Youth Spotlight

Youth tabla artist, Nilan Chaudhuri, and youth dancers, Ashyka Dave, Shalaka Bhat, Sindhu Ravuri, Aditi Amlani, and Mayuka Sarukkai share their views on Indian Classical dance in contemporary contexts.  They address issues relevant to youth pursuing Indian Classical arts in a modern society and the future of their respective dance forms.

What does it mean to you to be studying a classical art form in modern society?  Does studying classical dance or music benefit you, and if so, how?

Ashyka Dave, 19, began studying at the Chhandam School of Kathak at the age of 5.  She is an alumnus of the Chhandam Youth Company, with which she performed at prestigious venues for 7 years, including the San Francisco Symphony Hall and Villa Montalvo Center for the Arts.  She is currently a Sophomore at the University of San Francisco and continues to train under Pandit Chitresh Das. She recently completed her first tour to India as an apprentice member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, and had the opportunity to perform at the National Center for Performing Arts in Mumbai.

Ashyka Dave:  Having grown up thousands of miles away from India, I feel that studying classical Indian dance has been my connection to my heritage.  The benefits of studying a classical dance are enormous, because not only have I gained a more holistic understanding of Indian art and tradition, but I feel that it is a part of my history that is breathing and evolving in modern society.  As a student of classical dance I feel it is  my responsibility to not let the art die out and preserve it however best I can, because culture is such an important, yet commonly dismissed aspect of human society.  More importance should be given to the maintenance and preservation of culture.  This change in attitude and mindset about the importance of culture is possible with the next generation of young dancers.

Nilanjan Chaudhuri, 20, son of tabla maestro Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, received his first Tabla lesson from his father at the age of 5.  When he was 11, Nilan performed his first Tabla solo at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM). That same year he was privileged to become Khansahib’s Ganda Bandhan disciple. Nilan accompanies his father in concert around the world and is currently a student at San Francisco State University and AACM, where he continues to study with his father in the Lucknow Gharana tradition of Tabla playing.

Nilan Chaudhuri: It is an honor to be studying an art form so deeply rooted in tradition especially one as rich, complex, and ancient as Indian Classical Music (ICM), in modern day society.  As simply put as possible, ICM has benefited me throughout my life by teaching me how to practice which is certainly an acquired skill, and through practice, patience.  In practice, the mind has to be very focused on the compositions and/or exercises being played.  Tabla practice (or any form of musical practice for that matter) is also a form of meditation, and through my practice I find clarity and peace of mind.  Music practice greatly influences other aspects of my life as well, whether it be academic or social, it teaches me qualities such discipline, dedication, patience, and focus, all of which help me to be a better person.  Studying ICM also benefits me by giving me a connection to my Indian culture, and enables me to connect on a deeper level to my peers.

Shalaka Bhat, 19, began studying at the Chhandam School of Kathak at the age of 8.  She is an alumnus of the Chhandam Youth Company, with which she performed at prestigious venues for 7 years, including the San Francisco Symphony Hall and Villa Montalvo Center for the Arts. From an early age, she has always been intrigued by the mathematical complexities of Kathak, which have inspired her today to become a math major. She is currently a Sophomore at Cornell University.

Shalaka Bhat: Studying a classical dance form in modern society has really broadened my perspectives and shown me new and important facets of life that I know I would have been blind to had Kathak not been a part of my life.  In today’s world, it’s really hard to stay focused and remember what’s important.  Personally, I’ve found it easy to get carried away and think solely about instant gratification and selfish personal gain.  As I grew up, I was able to use my study at Chhandam as a means to stay grounded and down to earth.  The multifaceted nature of Dadaji’s (Pandit Chitresh Das’) teachings makes it a way to obtain self-awareness.  Not only is it physically demanding and mentally challenging, but it’s also deeply rooted in an ancient culture that goes back thousands of years.  It’s built on values that are extremely important in everyday life, but [values] no one really takes the time to think about anymore.  I’ve been introduced to perspectives and ideas that I never would have been introduced to otherwise.  Studying a classical art form has made my personality, my experiences, and my world views much more multidimensional.

