Asian Music and Dance

Dance Journeys

Kiran, Divya, Kalpana, Jyotsna and Mythili are transnational dancers of Indian origin who straddle two continents with ease. Isabel Putinja caught up with these five dancers in Chennai during the December Season and traced their individual journeys…

Kiran Rajagopalan – From the US to India

Dance has always been important to Kiran Rajagopalan ever since he started learning bharatanatyam in St. Louis, USA, at the age of five. He arrived in Chennai just over a year ago, having graduated from the University of Boston with a degree in Behavioural Neuroscience and Spanish. He planned to stay for six months, see his grandparents, catch a few performances and classes, before heading back to the US to start a postgraduate degree. When he met his current guru A. Lakshman, who has launched the careers of many successful dancers, Kiran’s plans changed and he decided to stay and take up dance full-time with the dream of becoming a professional. “In the US, it’s hard to survive as a dancer because of the cost of living. Here in Chennai, everything I need is at my disposal. I can soak up the local colour and atmosphere and learn more about the dance field. At this point of my life and career, I’m better off here. Also, as a male dancer, it’s important for me to have the guidance of a male guru. In the US, male teachers are hard to come by. I feel lucky to have found a teacher who is able to bring out the best in me.” 

Kiran has the support of his family, which is important to him. “In my case, I’m lucky because my parents are open-minded and believe in what I do. This is not always easy, as many Indian parents prefer their children to be academically and not artistically inclined professionally. But things are changing and Indian parents are opening up. Also Indian ‘kids’ in the US are asserting themselves and finding the courage to do what they really want.” His parents did however encourage him to undertake graduate studies. With his interest in dance, enrolling in an MA degree in bharatanatyam at the University of Madras was a natural choice. 

“My goal is to become a successful male solo performer.”

Kiran is ambitious and bold in his aspirations: “My goal is to become a successful male solo performer. At this stage of my career, I’m in the process of establishing myself. Opportunities to perform during the Season have given me more stage experience.” The path to dance stardom however is not a straight and easy one and there have been obstacles on the way. Though Chennai audiences have been known to be less receptive to NRI [Non-Resident Indian] dancers, Kiran feels that this is quickly changing: “I think dance speaks for itself. I admire Mythili Prakash because she has made people pay attention to NRI dancers, and is a role model for dancers like me. There is conviction in her dance and that’s what I think distinguishes her.” 

It is Kiran’s parents’ love for the classical arts that has grounded him in Indian culture but he feels that his identity is decidedly more American than anything else. “Even though I’ve been raised with Indian values and culture, I relate most to what I’ve imbibed as an American. Especially the idea that with lots of hard work, and a little luck, you can make anything happen.” 

Jyotsna Jagannathan – From India to Africa and back

When Jyotsna Jagannathan moved from Kenya to India in 1999, it was to study medicine. Seven years later, she would leave her medical career to devote herself entirely to dance. Having won a number of prestigious awards, including the Madras Music Academy’s MGR Award for Best Dancer in 2006, Jyotsna is a dancer to look out for. Her unusual dance journey shows that passion, dedication and hard work go a long way. 

Born in Chennai, Jyotsna moved to East Africa with her parents at a very young age. Growing up in an Indian family in an African setting, she had little exposure to Indian classical dance. When she was seventeen, she saw a bharatanatyam performance in Nairobi by Hema Govindarajan and was deeply touched by the beauty of the dance style. This became a turning point in Jyotsna’s life: she decided she had to learn this dance. As fate would have it, the same dancer who made such a strong impression on her moved to Nairobi three months later and Jyotsna commenced her dance training with her. 

Though Jyotsna had always planned to leave Kenya to study in the US or UK, she felt that she wanted to get to know the country she had left behind as a small child. Hence she took a decision to move back to Chennai for her medical studies: “Chennai was always home for me, even though I spent only a month there annually. I wanted to experience living in India. I loved to walk the streets of Chennai for hours. I felt safe and independent. In Kenya I had lived a very sheltered and protected life. Moving to India was a liberating experience.” 

With the demands of medical school, Jyotsna devoted herself completely to her studies and didn’t dance during the first year. “I was always at a crossroads between my medical studies and my passion for dance. I couldn’t give as much time to dance as I would have liked because of my commitment to medicine.” Once she had completed her medical degree, she decided to take a few months before starting her internship to devote only to dance. However, things didn’t work out as she had expected and this led her to her current dance guru, A. Lakshman in whom she found a sincere and generous teacher. 

