When I first started Navatman with Sridhar Shanmugam, ours - and our fellow artists would often wonder, why exactly is it that no one wants to pay for the arts?
We’d cite common examples: our tickets cost less than ordering a meal in! You spend more than that 2 drinks in a night out in Manhattan! Your cab fare is less!
People would argue with us: “you can see other great artists at cheaper tickets”.
This is absolutely true...but those other artists were also struggling. The arts world was (and still is) facing downsizing audiences. It can sometimes feel like a battle to the bottom in terms of pricing to try to get patrons to sit in seats.
It became painfully clear to us that these systems just weren’t working for anyone (and still aren’t).
So, it was our goal at the end of the day to change how we valued and paid for the arts. We started with Drive East many years back. I remember the first year we said tickets would cost $25 - $35 for certain artists and how many people told us we were crazy via email, phone, and otherwise. This was a time when most Indian artistic performances would never charge above $20 in NYC. I remember how as a team we went back and forth on arguing on the price. Was it too much? Would we be shooting ourselves in the foot? We tentatively placed artists who had great followings at $50.
And it worked. People grumbled, but tickets sold at an unexpected rate even given the pricing. Suddenly, the next year, it was just expected that we would charge this much…
We never told anyone this, but we began to actively try to raise the price of arts presentations to get people beyond their inherent biases - (the funny part is, that these prices still do not cover the cost of presenting them). But it didn’t matter - because this kind of price valuation is important in so many contexts from building equality through perception and making sure that we are creating a sustainable economy for Indian arts moving forward.
Now, we see impacts beyond our organization. We passed on the word to other artists and organizers, through late night conversations and Drive East trainings, and I could only hope we were emboldening other artists and organizers to think differently about how they could price themselves and they would relay back to us about how our steps forward helped them push differently in their own economies back home.
By valuing arts - and Indian arts, at that - to prices equivalent to what we pay for other services and projects in the world around us, we not only change perceptions on valuation of the arts, but also battle inherent biases that surround these values.
Why we call the Mahabharata “a reclamation”
The other day, a few patrons asked us why our rendition was so “modern”. How could we look at the Mahabharata through the lenses of gender and caste? Were we not disrupting the traditions?
Another patron raised concerns about retelling a story that has been used to oppress people in India in the past. Would the retelling stoke these fires again?
It is, for exactly these reasons, for those who believe that the Mahabharata can only be seen through a particular interpretation or lens - that we are doing this work. An oral tradition that became literature that has enraptured South Asia for ages, it is time we gave the Mahabharata far more credit - the conversations we are having right now about these topics are written word for word in the Mahabharata. Bhishma speaks of equality in the Bhishma parva. Duryodhana speaks of unfair behavior and privilege when referring to the Pandavas. Jarasandha, Sisupala and other great kings argue over the dangers of breaking traditions while others oppose their inability to see into the future.
Ultimately, the Mahabharata is an incredible story of humanity and its flaws. In the books we read, translations of the critical edition (a compilation and amalgamation of the thousands of stories of the Mahabharata) taught us the beauty of all the pains of being human. It teaches us that one can be a guru, a deeply respected teacher, and make incomprehensible, ugly decisions (Ekalavya’s thumb) - it teaches us that the best among us can be overcome by emotions that cause them to utilize their privileges in unfair advantages (Arjuna when he first meets Karna, Karna’s demand to disrobe Draupadi) - it teaches us that too much ambition can cause wars (Duryodhana).
The Mahabharata teaches us there are two sides to every story. It does not teach us only a particular type of narrative, a particular type of morality.
In some ways, we are not rewriting or re-envisioning the Mahabharata. We didn’t need to. The story was already there...we are merely pulling the story together to pass down to a different generation. One that deserves to hear it from different perspectives.
- Sahasra Sambamoorthi
I am writing to you as connoisseurs, lovers, and practitioners of this ancient form of arts we get to call ours: whether it be kathak, bharatanatyam, odissi or any other dance, Hindustani or Carnatic vocals or instrumental.
