Sept 28th 2009 – was our family’s Day 1 at Kala Vandanam.
For the past 13 years, we’ve evolved and grown with Kala Vandanam. The culture embodies long term value over short term outcomes, obsession with learning and having fun, and puts commitment and being a good human being at the center of everything. Kala Vandanam fostered guided exploration, pursuit of ambitious goals, bold innovation, and dancing for the mere joy of dancing.
It’s about being constantly curious, nimble, and experimental. It’s about being brave enough to fail if it means that, by applying the lessons learnt, we can better surprise and delight ourselves in future.
Some of this might sound very familiar to those in the business world. I see this as Kala Vandanam’s “Day 1” mentality. There’s always something new, something to do, and a path for you. And plenty of #natyamnaatak moments to keep it fun and refreshing.
Devi Vijayakumar is a software product management professional and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. She is an art lover, passionate and supportive Bharatanatyam mom, mother of twins, and one of the most meticulous, organized people you will ever meet.
https://kalavandanam.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/blog_day1_845x321.png321845Suchitra Sairam/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/logo.pngSuchitra Sairam2022-06-02 11:49:302022-06-02 11:49:30Day 1 at Kala Vandanam
It’s difficult for me to separate what I’ve learned in dance from what I’ve learned from Suchi akka. Much of my experience with dance is the direct result of how Suchi akka has mentored me, which is why this is titled “Three Life Lessons from Dancing with Suchi akka.”
Watch out for the Posture Police. My close family and friends know to stand up a little straighter, walk a little taller, and definitely not to slouch when I’m around. I can still remember practicing a difficult thillana where I was just trying to keep rhythm and like clockwork, Suchi akka instructed me “back straight, fingers long, clean lines.” This carried into my day-to-day, and I realized that good posture makes me not only feel physically stronger but also mentally confident. Just a few small adjustments in my body immediately bring a smile to my face and completely change how I feel when I’m nervous about a big work presentation or running out of energy during a hard workout.
Repetition creates mastery. Whenever I found a step too complex or fast, I would break it down to the simplest step or pace where I’m able to just barely do it. Then I’d do it over and over again until I got it. Then I’d step it up to a point where I could just barely do it and repeat all over again until I finally mastered it. Raised in a culture that shies away from failure, learning how to learn and fail through Bharatanatyam has been invaluable. I have the confidence to take on something outside of my comfort zone and most importantly, to take failure in stride because it inevitably happens when you push yourself. This lesson has been extremely valuable to me especially as a woman who is learning that you don’t have to be perfect to take space in professional and personal contexts.
Don’t waste anyone’s time. We all joke about IST – Indian Standard Time – where a large majority of those from the Indian subcontinent seem to accept being late as a cultural norm. Our household was no different growing up, and we were late to dance class a lot. Suchi akka, with patience that I now find equivalent to that of a saint, consistently emphasized the importance of timeliness as the respect and value you hold for another person. I’ve worked hard to instill this discipline in my life, and there are some who find me to be one of the most efficient people they know. However, from others, I’ve been lucky to find compassion for this work-in-progress aspect of my life.
This is the fourth (bonus) lesson that I learned from Suchi akka- how to accept or at least tolerate someone in their whole self, the good times and the mistakes.
There are many other ways in which dance has consciously and subconsciously shaped who I am, and even though I haven’t actively practiced in some time, I often find myself coming back to this formative experience. I owe all of this to my guru, mentor, and sister, Suchi akka.
Apoorva Kanneganti is one of the first students at Kala Vandanam. She began her training under Suchitra Sairam in 2003 and learned actively for over 13 years, including presenting her Arangetram in 2011. She is a management consultant by profession and an adventurer by passion. Apoorva enjoys spending time outdoors with activities like running, hiking, and scuba diving, all of which are much more accessible since her move to California. A Midwesterner at heart, she grew up in Minnesota, where she later graduated with a BSB from the University of Minnesota and received an MBA from the University of Michigan after a short stint in Chicago.
https://kalavandanam.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/blog_lifelessons-apoorva_845x321.png321845Suchitra Sairam/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/logo.pngSuchitra Sairam2022-03-29 11:08:512022-03-29 11:08:51Three Life Lessons from Dancing with Suchi akka
Dance is so unique, in that there are an infinite number of forms, and ways of which you can express yourself. There are numerous opportunities in the realm of dance, including not just the physical activity aspect, but also the opportunity to create relationships with your guru as well as your peers. Through dance, you can truly gain an understanding of your body, and the limits you can push, as well as when you need to stop. You can discover new ways of releasing energy, or learning how best to harness your emotions. When you dance, you can create a personality as outlandish or “crazy” as you wish, because you have just given yourself a clean slate.
