DanceTalks: Rathna Kumar

  • anjali center, bharatanatyam, classical indian dance, kuchipudi, rathna kumar

Published April 22, 2020 on DanceTalks
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Andrea Cody:

Five, six, seven, eight. Hello, and welcome to Dance Talks. Today is April 19th, 2020, and my guest is Rathna Kumar. She is the founder of Anjali Center for Performing Arts started in 1975. Rathna, thank you for being a part of Dance Talks.

Rathna Kumar:

It’s an honor, and a pleasure to be on this. Thank you so much.

Andrea Cody:

Thanks for being here. I’m so excited to get to know you even better. Would you tell me about your journey from India, when it happened and how you did it?

Rathna Kumar:

Well, I was a very reluctant, I guess, what do you say, expert, because I was a visitor to the US at that time and I kept thinking that I was going to be a visitor, that I would be returning because I was in my 20s and at the peak of my career. I was traveling the world performing. I was very well-known. I had danced for presidents, prime ministers, and I was living it up. I was part of a very well-known theater group. My world was dance. I was an English professor in college.

My world was teaching, dancing, traveling, performing, and very carefree. But I realized soon enough that, I will have to settle down some time. Luckily I got married to someone I knew very well, who was into theater himself and loved music and dance and was so encouraging that if I am where I am today, it’s because of Anil, my husband, who went out of his way to make sure that I was always known, that I did not lose anything out by moving to, at that time, an unknown land for me, where there were less than 500 Indians in Houston when I arrived.

I had very long hair and people used to keep touching my hair and saying, “Is this real?” And they would be surprised that I spoke good English. And they would ask me, “Where did you learn this language?” And I would tell them, “In India.” And people would think that maybe people who came from India didn’t all speak English. Some didn’t of course, but it was a lot of fun. I used to walk around the neighborhood, my husband and his friends owned the first Indian restaurant in all of Texas. It was called Maharajah on Amherst Street in the Rice village.

I used to walk around there. It was so good. In those days you could walk anywhere and made friends with all the businesses around and everybody was so welcoming. It was a wonderful place to be. I felt so welcomed that pretty soon I was not missing home anymore, though the first week I cried so much Anil wanted to send me back. But I’m not somebody who regrets actions. I knew I was going to get married and move, so I made the best of whatever life gave me. I didn’t ask for much, I just wanted to continue dancing.

That was the only thing for me, and I made sure of that. The Houston International Festival was the main street festival then, in ’75. And I called, I said, “I want to dance.” I was dying to dance. I used to go to class every single day and practice for hours and dance, and I was dying. I couldn’t sit at home not dancing. I called anything possible. They were starting the Houston Arts Alliance. It was called Cultural Arts Council of Greater Houston, CACHH of Houston and Harris County. I called them and I said, “I want to come and join.”

I read somewhere that there was some Asian festival going on. I called Glenda Jo, “I want to be a part of this. Can I come and dance?” It was not really trying to become famous or anything, I just wanted to dance. I just wanted to physically dance. I was so happy that there was some opportunities. And of course the Indian communities hardly realized they had a dancer in their midst and the mothers were calling me every single day saying, “Please, can you teach, can you teach?” I really had not thought of teaching.

I wanted to perform, I wanted to travel, I wanted to do my PhD. I had even applied to and been accepted at Rice University to do my PhD in English. I had to turn it down because later on, when I started thinking about what exactly is important to me in my life, what do I want to do with my life? Then I realized that what was I going to do with English. Speaking proper English, I had learned already by doing a master’s. Now I didn’t really need the PhD to continue my dance, which was more important. I said, “Okay.”

I was aware of what steps I was taking and I’ve never regretted that because teaching has brought me the greatest joy, the greatest rewards. In 1975, my journey as a teacher began, in addition to a performer. Until then, I was just a performer, a choreographer, and now I became a teacher, a performer, and a choreographer. And in a way, an arts educator too, because many of the children who came to me were not at all connected with their Indian culture or heritage, and knew very little. For many of them, the parents were working full time jobs and didn’t have time.

We had our grandparents in India, the families are all joint families and somebody or the other would tell you the mythological stories and history and everything. We knew so much by the time we were out of school. We had our lessons in both mythology and history, and these children were lacking in that. I became a storyteller, I became a teacher, I became a mentor and I expanded their horizon by not just sticking to dance, but by spending a lot more time with them. I have just a few students, so I spent hours with them, teaching them many other important things.

I’m so happy I did that because in the process, I learned a lot. I learned what it is to teach. I was teaching English, which was very different. Standing and teaching English. You’ll stand and teach a hundred kids, but here actually getting up and teaching dance, I found out it was more difficult because I was working with children, not young adults, like I was teaching in college in India. Teaching kids, pre-K, K and above. It required a lot more patience, a lot more understanding, empathy and I felt that it made me a better person, the teaching process.