Sindhu Ravuri, 12, began studying Kuchipudi from Padmabhushans Sri Raja and Smt. Radha Reddy at the age of 7. At 10, she became the youngest soloist in the history of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. She is currently in the 8th grade at Harker Middle School.

Sindhu Ravuri: Personally, studying classical dance in modern society means taking an adventure to the beauty of the past, with all the promise of the present and future.  It means grabbing every opportunity to showcase the marvelosity of India’s golden age, despite living in the United States (another advantage of having two great cultures as your heritage).  Studying classical dance definitely benefits me in many ways.  Thanks to the graciousness of my gurus, Padmabhushans Raja and Radha Reddy, I have been able to display my talent to many important people not only in India, but all over the world.  For example, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to perform alongside my gurus in front of the Parliament, including the President, of India.  Kuchipudi is essential to my life because it somehow enhances my spirit and lifts my soul.  It is an experience I just cannot describe.  In addition, classical dance gives me a sense of structure and precision.  It disciplines my life.

Aditi Amlani, 16, began studying at the Chhandam School of Kathak at the age of 11.  She is a current member of the Chhandam Youth Company and has completed 3 years with the group.  She has performed at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and the ODC Youth Dance Festival.  She is currently a Senior at Mission San Jose High School.

Aditi Amlani: Studying a classical dance form not only gives me a connection with my culture, but [also] a basis for everything in my life.  The values and principles such as attitude and etiquette, practice, discipline, improvisation, spirituality, focus, and service to society apply to the study of dance as well as to schoolwork and other activities.

The other day in class, I remember Charlotte Didi saying that classical dance is all about refinement. You don’t just learn something, perform it, and move on to another piece or type of footwork.  There is constant refinement of the basics, which is so valuable in daily life as well.

It is truly a blessing to get this kind of training from an international master like Dadaji, as a teenager living in America today.

Mayuka Sarukkai, 13, began studying at the Chhandam School of Kathak at the age of 9.  She is currently a junior member of the Chhandam Youth Company and has completed 1 year with the group.  She is currently in the 8th grade at Challenger Middle School.

Mayuka Sarukkai: To me, classical dance opens up a window that society can rarely access in the modernizing world.  Not only does it create a tie to our past, but forces us to challenge ourselves at new heights.

More than that, we grow to love and embrace tradition and be able to fuel further innovation.  At Chhandam, it’s been an eye-opening experience for me to able to understand Kathak beyond the surface level of just being “a dance.”

At a more personal level, it has given me the ability to feel comfortable as a performer while learning to appreciate my culture.

What would you like to see for Indian classical art in the future?  Do you think it will change for the better or worse?  What would you like to do to prevent classical art from changing for the worse?

Ashyka Dave: In the future, I would like classical dance to keep its traditional roots as best as possible, but I would like to see the next generation continue to evolve the dance without diluting the essence of classical art. It is important for major concepts to be preserved, but it is impossible to keep everything the same. With the changing of time, new inspirations and ideas of expressing oneself arise. I would like to see classical Indian dance grow and expand not only in number of students [practicing the dance forms], but also in its presence in mainstream society. The youth of classical Indian dance are the only hope for this expansion, because with our current connection to classical arts and our involvement in modern society, we have the potential to be champions and ambassadors for Indian classical art for the generations after us.

Nilan Chaudhuri: I would like ICM in the future to be as well preserved as possible.  It is important to preserve traditions that are as old as ICM as generations before mine have done, and to keep them in tact.  I think fusion music is great, and important in the evolution of music, but I believe ICM in its traditional form is its purest, and the sweetest to listen to.  It’s a very sensitive art form and I find the feelings and moods of Raags and Taals most pleasing in their traditional forms.  I think it will change for the worse only if it is in the hands of an irresponsible younger generation, which from what I’ve seen doesn’t seem to be happening.  I think it’s important for future generations to find the beauty in it, and realize that a lot of the subtleties cant be reproduced synthetically!  I suppose the best way to prevent ICM from changing for the worst would be for me personally to practice it as diligently as possible.  Be the change you want to see in the world, right?

