Posts Tagged ‘kathak’

It’s been a rough start to 2015, hasn’t it? I hope that wherever you are, in whatever corner of this beautiful, complex and devastating world, you are safe and well. In light of the events in Paris, the senseless violence, it feels trite to post about the other musings and reflections that caught my attention this past week. However, as always, they focus on art and writing, and while it may be difficult to believe this week that the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s important, necessary even, that we uphold this belief to be true. Because the alternative is just too terrifying.

Kathak dance

Chitresh Das

Pandit Chitresh Das. Photo by Marty Sohl.

On Sunday, January 4th, Pandit Chitresh Das, guru (in the true meaning of the word) to my own kathak dance teacher, passed away suddenly. He represented an increasingly rare combination of talent, dedication, vision and energy. That he should pass away with such suddenness, like a flame snuffed out, is a shock to all, and yet, somehow, the only fitting way, just much, much too soon. He would not have abided by a drawn-out farewell. And now, that flame burns on in the hundreds of students he has taught, in his own disciples, amazing artists in their own right, in whom he cultivated the strength and vision to continue his legacy.

Here is a collection of clips of him and of his incredible dance company performing and practicing. Do take a look, you’ll be enriched. For a brief glimpse into his history, read this lovely remembrance. Dancers from my own dance organization, Chhandika, closely affiliated with Pandit Das’ school in California, share their reactions here. And writer Sandip Roy pulls together a good audio clip here.

Indian literature: the Murty Classical Library

Harvard University Press sets about to make the vast and diverse classical literature of India accessible to the general reader. This means some 500 books over the course of the next century (imagine starting a 100-year project!) in over a dozen languages. The series “debunks the myth of a Hindu orthodoxy as being the only classicism we have,” said Arshia Sattar, an independent scholar and translator in Bangalore. (Thanks to Michael Warres for bringing this to my attention.)

Meanwhile, Columbia professor John H. McWhorter predicts that in a hundred years, “it is possible that only 600 languages will be left on the planet as opposed to today’s 6,000.”

Literary podcasts

Friend and fellow author Nayomi Munaweera, whose book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is a beautiful, devastating and necessary read, recently put out a call for literary podcast suggestions. The answers came pouring in, and I look forward to exploring them. They included:

OtherPpl with Brad Listi (via Neelanjana Banerjee)
Bookworm (also via Neelanjana)
A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment with Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter (via Andrea Gutierrez @AndreaGtrrz)
Rachel Cruz’s The Blood-Jet Radio (via Melissa Rae Sipin-Gabon)
New Yorker Fiction (via Miriam Leah Medow)
Selected Shorts (also via Miriam)

To which I add the BookRiot podcast, The Readers, and Books On the Nightstand. Now if only I had a little commute during which to listen to such things.

Writing and women: Why do Women Have to Abandon Their Lives to Find Themselves? In defense of civilized self-discovery.

Freelance writer Elissa Strauss wrote about her ambivalence about “Wild,” the book by Cheryl Strayed that was recently made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. It’s a thought provoking read, and the comment string on the Facebook page of a group to which I belong was long, respectful, engaged, analytical and well written. The type of online discussion that rekindles my faith in humanity. It raised issues of “finding oneself,” of the privilege of trying to do so, of women feeling they need to leave everything behind, of groundedness in nature versus “civilization,” of whether women should or do expect to find their reflections in the stories of others, of finding one’s way “through” versus “out,” and more.


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Photo by Venkat2336 via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Venkat2336 via Wikimedia Commons

With FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN coming out in October 2014, last November marked Publication-minus-11-months. After signing the contract the previous month, I began November by dancing a jig, and promptly losing all the momentum I had finally managed to gain on the draft of my next book. I’d actually jumped on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon, albeit more for the camaraderie than anything else, and with the modified (and modest) goal of 15K words in the month. I had started out the month with a bang, putting down on paper a good 5000 words in the first week. But then my mind became split. I started allowing myself to think concretely about many of the marketing and promotion ideas I’d been collecting in a mishmash of a spreadsheet for over two years. I realized I would need to re-read my manuscript again, carefully, making any final edits before handing it over to the publisher. I understood that I would need to postpone the research trip to Lucknow that I had been on the brink of booking for January. In short, I re-adjusted my expectations and my plans.

