At home, but far from home

Updated: Mar 18 2007, 05:30am hrs
A career as a classical dancer in India was never a consideration when I came here in 1973 to train in Manipuri at Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi. At that time, coming to India was with the hope that the experience would enhance my creative vocabulary when I returned to the US. It was just an aesthetic exploration, to add on to 17 years of training in western contemporary concert dance, ballet, puppetry and theatre.

My passion for learning led to a renewed Fulbright scholarship and encouragement from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra to learn Odissi seriously. I also had the privilege of training in the martial-arts-based Mayurbhanj Chhau under legendary guru, Krishna Chandra Naik.

It was only after 15 years of practice and performance in India, the US, and a few other countries, that I decided to commit to staying in India to pursue a career as a classical Indian dancer. I knew that the narrow divide between good and outstanding could never be bridged while living abroad. I needed musicians to work with and was aware that it would be a challenge creating new choreography for special events, temples and audiences from different regions, apart from the media.

I measure the success of my career by the publics response to the transcendental magic of these great art traditions that I share in every nook and cranny of the country through live performances, film and television. Coming from outside these traditions, it is thrilling for me to be able to present the arts taught to me by my gurus to both rasikas and those newly initiated. It always seemed to me that being a part of carrying the tradition forward was a unique achievement than writing about it, creating fusion or teaching about it in the West, though I have done some of this as well. With no expectations or sense of entitlement, I was delighted with every positive reaction by individuals who dropped their stereotyped expectation when they experienced my performance.

I was fortunate to have a good background artistically and academically as a foundation and blessed to have generous guidance from the best dance gurus. Some kind souls have said I had great courage, but I feel it was more naivete and passion for the art that prevented me from seeing the impossibility of success until it was already achieved.

It is necessary to be positive, win or lose, and instead of thinking of what might be accomplished with family, community, batch mates or patronage, I have been gratified to know that only personal merit has resulted in the respect and small recognition I have achieved. I have made my own path as an artist by honesty to my work, my gurus, and my audiences.

The challenges of a career as a performing artist are many. It takes emotional stamina, a willingness to accept constructive criticism, endure destructive criticism and not opt for shortcuts that can only short change sustained authentic development to become an artist of calibre.

The rewards of my career are many: the tears of a south Indian grandmother in Nebraska, filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan turning back from his drive home from the theatre to tell me how much he appreciated my performance, dancing together with Kelubabu on the stage of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City as Parvati to his Shiva; taking him, guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, his son Ratikant and Bhubaneswar Misra (violinist) to Disneyland during a 22-program Festival of India tour in the US, thanks to Indiann Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) giving international travel for them for the tour Id organised.

I recall the soaring feeling of performing in temples: first in Manipur in 1974 and over the years at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Jayanti Festival, Assi Ghat and the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, at midnight on Shivratri in Chidambaram and Ramnavami in Hyderabad, at the Kottakal Kerala Temple Festival when audience and elephant stayed throughout the rain for my Odissi performance, for thousands of villagers in Bind, Madhya Pradesh. for the Shri Ram Maha Yagna Navarati Festival, at Chattarpur and Khajuraho, among others.

Another delight of my career as a classical Indian dancer is interacting with children. Sharing Indian culture and aesthetics with over 500 performances for school children in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington, Louisiana as well as several with Spic Macay, Delhi, choreography with Delhi Police School, Akshaypratisthan and Palna. And, consulting and curating exhibitions and programs on Indian culture for schools in Delhi and the US is a way to share my joy with the younger generation.

Besides children, teaching workshops and offering lecture-demonstrations to college and university students across the globe, from Berkeley, California to Hyderabad, inspires me with their enthusiasm and sensibility.

As I consider the value or practicality of a career as a classical dancer, I think of the incredible honour of performing at a private concert for the Imperial Prince and Princess of Japan in Tokyo and their detailed questions on hasta abhinaya. I think of Film director K Viswanaths search for a dancer to inspire his Swarna Kamalam heroine to value her inherited dance tradition and inviting me to play myself. I remember Bhubaneswar Misra, (composer of most of todays classical Odissi music) saying the music for my dance in the film was the only time he had been able to fully orchestrate his composition, which was also the first ever Odissi in a Telegu film.

If you are curious to know the financial rewards that accompany these career satisfactions, I can only say that I dont own a home and my savings would last me a year at best. Yet I have been invited to create several national television programs of dance, including the inaugural production for the Central Television Centre when it was created at the start of the golden period of dance and music on Doordarshan.

Over the years, the obstacles to acceptance as a classical Indian dancer coming from outside the tradition and even from outside India, have transformed into a respect for the extra efforts to transcend barriers. From 1989, I have convened six Videsh Kalakar Utsavs and Seminars on Art Without Frontiers which gradually proved that an artist from outside the traditions could be considered on par with those from within. Today, with decades of effort, doors are no longer closed to non-Indian artists of merit. My book, The Performing Arts of IndiaDevelopment and Spread across the Globe, offers the insights of gurus, artists and cultural writers on the transmission of tradition to non-traditional performing artists from the Indian perspective.

I always felt that despite all odds, my love for the dance would sustain me, and it has. Presenting hundreds of performances across India and internationally has enabled me to reveal the inner world that we all share to countless people through the great traditions of Odissi, Manipuri and Chhau.

My career as a classical Indian performing artist has brought me joy through the support and affection of the people of India and the international understanding and appreciation of Indian dance that I have helped promote. I followed my heart, not a five or 10-year plan, and feel incredibly fortunate to have made a unique life and career in my adopted home.