Sindhu Ravuri: I would strongly desire for classical dance to become much more popularized.  Currently, the majority of teenagers and young adults do not pay respect to the arts.  I would like to show them that classical dancing is a way of life and is a huge aspect of Indian culture.  I definitely believe that Kuchipudi will only go in a positive direction from here on out.  I would like to give performances to children and educate them on the arts.  I am planning on joining Julliard School of Dance, propagating Kuchipudi, and making it popular.  I would also like to not only inspire young girls and boys to dance, but to enjoy dancing wholeheartedly by understanding its depth.

To prevent classical dance from changing for the worse, is to have more knowledge about the classical dance format and the roots from which it has emerged.  This will prevent from people mixing it with regular dancing, thus corrupting its format.

Mayuka Sarukkai: The only way we can prevent classical dance forms from becoming dying forms of art, is to  continue to innovate and preserve.  Of course, the only way to do this is for the younger generations to continue to expand the art and spread the culture.  The revival of classical dance after India’s independence marked a new era in classical dance, but modern ideas are beginning to dilute its effects.  In the future, I want to make sure we stay rooted to classical art forms, while continuing to educate, promote, and preserve the tradition — no matter if it is participating in performances and festivals such as Traditions Engaged, 0promoting the education of the art, or simply arousing awareness in communities around the world.

What do your peers think of you studying your art form?  How do you respond to what they may say?
Ashyka Dave: Many of my peers who study folk or modern dance are starting to see how truly complex classical dance is- after attending more concerts, lecture demonstrations, and festivals such [Traditions Engaged].  Many of my peers who are not dancers are starting to develop interest in classical arts, because Kathak is more than just a dance- it is historical, philosophical, and mathematical.  Appealing to the mass will always be a difficulty for classical artists, but it is not impossible to find support in your individual communities.  To many of my peers, I will say that preserving this classical dance is preserving a part of who I am.  Understanding someone else’s culture can also help you understand your own culture.

Nilan Chaudhuri: My peers think it’s great that I’m studying ICM.  Although not all of them are Indian, they respect that I am putting in the time and effort to retain and preserve as much of my Father’s poetic genius -Tabla compositions- as possible.

Even my friends who don’t understand as much about ICM find joy in the unique melodies and rhythms in it.

Sindhu Ravuri: My peers are extremely supportive, they constantly remind me of how much they truly enjoy my dancing.  In fact, I have managed to encourage some of them to start classical dancing.  I have responded to everything they say with a positive and happy attitude.  What they think about my dancing is very important to me, so if they criticize me, I take it with an open mind, and if they compliment me, I thank them, knowing I must constantly improve in order to make sure they keep appreciating the arts.  My performing at various places in front of a variety of audiences has encouraged them and led them to believe that the true art format will always be appreciated.

Aditi Amlani: Most of my peers know that I am studying Kathak.  Some used to ask why I spent hours at dance performances, rehearsals, practices, or other Chhandam [School of Kathak] related events, instead of hanging out or doing other things.  I would try to explain that Dadaji (Pandit Chitresh Das) and Chhandam see the study of Kathak as more than just learning the dance steps.  It is about training in all the elements and learning about the history, philosophy, and mathematics of India.  After seeing a performance, they usually can connect what they saw to what I would talk about all the time.  There is a new-found appreciation and curiosity that comes about, because they used to just equate the words “Indian dance” to what is seen in Bollywood movies.  My friends who are dancers and musicians themselves, get excited because they can relate to [aspects of the dance] such as rhythm.

Mayuka Sarukkai: As a student in the Bay Area, my peers are already aware of Indian classical dance, though Kathak is something relatively unfamiliar to them.

After performing several years in talent shows in a lecture-demonstration style however, they began to express more interest, curiosity, and general appreciation for the dance.

Is it important for classical Indian dance students all over the world to preserve tradition, and why?

Ashyka Dave: I think it is extremely important for any classical Indian dance student to preserve their traditional art wherever they may be and in the best way that he/she can. Western culture is spreading fast, and is influencing many traditional art forms into incorporating modern and Western styles of art. It is important to acknowledge the benefits of Western technology, but Western culture should not be a vacuum for classical arts anywhere in the world. It is important to show your community that the traditional elements of classical dance are unique, innovative, and are extremely sensational, because they have been passed down through the generations for thousands of years.