Then came some requests from the publisher: an author bio, an author photo, a book cover memo, and my preferred month of publication between August and November 2014. Yes, I did get to choose. October. No point to August, it’s a dead month in terms of business, people have already bought their summer reads and realizing they’ve only made it through three of the ten books they’d lined up, folks are spending precious moments out of doors (I hope) and not trawling the Internet for book ideas. September is too crazy for most people, including me. Back to school and the start of all activities for children and parents alike. New schedules, readjustment to getting up even earlier, email to catch up on, etc. October is good. The dust has settled a bit. There’s time for a bit of buzz to build before people are doing their holiday shopping. People are more focused. So I went with that.

Author bio. A simple paragraph was cause for much revision and consultation with family, agent, writing pals and others. Where would this bio appear? On the book jacket? Inside? On the publisher’s web site? On Amazon? Then: What to put in, what to omit? What could read like a good, albeit short, story? What is relevant, what is compelling, and what is both? Neither?

In my case, the questions included whether I would use the word “dancer” along with “writer.” Do I consider myself a dancer, even as I teach kathak to young children? Then there was the question of whether to mention my own children. It’s irrelevant, really, from a professional standpoint. But I want to be accessible, human, not a photograph with a resume. Personally, I like seeing, in an author bio, a smidge of something personal. I can relate to someone who has children, or grew up in another country, or speaks French, or had another career in a previous life. I like an author with many dimensions. So the mention of children stayed in.

Author photo. Due to the aforementioned children, I’m usually the one behind the camera, not in front. Nothing in our massive folder of photos could come close to being an “author photo.” (I do have a fabulous shot of myself being kissed by a sea lion. I’m going to have to find a way to use that somehow. It’s just too good.) I asked a friend who has studied photography on the side and likes to experiment if she’d be willing to take some shots. (In exchange for a dinner that I realize I still owe her.) She was great. She set aside four hours, and at first I thought that was ridiculous, but we used pretty much the whole time. We chatted, tried various outfits, different settings in her studio. She made me laugh. It was relaxed and fun, and curiously satisfying to spend a little time doing something that was all about me. I could list out some bits of advice, but Randy Susan Meyers does it so well already, and with humor, that I suggest you just check out this post of hers. You’ll also want to think about whether the final photo should be in color or in black and white. Probably a good idea to have both options. My one mistake: I asked my mother what she thought of the picture I selected. Her response: I like it from the nose up. She went on to say something about neck wrinkles. *fingers in ears* La la la I can’t hear you!

Book cover memo. This is where one lists out one’s (possibly lengthy) thoughts on a book cover. This is a biggie. As we all know and have been guilty of, people of course do judge books by their covers. Different publishers will allow for different levels of participation and input on the part of the author. I’ll leave it at that. Thankfully, my publisher listened to me, while also providing input from the business side for which I was grateful. While I had strong feelings about what to avoid, I realized I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to see on there. I included in my memo a bunch of covers that served as examples of the clichés and uninspired designs I’ve seen on some book covers, and then several covers that I found compelling. I happened to be acquainted already with my cover designer who read the full manuscript, has traveled to the region in which it is set, and is familiar with kathak dance. These things were important to me. The tricky thing is this: knowing when to stand firm for what you truly feel and believe, and knowing when to bow to the opinions of those whose business and expertise it is to communicate through design (the graphic artist) and to sell books (the publisher, and possibly the agent as well). Listen to the designer; this is what they do. It can be hard, because no doubt you’ve been living with your book and imagining its cover for… dare I say it? Years. But this is one of the first steps in letting others take over. I hope I struck the right balance. One thing I do know is that I am very, very pleased with the final design for FPR. But it took work, a lot of collaboration, a very patient designer, and many iterations.

