T

o say that V. A. Gayathri is a study in contradictions is an understatement. On stage, she’s a graceful Bharatanatyam dancer with a commanding, controlled presence and a knowing, if demure, smile. Off stage, she’s more of a wild child, sporting unruly, flowing hair, casual threads and a carefree disposition. Even her name is misleading—while her dance programs credit her as “V. A. Gayathri,” Gayathri is really her first name (“V.A.” is a tribute to her south Indian heritage—the “V” is for her mother’s first name, the “A” for her father’s). The 31-year-old seems anything but—her choice of words, mile-a-minute nonstop chatter and collection of tattoos suggest she’s more of a fresh-faced 20-something.

“Dancing keeps one young,” she laughs, when she’s questioned about her youthful exuberance. If that’s true, she should still be 15, the age she began studying the ancient art form that includes complex and intricate footwork, fluid arm movements, an extensive vocabulary of hand gestures, eye, neck and head movements, and captivating storytelling. Before her affair with Bharatanatyam, Gayathri was a typical Indian American kid growing up in Boston who eschewed the dance from Tamil Nadu for gymnastics and cross country. “I did go to a couple of Bharatanatyam classes when I was 7, but I hated it … I just remember it hurting. I complained to my teacher, who asked me to show her my knee. Then she said, ‘You’re not bleeding. Keep dancing!'” she recalls.

“But when I was 15, I went to see the captain of my track team, who was also Tamil, at one of her dance performances. I thought, wow, that’s really cool. So I started taking classes, and I became completely enamored with Bharatanatyam,” she says.

“When I was 15, I became completely enamored with Bharatanatyam.”

Today, Gayathri is a renowned Bharatanatyam performer with a penchant for making the art form her own. She’s been shaped by both its ancient history and the activism and independent spirit that permeates her career. She has danced in prestigious venues all over the world, teaches her own Bharatanatyam classes and is currently an artist in residence at the University of Michigan’s Center for World Performance Studies. In 1997, Gayathri also founded Shakthi Dance, a collective of dancers, drummers, poets and musicians committed to preserving and innovating classical Indian dance through creative collaboration.

Despite her immersion in the world of dance, Gayathri never dreamed she would make it her career. She never even had a formal arangetram, the traditional culminating performance after many years of studying Bharatanatyam. In fact, almost everything Gayathri does is a bit unorthodox, yet she is acclaimed for her work nonetheless.

Soon after her discovery of Bharatanatyam, Gayathri left home to attend the University of Michigan, where she majored in sociology and criminology and continued her study of dance. After graduation, Gayathri spent a year in Boston volunteering with City Year and then headed to New York City to pursue her master’s degree in nonprofit management. Through stints at various nonprofit agencies, one thing in her life was consistent: dance.

V. A. Gayathri is a renowned Bharatanatyam performer with a penchant for making the art form her own.

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Now, her full-time work revolves around her dancing career, though she still consults with nonprofit agencies in her (sparse) spare time. And whether she’s teaching, conducting workshops, performing or planning her “Different Debut,” the show she’ll present at the University of Michigan in April, it’s never just quite what you’d expect from Bharatanatyam. A News-India Times reporter described her as “traditional, yet different: She is a prominent community activist who aims to use classical dance forms to educate people on critical issues such as domestic violence and HIV/AIDS … in the world of Bharatanatyam, she stands out.”

A visit to one of her classes or workshops is a perfect case in point. “I don’t teach the same way I was taught by my Tamil teacher from my parents’ generation. [In that situation,] your teacher tells you what to do. I dance with my classes,” she says proudly. “In traditional classes, you spend literally a year or two learning the basic steps. I do a lot of one-time workshops just to give people a sense of what Indian dance involves”

Last year, a yoga studio in Spain invited her to perform. Afterward, a woman with tears in her eyes approached Gayathri. “She said, ‘I’ve dreamt my whole life of going to India. You brought India to me,'” recalls Gayathri, a sense of wonder in her voice. “People come to dance classes for all different reasons … I enjoy working with students to change their views of possibilities that exist in the world.”

When she’s not imparting her passion for Bharatanatyam to others through teaching, she’s actively campaigning for social change through her art. She is firmly committed to dancing at benefits and fund-raisers, such as a recent tsunami benefit show at the University of Michigan. Gayathri also makes a point to take Bharatanatyam to communities that have never seen it, so that the world can appreciate one of India’s oldest treasures.

“My goal is fusion, not confusion. And my experimentation is not going to change Bharatanatyam. It’s been around for thousands of years—it’s eternal.”

But Gayathri doesn’t limit herself to the ultra-traditional forms of Bharatanatyam usually performed in North America. While she does include traditional pieces in her repertoire, she also makes it a point to branch out. “To many people, Bharatanatyam is associated with Hinduism. But if you look at the body of compositions that exist, there are a whole group of compositions about jealousy, affairs, borrowing a sari and not giving it back.” And she’s committed to innovating the art form in unconventional ways. One of her performances is particularly stunning: Decked out in traditional garb, Gayathri starts out with a traditional Krishna/Radha piece. In the middle of the dance, she addresses the audience directly, stating, “Oh, I just realized you guys don’t understand the song.” She then changes the music to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and continues the dance. “It’s the best piece in the world,” she says. “Once I switch the music, people start to get it.”

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the intersection of her politics and art. “I was criticized by the progressive community for doing a classical dance form,” she sighs. She just hopes that such critics can see the positives of her work. On the other end of the spectrum, some traditionalists disapprove of Gayathri for diluting an ancient art form. “My goal is fusion, not confusion,” she responds. “And my experimentation is not going to change Bharatanatyam. It’s been around for thousands of years—it’s eternal. One of my teachers, Rama Aunty, says that if art does not innovate, we’re not doing it justice.” And no one can accuse Gayathri of committing that crime.n

Ismat Sarah Mangla lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Published on March 7, 2005.
Photography: Krishna Studios and Silvi Wool.

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