Cross-cultural dance blends tradition, innovation

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Cross-cultural dance blends tradition, innovation

Sangam Arts, founded by Stanford alumnae, creates collaborative dance that reflects ethnic diversity of San Francisco Bay Area

by Kathryn Dickason on Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 10:40am

Image of dancerDance, as one of the most archaic and vibrant art forms, attunes us to the rhythms of history. According to Usha Srinivasan, a first-generation Indian immigrant, traditional dance, with its embodiment of cultural values, gives people an opportunity to reconnect to their heritage and ethnic roots. A particular dance's meaning, however, is less accessible to each successive immigrant generation. But with the initiative of organizations like Sangam Arts, ancient dance forms could become increasingly relevant today, crossing cultural, generational, and gender lines.

The founders of Sangam Arts, Sandhiya Kalyanasunduram (M.S. Neuroscience, Stanford 2005) and Usha Srinivasan (MBA, Stanford 1997), have turned their background in classical Indian dance into an artistic laboratory of innovation. The two women are working to broaden the appeal of the Indian dance form known as Bharatanatyam across multiple cultures. Their hope is to map cultural identity, channel creativity, and promote intercultural dialogue. Kalyanasunduram and Srinivasan are also inviting performers from other world dance traditions to collaborate with their students and affiliates. Sangam Arts will bring together audiences from different communities, creating collaborative dance that reflects and celebrates the ethnic diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sangam Arts creates collaborative dance that reflects and celebrates the ethnic diversity of the Bay Area.

Both Kalyanasunduram and Srinivasan have training in Indian dance, and both realize the vital function of dance for transmitting cultural memory. Kalyanasundaram has performed professionally since her childhood in India, and Srinivasan took up dance later in the United States. As Kalyanasundaram explains, “once we are out of our own country, want to find a sense of place. But we also want to be associated with everything else that is happening here.”

Ancient dances, new contexts

 Savitha SastryFrom social events, to public ceremonies, to religious rituals, dance permeates Indian life. Its significance is especially evident with Bharatanatyam, a traditional, highly technical form of classical Indian dance that reenacts sacred history. Transporting Bharatanatyam’s narrative richness into the Bay Area is not so cut and dry. One problem involves translation. Since the dramatic component of Indian classical dances are still very heavily rooted in Hindu mythology, younger generations of Indian Americans find it difficult to enthusiastically and fully relate to the religious references embedded within the traditional pieces.  

Although Srinivasan and Kalyanasundaram work to help students understand these religious references, they are even more interested in how an updated form of Bharatanatyam can speak to students' present-day concerns. Srinivasan stresses that true artistry demands originality—Bharatanatyam can speak to the present as much as the past. By granting dancers the artistic license to transpose contemporary concerns onto a classical form, dance becomes fully integrated into their lives. As Srinivasan remarks, Bharatanatyam dancers could tell any story and showcase their own individuality. “I would like our kids to be able to use the grammar and the gestural vocabulary [of Bharatanatyam], but tell different stories,” she said. “And a story of their choosing.”   

“I would like our kids to be able to use the grammar and the gestural vocabulary [of Bharatanatyam], but tell different stories. And a story of their choosing.”  

For example, during its premier performance last summer, Sangam Arts commissioned internationally renowned Bharatanatyam dancer Savitha Sastry. Her solo danced drama, Yudh: Three Perspectives, One Truth, presented war from different perspectives. With compelling virtuosity and malleable expressions, Sastry brought viewers into the very rhythms of cosmic dualism. Shape-shifting between the vagaries of good and evil, she gave bodily form to a story of destruction, hope, and redemption, thus showing how ancient gestures can speak to present flux.

Confluence, not fusion

Sangam Arts also seeks to integrate the dance traditions of various cultures. Fueling artistic collaboration between dance forms is particularly avant-garde. The religious underpinnings of Indian classical dance give the illusion that Bharatanatyam is a fixed practice. But Kalyanasundaram and Srinivasan believe that the form’s expansive vocabulary and grammar make it extremely versatile and well-suited for collaborations with Indian and non-Indian dances alike.   