Today is your day to open up and learn something new that I think we are all ready to hear, one I think is time to delve into as we launch into Navatman's largest endeavor to date.
All of you have been individually invited to Navatman’s Mahabharata. I know many are excited. But some are still on the fence, and others are probably thinking about things like time and price or are consumed by the business of the world around us.
Navatman’s Mahabharata, hopefully, as you all know, is a fairly historic moment for our organisation.
It is, as far as we know, the first feature film told from the unique style of storytelling Navatman has been working within for the past few years: one of Indian arts and spoken English verses, and one of a handful of feature films out there about the full Mahabharata epic.
The Mahabharata is one of the longest and oldest stories in humanity. If you only know of it marginally, and/or are a student of Indian arts, there is really no reason to miss this event.
But I think it’s time to dig into this - as someone who has been watching this back and forth for over 30 years, I have seen students pan back and forth over things like time, energy, space, and money. I and various teachers have wondered: what does this really mean? If those who claim to love the form the most - our own students - do not have time to witness and be part of these moments, who will?
Honestly, if this was not embedded into a larger power struggle, one where you may not even realize you are a part of, I would never bother to send this email. But I think it’s time we as students, practitioners, artists, realize the larger picture at hand:
What we love and don’t love in this world is colored through the effects of colonialism, and how we watch Indian classical arts is deeply embedded within this.
Now, before you run out the door, saying “Sahi’s lost her marbles,” I have spent many years researching this and almost all the reasons a student gives me as to why they cannot watch a show (or sometimes even look at me uncomfortably as I ask if they are going to a show) are related back to the statement above.
“I’m not sure I/my friends/my family will like this [classical] show.”
This is a direct correlation of the many years of British rule over India and inherent effects of different cultural perceptions about our space. One where Indian culture is considered “uncool” or “backwards”. If you’ve ever had someone make fun of your lunch growing up, your outfit, your language, or more, this is a much larger, deeper extension of that.
What we enjoy listening to is mostly informed by how our brain processes memories and information, and a large chunk of that is how you experienced Indian classical dance/music growing up. If it was an environment where people resisted it, because it was “boring”, “they didn’t understand it”, or “I prefer modern and ballet”, this was because for 100-200 years, cultures with more power told us we were not beautiful, our food was too spicy, our traditions too backwards.
Do not forget: our art forms were almost eliminated - especially dance - in the mid 1900s. The British pushed to eliminate the roots of practices like bharatanatyam and so India’s independence movement began to be tied with the Idea of nationalism to revitalize it (which is why bharatanatyam in particular is so popular globally today).
In fact, the British were so good at pushing this concept on us: that Indian classical dance forms were “uncouth” - that dance was considered more unsavory to learn than music for the generation who grew up in the 1960s - after independence.
If British rule had continued, we may not even have some of our classical art forms today.
I'm sure some of you are saying: “But I do love Indian dance and music! I love Bollywood!”
We at Navatman love Bollywood too - but Bollywood is an art form born of assimilation: one that mixes sounds we are familiar with - “Western” sounds, beats, etc with traditional sounds which is why we often prefer it to art forms like kathak, bharatnatyam, and carnatic and hindustani music. It plays right into the idea that our cultural sounds and spaces need tamping down to be easier to understand and enjoy.
Others counter with: “The price is too high”: if you’re willing to pay higher ticket prices for the ballet, modern dance, the symphony etc, consider if you would pay the equivalent amount to an Indian arts show. You probably pay more for a night out at dinner and sometimes your takeout order: so why, suddenly, is a $50 ticket “too expensive”?
“I don’t have time” - We know this gets pushed to the bottom of the list, but we are hoping that as practitioners we are now beginning to understand the importance of peeling back some of our biases and being part of changes that need to be made for this work to continue.