“Dance requires complete devotion” Jyotsna declares as she puts her medical career aside.

Seeing her increasing passion for and commitment to dance, her father worried that dance would get in the way of her medical career while her mother believed that she could balance both in her life. Jyotsna, however, thinks that this is not possible: “Dance requires complete devotion if you want to pursue it seriously, as a career.” This is why after getting married and moving to Bangalore two years ago, she decided to devote herself to dance full-time and put her medical career aside. She divides her time between her home in Bangalore and her guru’s dance school in Chennai. Jyotsna recently performed in Kenya, eight years after her debut performance there, turning a full circle. 

Mythili Prakash – From the US to India and the world

Mythili Prakash is one of the fastest rising stars of bharatanatyam today. She has toured internationally presenting her own original choreographic works and is a regular performer during the Chennai December Season. Her complete commitment to dance led her to take the big decision to move from her native Los Angeles to Chennai three years ago, “Since I moved to Chennai in 2006 my experience has been surprising all the way,” she says. “I feel I’m in the right environment and am really happy with my decision. I had initially come to Chennai with the plan to stay for about five months. I had started a Masters in Fine Arts programme in the US after graduating in Mass Communications from the University of California, Berkeley, but being here it’s like doing a PhD in bharatanatyam!” 

“Being here it’s like doing a PhD in bharatanatyam!”

Mythili was no stranger to Indian stages before her move to India. She had presented her first solo performance in Mumbai at the age of eight and then would perform regularly during annual visits with her mother and guru Viji Prakash. She feels that her recent performance during the prestigious Madras Music Academy dance festival was an important milestone in her career. “I had already performed at the Music Academy before when I was awarded the MGR award in 2000 and an endowment in 2007, but I was excited and happy to be invited to be part of their dance festival this year because it means I am being acknowledged as an upcoming dancer.” 

Though Mythili has left her native California and moved thousands of miles away to a country she has never lived in before, she declares,“I feel completely at home here. My accent makes me blaringly American and it seems to get me attention but I feel both American and Indian.” 

What’s it like to be an American dancer of Indian origin making waves on the Indian dance scene? Mythili’s experience has been a positive one: “At first, there was a bit of that NRI perception when I used to come and perform in India. But since I was a young dancer, it was a surprise and audiences seemed impressed and happy that the art form was being preserved so well outside of India. But there’s also a feeling of is it fair for an outsider to come here and take opportunities from local dancers? But I, too, have been working on my dance for a long time and I think now that I have moved here, they respect and appreciate that and I don’t feel like I’m treated as an outsider. Senior dancers and peers have been really supportive. I also feel lucky to have such inspiring mentors like Malavika Sarukkai and Bragha Bessell. I do a lot of my own choreography, so it’s essential to have somebody to guide you and tell you what you’re doing right or wrong every step of the way.” 

One of Mythili’s aims is to introduce bharatanatyam to a wider audience, especially in the US where the dance form is little known outside of Indian cultural circles. Mythili had the opportunity to do just that by recently participating in ‘Superstars of Dance’, a television show produced by the American television network NBC. “It was a challenge because I only had a minute and a half to perform. But it was a great experience and I was happy to present bharatanatyam to such a wide audience.” 

Kalpana Raghuraman – Between two cultures and continents

Questions of identity and feelings of ‘otherness’ have inspired Dutch dancer Kalpana Raghuraman’s choreographic work. She describes her latest production ‘In Between  Skin’ as “an intimate journey into no man’s land between two cultures. Between a Dutch passport and a Madras curry.” This work was premiered in November at the CaDance festival of contemporary dance in Holland and at the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam during the recent India Festival.

Kalpana is sincere in her artistic exploration to find her own voice and the best way to express it. She initially learnt bharatanatyam from her mother and guru Sharadha Raghuraman and later studied intensively under Padmini Ravi and followed master classes from mentors like the Dhananjayans, C.V. Chandrashekhar and Kalyansundaram Pillai. Her journey from classical to contemporary dance has been a gradual organic process. “I was watching a lot of contemporary work and was fascinated by the process and how the set-up is so different. I had my own ideas about movement and was itching to give myself the chance to work with it. I felt a gap between what I was expressing and what I wanted to express. I wanted something closer to myself. So I applied and got funding for a research project to make a small piece which was my first, called ‘re-Set’.”

