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Understanding Your Jivaswaram: An Interview With Malathi Iyengar

Pallavi Nagesha

Understanding your Jivaswaram: An interview with Malathi Iyengar - Dancer, Choreographer, Writer & Visual Artist

Artistic expression is an extension of your soul. For Malathi Iyengar, who is equally touched by her homeland and her adopted homeland, this expression goes beyond the confines of tradition. Her rich choreography is replete with traditional themes and movements, and yet is full of modern ethos. Malathi was at the Threads 2019 conference in Boston this past weekend, where she participated in the panel Rasa Parampara: The Pursuit of India Arts and Aesthetics in the Americas moderated by Shekhar Shastri. Her journey as an adult learner of Bharatanatyam is marked by her many accomplishments. An MFA in Choreography from UCLA, a C.O.L.A. Individual Artist Fellowship, and the recipient of Lester Horton Award for Outstanding Achievement in World Dance among other things sets her apart. Her success most certainly comes from her tenet. Intent and audience that she calls the jivaswaram the core of her creativity. Lokvani caught up with her after the panel discussion at  the conference and had a lively discussion of her journey and her philosophy.

LV: One of the themes I picked up on, both in your panel discussion and our brief conversation outside, is this idea of engaging in learning as an adult. So, can you tell me some of the unique challenges you had and how you were able to overcome them?

MI: What I found is that you need to have a tremendous amount of family support otherwise it will not happen. By the time I was pursuing dance, my daughter was already 8 or 9 years old and I had to figure out how to juggle family life (with my passion). I owe a lot to my parents, who had moved to the United States by then and my husband who gave unconditional support to further my interest. However, little did I realize that this meant that the entire family had to completely surrender to the process. The level at which I wanted to delve into, gain more information and knowledge and get better at the craft, meant that I had to dedicate my entire day, month, and life to it. It pretty much consumed my life. You need family who allows for that otherwise it is not going to work. That is the quick answer. And then I surrounded myself with people who knew more than me. I sought out people in the field of music, and dance, and art who were accomplished and knowledgeable. Surrounding myself this way helped me be inspired and set goals for myself.

LV: A sacrifice all around. That is incredible.

MI: It is 24 hours a day and consumes you. You need a single-minded devotion to your passion and a support system who will let you do it. Only then you can reach a certain level of personal fulfillment, gratification, and perhaps some knowledge too. It is an ocean, there is no way you learn or know everything, but you want to get to a comfortable stage of being able to gain some skills and use them. You need all these… and I gave up everything, all my other interests and dedicated my entirety to only to pursuing, practicing, learning dance.

LV: What advice would you give other adult learners out there?

MI: My advice, don’t be afraid to learn, because there were situations where people made fun of me, mostly in India less here, because people here are very supportive. It is a different type of a world we live in here. People are generally supportive of whatever it is that you are pursuing at whatever time in your life. It was harder with my own community to get that type of opportunities and support as an adult. If you don’t get opportunities, you don’t get better, you have to evaluate, you have to be self-critical, you need self-introspection and for all that to happen you need to be with the right people on the right stage.

LV: When you say you felt unsupported by your own community do you mean you did not get the right forum to express back in India?

MI: Yes, not that much it was always a struggle. But it also helped me get better and learn more. I was never afraid of learning or putting myself in challenging circumstances or even be humiliated and made fun of. I took that in a different spirit, learning from it. Seeing where I went wrong and how can I learn from that. I turned it (into a growth opportunity) rather than being upset about it. I don’t hold any (grudges), if anything, it turned me to working a little bit more ferociously towards my goal!

LV: So, you embraced the true nata there, letting go of everything, becoming this empty Patrai (vessel).

MI: Yes, your ego has to go. There is no way you can guard yourself and learn (at the same time). It won’t work. So that is what helped me in India, being with the people, hard as it was, at the same time it helps you shed your ego each time and each day and become more supple, and humble and amicable to learning.

LV: And that is not the only barrier you broke through. In the area of dance innovation, you have tried many new things. How were you able to meld the ancient world of Bharatanatyam with your modern-day training, at UCLA?

MI:  I feel, if I had not gone back to school (for an MFA in Choreography) perhaps I would not be in this other dimension with another level of awareness, which is very crucial for artists. And I am thankful for that opportunity because I had a wonderful teacher, Guru Narmada who gave me all the foundations and great fundamentals, but I felt I belong here. My audience is a mixed audience of both Indian and non-Indian mainstream people. How do I make my work fit this situation? I needed another perspective, a different kind of feedback and that is what made me go back to school. The way they teach you is by questioning your work and you have to provide good answers and that has helped me develop my thought process and my creative processes, and process of analysis. How do I make this situation work in this particular event? Make it work for my audience and still be fulfilled as an artist because I am creating it and yet stay true to the classicism and my foundation.

