A Chat with Malathi and Lakshmi Iyengar…

   This is the draft of the interview with Malathi and Lakshmi Iyengar that I did for http://www.carnaticdarbar.com/

 Malathi Iyengar, choreographer and artistic director of Rangoli Dance Company based in Los Angeles inspires a lot of aspiring dancers with her astounding choreographic skills and excellence in Bharathanatyam. What makes Malathi very special is her effortless balancing of Home and Career. She truly reassures the women who wonder if such a fine balance will ever be a reality… While moving and living abroad may have a lot of stress associated with it, Art and Culture can bring in a little more than just the stability that one craves for…  
 Malathi was nurtured in an artistic environment amidst tradition and art. Her parents Sharada and Venkatachalan were actively involved in not only pursuing their own training in vocal music and the violin, but were also key figures in organizing music concerts, religious discourses called Harikathas and Gamaka Rupakas for Rama Navami Festival and other community events in a small village called Soladevanahalli (near Hesaraghatta, home of Nrityagram) in Bangalore, India. Her marriage to Suresh Iyengar, a practicing dentist in Los Angeles at the age of nineteen took her to LA.  Suresh is an accomplished sculptor and a visual artist. He supported Malathi’s passion for the fine arts. She began her dancing lessons along with her daughter Lakshmi with Guru Narmada. Her dedicated journey in the domain of Bharathanatyam has been instrumental in the establishment of the Rangoli Foundation of Art and Culture.


Rangoli Foundation for Art & Culture, a non profit organization was established in 1985 to realize a creative vision of presenting visual and performing arts of India.  Rangoli, the traditional Indian Visual art symbolizes Beauty, Hope and Tradition.  And it is from this Visual Art that the Rangoli Foundation derives its inspiration and has presented a wide variety of dance performances, festivals, music concerts, guest artists, visual arts exhibits, residencies, master classes and staged several productions ever since its inception. Rangoli Foundation is committed to developing cultural awareness and inter-cultural dialogue through the artistic expressions of dance, music, theatre and visual arts. The foundation brings renowned tradition bearers, dancers and musicians from India to the United States, often for the first time to work with company artists. In August 2004, Rangoli Foundation published ‘Dance & Devotion’ the first book written by Malathi Iyengar. Rangoli looks forward to celebrating its sliver jubilee in 2010.

Malathi  and Lakshmi Iyengar talk to us through this email interview. A few of the questions were addressed to Malathi and a few others were directed to Lakshmi. The mother and daughter dancers also share their hopes and vision, showing us how tradition and innovation can complement and supplement each other…

1.      How hard was it to adapt to living in the US after being raised in a village near Bangalore, India?

Malathi : I came to US in 1974 and there were not too many Indians at that time. It took several years to get accustomed to a foreign place because I was young, did not have friends or my immediate family members here. After I joined college and work, it got better as I started to have some identity, connections, and friends.

2.      I have read that you started learning Bharathanatyam along with your daughter, just out of interest and to be in a better position to coach and guide her. Tell us about this learning experience and what made you take it up professionally.

 Malathi: I was in my early thirties when I started dancing along with my daughter. Initially it was only to help her with the practice. Slowly I got hungry for more knowledge and experience. My teacher Guru Narmada was the main person who encouraged me to keep at it and take up performing, teaching, and also sat next to me and had me do nattuvangam for my daughter’s program.  She was generous and very giving.


3.      How did you manage your time while taking up higher learning at the University of California, Los Angeles? You were a dance student, teacher, and most importantly a wife and a mother all at one time!!!

 Malathi: Going back to do graduate program at UCLA was one of the most challenging periods in my life as I had to wear many hats and still be polite and courteous to all. This is mainly because I had to be a student all the time at home and outside of home.  It was also the most fruitful experience as it opened my eyes to endless possibilities. Had I not gone to do MFA in Choreography, I would have not had that edge or another perspective to dance making. I had to stay focused and have single minded devotion to learning. My family was very supportive, yet we all had our moments. When I went to UCLA in seventies, I pursued Graphic Design. Later in during 93 – 96, I concentrated on Choreography. I feel visual arts and performing arts go together. My experiences at UCLA both times have been very profound and necessary.