As you grow as a student, you are also part of the artists and families who will bring these art forms to the next generation. Whether a beginner or professional, it is up to us to learn more. These ideas and traditions are not really spoken about in schools in India, where the British syllabus continues to dictate what we learn and how we learn even on home turf. For instance, the Mahabharata, the largest epic in the world, 2000 years of age, a living tradition that weaves its way significantly through South Asia is not considered literature to be studied. So then, who else is left to do the work?
It is us. It is the students, the practitioners, the families. To take it forward, it is on us to see our arts differently, to share it, to understand it more deeply and to cherish it beyond the stage.
So, hopefully, this starts to peel some layers. There will be many more conversations in the weeks to come, I’m sure, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask. I will happily continue talking or writing about this series and answer any and all thoughts you may have.
Navatman's school started over 10 years ago, with the mission to help nurture an individual's journey in the classical arts. Since then, we've grown to host a community of over 500 students who have joined us at various points of their journey to fulfill their passion for the Indian arts. Joining our community is valuable in a few key ways:
Our community is important to us, and we strive to deliver on the value we see in the Indian arts. Join us wherever you are in your journey: we're happy to have you!
The relationship between a teacher (guru) and a student (shishya) is critical to establishing a good learning environment. Finding a good teacher makes a remarkable difference in the student grasping the concept easily.
As you begin your journey in something new, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you choose the teacher that meets your needs:
Looking back on the past several months of quarantine, I realized all the new things I learned online: how to oil paint, how to cut my own hair, an unnecessary amount of tiktok dances, and of course, the best way to bake banana bread!
So when Navatman offered fall classes online, I jumped at the opportunity to keep learning new things. This fall, I started Odissi for the first time. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous about my ability to learn something completely new to me. But after my first class with my teacher, Sri Thina, I knew I was in safe hands.
Navatman's commitment to teaching Indian Classical Arts, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, is remarkable. The teachers are experienced both in their craft and teaching online. Each student is given individualized feedback, on-par with being in-person: from finding the different stances to learning how to isolate my torso movements, I found myself slowly but surely grasping the basics of Odissi. And thanks to Sri Thina, I feel great about learning at a pace that matches my beginner level, ensuring I learn the art form slowly and properly online.
So this fall, I'm very excited to add something new and different to my list of accomplishments during the pandemic. I look forward to my Thursday classes and can't wait to grow as an Odissi dancer!
Drive East has become one of Navatman’s well-loved traditions. It centers around art, community, joy, and intimacy by showcasing myriad forms of music and dance. Drive East has garnered enthusiastic reviews from journalists and critics, patrons and pupils – it conjures a sense of familiarity and warmth. This week-long festival, which was born in New York City and expanded to San Francisco, is ignited by the core team at Navatman and fueled further by the multitudes of artists who perform, patrons who attend, admirers who tell their friends and family. Drive East creates a platform for the Indian Classical arts because it has always been about the people.
I’ll never forget volunteering for my first Drive East at Dixon Place in 2018. Artists from all over the world gathered at the artist hub to engage and create. The hallways were abuzz with conversation. I was in awe of the energy in this place – lively and warm like an outdoor festival yet tingling with mystery and excitement like when the curtain goes up. It shattered my impression of professional art events. No posh airs? No standoffishness? Just a fresh, inviting space for artists, curators, you, and me to come together in celebration for our love of the performing arts.
All the tumult in the world right now has upended normalcy in the performing arts. A performer’s “office” is now a recording booth, sabha, or dance studio. Navatman has adapted too, with our online platform for school semesters, private lessons, masterclasses, Nuance classes, and live stream performances. Given this existential transformation, we wondered, “What is the fate of Drive East?”
We realized that although the world has transformed, some things haven’t: Musicians, dancers, patrons, children need to manifest their love for art. We need a shared respite with our community. We need an oasis of intimacy between artist and audience.
We need sanctuary.
I am standing onstage at Symphony Space. I am watching in awe as people applaud the experience that we have just given them. I am in disbelief as the packed auditorium stands for the musicians and dancers of Navatman’s Mahabharata taking our bows. I once had a dream to be in this very moment. Only this time, it wasn’t a dream.
