Archive for the ‘Dance/Arts’ Category

A couple of years ago, a photojournalism graduate student from Boston University named Varsha Yeshwant approached Chhandika, the dance group with which I am closely affiliated, asking for permission to create a multi-media project around our dance. Specifically, she said: “I want this to serve as a small window into the world of Kathak and the culture of the dance outside India. I want it to show the involvement of the students and the teachers in order to pursue a form of dance that is not widely known by the society here.”

Below is the short result of this work. Take a moment (1:29 minutes, to be precise) to appreciate the simplicity of the scene, the peaceful atmosphere despite the pounding feet, the understated grace and integrity of the teacher, the sheer joy of simply being present that emanates from her and the students. There is nothing dazzling in the movements themselves, nor in the outfits—this was a series of informal practice sessions and classes with a mixed level group of students—but the overall effect is powerful. This is what our classes are all about, keeping something so special alive.


for the love of dance from Varsha Yeshwant on Vimeo.

The sunlight streaming onto the hardwood dance floor, the harmony of thousands of ankle bells in unison, the other-worldliness of the singing and movements, the red tassles of the bronze-colored hand cymbals, the warmth and dedication of the teacher, Gretchen Hayden, these images and feelings that Varsha captured are precisely what drew me in to class eleven years ago.

And yes, that’s me in one of the first shots. A side view of my pregnant self in 2010. Enough said.

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A couple of months ago, a friend—an artistic filmmaker—asked me: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, health and volunteering? She asked this not as a rhetorical question, but as someone who seemed truly to expect that I would have an answer for her. But the fact of the matter is, despite my having written one work of fiction and dreamed up the ideas for others amidst all those other responsibilities and activities, I have no idea. Really. It turns out that just because one has done something doesn’t mean one knows how to do it. Or at least, how to explain how to do it. Even to oneself.

I’m not sure what answer I gave her. I know I felt the need to give her some substance, some words of advice, a recipe she could hold onto and pull out whenever she does have children, a household that needs more tending, a cause for which she feels driven to volunteer, other demands on her time that take her away from her own creative work. That’s what I would have wanted had I been in her place, asking someone else. I suppose I made something up; it was probably neither eloquent nor useful nor satisfactory, although I know it was truthful. I have been to writers’ conferences in which a handful of established and successful authors have sat on a panel and fielded questions from hopeful writers, and on hearing their answers I’ve thought to myself: well, that’s not very helpful. And now I fear that, should I ever be honored enough to sit on such a panel, I will let others down in the same way. But I understand why.

It’s a question I ask myself a lot these days, and it comes in two parts. Part 1: How on Earth did I do it? And Part 2: How on Earth do I continue to do it? And now that I am no longer on the spot, that I have had some time to mull it over, I realize that the recipe is one that is unique to me. It’s a melange of my personality, my background, my circumstances. It won’t fit exactly for anyone else. There are no neat tablespoon measurements, no fixed stirring times. My ingredients:

Dogged—some might say stubborn—perseverance

The compulsion to use every shred of time toward accomplishing something

The belief that 20 minutes is enough time to accomplish something (this ingredient was given to me once I had children)

Patience (this was an ingredient I had to plant and nurture, not one I already had in my pantry)


(As you can see, none of these are particularly creative.)

I took all these things, and then I linked as many parts of my life as possible to some aspect of my creative pursuit: I take kathak dance classes (through which I get my exercise), I volunteer for the Chhandam Institute of Kathak Dance, I incorporated the dance into my novel, and I enrolled my older daughter in a class that I teach. I’d like to say that this was all the result of a well-thought out plan, but no. It’s just how things happened.

The truth of the matter is, I just cram it in wherever I can, between work-related conference calls and school pick-up, during the younger one’s nap times while the older one plays with a friend, at a café while rehydrating and having some lunch after a dance practice, in the evening after tucking the little ones into bed and before their father returns from his martial arts class. As Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, said in a March 2002 interview on Writer Unboxed: “All my life I’ve been doing my work in the intervals between making a living and living my life.” (And if I could write a book half as beautiful and haunting as hers, I would feel fulfilled.)

