In Practice: 40 Years of Abhinaya Dance Company of San José

By Sima Belmar

Group of female Indian dancers mid-movement on stage

Joyful movement exhibited through Nritta in Bharatanatyam, photo by Santhosh Selvaraj

At one point during our Zoom interview, Mythili Kumar, multi-award-winning Founder, Artistic Director, and matriarchal authority of Abhinaya Dance Company of San José, demonstrated the Bharatanatyam mudra (gesture) for “king.” Fingers bent at diverse angles, and with a slight cock to the wrist, she lifted the gesture above her head and began to explain the importance of sattvika: “This is the king—it’s not just a crown but denotes the king. The gesture is only one part of showing the king. If you are doing the king and you are looking elsewhere, you are not actually feeling the king. You have to also feel it within yourself and exhibit in your dance as a king. That’s what I mean by sattvika, the internalization of the emotion.” As she spoke, this 65-year-old grandmother transformed into royalty. Rolling her shoulder slightly forward, turning her face slightly away from the camera, and arching an eyebrow, even from her seated position in her home in San Jose, transmitting virtually to my desktop screen, I could feel the embodiment. The fact that she had her computer camera tilted in such a way that her figure appeared to be looking down on me from a regal perspective only heightened an effect so clearly produced by her decades of practicing sattvika.

Abstract Rhythmic movement in Bharathanatyam, Artist: Anjana Dasu, Photo by Mukund Gunti

In her excellent book, Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor, scholar-practitioner Priya Srinivasan elaborates on the performance of gesture in Bharatanatyam: “The mudra means nothing without the emotions on the face and the bodily gestures to give it texture and context. The dancer thus learns to communicate inner emotions through externalizing them. Her eyebrows, her eyes, her chin, her lips, her neck, and her head become exquisitely sensitive as she begins feeling her nerve endings at the sensory points. She learns to manipulate the eyebrows to convey sorrow but knows she must feel the emotion within so that it does not appear as caricature. But it takes time” (34). In other words, Bharatanatyam is an art of transformation, a normatively solo art form that balances convincing characterization with creative self-expression and interpretation. I recently witnessed a performance by Bharatanatyam dancer Prehelika Rajagopalan and can attest to the power of a perfectly executed nostril flare.

Abhinaya is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, 40 years of growing and sharing Bharatanatyam in the Bay Area. The upcoming performance is called Natya Sadhana, Dedication to Dance. I spoke with Mythili, her daughter Rasika Kumar, and company dancer Anjana Dasu about the company’s humble beginnings in the family garage, its development into a wildly popular performance ensemble, and Bharatanatyam’s historical roots in South India.

Sima Belmar: I’ve been writing about dance in the Bay Area since the late 1990s and I’m embarrassed to admit that I know very little about your company. I regret how siloed I’ve been in the forms of my training. When does the story of Abhinaya begin?

Mythili Kumar: I came to the US in 1978 as a Rotary International Ambassador to study nutrition at UC Davis. I married my husband in 1979 and settled in the South Bay. There were already two teachers, one in Berkeley, who had been teaching for a couple of years, and another in south San Jose. When I first came, I had been dancing a lot in India professionally, I was doing two performances a month. Then I came and was having two performances a year. So someone suggested I teach community children, so I started in January 1980 with a small number.

Sima: How did you find your students?

Mythili: They were primarily my friends’ children. I had classes at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View where I would have a couple of non-Indian children and adults but it was mostly Indian American children because it’s not just a year or two. The children stay for a minimum of 8 to 10 years. It’s such a long process so even though I’ve had non-Indian children join, after some years, peer pressure takes over or the support is not fully there or some other activities take precedence, and they drop off. The Indian American children stay on.

Rasika Kumar: So much of Bharatanatyam is based in mythology, spirituality, and religion. If your family is versed in that they can support it and give context for it. If you don’t have that it’s hard to stick to it or feel connected to it.

Mythili: Many non-Indian people in India are learning the dance. They have knowledge so they can stick to it, they have a passion for learning. But as a child you need a huge support system to keep you for the 8 to 10 years.

