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"Governments don’t understand that diversity and richness have to be nurtured"

Writer and director S. Shakthidharan in conversation with his mother, the revered classical Indian dancer Anandavalli.

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Nurture the Community, Nurture the Country

Date: 10 Nov 2021

Anandavalli set my adolescent life to the rhythm of the dance company.

I grew up backstage. My varied tasks included establishing the deity, designing pamphlets, introducing the dance items, getting people food or coffee, and writing grant applications.

At home in suburban Sydney – initially in our garage, or later, downstairs in our studio – there were invariably dance classes, each evening and on weekends. Students were constantly coming in and out of the house. When arangetrams or productions were on, the house would swell with artists from overseas: India, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand. The troupe would gather, not just for rehearsals but for the meal and discussions afterwards.

That was the backdrop. Sometimes I imbibed it entirely; other times, I glided through it.

For a decade, I moved out to the inner-city. I even started an arts company of my own. Then I made the decision, with my partner, to come back home to the suburbs. So I came back to take care of the place with my family, who now lives upstairs, while my mother, and her dance company, are still going downstairs. They’ve been going for 36 years now – no small feat for a traditional art form whose homeland is some seven thousand kilometres away.

My mother, Anandavalli, is a dancer and teacher of Bharathanatyam and Kuchipudi.

These are classical Indian art forms. We are Tamil Sri Lankans, and our culture draws heavily from Tamil Nadu and South India, just across the Palk Strait.

Cast an eye over Anandavalli’s CV, and you will assume she has pursued dance with a single-minded passion since she was a child. However, those close to my mother know she has steadily turned dance, initially foisted upon her, into her greatest strength.

My mother has not taken the traditional Western pathway of the lead ballerina or the conventional Artistic Director. Instead, her practice remains, at its core, in what forged it: family, community and custodianship of culture. It’s what I am reminded of when we sit down to talk about her career.

Shakthi: How did you become a dancer?

Anandavalli: “I didn’t become a dancer. It seems to have been my unwritten fate. I was the tomboy of the family – the only girl growing up with 15 male cousins and friends. I was climbing up trees, playing cricket. But my mother loved dance, so she enrolled me in classes with my aunt.”

Professor P. Sambamoorthy, a renowned musicologist from India, visited this class and was taken by my mother’s potential. He declared Anandavalli was “born with bells on her feet” and my grandmother, Linga, took this to heart. A fierce, capable lady, Linga turned my mother into a child prodigy. So Anandavalli was whisked to India, and then Europe (just beginning its love affair with the East) to observe and learn under a bevvy of dance’s luminaries: from Gowri Ammal, one of the last devadasis or temple dancers, to John Cranko of the Stuttgart Ballet. But as my mother reached her late teens, the tension inherent in my grandmother’s dual roles of mother and manager became apparent.

Eventually, your mother brought you back home. Is that a good way of putting it?

“People started following us and getting down on their knees and proposing. And that shook my mother. If I had fallen in love and stayed in that country and decided to marry a Caucasian, a white person, she would never have heard the end of it from my father and my uncles and everybody.

“A famous dance critic came to visit us. He told my mother, your daughter is on the cusp of controlling the Indian art form here in London. But I remember my mother saying I have to take her home. I have to take her back.”

There was always a time limit on this adventure.

“That’s right.”

Soon after coming back to Sri Lanka, my mother and father had an arranged marriage. Anandavalli did the odd performance but was mainly “very happy being a housewife”. Then in 1983, soon after I was born, simmering tension in Sri Lanka spilled over into riots and eventually civil war.

My extended family, until then tightly knit, spread across the globe. Some stayed in Sri Lanka, while others went to the US, or the UK. After stints in India and Singapore, we ended up in Australia. My father found a job here. My mother continued being a “housewife” until the community started to ask her to perform.

“In Australia, the first offer to dance was a fundraiser for the Tamil Tigers. I refused. I told them my dancing would never be a part of this. The second invitation was for the opening of the Helensburgh temple. A sunset performance facing the temple for the Kumbabishekam [a kind of opening ceremony – Shakthi]. That was the catalyst that started me off. From that point on, the phone calls started coming to teach them dancing.”

At first, my mother resisted: she knew how to dance, not teach. But with gentle and constant persuasion from community elders, she eventually acquiesced. She started lessons in our garage.

