Celebrated bharatanatyam exponent Vidhya Subramanian came to the UK earlier this month (December 2012) for two consecutive performances in London and Liverpool. Making her life as a dancer in California, after her move from Chennai, Subramanian tells Jahnavi Harrison how it all began.
Most bharatanatyam teachers in suburban America have long since abandoned a performance career. The pressures of family life and the still relative dearth of regular performance opportunities make teaching the children of the Indian diaspora a much more financially viable option. Vidhya Subramanian is far from average. Both a teacher, choreographer, dancer, scholar and actress, she shows no sign of slowing down. Speaking of her upcoming UK performances and new work, she says, “I feel like a kid in a candy store – I can hardly believe I am able to do this!”
Though her accent is clearly marked by over two decades spent in Northern California, her roots are still firmly planted in Chennai, where she spent her first twenty-one years of life going to school and studying dance with Guru S.K. Rajaratnam. Her upbringing was ‘conservative’, and though her engineer father had dreamed of becoming a professional mridangist, the financial pressures forced him in another direction. He sent his daughter to dance lessons, but told her guru that if she didn’t fare well by the time she reached arangetram, he couldn’t afford to keep paying for classes. “I was not a dream come true for any teacher,” Subramanian laughs. “I was very annoying and stubborn. If he said smile I would do the opposite.” However, a defining moment came as she began her opening piece on her arangetram in 1984. “I know it’s a cliché, but it was really a moment – I looked out at all these people and I started the pushpanjali and it just hit me that this is what I want to do. After that there were no complaints, no protests.”
Subramanian soon found herself touring all over India, and opportunities started to come in from abroad too. She travelled to Afghanistan to perform for troops during the Russian war, performed in France, Germany and Kenya, presented before Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and represented her country at a World Youth Festival in Russia. “(My Guruji) was not at all surprised, I guess he knew something neither my parents nor I did.” She also learnt from the famed Kalanidhi Narayanan, which she emphatically describes as a ‘real revelation’.
The experience of the NRI (Non-Resident Indian) has been characterised in countless novels and films over the last decade, and Subramanian’s experience has been characteristic of the traumatic shock that can take place when plucked out of the familiar and replanted in a strange country as a married woman. “I was performing in India, then a month later arrived in freezing Boston. I was too young. A lot of people think America is great – the standard of living and everything, but for me I wasn’t very interested. I thought within a few years I would go back to India.”
Two decades, thirty-eight arangetrams, a Masters degree, a divorce and another marriage later, she is still living in the States, now able to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of her dance school, Lasya, and a steady performance career that has garnered solid appreciation from Chennai critics and the broader international audience alike. With her children almost grown, she has been phasing out her teaching and is now looking forward to a new era as a dedicated performer and choreographer. It hasn’t been easy to maintain a performance career over the years. The US is notoriously tricky to navigate for resident artists. “We are trishankus, stuck between the two worlds. In the US we are considered local artists, and in India, outside artists. It takes that much longer to be considered seriously,” says Subramanian, admitting that performing every year in Chennai is a great help to getting work noticed among a discerning audience. Her pieces have been consistently lauded, most recently the solo OJAS (‘with that spiritual energy I yearn’), that explores what drove three saint poetesses to their spiritual goal. She will present this piece as part of a more traditional margam this December in London and Liverpool.
I ask her what she thinks her guru saw in her all those years ago, and whether this unique quality is what she feels defines her today. With humility she says: “My guru used to say that there are few dancers who have the ‘it factor’. There is simply no other way to describe it – he would say it in Tamil – literally the word ‘it’.” After the glut of TV talent shows, the phrase now smacks of flash-in-the-pan fame, but Subramanian is proof that humble hard work, tenacity and talent win in the end. She looks forward to meeting the UK audiences and to spending more time in India again. “I want to make up for all the lost time, for the twenty years that I have missed working in that cultural cauldron. This is a process of discovery that I hope will never end – it is so much fun!”