4.      Your choreographies have a geometrical aspect about them, not only are the spatial arrangements very balanced and neat, but the costumes never scream for unwarranted attention. They look like paintings/rangoli drawn in space. Tell us about your choreography process and how your interest in visual arts helps you with this.

Lets watch a Rangoli Dance Company titled  “Sacred Geometry”

Malathi: I generally like neatness in dance. I do not like clutter or meaningless movement. A strong choreographic piece begins with a strong intent and blossoms further. Elements like time, harmony, expression, body language, balance, level changes, speed, silence, grouping, space, shapes, jumps, leaps, transitions, all matter.  I put myself in the auditorium very frequently while I am choreographing. I often question myself – Will I sit through this dance ?

Pacing is very important in choreography as it affects both cast and audience.  I try not to have hierarchy in my works unless a particular character commands attention. I feel as a dance maker, it is important to make each cast member look, feel, and dance his/her very best regardless of the duration of the piece or the stage time given to a particular dancer.

I don’t get all ideas in one day. The thoughts come sporadically or sometimes in random sequences. I usually jot them down or try them on some of our dancers. Before I go to the studio to teach the choreography, I generally have multiple images and ideas. Sometimes ideas generate after seeing a dancer move in a particular way. I teach quite a bit in one session. I pack lot of material in a class. I give generously and I expect a lot from a dancer too.

I usually develop scripts, write out all scenes, entries, exits, rhythmic structure, narrative sequences, and then get music composed. Usually I need 2 – 3 years to develop and stage a piece.

Having  a visual arts background is very essential. The imagery and graphics we create or see on paper, canvas, or sculpture can be seen and created in movement too. They go hand in hand. A dancer must look at the positive and the negative space to shape movement.

I am inspired very much by the European architecture, industrial, and product designs, specially by the Bauhaus School of Design. It has influenced my choreography quite often.

Most of the costumes since 2002 have been designed by my daughter, Lakshmi Iyengar. Her background is in dance, theatre, production, Italian language & literature, and visual arts. She has a keen eye for design and style. She creates a full visual specification for the choreography including costumes and ornaments. We both like the dance to make a statement. Costumes and other body extensions are only meant to enhance movement.

My husband Suresh Iyengar creates sets made out of stone, wood, metal, and Styrofoam. His work is completely traditional and fits some of our works very well.

Now Lakshmi, Malathi’s daughter joins us in this conversation. Lakshmi Iyengar, a Bharatanatyam dancer is the disciple of Malathi Iyengar, guru Narmada, & Bragha Bessell. Lakshmi has also trained in Odissi from Nandita Behera. Lakshmi has performed extensively all over the USA, Canada, and India, including the December music and dance festival season in Chennai and Bangalore. As a lead dancer for the Rangoli Dance Company, she has performed in all choreographic works of Iyengar. Lakshmi, a recipient of the Alliance for California Traditional Artists 2004 Award, has received multiple Lester Horton dance award nominations for outstanding achievement in Performance. With two decades of dance experience and training in film and video production, Lakshmi has been a production designer for Rangoli productions since 2001. Lakshmi has studied Italian literature and theater at the Universita’ di Bologna, Italy and worked for the Cineteca di Bologna. Lakshmi has a B.A. in Theater (Production Design) and Italian from the University of California, Los Angeles. Lakshmi is currently pursuing a degree in Masters in Entertainment Industry Management at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. 
The Los Angeles Times wrote “…Iyengar brought technical skill and emotional involvement to the solo, adroitly matching steps to the rhythms of the accompaniment in some moments but elsewhere managing to float free of the music, her concentration taking her deeply into a world of gods, demons and miraculous transcendence.” Visit Lakshmi’s website at www.lakshmiyengar.com

 How easy is it to learn a traditional Indian Art in Alien soil?
 Lakshmi: Learning a traditional Indian art in another country is not an easy journey; it takes a special kind of commitment, passion and determination to continue pursuing the art form for any number of years. I would like to note that my parents played a vital role in helping me cultivate my dedication for dance. Seeing that we are so removed from India, I can understand how one would lose interest in their artistic career, however I strongly feel that the people closest to you can create a strong support system.  