Sima: Makes me think of soccer moms, Bharatanatyam moms.

Anjana Dasu: There’s a big difference between learning Bharatanatyam vs. being on a soccer team. It’s a lot less structured. There’s this one big milestone, the arangetram [solo debut recital that marks the culmination of training], so at some point it has to be about the individual and their interest and passion for the art form. Whereas team sports are really about the dynamic you have with the group, game schedule, and they’re integrated with school life. This is very much outside of school so there has to be some framework in your family or some intrinsic motivation to help you continue pursuing that for a long period of time.

Mythili: My first arangetram was presented in 1983. This girl had learned from somebody else then came to me. That’s why in three years she was ready for it. She had had 6 years of training and was 13 years old at that time. Anjana started when she was nine. Her mom was also a dancer in India.

Sima: Where in India did you grow up?

Mythili: My family comes from Nagercoil, the southernmost Indian district of Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu, about 10 miles from the tip of India. But I started dancing at 8 years old in Mumbai and then moved to New Delhi, which is in Northern India, and then to the southern state of Hyderabad. Bharatanatyam originated further south, in Tamil Nadu, the Madras Presidency, which is a huge area. There was a lot of movement from the south to the north of India for work, starting in the 1940s. The South Indian communities brought Bharatanatyam with them first to Mumbai then Delhi then Kolkata.

Rasika Kumar: Otherwise everything is very regional. The nine classical dances are regional, the majority of the people who do those dances are from that region. Of those, Bharatanatyam and Kathak are the most performed.

Sima: How long did it take to build your audience?

Mythili: My husband was a musician (and an assistant professor of computer science) at Stanford. He had this huge group of musicians that performed together. So I was able to train local musicians and doing that helped create new pieces. Just doing the same old thing I’d done before to recorded music was an end.

My first arangetram turned out to be very successful and I did quite a few. Then in 1986, a woman from India took all the students I had trained and did a production with them. I thought, Oh my goodness! Why is she taking all my students? I trained them! So out of this thing to protect my students and my work, I took 6 or 7 of them, and decided to put a production together called Shiva the Cosmic Dancer. This was based on a manuscript I saw in an exhibit based on Shiva at the Philadelphia Museum. Based on that exhibition I did a new production. Shiva the Cosmic Dancer turned out to be a great production, people still remember it. The community came together to build all these props to make it a spectacular production, which was one of its kind, the first time that everybody came together. The company started developing from there.

Sima: Is that when you started performing outside of the community?

Mythili: Shiva the Cosmic Dancer was seen by May Chung who was the president of a new Asian heritage council. She was the one who said I should be applying for grants. She was the person who made us apply to the CAC and the local arts council in Silicon Valley and set us on that track. Once you apply, once you put a project forward, you have to fulfill it. That got the ball rolling. We started doing one production every other year. And we were performing at the Ethnic Dance Festival. I presented our students and performed a couple of solos. In 1990, my grant writer said I should be making this a non-profit and take it to the next level. So at each stage somebody comes and pushes you to the next level. We became a non-profit organization in 1990.

Sima: It sounds like your local community and some of the broader Bay Area dance community really stepped up to support your work.

Mythili: Yes, but if my husband was not there to support me I would not have been able to go on from production to production. And the girls [daughters Rasika and Malavika] were very interested. When I was teaching class, I would teach at 5:30 in the morning so they wouldn’t get disturbed and I would be able to still take care of their breakfast and all that. At 5:30, you’d see them coming down the stairs. Both of them would sit in the garage with me while I was teaching. They grew up with it and it became part of our family. My second daughter, Malavika, is also an essential part of the orchestra ensemble, doing the rhythmic vocalizations and cymbals. At our 30th anniversary my husband, the computer scientist, joked, “I have 30 years of lighting and sound experience.”

Sima: What does Abhinaya mean?