It did. I learned a lot. I learned a lot and I became a better person, and I think my dancing improved, because while teaching, you cannot afford to make mistakes. You have to do the correct thing to show them. You cannot get slack, you have to do properly so that they have a role model and they can look up and do properly. And I think the onus was upon me to do well myself so that I can inspire my students to do well.

I used to practice a lot to be good enough to be able to teach class, but it was a wonderful experience to be given that opportunity and that honor to have brought the first Indian dance institute to Texas and to the Southwest of the United States. I will die with pride in my heart that I was able to do something different, to contribute, to use my own Indian, artistic background, to enhance the art scene of Texas and beyond and I guess make some more difference in the growth of the arts here in this country. I’m very proud of that.

Andrea Cody:

We’re so glad you’ve done it. You opened your school five years before I was born.

Rathna Kumar:

You’re a kid.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. I grew up celebrating diversity. That was the motto of 1990 in this town. Celebrating diversity, that was all over our middle school walls, and it was you who brought that pride and knowledge and heart and patience, so that you preserve and spread this amazing, beautiful thing that you do.

Rathna Kumar:

Thank you. I was raised in an extremely liberal family where my parents, my grandparents believed that art should be shared and you cannot possess it and be possessive about art and that it is meant to be given. Before I started my school, I was so scared. I said, “Oh my God, do I have the knowledge? Am I capable of teaching dance? Is this something that I even should be thinking of?” I called both my teachers because I wanted their approval and I wanted their permission. Because in India, teachers are next to God.

I would never question my teacher, whatever they told me. They say, “Jump in the well.” I would have jumped into the well. I called both my teachers and both of them, in different words, they said the same thing. My first teacher, when I was four, and since I was four, all my entire life, I had only one teacher for Bharatanatyam. I didn’t go from teacher to teacher ever because she was so good. When I called her and said, “Please teacher, tell me, I’m getting so scared. I’m only still in my 20s. Do you think I’m ready? I always thought teachers are older. What knowledge do I have to teach?” And she said, “What is the point in your having studied since the age of four, so many years, if you do not want to even share it with anybody else? What do you want to do? Live there and just not want to pass it on to anyone? Just keep it to yourself and just your dance and that’s it, over?” She said, “That’s not right. You need to think of sharing it with others.”

Then when I called my Kuchipudi teacher, then he said, “Our scriptures specifically say this, ‘When you die, you cannot take with you to the grave, either money or your art or your knowledge. Knowledge, and money you should dispense with during your lifetime. Because when you’re gone, you don’t take any of that with you.’” He said, “I think you should teach, because that way your knowledge will improve. You’re not giving anything away. In fact, you will become more knowledgeable as you start giving it to other people.”

And with their blessings, I realized that it’s true though. Art is something that you need to… When we were kids, we used to read a lot because you need to read this book and give it to our friends because we wanted them to share it. And I feel like art is the same thing. “This is beautiful. I want you to try this. Why don’t you look at it?” That’s how I feel when I go watch other art forms, too. I’m just completely enveloped by this cocoon of beauty and love and warmth and I think, “Oh my God, who created these beautiful things?”

And I feel that others should feel the same thing about Indian dance, too. If I have been able to contribute something, I’m glad. It’s strange, you were talking about sharing and maybe I came to your middle school and performed too, at that time. I don’t know, because I have performed the length and breadth of Houston and beyond Woodlands, Kingwood, and even Beaumont.

Andrea Cody:

I can guarantee you, you did not come to my school. I would never have forgotten it. It would have changed my life and I would have been blown away and I would have fallen in love with Indian dance far sooner, because I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. What came to our school was actually a flamenco dance company and it was just that one time, that one presentation, there wasn’t any other… We didn’t have Young Audiences back then. We didn’t have a school tour arts scene.

Rathna Kumar:

Young Audiences started in the ’80s because I have been a member, I was getting rid of old papers and I found a young audience catalog from 1988 with my picture, Indian Dance. From 1988, and maybe around that time, I have been a member of Young Audiences. And that time, I realized that’s when I really began believing very seriously in arts education, because I feel it’s not like getting a degree in arts education, but I feel that you need to educate every child in the arts, at least to get a tolerance and an appreciation and a love for the arts somewhere.

You need to light that fire early in life, and I particularly chose elementary schools, and I don’t even remember how many hundreds and hundreds of schools I have been to, but that is very significant for me. It plays a very significant role in my life, arts as a tool for educating, for informing and for not just bettering people’s lives for making them definitely more sensitive.

Andrea Cody:

Great. Well, my K through 12 education had that one performance and the principal introduced them as flamingo dancers. The first time I saw Indian dance and world dance, and my memory was in a world dance college course at the University of Chicago taught by Terry Crews. And I have a book on my shelf, right next to me, she gave us books and showed us videos.

Rathna Kumar:

Wonderful. That’s what I do at Rice University. I show videos and I tell them, “I teach one kind of dance but if you think that this is all there is in India, I want you to see, there’s a world out there that nobody knows about, and you need to see all this.” And I take videos of different forms of Indian dance, including folk, and make them watch all the different kinds, just to tell them these are just glimpses of the diversity. We were talking about diversity.

