Dancing in the Diaspora
by Sanjena Sathian:
One winter, when I visited family in the bustling city of Chennai, India, I hopped on the back of my cousin’s bicycle to tag along to her dance class, where she learned Bharatanatyam, an ancient Indian classical dance form that tells the stories of Hindu mythology and folklore. Every afternoon, she made her way through the loud, dusty streets on her bike to get to her teacher’s flat, weaving in and out of motorcycles and cars along the streets where traffic laws are meant to be broken. She rehearsed for hours each day, her teacher drilling all the students relentlessly until their technique and steps were perfect.
Back home, on Saturday mornings, I used to wake up at eight so my mother could drive our Volvo station wagon through my Atlanta subdivision, past the rows of stucco and brick houses, past the swim-tennis complex, past the Publix and the Domino’s pizza, to my dance teacher’s house, where, for an hour each week I learned Bharatanatyam. Together with a group of five or six fellow pre-teen girls, we abandoned concerns about our braces and our crushes on boys to step into the bodies of temple dancers and to carry on telling the stories that our mothers and grandmothers told before us.
Worlds apart, in cool suburban basements and on humid cement terraces, Indian girls and Indian-American girls alike are taught this dance form from a young age. But instead of remaining a vessel for the same traditions, the form is rapidly evolving and modernizing in America, as the Indian-American diaspora dances from the traditional to the modern.
Classical dance teachers in India are strict. Students come to their teachers’ homes several days a week for hours at a time. Teachers are revered with a respect foreign to most Americans. On Hindu holidays, students bring plates of fruit to their teachers before touching their feet and asking for blessings. The teachers are the final authority and the ultimate word. Tradition is passed along from teacher to student, and the students are vessels, ready to absorb whatever comes their way.
Sanhita Basu Ghose has been trained in six different classical styles. Her local students attend class at least eight times a month as a rule. But when students come to her from abroad, she intensifies their training. And after several months of dance boot camp, her students disperse across the world, back to Japan, Argentina, Germany, Russia, and the United States.
Teachers in India like Ghose are becoming increasingly connected to the rest of the world. Many travel to the U.S. to teach workshops to American students or perform on college campuses. When they return home, they do so with a sharpened awareness of the difference between their students and the American students they’ve just met.
“In India of course I tell the child about what she is doing, the meaning of the song and everything, but … more or less everything which is Bharatanatyam is part of their every day life,” said Revathi Ramachandran, a teacher based in Chennai who has also taught extensively in America. “But in the U.S., I have to explain to them what everything is about. The children have grown up in a different environment.”
Indian-American girls are dependent on their parents to learn the dance, Ramachandran observed. But this also helps American students pursue the dance to higher levels, she said, because in the intensely competitive academic environment of India, girls begin dropping out as exams and preparation for university approaches.
Quitting in the United States is harder—it means quitting on a motherland that’s already been left behind.
Agroup of nine girls aged six or seven, dressed in the telltale leggings and sweaters of a Connecticut winter, are pounding their feet against the floor, their eyes fixed on their teacher in front of them. They are preparing for a performance at the upcoming Diwali (the Hindu holiday of lights) festival in Norwalk, Connecticut. The girls are being watched from the sidelines, where mothers, younger siblings, and the occasional father sit in folding chairs, watching their daughters attempting to tell the story of a naughty Hindu deity, Krishna. The teacher dances in front of them, reminding them:
“Walk like a dancer!”
“Don’t forget to smile!”
“Hold your heads!”
The girls follow her movements closely. Most of them do not understand the words of the song they are dancing to. The teacher translates something every few lines, explaining to the baffled six year olds that they are portraying the story of a Hindu god. This is where the girls’ parents have brought them, and until they are old enough to understand why they are dancing, they will keep following in the footsteps of tradition. It’s what they’ve been told to do.
At Vani Natyalayam dance school in Monroe, Connecticut, this is a typical class for beginner dancers. The girls dance on a blue and yellow floor and at one end of the room hangs an American flag next to a Korean flag and a banner that proclaims in red letters “HOUSE OF DISCIPLINE.” Vani Nidadavolu, the owner and teacher at the school, rents this tae-kwon-doe studio in a small strip mall on the weekends to hold her classes. Nidadavolu, who emigrated from the state of Andhra Pradesh when she got married, began teaching dance when her now college-aged daughter was born. And for the mothers now watching their daughters, the motivation for starting Bharatanatyam classes so young is the same.
“I think for all these people—mostly the attraction is that they learned the rules, they learned the tradition,” said Nidadavolu. “It’s all parents’ interest. Later on the kid will develop interest, but initially [parents] don’t want to lose the cultural connection.”
Teaching a dance style that tells stories of a culture most Indian-Americans don’t know by heart in a language many students don’t speak or understand has its challenges for teachers. So teaching dance becomes as much about learning bits of the language—songs are in Tamil, usually, but sometimes in Telugu or Kannada—the history, and Hindu mythology as about the art itself. Indira Rajasekhar, a Bharatanatyam teacher in Rockland County, New York, also started her dance school as a way to convey the homeland she had left behind to her children.