Mythili: Abhinaya is an ancient Sanskrit word that means to communicate, to carry something towards somebody. It’s part of every dance vocabulary, every dance book. And you communicate in all Indian dance in four different ways: through the body, including face, hands, fingers; the music, including the lyrics and speech; the costume—in Bharatanatyam it will not be a specific costume unless you have to dress up as a king or something like that, we usually have a generic costume that should be able to project any character, from an old man to an old woman to a child to an evil demon; and sattvika, internalizing emotions and bringing them out. These are the four kinds of communication. Many schools are called Abhinaya. You can’t copyright it!

Sima: What are some of the principles of Bharatanatyam movement? I recognize percussive footwork and angularity, extreme flexion. What do those movement principles make you feel in your bodies or think about metaphorically?

Aiming the arrow, Artist: Rasika Kumar, Photo by Mukund Gunti

Rasika: The way I think about it there are two kinds of movement, abstract (nritta) and expressional (nritya). In a lot of the “traditional” pieces, it’s very clear which you’re doing. In the abstract dance, it’s just about the beauty of the movement and how it connects with the music; the gestures don’t have meaning, they’re just there for aesthetic enjoyment. A solo always starts and ends with the abstract. The expressional part is where it gets really interesting and distinguished from a lot of other art forms that I’ve seen because you’re not just saying what the lyrics say, you’re elaborating within it, weaving narratives and stories within it. In the main item of a repertoire (varnam), the lyrics will usually be devotional: Oh Lord, please appear before me—something like that. There’s not much there but it’s the dancer’s job to interpret that, and I’ve seen dancers who weave 20 minutes out of that one line, so if the Lord is Shiva, for example, it becomes, Oh Lord, come in front of me with your matted locks, in this city where your temple is, this is what the city looks like. The dancer extrapolates these things from the one line of the lyric. That’s the intellectual part that’s so fascinating. Being able to communicate that succinctly to the audience too. The best practitioners that I’ve seen have an imagination that is unbelievable. They really go deep. The abstract part is very physical. You practice a lot. It’s about stamina. You do a lot of repetition. But with the expressional stuff you just sit and think and read and research. It’s a lot of thought before you pull it together.

Sima: Is the expressional part improvised in performance?

Rasika: It can be. Historically it was. But a lot of that came from the strength of those dancers; they had all of this research in them. It was much more part of their discipline, especially if they grew up with it and were doing it day in and day out, unlike us who do it outside of school and other things. Very few practitioners today can rely on that sort of improvisation. Some parts may be improvised but you have a thesis statement for each piece—here’s the stance I’m taking on this one.

Anjana: What Rasika said is exactly right in terms of the structure of the art form. One thing I’d add is when we’re working with an ensemble, it may actually blur the lines between these two aspects. For example, in our production, if we’re depicting the ocean, it’s a concept and we’re using the body movements, typical stances, and the shapes and ensemble to create that imagery. So sometimes the abstract part of the dance still can have some meaning and take on a different vibe for the group.

Sima: This discussion of the meaning or meaninglessness of gesture reminds me of the continuum of gesture in everyday life as described by gesture theorists like Adam Kendon and David McNeill, from full-on gestural languages like ASL to gesture as supportive of the communicative act. Would someone who doesn’t know the story or form be able to distinguish between the abstract and expressional gestures? And how does it feel kinesthetically to do those different gestures? Does something happen in the experience of the dancer that reveals that line?

Rasika: I definitely make a distinction between when I’m performing the traditional repertoire versus when I’m doing my own work. In the traditional repertoire, there are these sections, this is abstract, this is not. Once you know that pattern or even if it’s explained before the piece, you can kind of see it, it’s pretty clear. A lot of people creating new work do so in that traditional structure because people understand it, they know what to expect—now I’m in a rhythmic section, this is not pushing the plot forward, now the plot’s moving. But what we’ve done and is part of our aesthetic and how we pull it together, all of it is moving the narrative forward even if it feels like conceptual or abstract and not he said this and she said that. That’s our point of view.

Sima: Say more about the gestural language of Bharatanatyam.