I was on the mayor’s arts task force and in fact, I chaired that committee on diversity when they were introducing the arts council, there was a rehaul of everything and all the… They started, the forms were changed and the requirements were changed. They had put in these new clauses about cultural diversity, diversity in boards, diversity in programming, and that became a very, very, very big thing around the time that you’re talking about.

It was the buzz, cultural diversity, because suddenly Houston started becoming very, very diverse and also, the communities were getting so diverse. And I think it became integral to the mayors at that time to understand and see, and introduce that into the arts. I’m so glad they did that because it just gave a pillar to lots of artists like me to be emboldened, to seek more opportunities and to look for more avenues to participate in the mainstream events.

Andrea Cody:

When did you serve on the task force?

Rathna Kumar:

This was in the late ’80s, early ’90s. When was Mr.-

Andrea Cody:

At that time was the-

Rathna Kumar:

When Mr. Bob Lanier was the mayor. During his time. I was also on the Miller Outdoor Theatre advisory board. I was a mayoral appointee.

Andrea Cody:

Wow. What a pioneer.

Rathna Kumar:

Actually, I was the first Indian woman to have been nominated to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. I have no idea to this day who nominated me, how. I got a letter in the mail. Of course, I didn’t win it because this was too early and I guess many people didn’t know me. Then decades later, Renu Khator, she just became a Hall of Famer and I felt so proud when I told her, I said, “You know what? I beat you to it, to the nomination, except I didn’t get.” I said, “Because I didn’t achieve what you did.”

She said, “No, you did.” I said, “No, you are somewhere else. You’re up there.” And I felt so proud that she got it, but because I guess they did not know if too many Indian artists who have done maybe many things and whoever recommended my name thought that I did something.

Andrea Cody:

Awesome.

Rathna Kumar:

It was good. I also got a congressional recognition. Also, I don’t know who recommended my name. I have no idea where this came from. I kept getting random letters. I once got in the mail three certificates for volunteerism from president George W. Bush, governor Rick Perry, and from the mayor. Actually, I volunteered. I went and performed. I did some free causes in hospitals, Shriners and Texas Children’s. I would go and dance for the children and also to geriatric, I felt so bad. I said, “These people can’t get out anywhere.” So I volunteered my dance.

I just called up the hospitals and I said, “I would like to come and share my dance with the patients, if you think they’re up to it.” And they said, “Oh my God, how wonderful.” I went to a bunch of hospitals, a bunch of geriatric centers, the VA hospital, and all these places, and made me so… I didn’t tell anybody about it. I just did it and I think maybe that went around, but anyway, I got all these certificates and I felt very happy and I forgot all about them until I found them lying inside. I said, “I forgot about this. I forgot this.”

Andrea Cody:

It’s a good time to reconnect with good memories.

Rathna Kumar:

Yes.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. That’s awesome. What was the effect you had on the patients that you performed for?

Rathna Kumar:

They were kids, especially at Texas Children’s, some of them, and Shriners, many of them were in wheelchairs, Texas Children’s, some of them were cancer patients. I even went to MD Anderson, too. The very ill children, they couldn’t get up and some of the children, there were some who had cystic fibrosis and they would be okay some days, not okay some days. They would get up and they would dance with me. Others would do all the hand movements with me and I made some clap. Everything was interactive and a couple of kids wanted me to hug them.

I was not too sure. I had to ask the nurses, “Are we allowed to do that to the patients, because I didn’t want to compromise anyone.” They said, “No, they’re okay. You can do that.” They were so warm, so loving, affectionate, and they were so willing to try. Those that were able to get up and do, they would just move around and jump and kick. The others would just sit in their chairs and do a hand and then clap. It was a very beautiful thing that I was able to, and they seemed to like it. They seemed to like it because I told them stories and used hand gestures and all that.

All children love stories. As an adult, I love stories still. That I think is what they liked, the storytelling, and then being able to enact the storytelling with movements and expressions, I think that made a lot of difference to them. I’m glad they liked it.

Andrea Cody:

Awesome. Bring us to the first performance of the Bharatanatyam in an Indian village in our imaginations.

Rathna Kumar:

In an Indian village, it must have been a few centuries ago. The solo dancers of Bharatanatyam were at their peak in the late 17th and early 18th century. That’s where a lot of them became very, very famous, especially in the early 18th century and 19 century. Sorry, not 17th, 18th and 19th century. The solo dancers became very famous. They used to be performing in the temples, mostly whether it was a village or a city, there were no venues as such, no auditoriums, so the performance space was the temple. The temple had long corridors.

The moment the name of the dancer was announced, there would be a huge turnout because this dancer and they were called servants of God. They were Dasas. And unfortunately they, and most of them, it was the saddest thing that happened. They were not bad women at all. They were dancers. What happened was during the performances, of course, there were rich men. Not everybody looked at them with good eyes. There were guys who solicited their favors outside of the performance because they couldn’t do anything in the temple.

