Traversing the landscape of Indian dance forms practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area, it can be easy for the curious explorer to become overwhelmed by the variety of traditions being sustained here. There are the eight different classical traditions, all tied to the Natya Shastra, a 2,000 year-old set of texts that serves as a guidebook for creating art within Hindu culture, but each developed to have precise and important distinctions that can be hard to see initially. There are also the various threads that connect each dance to the many deities who hold court in Hindu culture. And outside of all of that, there are the many non-classical, folk dance forms like Bhangra, that have become popularized through pop culture variations.
And Indian classical dance has deep roots in the Bay Area, relatively speaking. Kathak gained an early foothold here through the efforts of the late Chitresh Das and that tradition has continued to be sustained by his students and acolytes. KP Kunhiraman and his wife Katherine brought Bharatanatyam to the very first San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1978, and their company Kalanjali just completed their 42nd summer season. And as more immigrants from India continued to settle in the Bay Area over the past four decades, practitioners of all eight of the Indian classical dance forms have set up shop. So yes, delving into the many different forms can seem daunting, but if you love dance, the Bay Area offers opportunities for discovery that can’t be found in such close proximity anywhere else.
One of those who have staked a claim to sustain Indian dance in the Bay Area is Madhuri Kishore. Born in Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, she came to the US in 2000 to work in the tech industry. Her passion was always for dance. As a young child, her father took her to see performances quite often, and she recalls that from a young age she “remembers feeling a passion for the dance…there was an aura to the dancer that appealed to me.” She loved all the classical dance forms she saw, but the one that most strongly impressed her was Kuchipudi.
One of the eight classical forms, Kuchipudi also originated in Madhuri’s home state of Andhra Pradesh, and is based in a grammar of facial and body movement described in the Natya Shastra. While Kuchipudi features rapid footwork and graceful movement that also characterize other Indian dance forms, what makes Kuchipudi distinctive is its focus on dance-drama storytelling. Dancers use highly evocative facial expressions and stylized hand movements to tell a story. Madhuri explains me that Kuchipudi is also unique for incorporating choreography where “dancers dance on the rim of brass plate with pots on the heads which is a salient feature of Kuchipudi dance.”
Kuchipudi dancers can form strong emotional bonds with audiences, even in large theaters. “I’ve performed in theaters with over a thousand audience members, and when we cry, we can see the audience responding with tears as well. We use make-up that focus attention the ways our eyes move that increases the connection from the stage, but would frighten you if you saw it up close,” she tells me, laughing.
Asked when she knew she wanted to make a life of dance, Madhuri recalled being in the audience of a Kuchipudi performance when she was five or six. “It was a piece that addressed the injustice of class structures in India and the plight of those in the untouchable caste. When the dancers cried, I cried with them. They made me feel what they felt.” Having experienced the ability of Kuchipudi to give a young girl an understanding of social injustice far beyond her years, Madhuri felt a desire shared by artists of many forms: she wanted to be part of creating that experience for others.
Madhuri trained at the Lasya Priya Dance Academy in Hyderabad, with Dr. Uma Rama Rao. Madhuri recalls that her guru “was one of the legendary artists of Kuchipudi with many, many awards and titles to her credit. She dedicated her life to dance. She passed away last year, but I will always be grateful to her, as she is the sole reason for who I am today and for what I am doing today in the field of dance.”
After moving to the United States, she continued dancing as a soloist in performances at the Indian Consulate and at community centers and temples around the country. But what turned her into an evangelist for Kuchipudi was seeing how many second generation Indian youth did not know their culture. “I observed that kids are learning to dance but they actually do not understand the essence of the Abinaya (or the ‘expressions’) aspect of the art form,” she tells me. “I don’t blame them as the kids are born and brought up here and they might not relate to the same stories that we grew up with listening to,” and with this in mind Madhuri decided to make her contribution to sustaining Indian culture in the US by training young people in the aspect of Indian culture that she herself knew best. So in 2005, she began teaching.
It came with costs. She was also thriving as a software engineer, and Madhuri knew something was going to have to give. “I had been working at Google for 5 ½ years and I knew that if I was to follow my heart and grow my school I wasn’t going to be able to stay there.” One day she and her husband began talking over teaching more at lunch and by the end “I had decided that I was going to leave Google to make it happen.” Today she works for a smaller company that allows her a more flexible schedule to run her dance school and work with her students.
This is a work/life balance she needs, because Madhuri has over 200 students and dancers. These include dancers who began with her when they were six years old and are still coming back once a week for class, even though some are students at far away locations like UC Davis. She has also had children of her own since starting the schools, and says that experience has reaffirmed her commitment to the path she is on. “Kuchipudi has a grammar and set of movements like all Indian dance,” but as she explains to me, “something I learned from my guru is that you look at each dancer as an individual and as you compose the movement, you sculpt it onto that dancer based on their strengths.” The result has been deep emotional bonds with students that she is profoundly grateful to have.
Having built the school up over the past decade, she tells me that while the Indian dance community is very strongly connected through a web of community centers, newspapers, online groups, and temples, “what is missing is the outreach to the non-Indian audience, which is why I so strongly respect events like the [San Francisco] Ethnic Dance Festival, because that is exactly what it is doing – bring dancers from different background together to discover each other’s dance.”
On October 6th, audiences will have an opportunity to discover Kuchipudi for themselves at San Francisco’s City Hall as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, and the three-act performance will be an excellent introduction to Kuchipudi for the curious dance enthusiast. “We will start with an invocation item on Goddess Saraswathi,” Madhuri tells me, “followed by a piece called Kamakshi – The Divine, a narrative dance which will feature the plate and pot choreography which is a such salient feature of Kuchipudi.” The performance will conclude with Thillana, a fast paced dance consisting of complicated and graceful movements”
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked about her plans for the future, and she recalls the impact of the performance she saw as a young girl in Hyderabad. “My dream is to develop a dance drama that address social issues, particularly children’s and women’s issues,” she tells me. Despite Kuchipudi’s regular subject matter of gods and goddesses, based in movements codified in a two thousand year-old text, Madhuri, like many Bay Area dancers of all backgrounds, will begin to use her art form as a way to explore what is going on in our world right now.