LV: This experience not just helped you grow as a performer, but as a teacher I bet. So how did you translate it your pedagogy? There are inherent differences between how the Indian art form is imparted and how the western system is taught.

MI: At UCLA I had to go through many quarters and classes of teaching methodologies in dance. For example, they would put a video camera in the classroom. We were about eight or nine people a we were asked to teach each other our art form. So how do I teach Bharatanatyam to these others people? The teacher would sit with all of us and analyze each recording and all of us gave feedback (on our method). I went through about five quarters learning the effective ways of teaching. You have to be effective, be clear in what you communicate. There can be no ambiguity and you have to challenge the students who are at different levels and along with the fundamentals and foundations you have to delve into the stories. Our mythology and legends. With the young ones, the word “spirituality” is too big. It is big even for us. We discover it every day by living and doing what we are doing. But you have to instill in them the idea of surrendering to the process of learning. Whether you are learning to play the flute or the violin or learning to dance. When you do it over a period of time, you will feel something more, something special, something extra. It is your duty as a teacher to help them find that connection. Not all sustain until that happens, as you know many quit. Students stay on for two or three years or 10 years. It doesn’t matter how long they are with you; I think you still have to find effective ways to engage them, impart lessons, and inspire them. Connect with each student so they each get something out of the class even if they are with you only for a year or two.

LV: Of late I observe this trend, especially here in the US, where teachers have a lot of students in each batch. So how can you connect to the individual when you have a class of 20 or 30? How do you cater to the needs of each one? Not everybody learns the same way.

MI: That is a choice we can make as dance teachers, which I made. When I started teach it was easy to advertise and travel to four or five neighboring cities and get about 15 – 20 students in each center. Which in a matter of seven to eight years it would grow to 70 – 80 students. But I did not do that. I decided to stay in one location, firstly to be close to the family and be able to pick my daughter up from school and be home for her. I made a few things work around my family life. Secondly, my teaching methodology and expectations need to be met. I give a lot material and lessons in each class and expect the students to practice and be straight with me, letting me know if how much work they can put in and work on it. If they cannot keep up with my class they generally quit and I am ok with that. This results in me having less than 20 – 25 students. Even though I have been teaching for a very long time. That has helped me, having only four to five students in each class. Almost like a semi-private class. I have never had a class with 10, 12, 15. This is a choice I have made. I like to take a little time to teach them how to use their bodies, a bit of anatomy, where the origin of the movement is, (demystify) the technique and stories. Giving them as many tools as possible, including scripts and notes, and anything I can tell them to help them learn and come prepared. I am able to do the best I can there because I always have a small class.

LV: There is one question that I almost always ask all performing artists. Our journey is very internal. We have to identify with that which we are presenting, going deep into it and carry the audience with us in this experience. However, if we lose ourselves in it, there is a danger that we lose the audience as well. So, I see the performing artist as constantly going to the precipice and bringing themselves back. And to not be able to leap off that precipice is a very difficult journey. We need to hold ourselves back and come back so we can so we can take more people along on the next journey. However, we let the audience go, they get to jump over the precipice, we don’t. Do you feel the same way, and I if so, how do you advocate self-care for the artist because it is not a comfortable place to be in all the time?

MI: Yes. Like I was mentioning in my talk this morning (at the panel) I keep intent and audience in mind all the time. And I look at the presentations mostly as a film. Snippets of many imagery happening. And I find it is personal. To some extent it is subjective, it has to be. But I try to be objective when I am thinking about the audience. I have to see what also gives me pleasure. But you have to find your own center as a choreographer or performer. What makes you happy, brings you pleasure. You have to zero in on that and go after it. I think when you are sincere and you are projecting that, you will find people who will connect with you.

LV:  That is profound, thank you. Do you have any last words of wisdom for our readers?

MI: No wisdom. I still feel I am a student and am learning. I learned so much today and yesterday listening to people and am thankful for this really golden opportunity give to me by the Threads conference Shekhar Shastri for having invite and for all of you. Thank you so very much. It is very rare that we get to speak about our process because people are only looking at the product. It is very fulfilling to talk about the process and thank you, Pallavi, for that.

Malathi Iyengar is a Los Angeles based choreographer, dancer, writer, and visual artist. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Choreography and Performance from University of California, Los Angeles. Malathi studied Bharatanatyam (classical dance of India) from guru Narmada of Bangalore, India and choreography and improvisation under the mentorship of Marion Scott. For more information on Malathi, see www.rangoli.org.

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