Lemonade Lectures and the Role of Dance in Society
As I prepare for my second semester as a Masters student studying Kuchipudi at the University of Silicon Andhra, I keep returning to a question one of my professors, Dr. Yashoda Thakore, asked in the first class: what is the purpose of dance in society?
This question was heavy on my mind last week as I prepared for and gave a lecture on India, focusing on dance and music, to a roomful of elementary school aged kids in the Mathews Memorial Library in Mathews, Va. Their summer program, themed "Through the Looking Glass", introduced students to different cultures, focusing on countries on different continents weekly, ending with Asia.
There are easy answers for an older time. In an age without modern-day pleasures, dance was a form of entertainment for courts, while in more theatrical traditions, it served the masses. It was a form of prayer in temples. I don't know whether it would stand up to academic rigor, but these are easy answers.
What about today? What is the purpose of classical dance in a small rural town in Virginia where I'd be hard-pressed to find another person from the Indian diaspora?
I arrived in America a mere months before 9/11 attacks, but I vividly remember my first Fourth of July. It was a day spent under the shadow of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, watching an airshow over the Mississippi River, listening to the powerful vocals of Patti LaBelle, and watching fireworks over the river before slowly going home, one car in a sea of dispersing cars. I started the sixth grade that fall, where I felt like a source of gentle bemusement, an amusing foreigner trying so hard to fit in. People marveled at my writing and speaking skills (never mind that I've been speaking English for as long as I've been talking) and asked me how much I liked America.
The attacks changed how I was perceived. Now, some looked to me to prove my love for my new home. One classmate told me, "America could bomb Singapore and wipe it off the face of the earth" after learning that that was my previous home, not India. I don't know that he considered that maybe, there wasn't reason to do that. The school proudly had me on its cultural diversity Halloween parade float, dressed in traditional Indian clothes. It was to highlight the diversity in our tiny university town. My first Kuchipudi performance was under similar settings. My mother and I performed at a multicultural event at the university, where the show ended with a performance of "Imagine" by John Lennon.
Our existence was political. Our willingness to display and explain our culture and yet assimilate and profess our gratefulness to America made us "good." The message I received was that, while we were ambassadors and educators for foreign lands, we still had to identify as aspiring Americans.
I have been straddling that line ever since, especially in today's climate. Deciding to wear Indian clothes on days for mundane errands feels political. Speaking in my decidedly Southern-leaning American accent while looking, dressing, identifying as a member of the Indian diaspora feels political.
So, how do I share Indian culture, music, and dance with a roomful of young children who may or may not have seen an Indian person? How do I share my story?
I ended up talking about my childhood, talking about my parents' jobs and my elementary school experience. I tried to draw parallels between the many states and cultural differences in America and the many states, languages, dress, arts, and foods in India. I introduced Kuchipudi through two pillars of Indian classical dance:
Kantein aalambayet geetham
Hastein ardham pradharshayeth
chakshubhyam darshayeth bhavam
paadaabhyam taalam aacharet
I told them, In Kuchipudi, we sing the song, we use our hands to show meaning ("sort of like sign language?"), we use our eyes to show the emotion (just like in real life!), and our feet maintain the rhythm (because it's dance!)
Yatho hasthas thatho drishtihi
Yatho drishtis thatho manaha
Yatho manas thatho bhavo
Yatho bhavas thatho rasaha
I told them, we look at our hands, because our mind focuses on what we see, our heart feels what our mind is thinking about, and other experience what we're feeling. It applies to regular life too, I added, to the adults' approval.
I ended with an excerpt of Mandooka Sabdam, where bees, birds, deer, and frogs dance and sing, delighting in the beautiful fragrance of the forest. Before the crocodile and elephant battle, before Mahavishnu provides salvation. Before it gets political.
It was an incredible experience, hearing the kids' questions, interpretations, and observations (which, for the record, were decidedly not political).
But I'm still thinking -- what is the purpose of dance, especially within the Indian diaspora? Are we ambassadors within the larger communities we reside in? (And am I qualified?) Are we stewards of our traditions? Are we simply artists using this particular medium to communicate?
I was hoping I would have more clarity with a few days between the event and my writing this, but I only have more questions.
I do know one thing. I hope I'll have more opportunities like this going forward.