However, people often underestimate the power of having the drive to want to dance, to want to understand who you truly are as a person. The drive and ambition to WANT to dance stems from multiple factors, but especially from the people who are guiding you through your journey. If there is very little support, or a lack of interest in the individual lives of each student, when dance purely becomes a business transaction, it is essentially impossible for the dancer to truly blossom. They lose sight of the WHY. The reasoning behind choosing to spend hours in the studio and practicing. It instead becomes a burden, or a cause of anxiety, and you lose that passion and excitement that you had when you were seven and were just eager to learn even the most basic adavus.
In order for you to truly grow and change through dance, you need to let go of the fear of being perfect, instead rewiring your mind to believe that you will get there. This is very heavily dependent on who nurtures you through your journey, the way that your mistakes are either frowned upon or encouraged. It depends on the amount of trust you hold in your guru, the amount of importance you place upon their instruction. The assimilation of true understanding of your being, comes from the acceptance of where you are, where you want to go.
Shreya Ramraj is a committed Bharatanatyam student, who has been training for 12 years. She was initially under the tutelage of Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance Company. She continues her dance journey at Kala Vandanam with Suchitra Sairam. She is a junior at Minnetonka High School, and is interested in Psychology, specifically Trauma Therapy, where she hopes she can help children overcome their difficult pasts and begin their promising futures.
Over the years, but particularly in recent months, I’ve been asked a similar question many times; “How do you know that a student is ready for their (insert “Salangai Pooja” or “Arangetram”). Sometimes, it has a student who aspires to see themselves in that same situation, or a parent who would understandably love to see their child as a soloist. Sometimes, it has been an audience member at a Salangai Pooja or Arangetram I have conducted. Sometimes, it has been another artist or teacher wanting to share thoughts, or perhaps mine information – and I’ve learned the hard way this in particular is a nearly impossible conversation to have with another teacher, because so much of this depends on your own values, perceptions, and personal compass.
As I’ve been asked this question, I keep reflecting on it – the process probably hasn’t changed much for me over the years, but the way in which I have articulated it has been refined. For me, there is no formula or checklist for this; simply guiding principles and values, and knowing what I want to aim for artistically and for that student’s growth. Then you work hard and hope for the best.
I think one of the most important things to remember is that there are some big jumps involved here… from a weekly group class to multiple solo rehearsals. From performing a single piece in a group to performing a single piece as a soloist. From performing a single piece as a soloist to multiple pieces as a soloist. And so on…
The bottom line for me is this; a student should want to learn MORE after going through the process and presenting these important milestone performances. These milestones are when you finally start to figure things out about your art, not when you are done.
So… How DO I know?
Most of my students have been with me for a long time. I get to know them well, and vice-versa. I know how I have trained them, what I have taught them, and what they should know at certain stages of their journey. They get to know how I work, what my values and expectations are, and have an idea of what they need to be willing to put into it. For Salangai Pooja or Arangetram readiness, I look for a few things (in some particular order):
Attitude. Attitude. Attitude.
The art is bigger than any one of us. Full. Stop. If a student doesn’t get this, they aren’t ready. Oh, and parents need to get this too.
It’s about you, but not ALL about you. If a student doesn’t realize that we all have a responsibility to the masters who came before us as well as our own aspirations, ability, values and identity, they may not be ready. Again… parents need to get this too.
The process is more important than any single performance, or any recognition or kudos. If we do things right, the actual Salangai Pooja or Arangetram performance is almost incidental.
Aspiration, with humility AND action. A student can want a lot of things; there is no doubt an attraction to being a soloist, wearing all of the beautiful costumes and jewelry, the list goes on. But, is a student ready to take ownership of their journey? Are they self-motivated? A teacher can drag a student through a process and get them performance-ready, but is that lasting?
Ability to take corrections, make corrections, and hold on to corrections. Take corrections – see Attitude. Make corrections – see Action. Hold on to corrections – if we keep talking about the same old things, how do we move forward? See The Rembrandts “I’ll Be There for You” – “It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear”
Aptitude to work on multiple things at the same time and develop the capabilities required. Think mental and physical capacity and stamina!
Awareness – of one’s self, one’s strengths, and one’s current limitations. Studying art reveals the best and worst of who we are and what we can do. Being aware of these things is necessary for any movement forward.
Acuity – does a student have the learning capacity and emotional maturity to be able to handle this journey? It’s an incredibly beautiful, rewarding and tough journey to be on.
Audience – there is an intangible but very necessary component of being able to connect with and hold an audience. Does the student have the capacity to develop this ability?
