India Abroad 2007-2008
Dancing for a cause
November 26, 2007
Text: Arthur J Pais.
It took Daniel Phoenix Singh more than a decade to pursue his childhood passion for Bharata Natyam.
He could do so not in the country of his birth, India. But in America.
“You may find an irony there,” says Singh who began learning Bharata Natyam in the suburbs of Maryland, USA, when he was 20. “I could not afford to learn it in India for good teachers were in great demand and were also very expensive.”
Singh grew up in Chennai and left India for America with his family following his father’s retirement from the Indian Army.
“We were quite poor in India and learning Bharata Natyam was a luxury, especially for a boy.” Being raised a Christian made it difficult for him to convince his parents to let him learn dance.
“I was 17 when I came to America. It is the age for many classical dancers in India to offer their first public performance,” he says with a chuckle. “I was preparing to study ballet but I was also trying to learn the dance my heart was really in.”
Building a relationship with India
Thirty-four year-old Singh works as a computer systems administrator.
In his off time he is part of the Dakshina Dance Company, a budding dance company, based in Washington, DC, offering concerts that present Indian dance forms. Part of Singh’s earnings go to the dance company. Singh, actually runs this four-year-old company and is immersed in choregraphy too.
Dakshina has also hosted artists like Odissi and Bharata Natyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai to mark the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. And Kuchipudi and Bharata Natyam dancer Mallika Sarabhai, who runs the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad and is known for her strong political stand against Hindu fundamentalism in Gujarat was also a guest.
Asia Society (a high-profile organisation that encourages understanding and a partnership between Asian people and institutions and the United States) recently hosted an event involving Dakshina and other art groups in Washington, DC. A seminar titled The Role of Indian Art and Culture in a Global Age discussed among other things, how Indian artists in America and India are able to connect and create a progressive community dealing with social issues.
“We are focused on combining the arts with social justice issues,” Singh says. “We do it by incorporating the themes into our work and via partnerships with local community centres and schools.”
Fighting against gay and lesbian prejudice is one such cause. Getting Sarabhai to articulate her sadness and anger at the communal riots in Gujarat is another.
Two years ago, Dakshina was one of 117 companies across America to receive an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (a US government-funded as well as donation aided programme that provides assistance and funds for projects that display artistic excellence).
‘Dance is universally acceptable’
I believe in working with other dance schools and dance traditions,” says Singh.
“Our mission is to connect multiple dance forms. We have been demonstrating for several years that dance is universally accessible. As I have said many times it is a system of communication that transcends boundaries, cultures and times, and it can be used as a vehicle for social change and community development.”
But he rues the lack of support from his own community in the US. “What we do in our shows gives an opportunity for second-generation Indian Americans to learn a few things about their heritage,” he says. “But it is difficult to get them to come to our shows. They would rather blow up $20 seeing a movie and at concession stands (in sporting events and elsewhere) than spend $15 to see a glorious art show.”
Singh recalls that he would not have become an classical Indian dancer had Meena Telikicherla, a doctor who is also a dance teacher, had not taken him as her pupil.
“She was convinced I had a gift for classical dancing,” he says. Telikicherla runs Nrityanjali, one of the better-known Indian dance schools on the East Coast in the US.
“She also told me not to hurry to give my arangetram (public debut). What was important, she said, was that I must truly learn to dance well.”
“I can’t recall when my interest in classical dance began,” he reflects. “I believe that learning dance was my first language. I also believe till I really started learning dance I could not speak effectively.”