They had to behave well. The moment they left the temple, they would go to their houses and these women became their mistresses, concubines. They were never married, so they were illegitimate. They were not wives; they were just the mistresses. Their children were illegitimate children, couldn’t have their father’s name and could not give a father’s name when they joined schools, they had only the mother’s name. It was very sad and the women did not ever, ever prove to be infidels. They were not. They were not going out with other men.

If this one man was the one who had solicited their favorite, they thought that they were being true to him, loyal to him, yet the man was not ostracized for taking a mistress. The woman was. Unfortunately, after a while, they started losing favor because they got a bad name. People saying, “Yeah, this is a prostitute.” Which was so untrue and so sad. Great artists of the highest, highest caliber, extraordinary dancers, extraordinary singers, they were all ostracized by society as bad women, women of ill repute.

One of the children, the daughter of one of these women who became the first doctor in India, she joined with the British and she was the one who led the movement of down with these dancing girls.

Andrea Cody:

Doctor of what?

Rathna Kumar:

She became an actual physician. She became doctor… What was the… 

Andrea Cody:

Well, I’m just surprised to hear you say she was the first doctor. Are you saying she was the first female doctor or she was the first doctor?

Rathna Kumar:

First female. First Indian female doctor, sorry. First female Indian doctor in India. She came from this community and she was so ashamed. She wanted to be able to speak her father’s name, if somebody asked, “What’s your father’s name?” She joined with the British, and she said, “Down with all this.” All dancing was banned from temples. These dancers were not allowed to dance anymore. They were so famous and the temples used to be filled with activity and it was beautiful dance. There was nothing wrong. They didn’t do any belly dancing.

They did all worshipful dances because it was at the temple. It was a very elevated kind of an experience for the dancer and the audience. But when they lost it, they lost all their privileges, they lost all their money, many died in complete penury and many starved to death. When I was about 12, my mother, one day brought this lady whose one eye had been destroyed by cataract. It was white, and she could only see with one eye. An old lady. Then she said she was very… Solicited this old lady, she said, “Please sit down.”

Gave her food and coffee and everything. And then I see who and then she called me and she said, “Touch her feet.” Typical Indian fashion. We touched the feet and I bowed down doing the Namaste and she said, “You’re going to learn some dances from her.” I said, “But I already have a teacher.” She said, “No, you’re going to learn some special dances from her. Pay attention.” Then later my mother told me, “You better show respect. Just because she’s old and she’s wearing tattered clothes, you cannot disrespect her. She is one of the greatest dancers.

She was a devadasi, an original devadasi.” One of the most famous and she taught so many dancers during my time, and I’m so honored. I wish I were older. I could have what I was learning. I was only12 and was too young, but I still remember what she taught me because I learned six dances. Her specialty was facial expression, communication, and she was outstanding, extraordinary woman. I still remember, even with that one eye, how she taught me to show nuances of expressions.

I keep thinking with gratitude of my mother who had a vision at that time when I was 12, thinking that it will stand me in good stand later on in life. Great dancer. The villages, these were the dancers that one saw in the villages, great dancers. The teachers were all male. They were male teachers. The performing artists were all young women. Beautiful young women, very talented, very blessed with God’s gift of dance and music and everything just went away, for a while.

Thank God there were some big, bold women who decided that they cannot be cowed down by this and that they were ostracized again because they took up dancing and these were women from very good families, well-placed families from the upper classes that decided to break laws, rules, and just decided to learn dance and do it. But for them, we wouldn’t be dancing today. Thank God for those bold women, who risked their life.

Andrea Cody:

When did that happen?

Rathna Kumar:

This happened in the ’30s, the 1930s, and it was like a wave when this one lady decided to start dancing. She got married to a Britisher 20 years older than her and that itself, shocking to the Indian community. “She married a white man.” Then she traveled abroad. That was even… “Oh my God, she’s gone off to other countries.” She saw Anna Pavlova perform in Russia and she walked up to her. She said, “This is beautiful. I want to learn this kind of dance. Where can I learn?”

Anna Pavlova looked at her and said, “I believe you’re from India, right? Why would you want to learn my kind of dancing, when you have such beautiful dancing in your own country? Go back and learn your dancing. It’s way more beautiful.” She said, “I introduced a little bit of that into my dance. You should go learn it properly.” When she came back, she was 30 when she started learning and she became one of the most famous dancers in the world.

Andrea Cody:

What’s her name?

Rathna Kumar:

Rukmini. Rukmini Devi Arundale. That was her last name. Rukmini Devi. She established the Kalakshetra. One of the world’s most famous dance institutes.

Andrea Cody:

Are there videos of her?

Rathna Kumar:

Yes. Several. If you Google Rukmini, R-U-K-M-I-N-I.

Andrea Cody:

Okay. Great.

Rathna Kumar:

And Devi is another word D-E-V-I, and you will see. My sister interviewed her and did a documentary on her.