“I am de-conditioning my body to let it find its own voice.”

Her contemporary work draws from her firm grounding in bharatanatyam. “I use bharatanatyam in a different way, it’s my strength and the base of my work. The contemporary style gives me the tools, space and language that I need to say what I want to say while the classical grammar gives me my physicality to express it. I have never studied contemporary dance though I had seriously considered it. But I decided that I didn’t want to put my body through another conditioning. I am de-conditioning my body to let it find its own voice. Let’s see what comes from myself!”

Kalpana was born and raised in the Netherlands but feels deeply rooted to her South Indian origins. So is she Dutch or Indian? “I’m both and neither. I don’t feel I need to choose. Moving between worlds opens up your way of being. ‘In Between Skin’ is about not belonging anywhere. A lot of people I’ve spoken to have felt that pain, which is a very deep pain. At the same time it’s a rich source to use to make a piece. That was the impulse to make ‘In Between Skin’: this feeling of being an outsider and moving between worlds.”

Although her background is in Indian classical dance, Kalpana has succeeded in being recognised as a contemporary dancer in an environment which is unfamiliar with Indian dance forms. “It’s hard to do anything non-Western in Holland. Funders have Western standards of assessing a choreographer and those who think they fall outside this category don’t bother to apply. This can be a challenge but it gives you the drive. Receiving funding from the Dutch Council for Performing Arts was a big vote of confidence.” 

Having presented her contemporary works several times in India, Kalpana senses that Indian audiences are curious and open to seeing something new. ‘In Between Skin’ will be having its Indian premiere at the Attakkalari 2009 India Biennial of global movement arts in Bangalore in February.

Divya Kasturi – Between India and the UK

A Chennai native, Divya Kasturi is no stranger to the city or its music and dance season. This year’s Season was especially significant and eventful for Divya: she was conferred three awards, presented three bharatanatyam performances, a kathak recital and a classical vocal concert. She also premiered a new production ‘SUN – The Living God’ and co-organised along with her mother, a three-day dance and music festival. A bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, kathak dancer, classical singer, stage actor and postgraduate student (who has also trained as an electronics engineer and worked as a television anchor!), Divya is a multi-faceted artist who balances a fast-moving career as a performer in two countries simultaneously. 

Divya’s dance journey started in her native Chennai where from a young age she studied bharatanatyam with the Aravindans and then Guru Udupi Sri Lakshminarayanan, vocal music with T.V. Gopalakrishnan and Janaky Ramanujan and kathak with Jigyasa Giri. After completing her degree in engineering, she moved to the UK in 2006 with her doctor husband where she continued her kathak training with Gauri Sharma Tripathi in London. 

In the UK, Divya has encountered career opportunities which have come her way thanks to her strong foundation. She is currently involved in Simon McBurney’s theatre company Complicite. She sings, dances and acts in their award-winning theatre production ‘A Disappearing Number’, based on the life of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. She has also had the exciting experience of collaborating with famous musicians like Paul McCartney and Nitin Sawhney, by having her melodious voice featured on their albums!

As if her schedule wasn’t busy enough, Divya is also working towards an MA in South Asian Dance Studies at the University of Roehampton. “My current studies have opened new perspectives and helped me to understand my dance journey,” she explains. “Studying theory in India is more textual, while in the UK the focus is on understanding different perspectives and ‘otherness’ in a global environment.” 

“My eye-openers have been my work with Complicite and with my university mentors.”

Divya feels that her relocation to the UK has led to an artistic awakening: “I find that my outlook as a dancer has changed considerably. My eye-openers have been my work with Complicite and with my university mentors. I’m addressing how to convey where I come from with audiences the world over.” Divya now divides her time between London and Chennai.

 The experience of performing in different countries has also given her insights into how the dance scene and audiences differ in India and the UK. “In India, audiences are more spiritually tuned in with the subjects that are being dealt with. The only problem is that they are becoming increasingly impatient. They no longer stay till the end of the show. Outside of India, I feel they enjoy and appreciate dance for the ‘sake of dance’ in spite of not being able to comprehend the stories and similes native to Indian sentiments and emotions. Nevertheless, while performing at ‘home’ in Chennai, every communication with the audience has to be made keeping in mind the fact that the audience is extremely aware and highly critical too. It’s like meeting the lion in its own den!”



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