Nilan Chaudhuri: I think it is important for Tabla students to learn as much traditional repertoire as they can, because the true richness and poetry is found in the older compositions, the Gats, Tukras, etc. In doing this, I think the essence of Tabla would be better preserved.

Tabla is so popular today in the world of percussion, but a lot of people are playing Tabla without proper training -more as bongos or congas, or even just taking bits to sample- but I know they would find much more joy in the instrument if they dove deeper.

Sindhu Ravuri: Yes, I do believe it is very important for all classical Indian dance students all over the world to preserve tradition, because as an American teenager myself, I know how all of us try to become more and more Americanized as the days go by.  With all the new hip hop music surrounding us, it is extremely difficult to appreciate the Indian traditions and culture – not that hip hop music is bad.  Having had the advantage of knowing [a form of] Indian Classical dance, I understand the value of tradition and the roots of systematic belief.  I feel classical Indian dance is the most enjoyable way to keep contact with and preserve Indian tradition for us teens.

Aditi Amlani: Absolutely.   For example, I have learned about the “Guru-Shishya Parampara” through Chhandam.   When I think of that phrase today, the ‘ghungroo ceremony’ automatically comes to mind.  I remember Dadaji (Pandit Chitresh Das) blessing each of us and the ghungroo, everyone’s singing adding to the peaceful atmosphere.  It amazes me how Dadaji has created this type of bond throughout the Chhandam school.  He constantly ‘injects’ us with knowledge and also takes interest in other aspects of our lives.  He draws out the Guru-Shishya Parampara and other traditions from our rich Vedic culture, which I don’t get to experience anywhere else.  Through my experiences with him, I’ve learned that we can preserve our traditions while living in the modern world.  This enriches our lives, as well as the lives of future generations, giving us all a connection to our rich heritage and a sense of self.

Mayuka Sarukkai: From guru to disciple, generations have passed on the rich traditions of Kathak dance.  Now, the youth generation holds the future of the art in its hands, and only this generation has the ability to pass on the years of knowledge and refinement that were handed to them.

It is critical that students preserve the art, especially in a time and age when new ideas quickly replace the old.  Even if the gurus are here no longer, the knowledge is.  It is the responsibility of students to preserve it.

Is there anything else you would like to add regarding your feelings, experiences or thoughts about the youth movement in classical Indian dance?

Ashyka Dave: Guruji (Pandit Chitresh Das) has created a bridge between his students in America and his students in India.

Now it is time for the youth to make that trek across this bridge and connect with classical Indian dance students all over the world and work together to preserve and promote the classical arts.

Nilan Chaudhuri: I am very happy to be given the opportunity to perform along side my Father in the Traditions engaged festival, and will do my best to preserve what I have learned so that one day, perhaps I can hand down my lessons to a younger, enthusiastic, generation.

Sindhu Ravuri: I am too young and inexperienced to comment on this issue, but one thing I can reiterate is that I feel immense joy while dancing.  When I perform Kaaliya Narthanam (The episode of Lord Krishna teaching a lesson to the Kaaliya Serpent) I can actually visualize Krishna and the serpent.  When people come and pray to me as if I am really Lord Krishna ([this happened] when I dancing in a temple on Krishna Jayanthi), I feel so lucky that my mother pursued this art for me and took so much pain in finding the right gurus for me.  I think all teenagers must enjoy this joy of sublime happiness, and I think Indian Classical dance provides that feeling of sublimity, bringing joy and tears to both performers and observers.  I have experienced this feeling several times while dancing.

As part of the ‘Traditions Engaged’ festival Nilan will perform alongside his father, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, in the evening performance on Sunday, October 3rd.  Ashyka will perform with the Chitresh Das Dance Company in the dance drama, ‘Sita Haran’, on Saturday evening, October 2nd.  Sindhu, Aditi, and Mayuka will be featured in the youth performances on Saturday afternoon, October 2nd, followed by a youth panel discussion.
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