Interview - Viji Prakash
Creating a community of dance lovers
Shankar Ramachandran in conversation with Viji Prakash
You have now been dancing and teaching for some four decades. As you look back, what are your salient memories?
I was already performing in India when I came to America. I came to join my husband, not to set the world on fire. If I have done anything at all it is because of my husband Prakash. He opened the doors for me by introducing me to people at UCLA and he organised a performance for me. He put me in touch with local school audiences and the children loved it. I did some workshops and taught for a semester at Loyola Marymount School. These children had never seen anything like this. I think I was able to teach the nuances of Bharatanatyam and shared it in a way that they could understand how we could tell a story with the movements. They liked the stories which they could identify and I was able to make Bharatanatyam engaging. So in the first few years I was just happy to be able to continue to dance and share it at colleges and community events. It was one way to keep in touch with dance.
Tell us about your background. How did you join the Rajarajeswari dance school?
I was born and grew up in Bombay. We were living in Matunga and my cousin was learning classical dance. Every mother wants her daughter to sing or dance and so she enrolled me in the Rajarajeswari school when I was about four-and-a-half years old. I am grateful for that association. When we later moved to Pedder Road, I started learning from Guru Kalayasundaram. I went to Cathedral School and Elphinstone College, I did a postdiploma course in Sofia College in Media and Television, and interned for a while at a television station. I learnt Bharatanatyam, Mohini Attam and Kathakali. All this helped me grow as an artist with a wider perspective. When I later came to the U.S.A. I felt like I could share what I had learnt, and that really helped a lot. I started teaching—but only in between travel and dancing. I was hesitant and when I approached my teacher for advise, Vadyar told me it would be a way to stay in touch with dance. So I started teaching a student who had been asking me for lessons for some time. Around 1980 I made my first trip back to India. Because I had practiced so much by myself it opened up a different vision of my dance even for my teacher who remarked: “Despite being away she is still dancing well!” I came to Mumbai mainly to learn and dance, but also got opportunities to perform in Bengaluru, Delhi and other places. Someone who knew Stella Kramrisch at Philadelphia Museum of Art saw me dance and sent word to her. Stella contacted me and asked me if I would dance at the Museum when they were opening the Siva exhibit. Prakash felt we should get live music, so we invited Vadyar and other musicians and Prakash arranged a tour for me. At that time, having a live orchestra was unusual. That was my first tour in U.S.A. and we performed in several places including the Pittsburgh temple. I was so much in practice in those days that I was able to arrive in Pittsburgh and dance immediately without a rehearsal. I was invited to perform in France. I went on two tours without live music and then in 1983 under Vadyar’s baton and a live orchestra. I was then teaching intermittently. I danced at the Olympics Arts Festival and several things happened. In 1985 we started the Shakti Foundation to promote the arts, and that took off well. We invited several artists like the Dhananjayans, Alarmel Valli, Radha and Raja Reddy, Father Barboza from India. We used to have dance festivals to which I brought in local community artists. It was one of my crazy ideas to show the universality of the arts and how we all connect through our dance and music. So we had the local Flamenco dancers, local African and Hawaiian dancers, coming together on the same stage. In the 1990s the school and teaching took on more with my daughter Mythili starting to dance, and teaching became a more important part of my work. I also started doing large productions with Hindustani music and Kathak and so I did Meera in 1990 and Purandaradasa—depicting their lives through their own compositions. We invited Lakshmi Shankar and artists from India, and the local dancers Your daughter and son are also pursuing the arts.
When did you start teaching your daughter Mythili?
I don’t know, she was always in the class with me and her whole environment revolved around dance. When she was a little over three she showed me the Ganapati Kavuttuvam which I had not formally taught her! It was quite baby-like but she had somehow grasped the structure and tala and was coherent with the karvais. I had been so engrossed in teaching others and Mythili was just part of that. She perhaps learnt a lot by osmosis! When she was about eight or ten (I am really bad with dates) I took her to India and she danced in the Kochu Guruvayur temple. I told her that was her arangetram and then she danced for all my gurus. That was the most wonderful moment when they all watched her and blessed her. I saw she really loved to dance. She has really ploughed her way and worked through and found herself. Mythili has internalised it all and become a role model for many of my students. Of course, I don’t agree with everything she does. We do have our disagreements, but she is different. I am proud of what she is doing. Mythili was born in 1982 and Aditya in 1988. We paid much attention to Mythili while Aditya just came along. He had his cars and his toys and would just hang around with the musicians. I was busy with class and Mythili was dancing. Somewhere along we realised that Aditya should learn music. I tried really hard to help him become a dancer. He would come just to get the Starbucks after the class. One day we presented a sloka at the temple as an offering and after that he came to me and said, “I quit”. We put him in music at that time. It was much later when we realised “this child is talented too”. Prakash took him first to Geetha Bennett, and then to India.
Were there any setbacks?
I sometimes wonder whether I should have stayed more with dancing rather than give so much of my attention to teaching. I am perhaps being a bit wistful. I was never good at writing grant proposals, so never received any grant money. If I wanted to do something, or thought it was important, Prakash supported me and I went ahead and did it. I may have made mistakes but I had my vision and I stuck to it. I am really grateful that I could nurture my dance school. I taught at UCLA from 1999 to 2016, after which I discontinued for health reasons. I taught the students adavus and chanting just the way I had learnt; that was very satisfying. When I recently went for physical therapy, the therapist told me: “I took your class at UCLA and it was a very difficult one.”
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