Andrea Cody:

Cool. How old was she when you worked with her? When you were 12?

Rathna Kumar:

I didn’t work with her. This was the lady from the upper class who started dancing after people said you cannot dance and it went down.

Andrea Cody:

Okay.

Rathna Kumar:

I never learned from her. I learned from somebody else, but I knew her.

Andrea Cody:

Who was your teacher?

Rathna Kumar:

My teacher was a wonderful lady called Sarasa. She was one of the earliest female teachers and of course it was a man’s world. She had it pretty hard because of that. Her father died when she was a very young girl. She was raised by an uncle who told her that she was too dark to perform dance, that all the dancers are fair and beautiful. And because she was dark, she should just stick to singing. She was a beautiful singer and a very beautiful looking person, dark and beautiful.

Rathna Kumar:

She taught me with all the love of a mother, not just a teacher. She was strict, but very loving and taught me a lot of good life lessons too. Not just dancing.

Andrea Cody:

What was the life lesson that she taught you?

Rathna Kumar:

She was a very upright person. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the former chief minister who died, the female chief minister, whose name was Jayalalithaa and one of the most popular, she was a film star and then she became a chief minister, like Ronald Reagan types. She was a gold medalist from her school. She was a valedictorian. She was brilliant and she was an excellent orator. She spoke impeccable English and impeccable Tamil, and she was a natural. She was a leader; she was a very bold… And she was one of my teacher’s students.

I was my teacher’s very first student. Her first student. I had that numerable first in my life, but I was her first student and she put everything into me. On the day of my first performance, this young lady, her mother had brought her to see the performance and the next day she said she wanted to join the class too. My mother introduced her and she was two years younger than me. She joined class, later on we became very good friends and we used to dance together and spend a lot of time together. I remember one instance where I had a lot of performances.

Every single weekend I was out of town. I don’t think I was in Chennai for any weekend. I missed a lot of school, I missed a lot of college. I had to keep getting letters from my parents. One time, the principal even called for my parents and told them that I was not going to be promoted. You have to get promoted to the next… When I was doing my bachelor’s from first year to second year. She said she will hold me back if I don’t give a good reason for missing college.

My parents had to go and show all the pamphlets from different performances saying, “Here, this is where she was. We are her parents. We travel with her when she attends shows. She hasn’t gone anywhere. She never misses college when she’s in town.” She said, okay. She said, “But I don’t want her going anymore on weekdays.” My teacher had accepted to go to my performance and conduct it, because the teachers are the conductors and unless she plays those symbols, I cannot dance because she is the one who conducts and I follow her queues.

After she had agreed to my performance, the young lady, my friend, her mother was also an actress, and they were very well to do. She called my teacher and she said, “My daughter has a performance on such and such a day. I want you to come.” My teacher said, “No, I can’t. I’ve already accepted. I’ve already told Rathna that I’m going with her.” And the lady said, “No, then I can give you twice that amount of money.” And my teacher said, “I can’t do that because I cannot let her down. Who would she call now? The last minute, you’re just asking me.”

She said, “You think you’re the only one, there are other teachers, too,” and she stopped. But my teacher didn’t budge. And I learned that was such an eye opener for me. That really, you need to show loyalty to the person who has first asked you. You cannot say, “Sorry, that other person is giving me more money Therefore, I’ll go there.” I used to spend a lot of time and I also learned from her what it is to give respect to your students and give them space to evolve. Because though she was completely uneducated, I don’t think she even went to school.

She educated herself in a lot of things, and on some days when there were no other classes, she would ask me to come. And there was one other senior student and she would tell us, she would give us a song and she would say, “I want you to choreograph and show me.” We were teenagers. And then we would say, “Teacher, we can’t choreograph. We don’t know anything.”

And she would say, “How long are you going to say you don’t know anything. Shouldn’t you think, read the words, understand, ask me questions and try doing something? When will you ever learn to choreograph if you’re not analyzing something, if you’re not going beyond just being spoon-fed and doing only what I teach you? You need to go past that.” She made us think, she made us choreograph, and then she would correct us and she’ll say, “No, this looks very nice, but this one doesn’t go with that. The combination of steps is not good.” Like that.

I learned so much by the way she encouraged us to think for ourselves, to become cerebral dancers and not just mechanically dancing. Dancing correctly, our technique would be fine, but then there would be no soul in the dance and she was so sure. She made sure that we felt what we did, understood and were able to decipher, translate that into movement properly. That was something else I learned from her, and I do that with my students. I tell them that you need to go beyond me, beyond your teacher. You need to do that extra.

I give them beats of music.  I say, “Okay, you’re going to choreograph this one. Choreograph and show it to me.” And they love doing that. They love doing that.

Andrea Cody:

At what age do you give them that assignment?

Rathna Kumar:

When they’re in high school, when they’re 17. 16, 17, 18, that’s when they can… They’ve been learning from me from the age of four and five, so they have learnt it enough to be able to do that.

