On an evening two years ago, a single beam of light shone inside the dance studio of Joyce Soho at Mercer Street. Nestled in the darkness, an audience watched as an Indian woman danced before the beam, singing the lines of a Varnam, a traditional piece in South Indian classical music. Through mudras, or hand gestures corresponding to the meaning of the words she sang, the woman articulated her devotion to the beam that represented Lord Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction. As a metal plate deflected the light onto her, the audience watched her shimmer in a brick-red traditional silk Bharatanatyam dance sari, her outfit complete with golden bangles, necklaces and a pleated garment tied to her waist that fanned out as she moved.
Offstage, the dancer, Shobana Ram, continues to use mudras, only in more well-lit surroundings - like the classrooms of P.S. 212 in Jackson Heights, Queens. A teaching artist with the Learning through an Expanded Arts Program (LEAP NYC), Ram is one of few Bharatanatyam dancers who spend two days a week with second graders from P.S. 212, working with class teachers to help improve students’ literacy.
“I love working with children,” says Ram. “I’ve always considered myself an educator first, before a performer.”
In Barnes & Noble at Union Square on a Sunday afternoon, Ram casually rests her elbow on the back-rest of her chair, her head against her fist. There is nothing about her attire – a gray long-sleeved top over a pair of straight-cut blue jeans – that suggests her intimacy with the Indian fine arts. Unrestrained, thick black hair falls loosely over her shoulders and her feet are clad in equally black sneakers. But the signs are all there if you know what to look for. Her near-flawless tan complexion has a youthful glow that belies her 40 years, and in the hour or so that we sit there talking, she never once hunches her back. Then again, she has been involved in this aerobic art form since she was 8, and over the last decade, has performed extensively in dance dramas produced by leading Indian dance choreographers in the country.
In the last two years, she has brought this ancient Indian art form into New York City public schools such as P.S. 212 that have signed up with LEAP NYC. A non-profit organization, LEAP NYC designs programs to improve the quality of education in public schools through the arts. LEAP’s Active Learning Leads to Literacy (ALLL) program has Ram using her unique skills and knowledge as an Indian classical dancer, to help students read and write through art.
“For example, first she’ll read a story, and then they’ll act out the story with their hands using the mudras,” says Kim Kissag, a 2nd grade teacher who works with Ram at P.S. 212. “And they learn words using these mudras and better understand the stories. The kids enjoy it.”
Ram’s involvement in education stretches almost as long as her performing career. Soon after she graduated in 1991 with her Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, she pursued her M.A. degree in International Educational Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We weren’t raised with the idea that dance, or really even music, would be a career choice in this country,” says Ram, who grew up in Flushing, Queens. “It was something that you were encouraged to do, and in my case, given a lot of support to do, but it certainly wasn’t a career choice.” After her graduation from Columbia University in 1994, Ram worked in education in one way or another, writing grants for the Ford Foundation and then teaching at the Manhattan Country School and then the Village Community School in Manhattan.
Ram’s life however, began thousands of miles from Manhattan. Born in the South Indian city of Coimbatore in the late 1960s into a family of classical singers and musicians, Ram had arrived at a time when Bharatanatyam had just begun to thrive as a respectable art form in South India. But on the day she was born, Ram’s father moved to New York to pursue an M.B.A. degree at Columbia University.
“The plan was that he’d finish his degree and come back to India, but he decided to stay here and look for a job, and he brought us over at the time.” And so the post-1965 immigration wave swept in a 3-year old Ram, her older brother and her parents onto the shores of New York City. In 1972, the family settled down in Flushing, Queens, which housed a growing Indian community, and her father found work as a manager in Inventory for Doubleday/ Bertelsmann book publishing in Garden City, New York. A local Indian arts scene, on the other hand, was virtually nonexistent. But rather than lament the absence of a culture that had been so dear to them in India, the Rams did something about it.