Students obviously may not have all or many of these things at the beginning of a process – so the real question I have make my best judgement on… do they have the capacity to get there?
“Remembering the Samosa”
Objectivity is a really important element of any journey as a teacher and a student. It’s easy to think we are all that and a bag of chips AND that we are “so bad” at the same time. Human nature. But we have to find a way to be objective about the quality of the work while still pushing ourselves to improve.
I tell my students that it is very important that we encourage and acknowledge the courage it takes to get up on stage alone and dance. A dancer is putting themselves out there for others to watch and judge, and hopefully enjoy. But we must also acknowledge that it is separate from the quality of the work.
I tell students that I want their dancing to speak for itself to the audience. Aside from the positive and constructive guidance, I suggest that they should have a respectful “fear” of “polite applause.” And that if people remember more about the samosa they ate after the show than anything you danced, then something has gone sideways.
It’s not foolproof
Needless to say, this is all dandy, but not foolproof by any means. No matter how many times I have been to the rodeo (19 years of Kala Vandanam, 22 Salangai Pooja students and 12 Arangetram students), I still make mistakes and misread things. So, when have I been “wrong”?
Sometimes, I’ve taken a chance on a student being able to emote freely, completely and maturely. I think that with time and the intensive focus, I can get them there and their abhinaya will be “performance ready.” They want it, they work at it, but it’s just not there yet. They just needed more time, and I underestimated how much time it would take them to “let go.”
Along the same lines, I’ve taken a chance that a student will be able to develop the physical strength and stamina required. With the fitness routines and adavu classes I give them, along with personal practice, this has been well within reach for most students. But there have been times when they are not willing or able to do that work needed to get their bodies prepared for this intensive work of dancing. I misread that they were ready and/or able to do the work.
Despite my many efforts to ferret out what people’s attitude and values are, there have been occasions (fortunately VERY few) when my enthusiasm or naiveté or foolishness (see the section heading) has blinded me from being able to read a student’s or parents’ actual intentions. I’m pretty clear about what I look for and what each process means. They may say the right things, but may not actually believe in them. I have misread this on a couple of occasions; while we were able to have lovely programs and the students really grew in the process, they stopped dancing soon after the program was done. Violation of the “prime directive” of wanting to learn MORE and dance MORE – not be done. While I would have liked to avoid it, it’s been a very good and important learning process for me around attachment, and going with the flow.
After all this…. How do I know? Well, I clearly don’t know much of anything for sure. But I get a little closer to knowing a little more… Every. Single. Time.
https://kalavandanam.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/blog_howdoyouknow_845x321.jpg321845Suchitra Sairam/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/logo.pngSuchitra Sairam2021-12-01 10:30:492021-12-02 19:26:49How Do You Know?
Sharing the reflection I shared with the Kala Vandanam family at our annual Vijayadasami celebration – Natya Sadhana.
It is with much joy that we are celebrating 19 years of Kala Vandanam in 2019. It has been a strange time since Natya Sadhana 2019, but we are fortunate to make it to this moment. I am delighted and grateful that we have a chance to be together today, and that the goals and spirit of what we share at Kala Vandanam have remained consistent. I am deeply appreciative that Kala Vandanam students and families make this shared Vijayadasami experience a priority in your busy lives, which have been further complicated by the pandemic. Kala Vandanam is only what it is because of our collective interests, values and passion – thank you all for investing some of yourselves to create this experience and these memories.
Despite the many obstacles and challenges, we have found ways to enhance our sadhana (discipline) and furthered our abhyaasa (repeated practice). Today, we rededicate ourselves to the journey, to the path of learning and wisdom, to be sensitive to our surroundings and what we experience, and to share with those around us. We honor knowledge, learning and art, and all of those who have shaped and guided us at every step and we must always honor and respect that history and bond. But with that, we must each also take ownership of our journeys as well; the idea that no matter how long we have been doing something, that we continue to seek and to upgrade ourselves in any way we can. It is also a day to remind us to give without expectations and with humility.
I offer my namaskarams and gratitude to my natyacharyas and gurus, Padmini Aunty, Shanta akka and Dhananjayan anna, and Master and Vasantha akka. Their gifts to me over these 35+ years are innumerable and priceless, and I can only make a small dent in that debt with continued study, practice and sharing based in humility and integrity.
It has been a rich year of learning and sharing; together, we had to learn how to learn as we navigated the challenges of social distancing, internet connectivity, devices, interruptions, masks, vaccination, you name it. I applaud students for their perseverance and patience – it is truly commendable. Several students also reached important milestones in their personal journeys, including two students completing their Arangetram and two students completing their Salangai Pooja in 2021. Each person blossoms in their own time; the goal is to keep the ground fertile so there is opportunity to grow and flourish, and truly enjoy the process.
