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) is pleased to announce a day-long, two concert dance program featuring four different Indian classical dance companies embodying a variety of styles and regional influences.
Indicative of India’s east coast is Guru Shradha led by founding director Niharika Mohanty specializing in the Odissi dance form. Representing the north is Shambhavi’s International School of Kathak (artistic director Shambhavi Dandekar). These exemplary companies are joined by two practitioners of the southern form of Bharatanatyam, featuring the much respected Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose (artistic director Mythili Kumar) and an upcoming ensemble Samudra Dance Creations founded by well known dancer Jyotsna Vaidee that premiered a full length production on women’s empowerment at the 2018 Festival to critical acclaim.
Festival director, Andrew Wood said of the program, “We are very excited to have such great artists representing some of the rich and varied traditions of India performing in the Festival. Our primary goal in putting the program together was to celebrate the vibrant and innovative next generation of Indian and Indian-American choreographers making classical Indian dance in the United States in the 21st Century. We are especially interested in posing the question about the future direction of the art form as it exists in this country.”
Guru Shradha and Abhinaya Dance Company will perform at 2:00pm and SISK and Samudra Dance Creations will perform at 5:30pm. Single tickets can be purchased for as little as $15 during the Early Bird period in the month of March. After that tickets are $25 in advance or $28 at the door. After March the best deal to see both performances is a $40 two-show pass. Children’s tickets are $15.
There will also be a panel discussion moderated by India Currents journalist Priya Das featuring the artistic directors of all four companies at 4:00pm. Food will be available for purchase.
The details of each company’s performances are as follows:
Guru Shradha (USA)
An Enchanting Odissi Odyssey (45 minutes)
Shared bill with Abhinaya Dance Company
Odissi dance, one of the oldest surviving Indian dance forms, is captivating through its unique grace and poses evoking temple dance sculptures. An Enchanting Odissi Odyssey takes the audience through a spiritual journey showcasing contemporary and traditional choreography revealing a tapestry of its devotional, emotive, intricate dance and haunting music.
Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose (USA)
Stories of Justice (2018, San Francisco Premiere) (45 minutes)
Shared bill with Guru Shradha
Stories of Justice will examine the non-violent resistance strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. to demonstrate that the fight for social justice is ongoing and that past struggles provide lessons that enable us to confront our current problems.
Samudra Dance Creations (USA)
Earth Speaks (World Premiere) (45 minutes)
Shared bill with SISK Dance
Earth Speaks is a dance-music production that explores humankind’s intricate physical, emotional and spiritual relationship to the EARTH (PRITHVI in sanskrit). When that connection, that umbilical cord is disturbed or even severed what happens to our being, our existence? The production incorporates Indian mythology, Greek mythology and contemporary stories to tell the story of Mother Earth in HER voice.
Shambhavi’s International School of Kathak (SISK) (USA)
Horizons… Kathak and beyond! (45 minutes)
Shared bill with Samudra Dance Creations
Horizons…Kathak and Beyond is a beautiful array of choreographic work in Indian Classical Kathak dance style. Horizons features traditional as well as contemporary themes in Classical Kathak. The performers include SISK’s founder, principal dancer and choreographer Shambhavi Dandekar along with her highly trained and accomplished disciples from India and USA.
SFIAF 2019 Calendar Listing
Who: Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose, Guru Shradha, Shambhavi’s International School of Kathak and Samudra Dance Creations / Joytsna Vaidee
What: A Day of Indian Classical Dance
Where: Cowell Theater, Herbst Pavillion, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture
When: Saturday May 25, 2:00pm (Guru Shradha followed by Abhinaya)
Saturday May 25, 4:00pm Panel Discussion moderated by Priya Das
Saturday May 25, 5:30pm (Samudra followed by Shambhavi)
Tickets: $15 – $28general admission (Two show passes are $40)