And yet my version of cramming it in “wherever I can” pales in comparison to what I’ve read from other writers. I don’t have daily word-count goals, I don’t write at a specific time of day or week, I don’t get up an hour before the children as many writers suggest. I don’t think much about my creative projects while doing other things like shopping for groceries, I don’t compose dialogues among my characters while driving, because during those times I usually have chatterbox children with me, or I’m planning out family logistics or meals, or I just want to let my brain float. I don’t tend to work once the kids are in bed because that is my time to spend with my husband, and to catch up on other things like reading and reconnecting with friends on the phone. And honestly, I don’t always feel inspired to be creative. The pressure to produce something in a limited time can be counter-productive. Sometimes I manage to set aside a couple of hours to work on my book, and my mind is blank. But for me the key is to honor my decision and make sure I use that time for something at least related to writing. I read agent and editor blogs, I think about a blog post of my own, I daydream about ways to market my book once it’s published.

There is much room for improvement, and for increased efficiency. And so, while I’m not unhappy with my system, I am curious, and would still ask the same question of others: how do you sustain a creative life or even a creative project in the midst of children, work, home, and the other demands on your time?

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A friend of mine posted on her Facebook page a link to a fascinating talk by Sir Ken Robinson about education and creativity. Fascinating, but, especially for a parent, worrisome, for it makes me feel that, with my daughters in regular, public schools, there is little hope of them retaining the creativity with which they were born. (Although my friend, who works in the field of education in a non-profit focused on improving schools, says that it is not depressing, as there are movements out there to reform the educational system. I pray that these movements make a difference in the next 15 years.)

The talk, which you may view here, and which is accompanied by expertly drawn and artistic animation which causes one really to pay attention to the presentation, is about changing education paradigms. Sir Ken Robinson, a professor of education and, according to his site, a leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources, argues that the current education system in most of the world was designed in, and created for, another time: the age of enlightenment, and the industrial revolution. It was based on an intellectual model of the mind that valued deductive reasoning, and a knowledge of the classics. What we refer to as “academic” ability. Today, there is still a production line mentality, he argues, in which students are educated in batches (by age), with a separation of subjects (math, literature, etc.) and a focus on standardized testing, on there being one right answer.

But we are now in a different time. Children are bombarded with stimuli. It is become clearer and clearer that children do not all learn in the same way at the same age. Some might benefit from group learning, others might learn best on their own. Some in the morning, some in the afternoon. And yet, we (at least in the United States) are moving more and more toward standardization.

Ken Robinson advocates moving away from standardization, and toward individualism and creativity. He points to studies that show that 98% of kindergarteners score at a “genius” level when it comes to divergent thinking, or the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question and lots of ways to interpret a question, the capacity for creativity. Five years later, the number is down to 50%.  And it continuse downward with time.

Oy. I look at 6 year old K, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of panic about the future. Right now she is super creative, with her ideas, with her words, with her drawings. She comes up with possible answers that I’d never think of, with original ideas. Even the way she dresses, the combinations of clothes she chooses, is creative. Then I imagine her five years from now, conforming to the standard outfits that are “in” for sixth graders, spouting values and opinions that she’s assimilated from the collective.

Perhaps this is too bleak a view to take. I like to think of myself as reasonably creative, as fairly adept in divergent thinking, and of course I followed the trends in school. (One could argue that I did so rather poorly, but that’s a whole other story.) But all this makes me want to think of ways to nurture and preserve that capacity in my daughters. How to do this? Do we as parents have any control over this? K wants to be an art teacher, which sounds fabulous to me. She knows that I write, that in this family we value creative writing. She’s learning to play guitar, and is aware that her father knows a lot about music. But… today in the car she commented on a route I took, saying “Mom, you took the long cut.” And before I could even think about it, I corrected her: “One doesn’t say long cut. One can say short cut, but there’s no such thing as a long cut.” Gah! What possessed me to say that? Why can’t there be a “long cut” just because it’s not a commonly accepted expression? So much for my divergent thinking. Sigh.

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K doesn’t like tags in clothing. (Who does?) They scratch her, and she always wants them taken out. (Why haven’t more clothing makers adopted the tagless system of printing the relevant information on the inside of the neckline?) A few days ago, we went clothing shopping, and she picked out a few items, including a long sleeved shirt with some kind of shiny design on the front. Yesterday morning, she came downstairs for breakfast, dressed, clutching the side of the shirt, looking contrite and teary-eyed.

“Mommy… something happened,” she said, coming up to me.

I understood immediately, but I asked anyway.


“There was a tag and I tried to cut it off… sniff… and now look!” She erupted in wails as she moved her hands to unveil a ragged, jagged hole in the side of her shirt.

“Oh, I’m sorry sweetie. Tags are hard to cut off. That’s why you need to ask an adult to do it.”

“But Mommy! This is my favorite shirt!”

“Well, I’m not sure what to tell you. You can still wear it, if you’d like.”