“Our family has always been very musically oriented, especially my husband’s family,” says Nirmala Ram, her mother. “And we knew that she definitely had the potential, so we tried to offer opportunities through which she could learn more.” Ram’s first music teachers were her parents, who also formed a music group in the mid 1970s called Vanavil, with other Indian classical music enthusiasts in the community. Vanavil performed South Indian semi-classical music, often at the Hindu temple at Flushing.
“I used to go to their rehearsals when I was about four, at the time,” recalls Ram. “And the rehearsals would be late at night, and I’d fall asleep on someone’s lap. But I’d ended up learning all their songs.” Ram’s childhood of exposure to the arts also came through listening to audiotapes of performances, and the presence of visiting performing artists from India, including the legendary Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, many of whom trained her during their stay in New York City.
“My mom always wanted to be a Bharatanatyam dancer,” says Ram, explaining her initiation to the field. “But you know, in those times it was still a sort of transitional period where it wasn’t considered a proper art form for a girl to pursue. So the first opportunity that came up for me to learn – she was completely in favour of it.”
The South Indian classical art form Bharatanatyam has its origins in Hindu Vedic scriptures but used to be performed by temple courtesans known as devadasis, meaning ‘servants of God.’ Through the patronage of South Indian royalty and the social elite who indulged in devadasis’ performances both for intellectual stimulation and carnal satisfaction, the art form made its way into contemporary culture through centuries. However, it continued to bear a stigma, even decades after it was reinvented and reintroduced as a fine art form worthy of pursuit in the early 1900s. Even in India, where this millennia-old art form first originated, it gained the popularity and widespread acceptance it enjoys today, only as recently as 40 years ago.
Predictably, Ram’s involvement in the esoteric world of Indian fine arts came with its own set of challenges.
“I think that’s the case for most second-generation immigrants in general, in any culture,” reflects Ram. “And that was definitely the case for me for many years. And I think as you’re trying to figure out your own identity and it’s very different from the mainstream, your different sides almost have to be, by necessity, something very separate, I think.”
Ram’s cleaving identities meant, among other things, that she listened to rock bands of the era like Pink Floyd, Rush and the Beatles, whose music and lyrics might have caused the composers of the classical Indian pieces she sang and danced to, to roll over in their graves. It also meant having to deal with more than just a generation gap with her parents.
“Oh boy,” says Nirmala Ram, recalling her daughter’s teen years with a chuckle. “It was always a struggle. We were brought up with certain expectations and we thought we could expect our children to grow up in a similar way, but it wasn’t happening. We’d have a culture shock every time our children came home! As soon as they go into middle school, children here want to establish their independence. From 13 or 14, children start dating here and I’m sure our kids wanted to discuss those things with us – and we were not even ready to discuss a whole lot of things. We thought, if we didn’t discuss it, it would just go away!”
Ram attributes this to a kind of defensive mentality, common in South Asian Immigrants at the time, that triggered the conflicts that arose between her and her socially conservative parents. “It was all the usual stuff,” she said. “Teenage drama – arguing about going out with friends, or going out with members of the opposite sex, to staying out late, to being able to go on trips, everything – going to the prom - all those social markers were just laden with conflict.”
Indian families living abroad also grapple with an almost fanatical desire to preserve their tradition and ethnic culture, often at odds with their children’s instincts to adapt to their American surroundings. “There are obviously some wonderful things about preserving a culture,” says Ram. “Except that culture keeps shifting. What does it mean to preserve a culture? Nothing is set in stone. Even in Bharatanatyam where people talk about how it’s this thousands of years old ancient tradition – are we presenting today, what was presented thousands of years ago? Not even close.”
Ram’s separate worlds were shared by best friend and fellow second-generation Indian American Aditi Dhruv, a professional Bharatanatyam dancer based in New York. “We had a lot in common, similar upbringing, similar issues,” says Dhruv. “Till the 8th grade it was okay. But then in high school, I noticed the distinct difference between myself and my peers – and I never performed once all those four years – mainly because I didn’t feel comfortable - I felt different and didn’t want to distinguish myself even more.”
