Dancing Beyond Borders
SOMETHING GREATER THAN DANCE
How did you come to be a Classical Indian dancer?
Well I was a rather mischievous child, and my mother was always trying to find ways to get me out of the house! She enrolled me in just about everything you could imagine—yoga, painting, chess, music, and of course dance, which I began when I was 8 years old.
I was actually introduced to music first, as my mom came to know there was a very established Carnatic music teacher living in our city (Hyderabad), and so I began to learn this style of singing when I was 5. Music was and still is very important to me… in a way it’s my first love, and it plays a large part in what inspires me to dance. I feel many great artists also share a love for music, and as a dancer I find this connection contributes a greater depth of understanding to both my dance choreography and performance.
In India we’re in fact taught that a good dancer must possess not only a knowledge of dance but of all the arts, including music, yoga, painting, etc... and so at my dance school we were trained to become complete artists.
Yoga for example helps develop proper bodily alignment, strength and flexibility, a knowledge of Carnatic music (as I mentioned) is needed to construct structures for dance choreography, and learning traditional Indian painting allows one to better understand the specific aesthetics required when holding different dance postures.
Because unlike contemporary dance in the West where everything can be very unstructured, Indian classical dance is all about moving from one specific sculptural pose to another, similar to how a film is shot in a series of different frames. And so for me dance is like a journey moving from a pose to a pose, and this plays a very central role in my choreography.
But getting back to what initially drew me to dance, when I was younger I also had some experience acting, and used to tour around India taking part in national theatre festivals. For some time I thought I wanted to become an actor, until when I was around 10 years old and saw my teacher performing in a dance production called Sri Krishna Parijatham.
This piece is sort of like the ‘Swan Lake’ of Kuchipudi dance, and its story revolves around a heroine named Satyabhama, who’s this cocky princess that’s very arrogant in the beginning… I really loved how she shows a strong attitude and sense of independence towards men; she commands the love and attention of her husband, but in the end realizes it’s not by being arrogant, but through love and devotion that she finds true happiness and fulfillment... it’s very touching, and this experience was the catalyst that made me realize I wanted to become a dancer.
Were there any aspects of the Kuchipudi dance style in particular that you felt drawn to?
Yes I thought to myself that it was perfect, because it’s a beautiful combination of so many of the things I’d already been involved in— dance, music (there’s music all the time, especially in the Kuchipudi style), and also a lot of acting and telling stories, which means you have to be constantly researching different literature excerpts in order to properly express these narratives through dance.
So when you bring all of this together Kuchipudi is like a blend of opera and ballet, where people also speak. The productions are almost like broadway musicals, but with a more classical feeling. And then there’s also this deeper, spiritual aspect of the art; meaning that when we dance it’s not simply an ‘art for art’s sake’ kind of approach, but that we are always doing our art for something greater than itself.
Of course I know art is great, but there’s also something beyond art, which is the deeper meaning or purpose of why we do it in the first place. It’s like science—you can take up science to make nuclear weapons or you can take up science to find cures for important diseases… in the same way art is not neutral, and so I think the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ is a very distorted approach —just doing it for the sake of doing it— because it doesn’t have a greater purpose for anything other than itself.
Now this is not to say I haven’t tried that approach in the past myself, but when I did, I found I could only do it for so long… when I was 16 or so I was dancing for the sake of dancing, dancing to impress my dance teacher, dancing to impress my dance peers and all of that… but then I became depressed because I didn’t know why I was dancing anymore.
I began to see this vacuum, and everything felt like a dead end. I knew I had to find something greater than dancing itself to continue dancing. And I also had to find a reason to dance that would stay with me for all my life, because it’s the only skill I feel I was gifted. I’ve I tried a lot of things, but I’ve found that ultimately dance is the only thing that truly works for me, and so I needed a greater reason than dance itself to continue dancing.
And as I’ve said, for me music is a big part of how I connect to this greater feeling. Again, I know there are many dancers who say music is not everything, and that they only dance to dance… but for me music is like my soul. It’s my heart, the heartbeat of the movements I feel inside me.
I find this to be true with acting as well, because I always enjoy emotionally responding to music versus having to generate emotions through my own dialogues, which I find to be much harder. And so just like dance, I prefer to have music as the basis for my acting and emoting as well.
FREEDOM AND AUTHENTICITY
Speaking of relating to something greater than art, I know the foundations of Indian Classical dance are influenced by Hinduism and spirituality. Has this in any way informed your experience as a dancer?
Well from the outside if you read the Hindu texts associated with Indian dance philosophy it does indeed sound very spiritual and perfect, but to be honest I’ve found the reality is quite different. For example, just like how in Shakespeare’s times parts were only performed by men, that’s exactly how Kuchipudi was—in all of the dance productions there were no women at all, and only in later periods were women introduced, after a lot of rebellious speaking out.
