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Experiments with expressions

Adeline Chan Suying
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INTERVIEW Dr. Siri Ramaswami believes in exploring different dance styles and finding a new idiom that is appealing. Adeline Chan Suying

SCIENTIFIC APPROACH TO DANCE: Dr. Siri Ramaswami. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan
SCIENTIFIC APPROACH TO DANCE: Dr. Siri Ramaswami. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

D ancer, teacher, choreographer, academician and founder-director of a dance school-- Dr. Siri Ramaswami is all that and more. This Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer has not only travelled all over the world, but has also traversed many genres, successfully combining Chinese and Malay dance styles with Bharatanatyam. In 2000, she launched her own experimental webcast solo dance interpretation of ‘ Silappadikaram' at the University of Pennsylvania. Closer home, she has started the Kanaka Sabha Performing Arts Centre in Mumbai to pass on her knowledge to aspiring dancers. For her effort, she has been conferred the titles such as ‘Singar Mani' by Sur Singar Samsad in Mumbai and ‘Nritya Shivali' by the Shivali Cultural Society in New Delhi.

Early journey

How did it all start? Born into an artistic family, her mother was a trained Carnatic musician and her father was involved in theatre. Siri was influenced by her art-loving parents, and starting her formal dance training at the age of three. “I took to it like a fish to water,” she says. So natural was her inclination to dance. Trained under acclaimed gurus in Pune, her teaching career took off when she was just 13! She first had 4-5 students under her charge.

Lacking the seniority that would naturally establish the clear line between guru and student, she knew she had to do things differently. “I had to treat them as friends but still help them develop dancing skills. I realise now that it actually took a lot of management techniques to strike that balance,” she says. Siri may have used innovative means such as playing games, unheard of in a dance class, but her experimental methods were perhaps the first indication of what she was to do in the future.

Though her C.V. boasts an impressive list of places she has visited as a teacher and performer -- including Dubai and the U.S. – she professes that she did not actively look for opportunities to go overseas as it was clear that she had to support her mother after her father passed away when she was just finishing her Undergraduate studies in Physics, with a specialisation in electronics.

Pragmatic reasons were what took her to Hong Kong to do her Ph.D in Fine Arts, where with a Science degree, she could not apply to other universities. But that was where she met her husband, Dr. Seshan Ramaswami, an academic in marketing, who was based in Singapore.

When in seventh grade, she was first exposed to a non-Indian dance form through a book on Martha Graham, the American contemporary dance legend, but it was the time she spent in Hong Kong that consolidated her interest in Asian dance. “I was utterly fascinated,” she enthuses.

Fusing styles

Her classical training and worldly disposition might have predisposed her to the fusion work that she would create later on. In Singapore, she started collaborating with Malay, Chinese and modern dancers. “It was about exploring how far Indian dance could go without losing its identity and also without it being overwhelmed,” she says. Her love for creating and exploring shows in her experimentation with technology. It started when her friend asked if she could be on the jury of the International Computer Music Conference in Hong Kong, where she ended up choreographing and performing solo. “I've always enjoyed fiddling with electronics,” she says on successfully combining dance and technology, arts and science.

There was no turning back since: Siri realised she liked working with technology. She wants to experiment with more ideas and work within the contemporary settings. It seems like the mark of a creative artist who can blend her science background and an artistic outlook.

(For more information visit www.kanakasabha.com)

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