Andrea Cody:

I understand today it’s a rite of passage. Indian girls just do this. They grow up with a teacher, they are loyal and then they do their, what is it called when they graduate?

Rathna Kumar:

Arangetram.

Andrea Cody:

Arangetram.

Rathna Kumar:

It’s interesting, one of my students went to an interview with Duke University, when she graduated from high school and she was being, of course the people were non-Indian and the guy asked her, “Have you had your Arangetram?” And she was like, “What?” He said, “Yeah. I wanted to know whether you had your Arangetram.” And she was wondering, she said, “How do you know about this?” “Well, we have a lot of students coming in interviewing and they all keep talking about it.”

They wanted to know how much commitment a student has shown to one activity that they were actually sustaining it through so many years and doing it and going beyond. These are all the girls who still have class with me. They are the ones who are now working and continue. They have online class. They continue to dance because for them, it is a commitment for life and that is something… I guess your teachers have to inspire you to feel that. If I didn’t have inspiring teachers, I would have dropped it.

I would’ve been a dropout a long time back, because it’s so physically demanding. How many injuries and how many… My right meniscus has torn three times, my left meniscus once and I’ve hurt my back, my arms, fallen, got bruises and possibly we all dance because you know someone inspired us, someone put this love and passion in the heart. I see students, even born and raised here, they still have that. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see that coming out and the joy, when I’m not even so happy to attend this class and just keep thinking, “Thank God. God, thank you for giving me this opportunity to connect with these beautiful young people through dance.” Best thing in the world. As a dancer, you know that.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. There’s something really about passing it along. It’s like, we know we’ve discovered the fountain of youth, we found the holy grail, we can’t take that to the grave. We have to give it to these beautiful young children and people. What a great joy to be able to give it to someone else.

Rathna Kumar:

Oh my God. It is totally… It’s like you hit the lottery because ultimately, nothing else matters, but seeing the joy on a child’s face and suddenly… My God. I went to, where was it? Lanier Middle School. Went to pick up my granddaughter who was in the eighth grade. This child runs up to me and says, “Ms. Kumar, Ms. Kumar.” “American child. Do you remember me?” I looked at her, I said, “Sorry, sorry. I’m sorry.” She said, “You came to our school and you danced for us when I was in elementary school.”

And she’s like, “And I remember you doing your flower and the bee.” I said, “Oh my God.” I said, “You remember me?” She said, “I remember you. I went back and I showed my mommy and my dad, I showed them all the hand movements.” I almost cried, and I thought, “Okay, now this is definitely the lottery.” This is the best thing that… That’s it. That’s what I say. I’m ready to move on from this life and I keep thinking, I really have no regrets, other than that I could not go before my son.

I keep thinking that I’m glad what I’m doing. I’ve been able to give something. How long can I take things from words? It has given me so much. I’m glad I was able to give back something and gave it from my heart. Not in order to make money. Most of my students, all these online classes, I’m not even taking money from them. I told them, “I’m happy you’re making me do this. This is just purely out of love. Love for you and love for the dance. I don’t care.” When they said, “How do you want us to pay?” I said, “Forget the payment, dance.”

I’m so happy that I can put my head down peacefully at night and have no regrets and don’t feel…

Andrea Cody:

The sharing from one generation to the next, is it a two-way street? Because it actually gives our lives meaning

Rathna Kumar:

It is. The reward itself, just think of the reward. I keep hoping that my teachers had felt the same when I was dancing, because I danced… I was crazy about dance from the time I began. I think it was the most important activity in my life. In fact, punishment, even when I was in my elementary school, it was, if I did not listen to my parents, they would tell me, “If you don’t do what I told you to do, I’m going to tell your teacher.” “No, no mommy, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Please don’t tell her. I’ll do it.” Or, “I’ll stop you from dance class if you don’t.”

That was sure to make me do exactly what I was told.” Even then, I knew that that was one activity I did not want to ever give up. It gave me the greatest joy and I hope that it was rewarding to my teacher too. It is.

Andrea Cody:

Awesome.

Rathna Kumar:

Well, you do so much for the children, you bring them so many different kinds of dance and I know that you feel the same when you see. I see you smiling at the Funday Sunday. I was watching your face. You were smiling the entire time. You had this, like the authentic smile. You were not even paying attention to who was there. You were watching those kids doing the hip hop dancing and all that and you were smiling. We were dancing and you had this happy smile on your face as only someone can have when they are really happy and enjoying what they’re watching.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah.

Rathna Kumar:

That made me feel very good when I saw you that day. It’s only someone who really loves an activity that they can feel that inner joy and you can see it on their face.

Andrea Cody:

Man, those little kids sitting in that circle with you were just eating out of the palm of your hand. It was incredible. And just to catch our listeners up. This was a program that we did at Memorial City Mall every Sunday for two hours, 3:00 to 05:00 PM, free and open to mall goers, which man, Memorial City Mall, it’s the mall. That’s the mall. Everybody’s there. We were bringing what we do straight into the heart of just a cross section of Houston that really includes everybody. Each week we would bring together a different mashup.