This began in the early 19th century during colonial times, but even then many women were simply introduced to please and entertain royalty, and so women did not yet have a proper place in art. The man who first introduced the idea of including women in performance was the famous Kuchipudi dancer Vedantam Lakshmi Narayana Sastry, who thought ‘women are the ones who will do justice to women’s roles, so why are we not including them?’ Like after so many years, right! (laughs)
In truth I’ve found that some of the most toxic things can happen in art… in fact I decided to move to New York partly to get away from this type of toxicity, that’s still very present in India.
Can you say more about this?
Well Hinduism is such a vast subject, and one cannot understand it by simply reading a few principles, but many people take bits and pieces to justify their agendas and use them to control society. They say things like ‘you should not do this or that, you’re supposed to dance only on this date, etc.’ So everything becomes very dogmatic, and I found when I wanted to explore and try new things there were so many reactions coming from people who were always trying to stop me. I was 19 at this time, and I began to realize that for an artist the most important thing is freedom, because if there is no freedom, you aren’t able to authentically grow and follow your own path.
So coming to your question about spirituality, yes Kuchipudi is supposed to be very spiritual, but honestly I’ve found that sometimes the least spiritual people are working in art. Of course I’ve read that in the past there were very spiritual people who founded this art form, but I’m sorry to say I cannot answer this question, because I‘ve never truly met anyone who’s even close to what that may be.
But the fact that you’ve chosen to travel so far away from your home just to keep learning and growing shows you yourself have a very strong desire to go deeper into the essence of your art…
I definitely do, I really want to keep growing and learn as much as I can. And I also feel that my dance style is kind of becoming outdated, meaning that it has to keep evolving in order to stay relevant and alive. But evolving doesn’t mean it has to become Westernized, it just means it has to meet the contemporary situations of the world.
I’m actually not liking how Kuchipudi is being presented in the West, and so I’m trying to study and explore different perspectives, like how Western artists and audiences approach and perceive art, and how other parts of India approach art as well.
I also have many students from all over the world who practice other dance styles, and I’m always having conversations with them in order to learn and broaden my own perspective. I feel Kuchipudi is often very misunderstood by the West; for example it’s often mis-categorized as a folk tradition, when it’s much more of a classical one (similar to ballet), and so I want it to be properly understood and respected in this way.
A universal LANGAUGE
Do you ever share any information with Western audiences about a dance’s context or story before a performance?
Yes and I actually do this everywhere in the world (including India), because the performances are in Sanskrit, which is similar to Latin in the the sense that no one really understands the language anymore. And the same words can also have different meanings in different contexts, so again similar to Shakespeare people have done all kinds of research to better understand and explain what the texts actually mean.
In addition to studying these references I do my own research as well, and try to come up with interpretations of my own, because if I’m presenting these dances I want to understand and feel them one hundred percent, versus only offering someone else’s interpretation.
And when I’m explaining the storyline to the audience, I also use certain physical cues—for example when I refer to a character such as Krishna, I show the gesture for Krishna with my hands and body language, giving the audience a kind of visual glossary. This way when a particular character comes up in the performance they’re able to identify with them, and better relate to the story.
This idea of gestures representing different characters reminds me of Wagner’s concept of the leitmotif in opera, where each character has their own melody…
Yes exactly! And then there’s the emotional component, which is very important as well—also like how in opera a lot of people might not understand Italian or German, but if you perform with genuine emotion, the audience will still feel and understand the meaning behind the words.
In this way I don’t think the audience has a hard time understanding me when I perform, because emotions are universal… anger is anger everywhere, and even if I might do it a little differently, you can still feel and know that I’m angry if I’m genuinely emoting it during my performance.
So that’s mostly how I create a context for my performances… but I also don’t try to explain everything completely, because what’s the point of me dancing after that! The audience has to work some, but it’s not like these contemporary dance pieces that are completely abstract, where people say ‘there’s no story line, you just have to guess and make up your own…’ So I do give references, and if there’s a talk after the performance I might also explain my intention behind the choreography as well.
And how is music related to the dance and choreography?
Well traditionally most dancers take already composed pieces and choreograph around them. The pieces may be slightly modified for the dances, with repetitions or variations, but sometimes I find I may not like the scale a composer chooses, and so I’ll change them up.
Many dancers however don’t have a solid understanding of music, and so thank god my mom put me into music classes, because I’ve actually seen many musicians take advantage of dancers; meaning they might get a bit lazy and just say ‘oh you can just use this scale and it doesn’t matter, you can go with that rhythm it doesn’t matter,’ but if the musicians realize you know your stuff then they keep quiet, and realize they have to be more accommodating to you.
And in what settings were these dances traditionally performed?
