Celebrating IWF with Kiruthika

International Women's Day interview with Kiruthika Rathnaswami

Tell us a little about you.

My name is Kiruthika Rathanaswami and I was born in Pondicherry, India.  For over 30 years now, I have lived in Canada of which most of my time has been spent in Vancouver.  Right from a young age I have always had a passion and interest for physical activity and movement.  It was quite evident early on itself that this was the area of studies I would also pursue in University. I completed my undergraduate degree in Human Kinetics from the University of British Columbia and a Master of Arts from McGill University. My research study examined the barriers and facilitators to physical activity participation among First Generation South Asian women.  I currently live in Edmonton, Alberta where I work as the Early Stages Program Director for Volleyball Alberta.

For the past 22 years I have been under the mentorship and guidance of Jai Govinda, Artistic Director of Mandala Arts and Culture Society in Vancouver.  I completed my Bharatanatyam arangetram (graduation) at the Jai Govinda Dance Academy in 2004 and since then have been a part of many of Mandala’s professional productions and presentations as a soloist, and ensemble.  I have performed in Canada and the United States at Festivals such as such as Canada Dance Festival, Gait to the Spirit Festival, Horizon Series, Feats Festival, HH11 Dance Festival, Next fest, Baltimore Dance Invitational, New Works Dance All Sorts, Discover Dance Noon Series, Solo: A Festival of Dance and most recently for the 2019 Chinook Series Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival.

I am premiering a new Bharatanatyam show at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre on March 7 & March 8, 2019.  For this presentation I have received support from the Edmonton Arts Council, Mandala Arts & Culture Society, and the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.  I have been working with Choreographer Jai Govinda, Artistic Director of Mandala Arts and Culture Society and recipient of both the 2014 “Mayor’s Arts Awards-Honouree/Dance” and 2006 Dance Centre’s “Isadora Award” for the past year and a half on this production.  The show opens with a salutation to the sun god, and then follows with choreographies based on the theme of love, revealing the sometime hidden erotica facets of poetry and music in the Indian classical dance forms. The music was recorded in India by one of today’s top vocalist and music conductor, Balasubramanya Sharma/ Bangalore.  I have also hired the visual support and design of Sridar Elumalai to present the show with the use of multi-media to enhance the experience for the audience. This new production premiered at the opening night of the 2019 Chinook Series Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival, curated by Good Women Dance Collective on February 7th and 8th in Edmonton.

What does the International Women's Day 2019 campaign theme: #BalanceforBetter mean for you in your Personal and Professional life?

I think it is very important regardless of what you identify yourself as to be able to be live in a gender-balanced world where one can live, work, and achieve all our goals and ambitions.  It is important we create that balanced environment and not deny the opportunities or access or place stereotypes on people because of who they identify themselves as. 

I have always maintained a balance between both my passions, dance and my career.  I believe #BalanceForBetter is what we all strive to create within us and hope too that the society we live in embraces each one’s strengths and accomplishments regardless of their gender.

When and how has your passion towards dance started? How old were you when you first began dancing and when have you started performing?

From a very young age I have always had a passion and interest for sports and physical activity.  I had a very active childhood growing up and was involved in school sports throughout my elementary and high school years. 

At the same time, I was an active participant in the South Asian Community performing cinema and folk dances at various cultural events.  It was in Grade 4, that I was formally introduced to bharata natyam and enrolled at the Jai Govinda Dance Academy in Vancouver.

 In bharata natyam or any structured dance form there is a curriculum that one must go through. After a certain number of years, I began the preparation for my Arangetram (graduation).  It was during this time, I started making a connection between the team sports I had played, to dance and the similar training and hours one must spend.  Post-Arangetram, I started devoting more time to learning and developing the qualities it takes to be a performer.  I worked with Jai Govinda and learnt new repertoires and slowly started developing my identity as a dancer.

Since 2004, I have represented Mandala Arts & Culture Society as both a soloist and group performer.

From being passionate about dance since childhood please narrate your love story with the classical dance form?

Since I have always enjoyed dancing, it just felt natural to be in formal institution to learn it.  I don’t think I have ever not been dancing since I started learning Bharatanatyam.  It is apart of my identity and who I am today. 

Bharatanatyam encompasses the entire body, from the top of your head, down to the ends of your fingertips, to the bottom of your feet.  I find it so fascinating the beauty this art form creates with the body.  When I am dancing there is a feeling that over takes me that makes me forget about everything else that is going on in the world and just for that second, I can let the body, mind and soul be connected.  I also love the physicality and strength as well as the gracefully and emotions Bharatanatyam showcases.

You represent a nation and its culture internationally through the medium of dance. What are the everyday challenges that you face as a woman in the industry?