Here, Rathna is with Jesse Germ from the RAD Academy. It was incredible to see just parents bringing their kids to the mall, going into American Girl and picking up a cookie. Then, “Hey, what’s this Indian dance thing that I can just sit…”, “Yeah. Go do that. Go do that.” And the girls just sat down and they were glued and it was so cool to see different-

Rathna Kumar:

This lady walks up and says, “Are you going to be doing this again sometime?” I said, “I’ll check with Andrea and let you know.” And she said, “Good. Because I’d like to see. My daughter loved it.” I felt so good. I was like, “Wow, she really wants to see us again?” Evidently they enjoyed themselves. Maybe you should take it to all the malls because malls, there are lots of people who don’t know anything about it.

Total strangers are captivated by this hitherto unseen, unknown dance form from some distant part of the world they will not have a chance to go to, or maybe don’t know much about. It’s such a revelation to a lot of people. It’s a wonderful thing. I think they should introduce dance in all the malls.

Andrea Cody:

Yes, for sure. I loved how interactive it was that you could really perform and engage.

Rathna Kumar:

Well, hats off to you for that initiative. Many, many, many, I think maybe more than 20 years ago, J. C. Penney had something called Journey to India and they had in all the J. C. Penney stores, it was a month long celebration. They had Indian fabrics, they had Indian music, Indian dance, and we performed lots of them. They even paid us. They paid us quite well. We performed at all the stores. My students went and danced in different stores every single weekend for a whole month, continuously. It was the entire weekend from Saturday morning till evening.

They had a program listed outside and there were hundreds of people who came and watched. It was the same, just like here. There are a lot of people who’d, “Oh my God, we’ve never seen this before.” That’s the reason why I’m saying, Andrea, you need to take this to all the malls, what you did.

Andrea Cody:

Yes. We should. And I love as a mom bringing my kids every Sunday, because they’re getting… Literally, I only had that one flamenco show that I ever saw when I was a kid and here they are in the midst of it, seeing everything, doing it, being infused with the music and just vibing with the joy of the crowd. It’s fun and I think for your dancers, you bringing them out into the public, it’s a little different from a recital, when you take them to those festivals and places where people are just there for their own reason and your dancers stop them in their tracks and entrance them, they learn the power of their personal expression.

Rathna Kumar:

Absolutely. That is the best moment. Maybe you’ve changed one life somewhere. That one life that you have touched, that one person who’s seen beyond just the dancing and feel something else, that person, who knows, they may take up some form of art. You have already sensitized them to this beautiful art.

Andrea Cody:

I love that you keep stepping forward and you’ve made the journey and you’ve shepherded along a new type of ritual in your culture where this dance, it went from being a folk tradition to being banned, to being an act of rebellion, and now it’s a rite of passage.

Rathna Kumar:

Absolutely. Bharatanatyam was never a folk tradition. The folk dancers are separate, Bharatanatyam was always a classical dance form, but unfortunately, it did almost get wiped out and I’m glad that it got resurrected and it is where it is today and accepted as one of the most beautiful art forms in the entire world. In India itself, when I was learning, it was every single child in every household studied dance or music. It is a rite of passage, but here the graduation has become a more significant thing.

Like when you graduate from high school, you get your diploma. Graduating with a diploma from a dance institute also has become a very significant activity here for the Indian community. The students don’t just learn for eight, nine years and just stop. The fact that they have sustained an interest and a commitment to this art for eight, nine years itself is wonderful through their PSAT and SAT and everything, ACTs. They are still as dedicated as ever. They want to see some kind of a reward for what they have done.

So this graduation and diploma are like a graduation party where they… That’s what it is. It’s a celebration of the number of years that they’ve put into the dance, and it’s become very, very important in the lives of many young kids here. Not just necessarily those from South India, for whom Bharatanatyam is, their parents knew about it very early, but children from other parts of India whose parents have no idea what this is, and still feel a draw and want to learn and learn for many years, continuing to do their Arangetram and continue after that.

Those are the ones who obviously there’s dancing within them.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about the hands?

Rathna Kumar:

The hand movements, I’m going to tell you something very interesting. Just a little story, the belief of how dance began. I believe that it’s a little bit like the Sodom and Gomorrah story. In India, they believed that there was a time that people had become extremely bad, extremely wicked. And there were a few holy men, some sages, the wise men who were concerned. They said, “The people have become so bad. What is going to happen? The whole world is going to get tainted like this. There will be no good people left.”

They went to the creator, who’s Brahma, and they said, “Brahma, you’re the creator. You’re always creating good and beautiful things. Can you create something which can help put these people back on the right track, because they have wandered away from the path of righteousness?” Brahma went into meditation, he said, “Okay.” The Hindu scriptures are supposed to be the Vedas, they say, the four books that contain everything.