The foundational values at Kala Vandanam of learning and practicing the art with humility and joy, striving for excellence, and constructive introspection for both personal and artistic growth are inspired by the guiding lights of my gurus and my personal experiences. My aspiration is that with these simple practices, we can’t help but develop a love for the art, a positive attitude, solid work ethic, empathy, compassion for others, humility and self-confidence. We each develop individuality with common roots, just as leaves of a tree dance individually as the breeze ripples through.
We celebrate the joy and hard work of past learning, and the promise of future learning today. It is my hope that with each Natya Sadhana, we share this joy as a Kala Vandanam family, celebrate the progress in each student’s journey, and that each student gains some inspiration and motivation to keep seeking more.
https://kalavandanam.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/natyasadhana2021_845x321.png321845Suchitra Sairam/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/logo.pngSuchitra Sairam2021-10-15 12:13:582021-11-02 12:16:30Vijayadasami Reflections on Natya and Sadhana
2020 – What a year it was. It held so much promise, and then couldn’t come to an end fast enough, yet here we are. We may say “good riddance,” to help us put behind the challenges, the loss (perceived and actual), the different sources of pain. The New Year certainly gives us a feeling of reset. Of a fresh start. Realistically, the same things that we faced on 12/31/2020 are there on 1/1/2021. But somehow, it feels different.
It has also been a year of discovery, of opportunity, of reflection – what CAN we do when there so much we CAN’T do. What ARE we capable of when there is much we feel powerless about?
I’ve found this to be an important opportunity to explore these things. And to reflect. I’m also aware that I have the luxury to do so.
Looking ahead to this reset, this “do-over” of sorts, a few words and thoughts keep coming to mind (not in any particular order) as I reflect on setting my INTENTIONS (not goals or resolutions) for the year. Trying something new this time around.
We need to have aspirations. We need to have ambitions. If we are fortunate, we will have people around us who help us see what those can be, and help us get there. We should always seek these people out.
What are we DOING to support our aspirations and ambitions? How are we THINKING to support our aspirations and ambitions? How are we BEHAVING to support our aspirations and ambitions?
Aspirations and ambitions are left empty without the right attitude. Without effort. Without hard work. Without commitment. Without perseverance. Then we are guaranteed to be left with the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.
I’ve been thinking about this in many contexts – but one that has come up repeatedly over the last couple of weeks is inspired by my students. With an annual assignment of a reflecting on the year past AND setting goals for the future, many are sending me wonderful reflections on the year past, and aspirations for their futures; about personal growth, learning, performing, and completing their Salangai Pooja and Arangetram. I am truly delighted to see these aspirations and ambitions, and to hear about the joy and solace they have found in art during a trying year. But I will ask them all – what are you DOING to support these aspirations and ambitions? What are you putting in? Class once a week (with holidays and all, this would be a MAXIMUM of 45 classes a year) won’t get you there. What is the attitude, commitment, practice, that will help (not guarantee) you get there? If those are the things you WANT, what are you ready to DO?
As I ask them questions – I ask myself the same questions about my own aspirations and ambitions. What am I DOING to support these things? It leads me to some reminders for myself as I leap into 2021.
Consistentlydo the little things so you can achieve the big things.
Dreams and hopes are so important, so necessary – but idle dreams and hopes don’t get you there.
I heard a helpful phrase long ago (unfortunately, not sure who to attribute it to), that I’ve not always adhered to – “Build greatness with great habits.”
And all of this with a humble heart.
This gives me a framework for the year ahead. Here is to working toward fulfilling the promise of 2021, of reaching those aspirations and ambitions – may we all find joy in the journey forward.
https://kalavandanam.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/hny_2021_845x321-1.png321845Suchitra Sairam/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/logo.pngSuchitra Sairam2021-01-01 14:40:152021-01-03 09:26:28Kicking It Off, and Keeping It Going
COVID-19. Global Pandemic. Not many characters, but they say so much.
There are many words being used to describe these times we are in – whatever euphemisms we use, things are just so…. strange. Unfamiliar. Uncomfortable. What is “normal” now? What will “normal” be? No doubt, there are more questions than answers right now. Even though this time and situation has been foisted upon us without invitation, it has been an opportunity to truly examine and reflect on what we value, and why-what-how-when we do things. Perhaps nature’s way of making us reflect on these things.
Generally speaking, I do not shy away from creativity, from new ideas on how to solve problems, from innovations – for those are all cornerstones of things I love; art, science, engineering, business, crafts. However, I have shied away from the use of technology (beyond audio playback) in how I have gone about learning, practicing, and teaching during my 35-year journey in Bharatanatyam and allied arts.