“But nooooo! Can you sew it up?

Well, I suppose I could have, but I wasn’t going to.

“No, I’m sorry. Next time, just ask me or Papa, ok?”


She tromped upstairs, crying. A few minutes later, she shuffled back downstairs, wearing a different shirt. She lifted her head and said: “You made me feel like I had to make the hole bigger!”

That was a good one.

“No, I really didn’t. If you made the hole bigger, that was entirely your decision.”

“No! You made me do it.”

Sigh. “Would you like a blueberry bagel for breakfast?”

For a while I felt a bit guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her have pointy scissors in her desk. Maybe I should have been more understanding. Maybe I should have agreed to try to sew up the hole. She was just trying to be independent.

A couple of days later, I sat in my dance class discussing with a few of the senior dancers the auditions they had just held for a new kathak youth ensemble. Six students showed up, between the ages of ten and fourteen. Five of them did well enough to form the first youth ensemble group. One of them was not prepared enough, and a decision was necessary. Accept her anyway, to give her the motivation to practice more and so as to avoid her disappointment? Not accept her, in order to send a clear message that showing up for an audition does not guarantee success? Accept her on a trial basis? But then, would that drag down practice sessions with the others? If she was not accepted, would she simply give up? Or at ten would she be mature enough to view this as an opportunity to improve?

We opted for the second option, of not accepting her, albeit being very supportive of her and her dance. The conclusion: children will learn from disappointment. It’s ok if they are upset and cry. I thought of K and her scissors, and felt vindicated.

Later that day, K came to me with her scissors, holding them the way she knows to do, by the blades, and handed them to me, asking me to cut out a tag from her dress. I smiled to myself and thought of all the rejections I have received from agents on my manuscript, and all the times I’ve cried in anger and exploded in expletives at the sight of “I regret to tell you…” and all the times I’ve wanted to tear up the pages (“you made me feel like I had to make the hole bigger!”) and all the times I’ve then pulled myself together to begin revisions anew. And I snipped off the tag.

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Chhandika signed a lease for office space today. More specifically, I signed the lease on behalf of Chhandika, and local Indian fashion maven Shelley Chhabra. We went ahead and did it, after mulling it over for quite a while. A good opportunity came up, at an unbeatable price given the convenient location and square footage, and I decided that if we could not make this work, we’d never get an office.

It feels like a big step for our organization. Those who have started up a non-profit will recognize this. The next day, I was sitting in a café working on my manuscript when three fresh-faced twenty-somethings arrived, set up their computers, and started working/talking. It quickly became apparent that they were the founding members of an organization involved in something relating to providing facilities and medical supplies, and maybe logistics, for developing countries, and they were discussing, of course, the situation in Haiti, and how to tie their work into relief efforts quickly. At one point, one of them sat back and piped up: “When we have our own office, can we have lots of cushions everywhere?” And I wanted to tell her: hey! I’m involved in running a non-profit and we finally got an office! But of course, why would she care? Still, the excitement was hard to contain.

Now comes the difficult part: raising the funds to cover the costs. (If you are moved to help support us, donations can be made securely online here.) But also the fun part: planning the furnishings, the painting of the walls, the decorating, and daydreaming about all the wonderful and centralized organization we will be able to establish. A place for volunteers to work! A meeting place for administrators and instructors! A lending library of books, videos and music! A storage place for our materials! And, dare I say it… a place for a possible intern to work! There is only so far that Google Docs and conference calls can take us. Let’s see what comes of pinning ourselves to a physical location.

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I went to see some office space for Chhandika a couple of days ago. I dream of having an office for the organization. Not only to get the boxes of papers, brochures, flyers, video footage and other stuff out from under my bed and my scant storage space, but because I feel the organization will never be able to make it to the next level without a space to call its own, a space in which to greet visitors and possible donors, in which to welcome volunteers, in which to centralize our books, our video, our marketing materials, our production materials. We are too physically scattered now to be as efficient as we’d like.

So I have been looking at office space. One place, for rent last year at the end of my street, and conveniently located just a block from where we hold many of our kathak dance classes, looked perfect. A storefront space, large enough to house a couple of desks, a round meeting table with chairs, some bookshelves, a comfortable armchair, a rug or two, some wall hangings from India, a display of photos and quotes from our events, with storage space for costumes, dance bells, instruments. It was so easy for my mind to fill it, to furnish it, to turn it into a warm, inviting, practical, useful space. I could hear the strains of a sarod, smell the masala chai. But the rent was too high. (And yet. The group that did sign a lease is some esoteric, avant garde art group of sorts, which draws the curtains across the storefront and periodically opens them to allow passers by a view of a pyramid of unlabeled tin cans, or an abstract design of cotton balls strewn across the white floor. Right now there is a gilded television set displaying static. How this group has the money to pay $850 per month in rent, while Chhandika, with over 70 dance students, would struggle to pay half as much, is beyond me.)

