Mythili Prakash divides her time between Los Angeles and Chennai. Little wonder that her dance is a mix of the classicism of Chennai and the flamboyance of Los Angeles. She is equally at home presenting a traditional Bharatanatyam margam for the ‘season’ in Chennai or experimenting with form and style for performances abroad. The dancer will soon be seen in Ang Lee’s latest Hollywood film, Life of Pi, which will be released on November 23. In her distinctive American twang, Mythili, who was born and brought up in the United States (U.S.), spoke to Friday Review, before she performed at the annual Soorya fete in Kozhikode. Excerpts from an interview…
On her first steps in dance
My mother, Viji Prakash, has a dance school in Los Angeles; she used to perform until she moved to the U.S. after marriage and swtiched to teaching. I remember watching her teach students at her school. And I remember being jealous of those students because they were dancing and I wasn’t! I was three years old then. Then she began to teach me and dance has been my life ever since. There was only one brief period, of about a year – when I was eight – that I kept myself away from dancing, only to return with renewed vigour and passion.
On her gurus
I still train with my mother, my first guru. But I have also trained under C.V. Chandrasekhar, Bragha Bessell, besides Malavika Sarukkai, with whom I still spend a lot of time. She had seen me dance at the Chennai season years ago and told me that she liked the way I danced; that of course was a huge compliment for me. She had said she would be happy to work with me, but I didn’t think she was serious at the time. Then a few years later, when she reminded me of what she had said earlier, I was delighted and began to train under her. I have become a better dancer for that. She is a dancer I admire a great deal; she has a tremendous sense of detail.
On her choreographies
I love choreographing. I believe there is plenty of scope to experiment in Bharatanatyam, without diluting the basic form. And all my choreographed pieces have been well-received. Since I perform quite a lot outside India, I need to have a wider repertoire; audiences outside India will relate more to themes other than what we have in a typical Bharatanatyam recital. But, I still do not use English or other foreign languages for my choreographed pieces; I have found that only Indian languages work in Bharatanatyam. I feel it is choreography that brings out the best in you as a dancer. It is always a challenge to produce shows based on varied themes. And you can always incorporate your own interpretations while choreographing a celebrated work such as Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’, which I have done.
On dancing to Sufi tunes
I am particularly fascinated by Sufi poetry and thought it would be interesting to bring that into Bharatanatyam. There is a deeply moving spirituality about Sufi music, which I wanted to give expression through Bharatanatyam. And from the response I get, I think I have been successful in my endeavour. I believe religion shouldn’t create boundaries for art.
On her production ‘Stree Katha’
When I was asked to compose a piece on the occasion of Rama Navami, I thought I should do something different, other than Sita and Rama. I thought maybe I could take a few female characters from Ramayana and try to understand their psyche. I zeroed in on Sita, Kaikeyi and Shurpanakha. I emphasised on Sita’s perceived role in society as a woman. I dwelt upon gender power while portraying Kaikeyi. I saw Shurpanakha as someone who was expressing her femininity and who believed she was very beautiful inside; so even her mutilation could not make her less beautiful.
On upcoming projects
I am really excited about my venture with Anushka Shankar. She will be doing the music for my show, which will be premiered next April.
On acting in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s new film Life of Pi
I am glad that I could become part of a film directed by the man who gave us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. My role has an element of surprise, so I cannot talk about it in detail. I would like to do more films, as watching movies is something that I enjoy a great deal.
On appearing on primetime television in the U.S.
It was an honour being part of ‘Superstars of Dance’, a reality show that was aired on NBC. It was like an Olympics of dance, as dancers from different countries competed. It was a great platform for Bharatanatyam. A lot more people are aware of Bharatanatyam after the show, but I wish I got more time for my dance; you cannot do much inside two minutes.