I have told myself many stories around this.
“Video is a crutch – great for jogging the memory, but not so great to learn from; you miss the essence, the detail, the humanity of our movement.”
“Online teaching is sterile – and the time lags for video and audio make it impossible to teach effectively, and to make sure students get the corrections they need.”
“I can’t tell if someone is off talam if there is a time lag.”
“There is no way to give individual attention to students in an online group class.”
And on and on – you get the drift.
I have been fortunate that I have not HAD to use any of these methods thus far. Now with #StayHomeMN for the collective good of our community, there has been no option but to find a way to “Make it work,” as Tim Gunn would say. The age-old saying, “Necessity is the mother of innovation,” comes to life.
So…. What do you do?
So, after a lot of thinking about what I thought would be effective, what I had the capacity to do, and testing capabilities with several enthusiastic and willing students ready to learn and experiment with me, Kala Vandanam has adopted a combination of shorter group classes online with submitted video assignments – then students who submit their video homework can schedule a 15 minute 1×1 with me to work on corrections specific to them so they can move forward in their practice. This is supplemented by video learning tools I have created, along with more Open Adavu Class sessions during the week for students to keep movement and practice in their lives while we are all safely at home.
I was ready to make a big commitment to make things work, but wanted to structure it in such a way that encouraged students to put in their work also; virtual hands reaching toward each other.
I asked myself, with everything that people have on their minds as we all adjust to these new circumstances, is all of this worth it?
What does this look like?
I am just technically savvy enough to be dangerous. I knew I’d be unsatisfied with what I could see on my laptop screen – so I ordered a projector, portable screen, a portable Bluetooth speaker, and a 20′ long, fat HDMI cable to get everything hooked up. The only thing I haven’t done yet is a wireless mike… might become necessary soon.
Since my studio is not equipped with Wi-Fi, all of this has to happen in my condo living room. We do the best that we can.
So, after monkeying around with different setups and options, including rearranging furniture, I’ve settled into a set up that works, including barstools to hold my notebook, thattukazhi kuchi/palakai, and other accouterments for the class. (see below)
None of this was cheap – maybe technology purchases I had planned for the future, but not things I was expecting to spend on right now. So one has to ask… is this expense worth it?
And…. How does this feel?
This is, unquestionably, SIGNIFICANTLY more time and work for me – to conduct group classes, to create video tools, to review multiple videos from each student, note their corrections to prep for their 1x1s, have their 1x1s, and so forth. But if it keeps the momentum and learning moving forward, if it keeps us connected while giving us all some sense of “normalcy”, then maybe it is worth it.
It is also much more tiring. As an example, as part of my normal teaching schedule, I usually teach 9 hours of group classes on Sundays, with two 15-minute breaks – and while I am tired after that, I am not exhausted. With the shortened group class schedule, I find myself COMPLETELY WIPED OUT after only 5 hours of group classes, interspersed with FOUR 15-minute breaks.
Why is this? I’m guessing it is because I don’t get any energy back from a screen when I normally get so much energy back from students when we are in class. I feel like I am talking to myself when we have to mute everyone else on screen to avoid audio disruptions. Sometimes, there isn’t enough bandwidth, and people disappear from the video even if they are still in the web meeting room – when you can’t see OR hear them, it is a little disconcerting. But I trust that this experience is still of value, because students have been wonderfully responsive to this approach.
Many are willingly coming to Virtual Open Adavu Class 2-3 times a week outside of their group class, wanting to stretch and sweat it out. Many are taking this opportunity to do every homework assignment (maybe even more regularly than in the past). Many have made a lot of progress in these short weeks since we last saw each other in person the week of March 8. Many have expressed that they are so glad that they get to dance, even if we can’t dance together.
Then…. What does this mean?
While I don’t see myself ever making this a primary vehicle to teach once we have this pandemic behind us, I can see myself adopting some of this into our approach at Kala Vandanam. During “normal” times, commutes are a real challenge for people during the week – so if some of these methods we are working with during these times work, then how can I incorporate that into weeknight practice for students? Maybe it is something that looks like “Office Hours” or “Review Sessions” or “Adavu Practice.” Now that I have HAD to teach this way, I am now at least more open to WANTING to teach this way – in part, at least.
So has this Reluctant Innovation been worth it? As they say in Minnesota, YOU BETCHA.
Suchitra Sairam is pleased to present her student Sonali Bhaskar in her first public solo performance. Traditionally, the Salangai Pooja (prayer for the bells) is conducted after the dancer achieves […]