By Karishma Shetty
My mother was born into a conservative, Bunt family that hailed from Mangalore. Despite growing up in 'progressive' Bombay, she was raised to understand that dance was a very courtesan-way-of-life and that self-respecting daughters from good families did not subject themselves to the wayward ways of dancers. So when a Bharatanatyam dance class opened up right below her building, my mother's favorite solace was to peek through cracked windows and crevices between doors, hoping to get a glimpse of a single step. It was in that moment when her profoundly rebellious 11-year-old self made a determination - that if she ever had a daughter in her future, she would ensure her the experience of classical Indian dance, uninhibited and unjudged. It took over two decades for her to see life come a full circle when my mom discovered that my first dance teacher had in fact learned Bharatanatyam from the same dance school below her house.
The seeds of my passion were sown 22 years before I was born! I started dancing when I was five. I had two missing front teeth, with an obsessive need to talk incessantly and the attention-span of a goldfish -- clearly not the best qualities in an ideal student. Yet, the memories that effortlessly jolt out of my head are the ones where I'd hiss out numerous Sanskrit shlokas from my toothless mouth and pair them appropriately with fingers twisting into mudras (hand gestures). While I was still trying to grapple with the nuances of grammar and the spoken word, I discovered a power in the mime of dance and music, a pathway to communicate with the world without saying a word.
Little did I know that what started out as an exciting after-school activity would end up influencing my raison d'être as an individual, an artist, and a global citizen. Dance taught me discipline. It reinforced the importance of repetition and perseverance in that it took hours, months and years of trying the same thing over and over again, to come close to getting it right. It enhanced my cognitive abilities by helping me process complex math in music and rhythm through my body. Performing the art form on stage made me expand my faculties of multitasking by having to focus on beat, rhythm, melody, memory, order of sequence, transcending beyond the structure, reaching out to the audience and connecting to the divine -- all at once. In the process of sharing the broken stories of our history, mythology, and culture, I believe that dance helped me heal.
While I have always felt passionately for Bharatanatyam and Odissi, I pursued another career path and there were many moments when other things or events took precedence. However, in the depths of depression, loss and identity crisis -- I always found refuge in dance.
So when I got married in 2014 and knew that my life would realign to call New York home, I started on a clean slate. Having lost the regime of rigorous practice and stamina and living in an apartment with paper-thin walls and wafer-thin floors, I dusted off the remnants of a desire to dance again. Agreed, I was in New York City and not in the open grasslands of farmland America -- but being 7,786 miles away from home meant that I looked at this as the end of the road. With Bollywood on the rise and watching way too many watered-down versions of classes around, I didn't expect much. I looked at the dance and music scene with suspect, knowing full well that there was a great quality of Indian classical dancers in the US but somehow feeling disconnected in finding the right people.
And then dance found me.
I discovered Navatman by chance. My husband and I were googling dance schools in the area and we found Navatman - a school for both classical Indian dance forms and Carnatic music. I checked out their Performing Arts Management Program (PAMP) and Performing Arts Education Program (PAEP) -- programs that were designed to equip and train you as a dancer and teacher as well as help you develop additional skill sets to support the business and administrative side of the field. I applied for the program and met Sahi, the founder of Navatman, and a new journey began.
In Sanskrit and Hindi, "Guru" means Teacher "Kula" means Clan or Family. So the phrase "Gurukula" translated to a form of school system where students lived together as equals under the tutelage of their Guru who looked at them as his extended family. In the "Gurukula" system, every interaction with the Guru became a teaching point, so that students would learn to appreciate the mundane and the boring with the same enthusiasm as they would grasp the intellectual tasks. Life lessons were as important as skillful lessons, equating the importance of everyday chores like cooking, washing and cleaning to archery, math, and swordsmanship.
Being 1000s of miles away from home, I would've been happy with just learning the art form correctly. However, when I signed up for the PAMP/PAEP program at Navatman I learned so much beyond just the dance form. I was encouraged to look at Bharatanatyam from a highly holistic perspective. Like semesters in school, Sahi and I went over what I wanted to learn at Navatman and she laid down what she expected of me. We found mutual areas of learning for the next 2 semesters and agreed of ways to accomplish these goals. I was asked to immediately hit the ground running, with understanding and delivering on social media, supporting a student showcase event, artist management for Drive East, finding venues for workshops and future events, budgeting and building a Diwali event from scratch, learning and improving my stance as a dancer, performing at various venues within and outside the city, taking advance level classes in carnatic vocal and teaching a few classes to 4-6 year olds.
From the every day and mundane to the absolutely exciting, this journey with Navatman has felt nothing short of living in a modern-day Gurukula. In the 9 months that I have worked with them, I have learned so much more about the business of dance, than I did when I was learning the art form in isolation in India. In many ways I realized the value in improving my skill set as a singer/musician, and how improving my music abilities has made me a better teacher. Learning to be a better teacher in turn has helped me absorb dance from a different perspective i.e. I now don't just learn to retain but learn to teach. I've also realized how life learnings have happened through every day conversations and many of my 'aha' moments have happened outside the classroom in a conversation or brainstorming session about dance. Navatman has been that safe space for me where I have found my voice. It has been that avenue where I can be myself, not worry about being judged and openly talk about politics and how I actually feel, reflect on the society we live in, question the perspectives of the mythological stories we share with children, and brainstorm about ways to continue to be relevant in a dynamic multicultural society.
From form, calibre and technique to choreography, culture and community, I have perceived a new facet to my humanity, the pride of my diversity, the uniqueness of my identity in a different country. It is in these interactions that I have discovered the love to preserve a large part of my culture and be a responsible bridge that passes on this precious piece of our heritage to the next generation. And it is in the process of this discovery that has led me to believe that I needed to be so far away from home to realize that 'home' is a place where you belong.
And I belong here. In Navatman. And in New York City.