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MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999

Immigrant dilemmas

Lakshmi Ramarajan

We're driving back from dance class, I am 11 years old, and my mom is explaining the first few lines of Vaaranam Aayiram as we drive back.

"It about Andal's Kalyaanam. Most people know her because she sang thirty paasurams about Krishna. And after the last one - Vanga Kadal kadaintha ..."

Avinash Pasricha/The Sruti Foundation
Swati Bhise.

"What's that?"

"It's the last of her thirty famous poems...

"Can you say it all?"

"Of course."

"Say it please."

So she did as we waited for the lights to turn green.

It was a long drive from my dance class back home. And invariably that is when I would learn all these things about "home", i.e. India. Things like Tamil poetry, stories about Krishna, my parent's life before they came to the U.S. That day, by the time we got home, I knew the last paasuram of Thirupaavai.

"Wait, amma. What happened after the thirtieth day, did she marry Krishna?"

"No, she waited and waited, and she sang more songs about him. Vaaranam Aayiram is one of her later songs."

"So did she marry him when she sang that?"

"No, she only dreams about marrying Krishna and she tells her friend about her dream."

"So when does she marry Krishna?"

* * *

The Sruti Foundation
Malathi Iyengar, U.S.A.

The next week in class my mom and Mallika Aunty (my teacher) were talking about my Arangetram. My mom was going to Madras in January to buy dance costumes, jewellery and the other necessary things, like paper flowers and new salangai (anklets).

Aunty: (in Tamil) "Maybe you can get a Kondai and Poomaalai for Vaaranam Aayiram. She can do that last, after the Thillana."

"Will she be ready?" (the Arangetram was in early May and I usually only had class twice a week).

"Of course."

* * *

These are scenes from my childhood, learning dance in America. Since then I have come a long way as a dancer. But no matter what my training, performance and dedication to dance seem to display, I always face a question of authenticity when I say I started learning dance in America. This is an issue that seems to come up on both sides of the Atlantic. In India, the doubts seem to arise first, because of the perception that young Indian-American dancers learn dance because their parents want them to learn about India and "Indian culture." Unfortunately, this idea takes the credit away from both parents' and students.

Shelley Kusnetz/The Sruti Foundation
Lakshmi Knight.

I cannot deny that my Bharathanatyam classes gave me the opportunity to ask questions and discuss issues I probably never would have even thought about growing up in India. Nor can I deny that my growing up in America left some cultural gaps that had to be filled in innovative ways. But I don't think this was the reason my parents started me off in dance class when I was five.

The role of Indian dance in America is not that of a conduit "transmitting values" because parents fear cultural ignorance on the part of their children. For most, if not all parents, who send their children to dance teachers in America, there is a genuine appreciation of art for art's sake. The same would have happened had they remained in India. I suppose one can only be grateful that such an opportunity is available elsewhere in the world. Likewise, if there was no personal enjoyment or fulfilment for the students, many a young dancer would probably have dropped out at the first opportunity and there would not be as many talented artists in the U.S. right now.

Dance in America is a success because it performs the same function it does in India. It provides something for the dancers themselves. For me, at five, going to dance class was about getting to dress up and go on stage. Later, it was a chance to gain some private time with my mother as well as children like myself. But mostly, throughout my years of learning dance in America, these classes were an opportunity to express myself, forget myself and feel satisfied.

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