As a woman in this industry or any industry for that matter, we are always striving to push through the stereotypes or guilt feeling that if we are doing something that focuses solely on us and our goals and ambitions, we are neglecting other aspects that a Woman should prioritize on like family or kids.

I think there so many successful women who have balanced their careers, family and accomplished their personal goals as well.  It is important to surround yourself with people who bring positivism into your life and support and encourage you. We live in a male dominate society and there is still of a lot of challenges women face each day.

Often the challenge for most women starts right within their own family, therefore change needs to happen from the home before it can be seen in the society. I have been very fortunate that my parents have been very supportive and understanding and have raised me in an environment sans gender stereotypes.

How do you feel about dance now? Has taking Indian Classical dance lessons taught you something besides the art form itself?

Besides just learning the art form itself, through dance I have learnt a lot about myself.  One of the biggest skills I have learnt is self-discipline.  I have learnt that if you want to pursue or achieve anything in life you must put in the hard work and dedication.  Today, we are all after immediate gratification.  We want things to happen right away and if it doesn’t, we move on.  But you need to devote the time and energy to the process of learning and growing.  If you are genuine in what you put in it will come back to you

Through the art form I also have made some amazing friends and connections all over the world.  It is wonderful to see everyone evolve and take dance forward in their own ways.  I believe dance is so individualist that there is a space for everyone to create their own identity through it.

With so many contemporary dance forms arising from all parts of the world, do you think the traditional dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and Odissi has scope to live

I believe so.  I find that classical dance forms like bharata natyam, kathak or ballet are so rooted in structure that if you have a strong foundation in a structured dance it gives you so much scope to explore and create movement.  Also, the word contemporary what does it really mean?  I believe the bharata natyam I do today is contemporary as I have learnt, performed and developed as an artist here in North America.  Therefore, my experience is in the present and here.

How do you think a traditional art form such as Indian Classical dance can be made more appealing to a westernized audience

I don’t think it is about how can we make Indian classical dance more appealing to the Western Audience but any audience for that matter, since even within the South Asian Community, many may not find it interesting or appealing.  Most South Asian children are enrolled in bharata natyam classes at a young age because it teaches them about their culture, and it is activity that other kids are participating in.  But bharata natyam is so much more then “teaching culture” in fact I find that introducing bharata natyam as teaching culture is wrong to even begin with.  There is a huge South Asian population in Vancouver, but the number of people that may attend a classical dance show are very few and even those that are practicing the art form don’t often come.  I believe we still need to educate people more about the art form.

Picture Courtesy: www.kiruthika.net

The last few years I have primarily danced in festivals where I was the only South Asian dancer.  I have had some of the most enriching conversations with audience members after the performance because they are so curious about the dance form and want to understand and learn more about it.  

They are blown away by the movement vocabulary and the story telling of the art form. I have been very fortunate to have been mentored by him for over 22 years and been able to dance to his beautiful choreography. I have been fortunate that Jai Govinda’s choreography and his understanding of the difference audiences and what will appeal to each has been a huge advantage when I present his work to a westernized audience.

You have been performing Bharatanatyam in many countries. Was there any other memorable or exceptional performance you would like to share with us? If you could share with us your list of dance teachers and inspirations whom you count for this success.

There are have been a lot of performances that have been memorable for me.  There have been many performances that I have been the only South Asian performer in a festival, full of other Western dance styles.  Each of these performances has been memorable because many come up to me after and thank me for giving them a new movement experience.  They are so fascinated with the dance form and its dynamism and complexity or have been able to connect in some way or another to the storytelling.

If there is one person that has been the most instrumental in my dance journey it is my teacher Jai Govinda.  His dedication, selflessness and sincerity to the art form is what has contributed to my development and growth for me as an artist.  He has nurtured and provided me with many opportunities to perform.  Through his guidance, I have gained knowledge about performing, teaching, curating, and collaborating. 

He also understands me as a dancer and knows my strengths and weaknesses and is my biggest critic.  He also has provided his students with professional development opportunities by bringing some of best bharatanatyam dancers from around the world for performances and workshops to allow us to continuously learn and develop not just with him but other experts in the field. 

On International Women’s Day, What piece of advice would you give to so many young boys and girls of our country want to pursue dance as a career but aren’t allowed by their families. If you could tell them, how dance can be made a full-time profession with success.

Picture Courtesy: Kiruthika R

If you want to achieve anything in life, you need to believe in yourself before anyone else does.  You need to genuinely have the desire and passion.  If you work hard and devote the time to the process it will pay off.  Also, it is important to surround yourself and seek out positive support and mentors.  Mentor ship is big part of it and having someone that you can share, learn and talk to is important. As a parent I think it is important to encourage your children and their talents in whatever field it may be as if they have a strong liking for it you know they will be successful.

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