“It was a big help with raising my kids in a different land,” she said. “It’s not just learning a dance, it’s not an after school activity. It’s beyond that—it is our culture you’re learning, your tradition. You’re learning your values through dance.”
After the beginners, three high school girls come in for their class, where they are practicing a Jattiswaram, a dance that focuses on the rigor of steps more than a story. Two of the girls have only learned for three years, but Chitra, Nidadavolu’s daughter, has been learning for nine years and is now in training for her graduation ceremony, or Arangetram.
One of the dancers, Priya Gupta, said her parents expected her to take on Indian dancing in addition to the other styles of Western dances she had learned before.
“My mom couldn’t let me not do it,” she laughed. “I guess she liked the idea of me being Indian in some ways.”
Chitra comes from a line of Nidadavolu women known to fall in love with the art. Though she and her sister began dancing Bharatanatyam because their mother expected them to do it, Chitra realized she loved it after seeing her sister’s passion.
“It was this one moment where it clicked—this is what I was born to do,” she said, recalling watching her sister. “She’s a role model for me.”
Like Chitra, the small girls dancing in Nidadavolu’s earlier class may grow up to find something meaningful in the stories they have been telling and the traditions that have inadvertently slipped into their everyday lives. Though many of these daughters stumble blindly into the art at first, the dance unfolds itself after each passing year of weekly classes and sparsely attended performances in community cultural centers or temples. And the daughters find their way to the heritage of their mothers.
Shemoni Parekh, another of these daughters, is a dancer and the artistic director of Kruti Dance Academy in Atlanta. Parekh was one of the performers featured on America’s Got Talent this summer. Parekh’s mother, Dina Seth, founded the school, and through her childhood and college years she danced at Kruti, watching it blossom from a class held in the basement of her house to arguably the biggest studio for all types of Indian dance in the southeast. Now, Seth and Parekh together run the school.
Kruti is a mega-dance corporation. Sporting a dazzling website, it advertises classes ranging from Bollywood to folk styles to the traditional classical Bharatanatyam. Parekh emphasized that though members of the academy performed fusion pieces that mixed Indian classical and folk styles on America’s Got Talent, all the dancers in question were first classically trained in Bharatanatyam. The classical dance is a necessary language through which to interpret other dance styles, Parekh said.
“There’s a lot of beauty in the regional Indian dancing that America doesn’t get to see. We wanted to show things that mainstream America would not necessarily be aware of,” she said, explaining that after movies like Slumdog Millionaire, America had already seen Bollywood dance. “Our country thrives on culture because we don’t have necessarily one identified ‘everybody.’ America is ready to see a fusion of Eastern styles.”
Dancers around the country have adopted similar philosophies to Kruti’s, and many college campuses are now seeing the rise of “fusion” dance teams that mix elements of classical, Bollywood, and folk styles with each other or with Western jazz, hip-hop, modern, and ballet styles. These teams come from their campuses at the College of New Jersey, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Georgia, and more to meet at national competitions. One such team, Northwestern University’s Deeva, is comprised of fifteen members, nine of whom are of Indian origin and six of whom are not. The team mixes both Western and Eastern styles, and they dance to Western music.
For the purist onlookers in India, this new style can be jarring. Deepak Mazumdar, a dance teacher in Bombay, said that he sees no value in mixing styles.
“It is total confusion. The road leads to a dead end. I am totally against this new venture which ultimately leads to fatigue and has no direction. It is total waste of time and energy.”
But the new wave of fusion can be a liberating way for some young dancers to reinterpret the tradition in a cultural context that is more familiar.
Deepa Ramadurai, a junior at Northwestern University on Deeva, learned Bharatanatyam from the age of five. She took classes in the Chicago suburbs where-her great-aunt was her teacher. “It was completely my parents,” she explained of how she got started dancing. “But as I got older I really appreciated the cultural context it provided me because I wouldn’t understand half of my history and the Hindu mythology behind it.”
When she arrived at college, she chose to pursue fusion dance instead of the classical form. The team she dances with uses some Bharatanatyam inspired moves as well as a healthy mix of jazz and modern Western dance. The members have trained in a wide variety of dance forms, from Chinese dancing to ballet, and everyone learns one another’s styles. The group’s unique integration of Bharatanatyam as part of the fusion won them second place at the Manhattan Project, a national fusion competition, last spring.
Ramadurai is just one of many members of the first generation, the daughters of immigrants who have learned the histories of their motherland and are playing with them in new ways. As the dance evolves, so does the tradition, and a wholly new tradition fusing East and West seems to have been born. Dancers of Ramadurai’s—and my— generation grew up dancing to the steady ta-takita beat of our mothers’ land. We listened to our teachers when they told us what stories we were supposed to be telling and when they translated the songs so we could understand. We followed our parents when they told us to dance and to hold onto their culture.
And now we are the first generation of a new tradition. This is the birth of a new culture.