Writer Unboxed ran a great 2-part post on working smoothly with a graphic artist. Part 1 covers knowing what you want, finding the right graphic artist (which your publisher might do for you), understanding the basic graphics design process and other things to keep in mind as you get going. Part 2 covers budget, fee strategies, ownership, and other money matters.

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Raja Ravi Varma, Goddess Saraswati

The recent and horrific gang rape of a young woman in Delhi who subsequently died from the injuries inflicted during her ordeal has catapulted India’s women into the headlines of media around the world. Someone recently asked me what I thought of this. Is this good for India or bad, she asked. She went on to say that she assumes it will be terrible for tourism. She, for one, would hesitate to go now.

I found myself having several concurrent and conflicting responses. There are so many things to think, it’s difficult to untangle them. As a person of Indian heritage, I felt my hackles rise in defense of a country that has so much culture, tradition, integrity, beauty and richness. Specifically as a woman of Indian heritage, I wanted to remind my friend that India, unlike many more “developed” nations, has in the past elected female prime ministers. As a practical, realistic person, I wanted to point out that this type of thing surely happens in India, and in other countries, much more than one wants to imagine. As a woman traveler, having felt the eyes and hands of strange men in buses and crowded streets in foreign (and not so foreign) countries, I understood her visceral fear.

Indians are trying hard to make the recent tragedy count for something. To that end, the extensive media coverage is a good thing. Public scrutiny, foreign scrutiny, internal scrutiny, these are what can really shake up the status quo. Add to that powerful awareness-building movements such as last week’s Feb 14th One Billion Rising and you have a recipe for change.

But how does one untangle India’s deep, long history of treating women as both sacred and profane? Of venerating female deities—among them Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science whose annual celebration, Saraswati Puja, was just two days ago—while denying some female children education? Of worshiping one’s own mother while copping a feel at someone else’s in the street? Of viewing female temple dancers as auspicious vessels of the divine, yet paying those temples for their more carnal services, as experienced by the central character in Faint Promise of Rain?

Perhaps one doesn’t untangle. One just acts. One takes what is good, and beautiful, and strong, and just, and one spreads it as best one can until it pushes out the rest. In a reversal of the last juxtaposition mentioned above, the New Light Foundation in Kolkata is working with (among others) the children of sex workers to empower them to find opportunities for themselves beyond the world their mothers have inhabited, and has included kathak dance classes as a means toward this empowerment. Kathak, the very dance that originated in those Hindu temples many hundreds of years ago. Pandit Chitresh Das, master kathak dancer and teacher, and the Kolkata branch of his school, has been involved with New Light:

Five years after this clip was shot, another was made with girls from New Light dancing, on the occasion of One Billion Rising. (Thanks to my mother Sara Mitter, author of Dharma’s Daughters who has worked with the New Light founder, Urmi Basu, for calling this to my attention.)

The videos speak for themselves. There are changes to be made. There are changes being made. So yes, I say to my friend. Absolutely. Go to India.

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After just over four years of dance, K, who will turn turn eight in the summer, received her first set of bells on Sunday. These are the ghungroo*, the little brass bells that are woven (by the dancer, or in this case, the dancer’s mother) onto a length of thin rope. These are the bells worn by the kathak dancer around the ankles, wound tightly in coils over a protective layer of felt, the bells that turn the dancer into a musical instrument. The bells arrive via mail in a clump, purchased in bulk (from, of course) and then we loop them (75 per leg in K’s case) onto the rope in a time-consuming but meditative process that involves a lot of jingling and is sure to wake a napping baby.