They were performed either in courts or temples, mostly to please kings or the gods. However the origins of the Kuchipudi style actually come from a form of street performance; this style evolved from gypsies who would set up tents and perform everywhere on the streets, and then it was later refined into a more classical style.
In India a dance style becomes classical when you choose to imbibe it with the elements and principles of the Natya Shastra, which is the core ancient treatise of the arts in India. It’s like a tool kit, with very specific guidelines pertaining to geometry, angles, and mathematical calculations… it’s a very scientific approach that addresses every aspect of Indian art.
So this treatise creates very precisely defined boundaries to work within…
Yes, and these guidelines are what causes a dance style to be defined as classical rather than folk, which is not directly connected to the Natya Shastra, but where you’re more dancing simply for the fun of it, or just free-styling.
And often today many contemporary dancers may see these boundaries as a limitation, but I think boundaries can sometimes be very beautiful too, because they create this constant push and pull, and bring up the question of if you should cross over the boundaries, or stay within them… it creates this constant journey between the two.
Because I feel when there’s no boundaries it’s a boring journey, or there’s even no journey at all. You have to cross boundaries in order to build new boundaries, or just stay inside the boundaries for a while and learn to navigate within them. And so it’s interesting for me to have some sense of limitation, because otherwise you don’t really have anything meaningful to work with.
Because without the boundaries of a craft you have no language to communicate within…
Yes, it just becomes jibberish! And in fact another major reason I’ve come to New York is to expand my boundaries as a dancer through studying ballet and modern dance (which I’ve learned is very different than contemporary dance, as modern dance still has discipline like ballet, as where with contemporary there are really no boundaries at all). But anyway every day I take ballet and modern classes, and I also do yoga because it’s always been there, and it’s funny because I’m usually the only Indian person in my yoga classes!
Through my studies I’ve actually learned that in many ways Indian classical dance and ballet share the same vocabulary, the only difference being that Indian classical dance addresses the vocabulary in Sanskrit and ballet in French. And I also feel that ballet is more up in the air, and Indian is more grounded.
I actually want to develop something that’s in between the two, because I find staying grounded all the time to be kind of boring, but always jumping up in the air doing pirouettes is also not very interesting to me.. and also in Indian dance we use our hands in many different ways, where in ballet there’s always just the relaxed hand. So I’m trying to bring different elements together and find a style for myself.
From this perspective I feel there’s lot’s of room for further refinement in my dance style—as I said not Westernization or appropriation, because in both Indian dance and ballet we have the same lines, but ballet helps make my body lines more clean, because Indian dance is more emotion driven and sometimes we forget about lines, but in ballet you’re almost over-emphasizing them, always thinking about angles (90 degrees or 45 degrees...)
Once I started doing ballet I actually realized that my approach and ballet are very similar. Even when I was in India, though I was not so exposed to ballet I would teach my students in a way that is very close to it, in the sense that I’m also a very line-oriented person. And at the same time although I love shapes and lines and find them so satisfying, I also need emotions; I can’t just dance for one and a half hours like a robot.
In this way I’ve found the modern approach of Martha Graham’s technique is my most favorite style thus far, because it’s very line driven like other Western classical forms of dance, but it’s also very emotion driven. Each contraction and posture has a different emotion, like shock, or sadness or surprise. And I’ve noticed that I’m more excited for modern lessons because I love the context of emotions for every move. Because if you just explain the lines to me I will do it, but if you tell me emotions I will do it one hundred percent.
ADORNMENT AND EXPRESSION
How do you go about choosing the you clothing and jewelry you wear, and what style of makeup you apply?
I like that question, because back in India I feel I was wearing too much makeup—meaning I was often told to wear too much makeup, too much jewelry, too much heavy costume, and as I’m so petite it was very hard to do this! Traditionally dancers used to wear so much jewelry because it symbolized what the kings had given them as rewards for their performances.
Very similar to opera singers with their jewelry…
Yes exactly! So that’s one thing, and also traditionally there’s so much makeup because from a distance you had to look visible to your audience, and makeup helps to amplify your expressions and appearance. But now I think you don’t need as much because of better lighting, as where back in the day there were only candles, and for that kind of setting you would need elaborate makeup.
Now I know my appearance is still not ordinary for the West, but I’m in fact choosing to wear a subtler version of what I was taught to wear, and even though I constantly get criticism from my peers, I see myself moving better with less stuff on me, which also allows me to express myself better.
Because when I don’t wear as much makeup, I feel I also have to use my face more… as where with more makeup on it’s as if my face already has a filter that amplifies everything. But without it I have to be more animated, or else I won’t communicate as much of an expression to the audience.
So now I do bigger expressions, and these conditions demand me to be a very good dancer, because there’s no more physical distractions with over-elaborate costumes, etc.. so I’m not being the peacock, and I can’t be this empty dancer, I have to really be a dancer with amazing technique, with something special to offer. This forces me to be ten times more expressive in what I’m doing, and I love it.