What he did was he took an element each from each one of them. He took music from one, philosophy from another, literature from another, emotional content from another and he combined all these and created a fifth Veda. He called it Natya Veda and he called one of the very wise men, whose name was Bharata. That’s why it’s called Bharatanatyam. He said, “Bharata, I’m going to dictate to you, so you are going to write down. You’re my scribe, write down all the notes I give you.”

Bharata started writing down as Brahma was dictating and the notes were, this is in theory, I’m telling you, what is dance, and people are supposed to be and not just dance. It was called the science of dramaturgy. It had theater craft, stage craft, music and dance, in very detailed chapters. How do people enter the stage? Where do they stand? How do they hold their arms? That their elbows should be up, hands away from the body. Then that’s when the sign language was created because they couldn’t be talking to the people.

How do they communicate? They had musicians. How did they communicate what the musicians are singing? By using hand gestures, so the gestures were created, hand movements. It was a stylized sign language and each gesture had, many, many different meanings, just Bar thaka, the first one, had the meaning of stop. Oh my God, no. Everywhere. Up above, here down. No. And just saying, “No, no, no, no, go away.” Different things, different meanings for each gesture.

He analyzed and he explained and Bharata wrote it down. Thousands of pages of notes and it became the Natya Shastra, the science of dramatic art, dramaturgy. The science of dramaturgy and everything that we have. Then later on, there was another man called Nandikeshvara who wrote another great book, called Abhinaya Darpana. That’s another book on which one, my Kuchipudi is based on Abhinaya Darpana, my Bharatanatyam is based on Natya Shastra.

There are a few differences here and there, but our bodies are so used to the differences so it doesn’t matter. We follow strictly one for this, one for that, but that’s how Bharatanatyam got its name because of Bharata who wrote down the Natya Shastra and passed it on. He got some of his disciples to learn it. All the theory, he converted into practical usage. When he trained his people, he said, “Go out into the world and do this.”

When they started dancing, all the people, like drunken people, people who were gambling and all that, suddenly they said, “Hey, come here. There’s something strange going on that you want to come and see?” “Yeah, what’s it?” “I don’t know. They just look like they’re wearing costumes and they’re doing something. I don’t know what they’re doing.” “What’s the guy saying? Come on, come on, let’s go listen, what is he saying?”

Wow. People started getting distracted from their bad ways because they saw something very new, very novel and they were a little excited by this new visual entertainment that they had never seen before. And slowly it started having good effects on the people, because people started realizing because every story was about how the good were rewarded and the bad were punished.

Ultimately, it went into their heads that, “Oh my God, if we lead wicked lives, we too will be punished. We better get back to our old good ways and become good again. We’ll ask God for forgiveness and let’s become good people so that we also get our rewards on earth and later. No more bad ways.” Little by little people started, and this was because of dance and music and theater. These three arts are supposed to have changed the face of India (when they say world, world was India, India) so that the people became good again.

That’s what they say is the beginning of dance.

Andrea Cody:

Awesome. That’s why it was in the temple. That’s why the temple was a temple.

Rathna Kumar:

Absolutely.

Andrea Cody:

I see. So it’s a language and a sermon.

Rathna Kumar:

Yes. Because even then, at that time, they realized that one of the most powerful tools is storytelling and that a story is told through action and through facial expressions and through music and instruments and gesture and movement and body language are very powerful and speak volumes. That’s the reason why they put all these together.

Andrea Cody:

To finish up with, what’s your motto? Does that sound good, or you want to do a-

Rathna Kumar:

Everything that I write ends with Agnes de Mille’s words. “Everything passes. Art alone and joy stays to us.” And I believe in that. I believe that long after I’m gone, my art will be there, and long after the next person is gone, that art will still continue through somebody else. That is the greatness of art. That it is eternal, and it couldn’t be eternal if it were not beautiful, only beautiful things remain forever.

For that reason, I want to continue to do good work in this beautiful art form, as much as I can and leave some kind of a really worthy legacy behind that would be of value to the next generation. Something good enough that they will be able to use these dances, perform them, teach them. I give my music freely. I do not charge anyone. Anybody who learns my dance. I tell them, “Take the music.” When somebody else asked me, “Oh my God, you’re giving your music away?” I said, “What am I going to do with it?” 

“Don’t you charge?” I said, “No, I don’t charge for my music.” I don’t even feel like, I feel that they are learning and they’re learning with sincerity that they deserve to have the music so that they can dance to it, perform it. And I feel so happy to see them dancing to that music and good music. That’s what I feel. That this art will continue for a very, very, very long time, but we need to create those souls, those evolved souls that can take this and continue this legacy and not just drop it by the wayside.

We need to, as teachers, each one of us has that responsibility to create others with the same kind of passion that we have so that they will continue this and pass it on. It’s like the Olympics torch, that it has to keep lighting another torch, lighting another life, for a very, very long time.

Andrea Cody:

My guest today is Rathna Kumar. Rathna, thank you for being a part of Dance Talks.

Rathna Kumar:

I’m always a part of your dance world, Andrea. Thank you for coming into my life.

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