Then I looked at a different space, in a residential area, two blocks off of a main avenue. There were three empty offices available within an architecturally interesting ground floor suite which included a kitchen and a circular meeting room with plush carpeting. An aura of hushed tranquility hung over the whole place. The manager of the property showed me around. She spoke in the sparse, quiet way of someone who spends much of her time meditating and cannot be bothered with practical details. I could again picture us using the space, perhaps sharing an office with another group, but it felt too removed from the world. Too quiet, too invisible from the street. Kathak is colorful, dynamic, percussive, full of stories. I wondered what kind of story we could tell there.

The search continues. But my husband brings up some good points: does it make sense for a non-profit organization to be looking for office space, when that will drastically increase our overhead costs? Shouldn’t the goal be to reduce them? In an era of wireless this and off-grid that, is it old fashioned to seek a physical place in which to gather people and stuff? Should we instead be putting the money into streamlining our systems to function more efficiently in a spread-out fashion? How does one reconcile the new ways of doing business with the need for face-to-face contact? Dance is physical, emotional, spatial. We can upload files to Google Documents to access them from anywhere, and we can hold administrative meetings via conference call, but how do we create a space of our own to cultivate human connection when we do not have an office or studio of our own? (All our classes are held in studio spaces that we rent from other organizations.)

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Yesterday was Guru Purnima. Traditionally, it is a day for devotees to honor their guru. Today, for anyone studying an art form, it translates into a day for honoring one’s teachers. I am grateful for my own kathak dance teacher, Gretchen Hayden, who would balk at the term “guru” applied to her (and who has a humility which might well be at odds with the very notion of guru-ness), but who nonetheless plays an irreplaceable teaching/guiding/parental role to many of her students. And I am grateful for her guru, Pandit Chitresh Das.

To the students and disciples of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, however, yesterday must have been a sad day, for last month he passed away, and the world lost a maestro of music. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was a composer and player of the sarod (an Indian classical, stringed instrument) of rare genius and intensity.  As is typical to the arts in India, he was a guru to several disciples upon whom it now falls to carry on his legacy. “Guru” is such a misunderstood word in the West, where it implies someone who has followers, or someone with authority because of knowledge or skills that are real or perceived. But a guru is so much more than that. A guru combines the roles of teacher and parent, who passes on his (or her? I won’t go there right now) knowledge as fully as possible, a jug pouring its contents into another jug, or at least a cup. The death of a guru is a devastating blow, similar, I imagine, to the death of a parent, for his disciples are left with the shocking realization that the responsibility for passing on what they know now falls to them, that they are the only keepers of, in this case, the art.

How many true gurus does the world still have? Those in their seventies, eighties and nineties now represent the last of the generation that grew up studying, practicing for hours every day of their lives, striving for a perfection that sometimes only they could see. One of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s disciples, George Ruckert, did study at his feet for seventeen years straight (during which time he met and married my kathak dance teacher, herself a disciple of a dance maestro) but eventually life and responsibilities altered his course, and he moved across the country for a teaching position at a prestigious university. I am lucky enough to benefit from his music and his compositions, the pieces he creates for my dance group, the notes that come wafting out from his music room when I visit his house. When I hear them, when I dance to them, I feel I am peering into a window to a vanishing world, a window I wish I could open wider for all to see in.

I try not to think about what will happen when my generation’s teachers are no longer with us. Are there some among us who can ever play the same role? Who can create so much, which such talent, with such perseverance, with such focus? Or are we all just too scattered, pulled in too many directions to ever have the time and opportunity, even with the talent and resolve, to create staggeringly beautiful art? True disciples are very much NOT “the people.” They do not get to decide when or where or how much they will work. Anyone who has tied the strings of discipleship has tales of fourteen-hour days of practice beginning before dawn, their guru controlling every minute of the day, down to when and what they can eat, and what they must be able to achieve before being worthy of another lesson. Do we as a generation even know how to choose one thing and stick with it? Do we have the patience to practice for hour upon hour the same movement, the same melody? Do we have the humility to accept that our teacher tell us to go back and do it again, and again, until we do it right? I fear the answer. And yet I understand it.

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