And this must require a lot more vulnerability as well…
Yes you have to be willing to be very vulnerable, to explore emotions, and you have to like emotions in the first place. I love emotions, although it’s actually interesting because as a child I used to be very insensitive… if someone screamed at me it wouldn’t affect me very much. But then as I started becoming more of a dancer, more of an artist, I started reacting to everything on a much deeper level. Like even if someone said good job, I introspected and read into it so deeply that I’d think it was the greatest moment of my life, or if someone gave me a mean look it would feel like they were going to kill me.
So now I’ve become so much more emotional, and I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but I was trained to be like this, because I have to be able to cry on stage at any given moment, to laugh or scream at any given moment, and now I cannot zone out from that part of myself.
So what would you say is your greatest aspiration as a dancer right now?
My goal or mission is to see a very established school of Kuchipudi dance, just like those of ballet and theatre. Personally I don’t care if I’m remembered or not, but I’m frustrated to see my dance style always being cast as the underrated dance style, the dying dance form, the exotic dance form, the dance from the Far East… I’m so tired of being misrepresented and misperceived, and so my dream is to create a great school and company that will be truly respected and present for future generations to come.
I want people to see Kuchipudi and feel inspired to dance this form. But today I often see Indian musicians and dancers only performing in Indian communities and temples, always staying inside their own bubbles. I don’t understand why because in the past we were not like that.. it’s only more recently that we’ve become so isolated in this way.
I feel we’re in fact also one of the most racist communities, and tend to have an inflated sense of superiority. I constantly meet Indians that say ‘white people don’t understand us, it’s too deep’... without even giving anyone a chance. And this just makes us live in our own bubble even more, which keeps others from discovering whatever greatness we actually do have to offer, because we don’t even share it. And if we really feel we have something that great, then why wouldn’t we share it?
But anyway the dream is to see this school and company that brings respect to the whole art form. Indian dance is very unique and has so much to offer, and a lot of modern dance techniques actually copy techniques from our style (using our hand gestures, etc.) so they’re drawing from our art form but it’s still not recognized in their curriculum… but I don’t blame them, as I said it’s us. We’re not putting ourselves out there in the right ways.
But I believe if we present the best of what we have to offer, and upgrade this style through studying ballet and modern dance, we’ll be able to create choreographies and productions that expose people to the true potential that Indian classical dance has.
So my ultimate dream is to see a proper Kuchipudi production somewhere like Lincoln Center, similar to what Mark Morris or Martha Graham have done with modern dance. I want my company to perform in these large venues, because I believe our art form deserves this kind of respect.
Have you started creating any choreographies/projects that are combining Eastern and Western styles in this way?
Well recently I created a performance with a violinist where he performs a range of music that connects Eastern and Western sound worlds, and I choreographed a dance based on this. There are these compositions that were created when the British were still ruling India that are heavily influenced by the Western major scale, so we featured one these compositions, along with a piece by Bach, and then a work I composed for violin that bridges these two sound worlds; and so we took these pieces and made medley that intendeds to show the universality of dance and music.
And beyond establishing respect for your tradition, would you like to offer anything else to the world through your art?
Well I’ve learned that even if someone creates the most beautiful and spiritual form of art, and someone might cry by watching it, this person also has to be touched by life experiences to be receptive to that art in the first place. If he’s deaf and blind by all of the mediocre things in life, he will not be open to see. I’ve understood this, because I always used to be the nerd in the class, the only person who listened to classical music and never understood why when I would hear a Schubert piece and I would cry, my friends would be like ‘what is there in this?’ and I would always think to myself, why is this person not understanding this beauty? It took me many years to figure this out.
But now I feel that it’s ok if they don’t understand it. Maybe in this life they will never understand. I think it’s just being in the zone of comfort that’s making them blind to all of the higher beauty that is here in this world… but I also don’t think I have the right to judge them. And of course I do enjoy aspects of popular culture as well, but I get these goosebumps and transcendent feelings when I listen to certain things —and it doesn’t have to be just classical— but it’s always coming from this deeper place that only certain people seem willing to go.
It’s like how sometimes in recent performances I’ve experienced this kind of high —I don’t know how to explain it— but after the performance finishes I’m still in this realm in which I’ve transcended myself in the dance and the expression; it’s so hard to get out of it, and it’s beautiful.
Like when I cry on stage then I actually cry… I’m not simply acting, because I’m putting myself completely into that moment. And as I said before, when I used to wear more makeup everything was very external, but now I have to internalize all of the emotions I’m expressing. So people actually see me tremble when I cry, and there’s nothing East or West about it. The person can hail from any part of the world and still feel me, because in that moment I’m not just being Indian, I am being human.