Oh my god...
How did we do this? We transformed artforms and epics from India into live stage shows in the heart of New York City. How is it that an immigrant artist performed an immigrant artform in the United States of America to a packed and cheering crowd?
And for one moment, I belonged. I was home. I felt solid ground under my feet.
For an immigrant, these moments are rare. While going about our daily lives like anyone else, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. We spend our days weeks months years keeping our heads down, hoping against hope, that someday somehow our “temporary” status turns into a permanent one. We wish to no longer walk the cliff’s edge of uncertainty - whether we will still be allowed to stay in the place that we’ve chosen to call home. We are hit with news nearly everyday regarding potential orders that may upset thousands of immigrant lives at the drop of a hat. We listen to xenophobic rhetoric nearly everyday, telling us to go back to where we came from. Despite all this, we try to maintain a sense of positivity and purpose. “If you just focus and do your job and not ruffle any feathers, you’ll make it,” we tell ourselves. Without repeating this mantra, the complex emotions and ambiguity that cripple us every second of everyday will leave us paralyzed. We hear stories of people uprooted by bureaucratic technicalities, and we secretly feel guilty for being glad that we’re not them – followed by a tightness in our chest that we might be next.
Where do we go for solace? When we can’t always advocate for ourselves, we are forced to endure in silence for fear of being torn out a life that we painstakingly built. We are excruciatingly aware that it was all built on a single piece of paper called a visa and in these times, our foundations feel as flimsy as that piece of paper.
Slowly but surely, we begin to internalize a toxic narrative. For 20 years, I’ve paid my taxes, not violated my status, studied, worked, volunteered, nurtured friendships and community, and yet... Each time I have to apply for a visa I sense that I’m unwanted, unwelcome. Am I the problem? Am I the overly clingy, needy partner in this relationship dynamic with the United States of America? Is it even worth trying to make this work? Is it too late to cut and run? Will I ever belong, or will I always feel like an alien?
Then I found Navatman. It broke that toxic narrative that I don’t belong and made me thrive. It empowers me that my culturally unique craft is not only important but belongs in the diverse fabric of New York City. Navatman gives voice and speaks for people who cannot advocate for themselves, let alone others. Everyday at Navatman I believe a little more that moments like the standing ovation at Symphony Space should not be few and far between for an immigrant artform; rather they should be many and normal. And when the ground beneath me shifts again, threatening unbalance, Navatman gives me a place to anchor myself and be home.
As Indian classical artists, we often turn to mythology for inspiration. At Navatman, we’ve been diving deep into the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to seek truths about life and art. Today, the world is under siege – from coronavirus, from systemic inequity and persecution, from climate change – and we, the human species, are undergoing the broadest test of our existence. As we look at what is going on around us, we find solace in the ancient tales that have been passed down from generation to generation.
For instance, when creating content, teaching our students, and sharing our culture with others, characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata illuminate great lessons. Even deeply flawed characters show glimpses of kindness, empathy, selflessness, and righteousness despite their flaws. In our recent conversations, we observed that many of the issues at hand today are exacerbated by the “glamorization of me,” a conditioned sense of entitlement and self-aggrandizement.
Excerpt From The Mahabharata
After losing a game of dice, Draupadi and the Pandavas are exiled to the forest for 12 years. They had accepted the original invitation as well as their eventual loss knowing full well that the system is rigged, that their hardship is inevitable.
During their exile, Draupadi laments to Yudhishthira, “Our persecutor feels no sorrow for us. No regret for our distress. No remorse for his cruel misdeeds. Why must he enjoy luxury with his friends, while we lead destitute lives in the woods? Why do we deserve this woe if we never strayed from the rules? Why do the wicked gain all the pleasures, but the righteous only grief? My heart knows no peace.
Why are you not angry? Why are you not indignant? Why are you not outraged? Your silence is ripping the hearts out of our friends to gratify our foes – foes who mistake your tolerance for incompetence.”