 “We have so much richness around us. There is a lot of commonality between our dances, but we rarely explore it.... But we should collaborate.” 

“We have so much richness around us,” Srinivasan exclaims. “There is a lot of commonality between our dances [Indian and other ethnic dance forms], but we rarely explore it because we get so parochial about our own [individual] form – it’s our language, it’s how we dress. . . .  But we should collaborate.” This kind of confluence – Bharatanatyam collaborating with flamenco, Mexican folk, or Middle Eastern dance forms – would enhance the dancers’ experience, broaden the repertoire, and generate a diverse audience.   

Sangam Arts does not equate collaboration with fusion. The organization requires its performers to demonstrate excellence within their own artistic discipline. “And that’s what I want to make clear,” Kalyanasundaram explains. “It’s not an excuse to get away from the rigor of training. If you don’t know enough about something, you can’t create something new.” 

Sangam Arts envisions a multi-ethnic repertoire that will draw a large, mixed audience.  About four times per year, the organization will commission local and international performers who represent different styles and cultures. A series of lectures, demonstrations, and workshops will supplement these performances. It is their hope that Sangam Arts initiates an artistic dialogue, enriching Indian dance as well as other traditions through ongoing processes of collaboration.

Women’s stories take the stage

The history of Bharatanatyam is also a history of gender. Codified by a male guru of the second century B.C.E., the early days of Bharatanatyam (derived from Sanskrit words for mime and dance), excluded female dancers in favor of male ones. The gender dynamics shifted over the following centuries, and gave rise to the devadasīs, or the ancient temple dancers whose movements encapsulated the cosmic dynamism of Lord Siva. As earthly brides of temple deities, the devadasīs played important social, religious, and political roles until the colonial age. British moralists denounced the devadasīs as courtesans and prostitutes and attempted to criminalize Indian dance. Indian nationalists revived the tradition in the twentieth century, replacing the former temple dancers with upper-caste women.

Indian-American women transmit cultural values by continuing to perform Bharatanatyam. “It’s something that our mothers did, and their mothers did, and it’s carrying on that tradition,” Srinivasan recounts. Performing Bharatanatyam outside of India provides a unique context for women to communicate their own memories and experiences through dance, rather than reiterating the archaic notation of male gurus. Bridging tradition with innovation, Sangam Arts revitalizes the cultural immediacy of Bharatanatyam by allowing female artists to inhabit their own stories. 

And, as Kalyanasundaram foresees, this “is also a way for the dance to continue.” 


For more about Sangam Arts, visit their website and their Facebook page. Sangam Arts is a non-profit organization under the fiscal  sponsorship of  the Dancers’ Group, a San Francisco-based organization that lends fiscal and administrative support to local artists.

Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram
Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram
M.S. Neuroscience, 2005

Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram has over 20 years of experience as a professional Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer and has performed widely in India and the United States, including at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Sandiya is founder and artistic director of the Blue Flute and a member of the selection panel for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Sandiya brings a unique perspective to the field of dance with eight years of experience conducting research in neuroscience and six publications to her credit (including one in Nature).

Usha Srinivasan
Usha Srinivasan
M.B.A., 1997

Usha Srinivasan runs her own management consulting company that provides product management and marketing services for web and mobile companies. She developed an appreciation for classical Indian dance while living in India, and later received training in Bharatanatyam in the United States. Usha is on the Stanford Business School’s Alumni Consulting Team which provides pro-bono consulting services to Bay Area non-profits.  She serves on the Board of Directors of World Arts West, the producer of San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

Kathryn Dickason
Kathryn Dickason
graduate student in religious studies

Kathryn Dickason is a graduate student in religious studies focusing on western medieval Christianity.  Her interests include female mystics, liturgical rituals, and religious iconography.  She is also a closet dance historian.  Dickason is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.

(Photo of Kathryn Dickason by Kate Gentze)