For all the alienation they sometimes felt, both Ram and Dhruv’s debut dance performances, the Arangetram, a milestone event in a dancer’s career conducted with much fanfare, was well attended by their schoolteachers as well as classmates. Ram held hers right in Queens at the Queensboro Community College and Auditorium, when she was 16. She recalls those days as an absurd mix of alternating SAT and dance practice sessions. Over the years, her schedule only got stranger and more hectic.
In 1996, Ram married fellow Columbia University graduate, Sandeep Junnarkar, now an associate professor at the CUNY graduate school of Journalism. The subsequent birth of her two daughters Krithi and Sulekha in 2000 and 2003 led her to quit her full-time job as a head teacher at the Village Community School in Manhattan and to focus on music and dance performances. A regular fixture at dance dramas and productions ever since, Ram describes the years spanning her daughters’ births as the most intense.
“At the time of our first big dance drama, Jaya Jaya Gokulabala (2000), I was still nursing Krithi,” says Ram. “And I’d take breaks during rehearsals, run into a room, pump milk and then run back out to rehearsal. And I remember one particular rehearsal right before the show where Krithi was just crying and crying, so I ended up just holding her while practicing my piece. There are moments like that when I would think – you know, this is just crazy, why am I doing this?”
So why does she do it?
“It just compels you,” she says simply.
Bharatanatyam is essentially a highly stylized art form that combines the elements of facial expression, footwork, South Indian classical music and poetry into an organic whole. The art had its genesis in the Hindu religion, and one of the commonly recurring themes in Bharatanatyam pieces is that of the Jeevatma’s (the mortal soul) quest to reach the state of Nirvana, or freedom from pain and rebirth, through the Paramatma (supreme soul). Many professional dancers today, however, see its value as much more than just a religious pursuit.
“A lot of us are drawn to it by its intellectual aspects - the nuances of expression, the precision of eye movement and the intricate footwork – and even the choreography,” says Dhruv, herself a full-time Bharatanatyam dancer born and raised in Houston, Texas. “The spiritual aspect comes later – if it comes.”
The ideas expressed and the kind of movements – hand gestures, body language, expressions, stem from the South Indian cultural ethos. “Today, you could have just as competent a Bharatanatyam teacher here in the U.S. as you could in India,” says Ram. “But there are certain elements that are harder to grasp when you only learn it here. And I think it comes from not having it flow around you all the time, not having it be a part of the larger culture that you live in. In India, people talk a certain way, use their hands a certain way - and that’s all part of the art form.”
Still, centuries and miles away, the art form continues to remain relevant to both Indian Art aficionados in New York as well as to those who are only just beginning to gain exposure to the art form. Ram’s performances, such as Conversations with Shiva, a scene from which was described at the start of this piece, have been showcased at prominent venues such as Joyce Soho and St. Mark’s Cathedral. Her work has also been carried to the public eye by reviews that have appeared in The New York Times and The Village Voice. Of Ram’s performance in Joyce Soho, where she danced before a beam of light, dance critic and choreographer Deborrah Jowitt wrote for The Voice that Ram was “beautifully clear in the style’s flashing sculptural designs and piercing rhythms” and went on to describe the eloquence of her nritta, or footwork.
“My larger goal is to continue integrating my passions for dance, music, K-12 education, teaching and learning,” says Ram, of her future plans. “There's a part of me that wants to ditch it all and try to be a singer. Other days, I feel like I could really sink my teeth into public school reform and infuse an artistic perspective into it. Then, there's the part of me that wants to run away to a dance village and get to the essence of Bharatanatyam.
I feel like I am at least three different people, with three different career visions. But there is a thread there, isn't there? Some day, it will all make sense.”
Shobana Ram will perform again at Joyce Soho, in May this year with Choreographer Rajika Puri and dancers. The production is entitled "Tapasya: Ascetic Power & Tales of the Ganges."
Sindhu is a freelance writer and a graduate student at the NYU school of Journalism. A trained Bharatanatyam dancer herself, she has performed at prominent Indian Fine Arts Festivals in South India, and in her home country of Singapore.
This is a reprint of an article that appeared in Asians in America Magazine.