Our epics teach us to focus on we. As a society, we are collectively responsible for how the world will continue to function, thrive, and find its greater good. Our epics remind us that no matter our possessions, accolades, or intentions, all changes when ego drives our path.
Today, as we grapple with the pain of seeing entire groups of people being denied basic human rights, we look to the Ramayana and Mahabharata to rejuvenate us and our audiences with reminders of triumphs and tragedies.
Heroes and villains, angels and demons, provide ideals that we still live by. Artists introspect and bare their own soul against the backdrop of these characters. Each time we explore an epic, there is something new to learn. As we move forward in these unprecedented times of trauma and revolution, artists find stories in the epics that shed light on how to keep going, how to handle pain and suffering, how to be compassionate humans. And so we stay loyal to our role as storytellers and cultural vanguards.
This year has been one backbreaking struggle.
As dancers and musicians, when loss happens, many of us turn to the arts to cocoon in relief or speak our pain through movement.
What respite does that bring others? We did not have the answer, but our patrons definitely did. Every recent online event has quickly filled with purpose as artists, students, and viewers came back asking us for more music, more dance, more art.
During this time may of us were questioning, “Why turn to arts?” especially when other pressing issues are taking precedence around the world.
As the comments kept coming, we felt heartened. They crystallized for us that bringing dance and music to patrons can create impact and aid change in a way that perhaps we all know internally but struggle to articulate to others.
So this year, we as American and Indian arts workers are owning our power. Drive East will manifest our voice like never before. Every conversation we have with an artist is an opportunity to dive deep, implore each other, create new understandings. Opening town halls during Drive East and listening to what patrons and artists need and want creates a space for new perspectives and considerations. Switching Drive East to an online platform brings us together in a way we never even imagined would be possible.
So let’s transform collectively. Support an artist. Support each other’s voices. Tune in to change. Be part of it with us. Join Drive East and let’s do more together.
It is a strange time in our lives. Time feels weird, simultaneously zipping by and inching by, every day seemingly the same. My brain feels fuzzy. I binge-watch, I read, I cook, I put on outlandish eye shadow and play dress-up at home. The days start to blend together. Work days start turning into work nights and work weekends. And yet, despite my time being filled endlessly with so much “stuff”, I feel a void. I am a sieve, empty and bare, life seeping through.
While the pandemic has done ample damage, it has also given me time to reflect on the value of the arts in my life. Every minute that I spent stressed or indifferent, was a minute taken away from doing something that I loved. During a dance company rehearsal, Sahi asked us to portray what losing hope would look like. This struck a chord with me. I realized that the stress of my days was taking away something that brought me solace. Dance was the one thing that allowed me to remove myself – even momentarily – from my stressors, and brought me pure joy.
When I moved to a new state at the age of ten, I struggled to make friends. Everyone in school already knew each other and cliques had been set. I felt awkward looking to fit in. But my trusty companion, Bharatanatyam, stayed with me – reminiscing about good times through nattadavus and alarippus. Even through intimidating situations like a *gulp* varnam trikala jathi, this friend showed me that we are more capable than we think.
Then came college. Ivy rejections in spite of stellar GPAs and SAT scores. Heartbreaks. Organic chemistry. Again, dance came to the rescue. I rejoiced learning how to construct movements, crafting stories through adavus, creating my own narrative. I learnt to deal with life’s inevitable curveballs by drawing from deep within and aspiring for something greater.
The pandemic saw me go from a healthy work-dance balance to work-work-work. It left me wanting (to eat and sleep better), exhausted (from overwork), drained (by constant pressure), hollow (from not dancing as much). When I recommitted to dance, every rehearsal restored me piece by piece. It returned me to a place of solace, onto a path for my own health and happiness. My one silver lining to the pandemic is the realization that dance is not something I will compromise on, ever.
Through most of my adult life, I had been uncomfortable in my skin. Too Indian for America, too American for India. A diaspora cliché. But dance always centered me back; consistently empowering me to change, grow, heal myself. Dance is my sacred space, my refuge.