Mythili: We have 28 single-hand gestures and 24 double-hand gestures that mean something. So when I go to a school and demonstrate, we start out saying, this is the moon, this is the flower, this is the bee, this is beckon. So we explain those gestures so that people immediately can then tell what they’re looking at. But you don’t just say beckon. If I use it with my body and my hands and my face and everything [she’s demonstrating here], then I communicate that even if you don’t know the meaning of the gesture.

Sima: That was riveting!

Mythili: Even our Indian audience doesn’t know that this is a king or this is a demon. My husband didn’t know a thing. He’d seen one performance before he came to the US from like 3000 seats away. So I have to explain it. Everyone needs to be educated to get it. The only part anyone can get is the abstract rhythm. If you’re joyfully dancing and you’re filling up the stage, and you’re jumping, sitting, and turning, that joy of movement, you can express that. But anything deeper you have to know something.

Sima: What’s changed doing this form over forty years in the US?

Mythili: There is an explosion of Indian dance schools and Indian dancers. So many have come over the last 10 years and they all danced quite a lot in India. There’s a tremendous amount of dance activity going on here. In the 80s, there were four or five of us teaching, and in the 90s maybe 10 more joined. Now I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t 500 dance teachers around. In one weekend, there are three performances I could go to. Sometimes I don’t go to anything because I’m too tired thinking about it! One day last year when we were having our arangetram rehearsals on a Saturday, there were six other groups practicing in that same big studio.

Sima: What’s your relationship with San Francisco? Does it mean anything to be in San Jose and not San Francisco? I’m a bridge-and-tunnel girl, so I like being on the periphery of a city center, but I also know I’ve been to San Jose exactly once since moving to the Bay Area in 1993.

Rasika: For a long time, we were always like, how do we get into the SF scene? I’ve performed at Counterpulse a few times but it’s a totally different audience. And it’s really hard to do a single production both in San Jose and San Francisco. Also, in San Jose the theaters we typically perform at are 400-500 seats. In San Francisco, the theaters are smaller. We tried but it didn’t seem like it would take us farther. It wasn’t going to get us more audience. And even the visibility of that world, what benefit is that giving us? We were really lucky to be nominated for some Izzies and won a couple. But in those cases, it was luck that someone from the committee came down here to see our work and felt strongly enough to advocate for it. The audience we’re serving is really in the South Bay. The majority of the dancers are in Fremont and south.

Sima: Do you want to offer some incentive for SF, East, and North bay audiences to battle the traffic down to San Jose? Or are you like, we don’t need you, we pack the house every time!

Mythili: The main thing that is happening right now is our main choreographer is this right here, Rasika! I’m taking a back seat. I’m too busy with my grandsons. And I really think people should see that because she brings in a lot of new ideas. A lot of the dynamic choreography is by Rasika. And we have new music by Prema Ramamurthy, a composer from India who worked with me in the 70s and now works with a company in Minneapolis. It’s live music with exemplary Bay Area musicians, including my daughter Malavika, who does the rhythmic vocalization.

Rasika: What I’m always trying to do is to create productions that anybody can understand, just in the movement quality. I’m born here in America, this is my life here. Straddling the two cultures has always been the question. The new work, Through the Eyes of the Apsaras, takes its position from the perspective of the apsaras, these celestial dancing maidens that were created for the purpose of the gods’ pleasure. They’re born into this world with all these opportunities but then are manipulated by the gods. What does that mean for them? I’m always curious how people not versed in Bharatanatyam absorb it.

Anjana: The dance aside, I think that this event will be a piece of Bay Area cultural history. I think the immigrant experience is a huge part of Bharatanatyam in the Bay Area. The reason there’s a proliferation of so many dancers now is because people are coming here and taking this thing that is very rooted in the culture of ancient customs, bringing it here, exposing new audiences, but also finding their tribe with the people who feel like it’s part of their identity as Indian Americans.

Rasika: This is the touch point back to the culture. These classical art forms become the connection.

This article was written for the April 2020 issue of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to