“In India, you get up and you can hear music. You can listen to that sound emanating from every corner, every room, every house. So they needed to know that their children would have that, even if they didn’t. That root, like an umbilical cord, that tied them, that they didn’t want to break—they wanted that cord to hold their children to their culture.”

As the student intake grew, Anandavalli began to put on community shows. My mother taught her students the way her Gurus had taught her: with impeccably high standards. She danced alongside them. She formed an academy to present the work, named after her mother: Lingalayam Dance Academy.

You were, in essence, re-awakening your identity as a dancer by becoming a teacher.

“Yes.”

The community was blown away by the quality of the initial performances. There was an energy and a commitment there they hadn’t witnessed before.

“From day one, they were taught how to use space. They didn’t just dance flat. They danced with texture.”

Do you think you understood how to use space in part because of what you saw in Europe?

“Yes. I had it in me. I didn’t know I had it in me; I didn’t learn that. I think it was something I imbibed in watching so much theatre, watching so much dance.”

It’s a hallmark of your practice now …

“Yes. I think I was very fortunate in that I was influenced by not just dance but theatre and music.”

During this time, my mother divorced my father: something scarce in our community.

“I was told very clearly by elders in the community I should expect my students to leave or not return to me if I went through a divorce. So I was prepared for that, but not one student left. And I think the parents were thinking of taking their children away, but the children didn’t want to go.”

By the mid-1990s, my mother had over 100 students (at its peak, the Academy had over 200). Parents began requesting arangetrams. An arangetram is a student’s first solo show, an artistic coming of age that goes for several hours performed in front of the dancer’s family, friends and colleagues. These days an arangetram is often put on as an act of duty or to show off. My mother wasn’t interested in that. But she did see a different opportunity—she saw the Academy could use this ancient practice to incubate and catalyse her most promising students into professional dancers.

“I always told my musicians. You are here to support the dancer. You are not here to show off your talent. And they always support the artists, and they support me. You start creating a dancer. You create that little seed that can grow into a performing artist. Then I realised I had many little seeds that could become part of a company.”

In 1996, Anandavalli founded the Lingalayam Dance Company, made up of her professional level students. For the first time, she tried to navigate the Western system of funding and presentation to take the company to the next level. But, unfortunately, it didn’t go so well.

“The first three years I put in for funding, I didn’t get it. I paid a fortune for someone else to write those grants.”

Over the next few years, a handful of open-minded, fiery women from inside the Western arts industry ‘discovered’ my mother and took her under their wing: Margaret Walker, Mavis Stewart and Kim Spinks. They encouraged Anandavalli to speak frankly about her practice and write her own grants. As a result, my mother was successful with a small amount of funding from Arts NSW and determined to put on something “seamless”. Through the early 2000s, Lingalayam Dance Company delivered a groundbreaking series of works and built a large, diverse following.

Those four productions we put on were amazing: Temple Dancer, Serpent Woman, Earth and Fire, Kuruntokai. We went from the little Newtown Theatre [the old NIDA – Shakthi] having five people to 10, 20, 30, 40 people. Jill Sykes reviewed it, The Australian reviewed it, and we grew. Three years after Newtown, I took the production to Seymour Centre, which expanded our city-centric audience. We had hundreds. We did five-day seasons in the Everest (Theatre).

These audiences are for productions of classical Indian dance in Australia in the early 2000s.

“For the Western audience, it’s teaching them not to be afraid when they see ‘Indian classical’. I said it’s my job to make you understand what you’re watching. So give us a chance, come and see. With every show, I used to have that conversation with newspaper interviews, radio interviews. You can’t write it off.”

You can’t do this with one show. So over and over, you had to educate people through many presentations over many years.

“Yes.”

My mother tells me a story about some of the dancers once performing at the Art Gallery of NSW, where they had a Q&A afterwards.

“An audience member got up and asked me, ‘You’ve been performing here for three weeks; how has it been living in Australia?’ I said we don’t go back; we are Australian. They were shocked. And one by one, the whole audience stood up and clapped. The audience member then got up, took my hand, kissed it, stroked it, and said, ‘Thank you. I apologise for being so ignorant’.”

The Academy continued to put on annual performances at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta (in fact, Anandavalli was one of the first people ever to book a space at Riverside). Working with the parents of her students required another kind of audience education.

