Own Yourself – Mayuka Sarukkai

When did you begin your study of kathak with Chhandam?

I began studying at Chhandam around 9 years ago. I still remember feeling very, very overwhelmed as I tried to make my arms and legs do what I wanted them to do on that first day. Not to mention that I was probably the smallest person in my Teens and Adults class. Why was nine-year-old me enrolled in a T/A 1A class? I don’t really know. But as Dadaji would say, “What is this 1B, 2C, 3Z?” All that matters is that I learned so much in those first few years and came to enjoy the extra push of being surrounded by more mature dancers.

When did you join Youth Company?

I joined Chhandam Youth Dance Company two and a half years after that first class, in 2009. Being able to study with Dadaji and his senior disciples Charlotte Didi, Seibi Didi, and Rachna Didi was an incredible push but also an opportunity for so much growth. And of course, having the community of older YC girls as mentors, and my peers as close friends and supporters, has made the experience all the more valuable.

How has your study with Dadaji most affected your life?  

I’ve always thought of Dadaji as somehow timeless or ageless. He embodied the energy and spirit and playfulness of a little boy, and yet he carried the wisdom of an old, old man. And just the same, when he talked to a classroom of sweaty teenage girls, he became one of us ― or at the very least, the older brother who understood on a very deep level the nuances of that period of life. As seamlessly as he transformed character in his abhinaya, Dadaji could slip in and out of our minds and watch the world through our eyes. And so when Dadaji imparted the knowledge of the dance, he was imparting it along with a deep sense of what it means to be us. And he taught us, quite simply, to own it. Many different times, and in many different words, Dadaji taught me to own myself. Own yourself, he said, when you pick up your instrument or raise your voice to the drone of the tampura and practice kathak yoga. Own yourself even in your most vulnerable moments, in your mistakes, in your pain and in your grief. Dadaji allowed me to take ownership of my identity ― though that’s not to say that I know my identity. To “know” myself, truly, will take a lifetime, but Dadaji invited me to at least take a peek, to embrace even the not-knowing.

What has changed over the last five months for you as a person/dancer/artist?

Now I’m in that place of awkward “in-betweenness” ― one foot planted in the security of my first eighteen years, one foot practically running out the door, and one foot (yes, I will adopt a third foot for the sake of this analogy) tapping away nervously on the dance studio floor, wondering how often it will get to do that. And I wish very, very often that Dadaji were here, arms folded over the front of his black t-shirt, to study my three feet and then dare me to get up and walk (or worse still, to do tatkar).

Then I realize that he already has. You see, he didn’t hand me the tools to walk ― he showed me the tools I had. He showed me how to use the power of being myself to connect with others and create change, to be in my most natural space when challenging myself and the world around me, to tell people to “take it or leave it.” Most importantly, this restless multi-footed time of life has reminded me to love and be all the more thankful for the love and support of my amazing family, friends, the dance community, and the future my foot will meet outside the door.

On a related note: I am a historically “quiet” person ― and not because I don’t have things to say, I’ve realized. It’s because I like to listen, and because I like to please people. I tread around my words and sometimes tread around myself. But I’ve begun to realize that treading makes me unhappy and prevents me from making real connections ― and Dadaji has always reminded us to walk forward, with our heads up, with happiness.

That combination of instinctual sensitivity and inculcated confidence is so freeing. As I stood alone on stage the night of my solo performance, it was liberating to realize that I could just leave all the talking to this girl named Mayuka Sarukkai and get on with the program ― what a concept! I hadn’t prepared my speaking as much as I should, but that meant I was free to say all the crazy things that came to my lips (yes, even the ones that would serve as head-banging embarrassments in the aftermath); because up on that stage I am a full-force exhibition of me and my strengths and my vulnerabilities, and nothing less. Mistakes and emotional moments and all, I was empowered by those words: take me, or leave me.

That attitude has also made feel more personally and emotionally invested in the dance and in Chhandam: it makes me feel like I have a voice, and with it, a greater responsibility towards the art form and the community that surrounds it. In the end, preparing for the solo performance wasn’t at all about reaching a certain level of dance ― it was an opportunity and a challenge to think deeply about some message I wanted to share with my audience, and then to use what little I know of the dance form, and about myself, to say it.

Where are you attending college and what do you think you will pursue?

I’m excited to call Stanford my home for the next four years. I am thinking of pursuing one of Stanford’s interdisciplinary majors called Symbolic Systems, which explores how different systems (minds/brains, computer systems, language) represent information and communicate in different ways through the lens of cognitive science, computer science, psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and linguistics ― some of my favorite subjects!

What advice do you have for all the young dancers who are studying kathak with Chhandam or considering it?

Listen to yourself. If dance makes you happy, ask yourself why it does. If you feel uncomfortable with something you learned about your identity through the dance ― as an Indian American, as a student, as a teenager ― take a moment to understand that discomfort and try to learn from it. If you are hurting, listen to your body. And if you feel discouraged, listen to your frustration but let it push you forward, not back. In the end, only you know you ― your parents and your community do so much to give you the resources and opportunities they think you need, but only you can decide what makes you happy.

Talk to others. When you are a part of Chhandam, you are a member of a rich community ― so take advantage of all the opportunities to interact! Get to know your guru-sisters, keep up an open conversation with your mentors and teachers about your progress and your concerns, talk to your parents about your experiences, attend as many performances as you possibly can, and talk to all of your friends and family outside of Chhandam about the awesomeness of the dance form you learn.

And if you are considering Chhandam, the same advice applies. Joining Chhandam was one of the [many] best decisions my mom made (thank you, mom!), but engaging with Chhandam was one of the best decisions I made. When you take the leap of faith and enter your first Chhandam class, remember that you are about to study a classical art form that requires connecting beyond the hour a week you spend in the dance studio. That connection will take time ― and can be rough ― but remember to stay in touch with yourself and with the community around you as you embark on that journey.

What is the most valuable thing an organization like Chhandam can give to the youth in its community, whether they are dancers or not?

In the end, Chhandam is an education organization ― and providing an exposure to the arts to the greater community can give youth the empowering feeling that “hey, we can do this too.” The art form is about telling stories, moving the body, feeling ― those are things that kids do best, and when they channel their energy into a classical art form like this, they are learning to connect their inner “dance instincts” with a culture and heritage that is both ancient and modern at once. Every youth who watches a performance or takes a class or even hears about Kathak at school from a friend is on his or her way to becoming a more open-minded, creative thinker with a heightened awareness of Indian culture and the ways to connect to it physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually.

Any thoughts you would like to share with your fellow YC Members, friends, family?

Thank you, thank you, thank you ― your love and support means worlds to me.

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