A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago I received a property tax statement from Santa Clara County. Imagine my surprise when I spotted an image of Mythili Kumar and her daughter Malavika in an insert on arts and innovation in Silicon Valley! A wonderful reminder of how fortunate we are to live in an area that embraces cultural diversity and honors artists who make our communities truly unique. Mythili Kumar is the Artistic Director and Founder of Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose, which marks its 35th anniversary this year. The company will be presenting a concert entitled “Nritya Dhaara – the flow of Dance” on December 5 and 6 at the Mayer Theater at Santa Clara University, to mark the occasion.
For any modern enterprise, artistic or otherwise, to make it to three and a half decades in existence is an enviable accomplishment. It is even more remarkable when it is a California-based institution devoted to the teaching and promotion of an ancient classical dance tradition from India – as in the case of Abhinaya Dance Company. Few Indian classical dance companies in the United States have had the impact on the community they serve as Abhinaya has in the Bay Area. Their school has introduced well over 1500 students to the art of Bharatanatyam – a highly codified, complex and versatile classical dance form whose roots can be traced back to the temples of Southern India where it was performed as a form of ritual worship. Over 100 of these students have received years of rigorous training to reach the significant milestone of performing Arangetram (which translates to “ascension to the stage”), signifying a dancer’s readiness to embark on solo career. Many of these young dancers have gone on to become successful solo artists and company performers. Several have joined the Abhinaya’s performing ensemble that presents original choreographic works around the Bay Area and beyond. Among these accomplished graduates are Mythili Kumar’s daughters: Rasika Kumar, a software engineer and established solo dancer and choreographer who is also Abhinaya’s Associate Artistic Director; and Malavika Kumar, an attorney who specializes in nattuvangam – the art of leading a Bharatanatyam orchestra using cymbals and recitation of rhythmic syllables that requires intricate knowledge of rhythms, Carnatic music and dance.
Abhinaya’s success is in large part due to the artistic vision, commitment and perseverance of Mythili Kumar, who arrived in the US in 1978 on a Rotary Club scholarship to study at UC Davis. As an accomplished soloist with an impeccable pedigree, Mythili had been accustomed to performing for large, appreciative audiences in India. But in her new life in California, she had to find her place in a very different artistic and cultural landscape. She found herself in the position of introducing a complex art form to new audiences and had to find new ways of expression to engage them. Simultaneously—as one of few Bharatanatyam dancers in the Bay Area at that time—she was inundated by requests from Indian parents to teach their children this cherished art form. In 1980, with the support of her husband, Mythili decided to take these challenges head on. The Abhinaya Dance School of San Jose was born and the rest, as they say, is history. She has created over 30 original works, each carefully conceptualized, choreographed and presented with the support of top-notch musicians, most of who are local to the Bay Area. A hallmark of these original productions is that they are firmly rooted in rigorous classical technique while also using Bharatanatyam’s gestural language and vocabulary to tell stories that extend beyond the traditional realm of religion and mythology. For example, Courage (2013) choreographed by Mythili and Rasika and performed by Rasika, featured vignettes from Hindu mythology as well as stories from lives of historical icons like Rosa Parks who overcame difficult circumstances to affect social change.
Mythili’s untiring efforts as a dance teacher, performer and choreographer have won her many awards and recognitions. In 2010, she received the Malonga Casquelord Lifetime Achievement Award from World Arts West, and earlier this year Silicon Valley Creates acknowledged her extensive artistic accomplishments with a Legacy Laureate Award.
As I chatted with both Mythili and Rasika recently, they highlighted three factors that have led the school and dance company on its remarkably successful trajectory. First: quality without compromise. “It is a challenge to maintain consistently high standards when you are trying to create new and innovative works while also providing opportunities for emerging talent. It entails a lot of hard work but it is critical to our success,” says Rasika. The second is the ability to strike a balance between adherence to tradition and creating pieces that have contemporary relevance in the United States. Abhinaya’s work is firmly rooted in traditional Bharatanatyam technique and grammar and yet its extensive repertoire includes bold experimentations and collaborations with artists of other traditions. Over the years Abhinaya Dance Company has worked with San Jose Taiko; the Balinese ensemble, Gamelan Sekar Jeya; Larry Reed’s ShadowLight Productions, and many others. These collaborations serve to introduce Bharatanatyam to new audiences while helping enhance multicultural understanding. Finally, both Rasika and Mythili are emphatic about the role of the Abhinaya community—a devoted group of current and former students and their families—who have nurtured the school through the years.
When talking about the 35th anniversary concert, Mythili points out that the performance of “Nritya Dhaara” will reflect Abhinaya’s commitment to both tradition and innovation. Love Exquisite will take the audience on a journey through various stages of love – from the first stirrings of emotion to intense longing, the agony of separation and finally the bliss of union. In the second half of the show, dancers will portray mankind’s atrocities against nature with an aim to raise awareness of environmental issues and the need for preservation. Featuring fifteen dancers and a live orchestra consisting of veteran Bay Area musicians, the concert promises to be another sensory treat from a cherished Bay Area institution with an illustrious past, and thanks to a new generation of highly trained, imaginative and dynamic dancers, a bright future.