“You don’t want your child to see a video five or ten years down the track and ask why am I doing that, why did my teacher allow me to do that? That is degrading to that child. She is carrying forward an art form she has learnt with respect and discipline. So many parents would say to me; we don’t send them to you and pay $35 for a ticket to watch them stand on stage as a guard or hop around like a deer. I would tell them there’s training in a deer, it’s challenging to do a deer piece. There’s discipline in standing in stillness – as a guard – that will give them a huge benefit as they keep dancing.

I taught the way I was taught. Theory was never a big factor. But the basic principles of dance, I never compromised on. And they learnt the hard way.”

It wasn’t easy for them. Or you.

“No, it wasn’t easy.”

Do you think in a strange way they enjoyed the discipline of the dancing?

“I think they realised the discipline of the dancing is what they carried forth into their professional and day-to-day lives. A lot of the parents tell me that.”

They were kids when they first came to you, and now they’re mothers, as well as successful-

“Very successful practitioners in their professions, so they wear many hats-”

And they’re professional dancers with you too …

“There’s a discipline when they come here. The dancers come once a week to class, and they have to continue …

It’s about a lifelong practice …

“It is. And that is my greatest pride, that students come into class just for the sheer joy of dancing. Or being yelled at by me. (she smiles)

“I think they also enjoy doing these productions, even though they were very disciplined, very strict. But the joy they had in delivering something so perfect is what took us… it’s how we grew. Because it was a combined effort.

“A few years ago, one of my company dancers lost a child. My greatest pride in the sorrow was to see how her class stood by her, stood by her pain. That was purely through dancing. They didn’t know each other apart from the dancing. And it still maintains. Through marriage, through divorces. This close-knit friendship that they made through dance remains. Now two of them have started schools.”

Alongside putting on a production or teaching people comes the building of community. It’s an act of solidarity.

“It takes a long time for a community in a country to realise that. Governments don’t understand that diversity and richness have to be nurtured when they settle migrants. Because in nurturing that they give them strength, and their strength lies in food and the arts. And if you nurture that, you nurture a huge community, and if you nurture the community, you nurture the country. You grow that country.”

And if our governments won’t do it for us sometimes, we have to do it.

“Yes. We are doing it. Slowly slowly, the last 10-15 years, we are doing it.”

Anandavalli’s students are almost all girls and women. My mother has used each of the Company shows to interrogate and celebrate an aspect of femininity in the Hindu or classical Indian canon and tie it back in some way to the present day.

“I had a female company. I had such an affinity with the embodiment of the female stories. So we have this humongous tapestry we can draw from. The epics, the scriptures, the varams, the folk stories. The classical rhythms, the folk rhythms, the Indigenous rhythms.”

Would you call yourself a feminist?

“You know there’s a word in Tamil – Shakthi. It means the internal strength of a woman, with the nurturing, comforting, giving, and emotional turmoil women cope with and always have coped with. So Shakthi embodies everything feminine. But to me, it also involves everything sensual about a woman. Now, if that means being a feminist, then I am a feminist. I believe there should be an equal platform between a man and a woman. Not that a woman wants to have the same kind of strength as a man.”

Over the last ten years, Anandavalli has collaborated with other dance icons and their companies, including international luminaries (the late) Astad Deboo and Ramli and local Japanese drumming ensemble Taikoz and Riley Lee. The collaboration with TaikOz, Chi Udaka, was widely celebrated and toured both nationally and across India.

“I started doing collaborations because I was worn out. It had become a comfort zone. And you know, a comfort zone can become a stalemate. And so I stopped, and I started looking at collaborations. Not all have been successful, most of them have been, but every collaboration has been a learning curve. I didn’t repeat a mistake ever again.

“The High Commissioner in India said this (Chi Udaka) would never have happened in Japan and never have happened in India.”

It was only possible in Australia.

“And this is what Australia and the arts and funding bodies are not realising. They still think that traditional and classical stays in one pocket and contemporary stays in another pocket. They don’t understand that contemporary art grew from traditional art forms.

“I want to build a platform. A place where practitioners from traditional art forms can educate each other. Bring those people out of the woodwork and give them a platform. Create a festival of these kinds of shows, the shows that these people, connected would make. That is something I would like to see.”

This interview was conducted on the unceded lands of the Wangal peoples of the Darug Nation.

This interview is from Diversity Arts Australia‘s Pacesetters Creative Archives project. Support for Stage 1 is from Create NSW.

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