The conferring of ghungroo takes place through a traditional ceremony of the type we rarely take the time to slow down for these days. The hall we rented was decorated with Indian cloths and garlands of flowers, the little stage transformed into an altar of sorts, with pictures of the dance gurus (the lineage of teachers of  Chhandika, our dance school), a statuette of Nataraja, Lord of Dance, an incense holder. Each dancer brought an offering of a coin, an element of nature and sweets or fruits to share. The bundles of bells are neatly lined up, each one wrapped in red felt and tied with a ribbon. Our teacher, Gretchen Hayden, sat cross legged on the floor in front of the altar and called up each student in turn, taking his or her bundle of bells, holding it to her forehead to symbolize the mind, in front of her mouth to symbolize breath and speech, and to her heart before handing it to the student who did the same. Despite the thousands of bells in the room, the dozens of children and parents, the video cameras and cell phones, there was peaceful silence in the room as everyone appreciated the significance of what was taking place, the connection with an art form that is so ancient and beautiful, the commitment we each make to carrying it forward, the gratitude we have for our teachers, our students, our children.

It is ironic just how much planning, organizing and running around had to take place just so that K and I could be present for this moment of stillness, tradition and meaning. This was a particularly chaotic weekend during which my other half, J, was away teaching at a black belt martial arts camp, I was enrolled in a two-day writing conference with meetings set up with my agent and possible editors, and apparently both K and her two year old sister required care and feeding. I started planning for the weekend weeks in advance, lining up a series of friends and relatives to tag team to be with S (and K the rest of the weekend), typing out a glossary of her odd vocabulary so that when she started frantically pointing to the fridge and yelling “DEE!” the kind soul who was with her would understand she was asking for cheese, or so that when she touched her nose and said “dodo” it would be clear she wanted to sleep. (Yes, I do have a two year old who asks to sleep, and yes, I do realize how lucky I am.) I had lists and piles everywhere, of things to bring to the conference, of items to bring to the ghungroo ceremony, of things to pack for the little one’s stay with a friend. I had to remember who to leave the stroller with, who would need K’s carseat when, where to leave the present for the birthday party she was going to attend in my absence, when to buy the flowers for the ceremony so that they’d still be fresh for the event itself. I had to remember to leave a change of shoes in the car for when I went straight from the ceremony to the conference, to pick up the ceremony program from the printer before they closed at 5:00 on Friday, to pack tissues and DayQuil in my bag because yes, of course I had to have a cold, to find time to rehearse the elevator pitch for my book, to pre-pack K’s lunch for the break between the ceremony and the class with Pandit Chitresh Das that she was going to attend as well.

And was it worth it? A hundred times over. And not just because of what I experienced for myself, which was augmented by something the lovely author Julia Alvarez said later in the day at the conference keynote address and which I’ll address in a separate post, but because it showed K that this was a matter of importance. Now, of course, she had no idea of the level of mad logistics involved which enabled her to receive her bells that day. She did not see the lists, did not notice the piles, had no insight into the complex logistics.

And that is the way it should be. She is seven. The fact that her parents were overextended that weekend, the fact that we had so many things to juggle all at once, that we are constantly feeling like we have to give one thing up in order to do the other, that is our own doing. Perhaps when she grows up she will be better than we are at finding the right balance. But for the moment, having her think of her attendance at the ceremony as a matter of course, having her find it a normal and fully-integrated part of her life, that is what matters the most.

And now here is what that little asterisk next to “ghungroo” is all about: As I was making edits to the ceremony program before sending it to the printer, I consulted with my teacher as to how to spell the word for the bells. There are so many ways that it is transcribed—ghunghru, gungroo, ghunghroo, ghungroo—and we wanted to pick one and be consistent with it. Then my teacher sent me an email with the following subject line: Is it a g or a gh, an u or an oo?!! And something silly was triggered in my brain:

The question is how do
You spell the word “ghungroo?”
Does it end with a U?
Or do O’s make the oo?
Is there one H or two?
If I only knew
We could then say adieu
To this pesky issue.
It seems the circumstances
Under which one dances
May well affect the chances
Of different types of spelling.
But when someone will choose
To use the O’s or U’s
Or downright refuse
The H–there is no telling.
But some advice for you:
Don’t put them on askew
Or up to your genoux
(for the French among you)
Or tie them to a gnu
Or EVER wear them to the loo!

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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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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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