 Did you feel comfortable of this fact among your peers in the earlier stage?
: By nature, I’ve always been a rather shy individual, especially when it comes to sharing my skills with others.  I think I spent a great deal of my adolescence finding a comfortable ground upon which to share my love for dance with my peers, it was difficult because Bharatanatyam is so different from anything my peers had ever seen before. Today I find it is much easier to share this part of my life with my friends and colleagues, essentially because we have all matured and developed our own level of respect for the arts.
How do your classmates view this today now that you have established yourself as a professional artiste?
Lakshmi :
I’m very fortunate to have the kind of support and encouragement from my peers, especially because most of them are non-Indian, and have very little exposure to the classical Indian arts. Yet they come purely to support my family and our love for the arts.
How is the interaction among upcoming dancers in US?
Lakshmi :
I find the interaction between upcoming dancers in the US to be a developing relationship. Because we are all second-generation artists who have unknowingly become keepers of Indian tradition and culture, there is a special connection we all share though we may not necessarily be close friends. There is certainly a healthy coexistence amongst artists born and raised here because we understand what it takes both in India and in the US, to be considered ‘established artists.’
Have you chosen to be a full time dancer/teacher/choreographer?
Lakshmi :
I have not chosen to be a full time choreographer, dancer or teacher. This does not mean that I will ever stop dancing. I personally feel as though it is important to establish security not only in the arts but in our careers as well, therefore I have chosen to divide my time between dance and work.
How do you allocate time for practice?
Lakshmi :
The classical arts require attention and time, therefore it must be taken seriously and one must simply make time for it. I like to practice in the morning; I feel it works the best for me because I feel the most alert in the mornings and it further creates time to proceed with the rest of my day. 
How similar or how different are your approaches to Bharathanatyam and choreography?
Malathi: I think I have shared my thoughts regarding this in part 1 of the interview. I approach Bharatanatyam as a way of life and culture and am unable to separate from my daily activities. In order to create, I must recognize and feel a certain urge within me. The need to choreograph or create a narrative or a technique piece is a divine process and it sprouts when I feel this spark or urge.
Lakshmi: I think my mother and I are similar yet different in our approach, I believe we have the same taste in what works and what do not, however our individual methods of approach vary.
Do you agree that it is easier for NRI kids/ foreigners to attain physical perfection and proficiency in Nritta, whereas it is harder for them to grasp and present the abhinaya rich pieces?
 Lakshmi: I agree that it is easier for NRI students to attain proficiency in Nritta over abhinaya, however it must be made clear that it is not impossible. I often feel as though abhinaya is like learning a new language, and the best way to master a new language is to live and experience the culture from which the language originates. With that being said, I believe presenting abhinaya pieces with proficiency can be achieved by immersing oneself in India’s culture – along with a great deal of practice of course!
 Indian and Western Audience- Do you find a difference between them?
Malathi: The audience is different and as performers and choreographers we receive different types of feedback and fulfillment. The works also have to be catered many times according to the audience.
Tell us about the teaching methodology you adapt in your dance school. How varied is it from your Guru’s style?
My guru enjoyed and specialized in creating pieces for a soloist. She was a prolific creator and in an instant would come up with umpteen varieties. She choreographed according to the strengths of a dancer and therefore custom designed the dances. She was a master in her abilities. My style of teaching is a combination of various influences.  I like choreographing both solo and group works.  I am very much inspired by my guru Narmada’s working ways and methodologies drawn from my graduate studies at UCLA. I have arrived at a path that is comfortable for me.
Your upcoming projects?
I am visualizing our company’s upcoming 25th Anniversary celebrations in 2010.

I sincerely thank Malathi and Lakshmi Iyengar for graciously consenting to do this interview and sharing their experiences/views/thoughts with us, despite their packed schedule.

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