Viji Prakash teaches Bharatanatyam and more
by Anu Ganpati

Jan 2001

It is 8:30 on a Sunday morning in the San Fernando Valley, and while many residents are just waking up with only the car wash and barbecue to look forward to, a group of young Indian-American girls is about to begin a Bharatanatyam class in a classroom at Pierce Community College. The location could easily be Mylapore in Chennai as the Sanskrit invocatory prayer to Lord Nataraja is being recited confidently, by some twenty young Indian girls. They stand barefoot, in jagged rows, with long black braids brushing their backs, eyes closed, hands clasped together at the chest.

Draped in a striking orange salwar kameez, Vijaylakshmi Prakash pops cardamom pods into her mouth, her bare foot rhythmically tapping out the talas, a track of diamond studs glittering from her ears. The students are all female, between sixteen and twenty-one years of age, wearing a bindhi on their forehead, the uniform salwar kameez, and a bright cotton sash tied around their waists. “Sudha, ukaruma,” says Viji in Tamil, instructing Sudha to sit lower in her aramandi (Half sitting position, fundamental to Bharatanatyam) position. “From L.A. to Bombay,” she says in English, lowering herself to the floor on her toes. “Open your knees,” she says stretching her right leg directly out to her side with toes pointing up (we are in L.A.!). “Hands on your waist and back straight,” she says, raising herself and lowers her body by resting her weight on the toes of her right foot, her right knee bent under and away from her torso, and then once again she raises her body and lowers herself onto the left side (we are in Bombay!).

As a first-generation immigrant in Los Angeles, Viji's experiences resonate with second-generation fractures in identity. Thus her warm-up exercise attempts to address these emotional and physical crises. It is an experience of searching and longing to claim a “home.” “It takes a long time to figure out where you belong,” explains Veena Bidasha, an Indian-American Bharatanatyam student from Viji's school. Viji does not offer the solution of choosing one culture over the other. Her warm-up exercise is instead a flagrant reminder of not being “home” in either place.

She usually responds to “Viji aunty,”. Viji was raised in Bombay and left that city for Los Angeles some twenty years ago, not unlike many of the parents of her students. Here at Pierce Community College, amongst scarred desks with hardened chewing gum stuck underneath, chairs pushed aside, bulletin boards crammed with news items, “Wanted” posters of rapists, advertisements for roommates, and grade sheets, she helps transport second-generation Indian-American students into a world where rhythms, music, footwork, discipline, art, and religion are at once familiar and unfamiliar.

“I wanted to offer something entirely different to the Indian community here. I took what I was taught by my own guru Mahalingam Pillai in Bombay and delivered it to my students in Los Angeles with the same intensity, maybe even more...more passion and more desire to make this art endure in a world that was so far away from India. I insisted on rigorous training because, unlike in India, the student in Los Angeles attends fewer classes, between homework, piano practice, computer courses and more. As a result a sustained, enduring practice of Bharatanatyam was beginning to develop—not a hit-and-run crash course, but an art form as valid as any other in America was beginning to emerge.” Viji Praksh is today, director and founder of “Shakti School of Bharatanatyam.”

Viji displays an amazing sense of freshness in each of her classes. She credits this energy to her students who are constantly challenging her and this to her makes teaching Bhratanatyam in America an exciting experience. Each confrontation demonstrates the negotiations that are taking place in the dance class between traditional Indian ethos and its translation onto an American landscape. Growing up in India, Hindu philosophy, mythology, and the comprehensive Indian ethos is inherent, it's all around you, in the home, at school, on the streets, the way you eat, the way you dress, the language you speak. “But in Los Angeles, the landscape is so different. All that which is inherent in India has to be reinvented and explained in my classroom,” says Viji.

For instance, while describing the renowned beauty of Lord Rama in a piece Viji says, “Now, Rama is very handsome, show the admiration in your face, think of Lord Rama as Leonardo DiCaprio,” she urges, having listened to the girls discussing the glories of this latest celluloid teen idol. The class dissolves into giggles. The message has been conveyed. Leonardo DiCaprio has indeed become the prototype of Lord Rama in Los Angeles, urbanized and contemporarized.

By contrast, a particularly precocious sixteen-year-old student is not able to relate to another devotional story that Viji is teaching in her class. “It is the story of Ahalya,” I overhear Viji say as she demonstrates the story through abhinaya, simultaneously explaining in English. According to this story Ahalya was falsely accused by her husband and was turned to stone. Later on, her innocence is proved and she returns to the husband. The student is shocked by this female subjugation, “But that's crazy, why would she go back to the man who had turned her into stone? I would not!" she states. Viji explains, that this is a legend, an interpretation and it is a story to show the greatness of Rama who removes the curse ultimately. The sixteen-year-old does not seem satisfied by this answer. There is a rupture here caused by her questioning mind nurtured in American schools, which offer answers, with instant scientific and logical solutions that suit her partly Americanized psyche. But here in this Bharatanatyam classroom there is a crisis. The classroom is a zone where things do not look so simple, a baffling arena where the validity of legend and religious beliefs confronts a new generation being raised in Los Angeles. The Westernized independent stance conflicts sharply with this young student's body, which is wrapped in tradition. The young woman struggles to understand the various textures of her own skin through the cotton salwar kameez bought by her mother when on a trip to India during summer vacation.

The traditional guru-sishya relationship which was a predominant paradigm in India is being challenged here. The Ahayla encounter indicates that all tensions are not resolved and tidily contained. Instead, the identity of the Indian-American Bharatanatyam dance student is in constant negotiation: thick with cultural memory, social commentary, and opposing dimensions spawned from the Westernized school and media on one hand, and Bharatanatyam dance classes on the other.

Teachers like Viji are on one hand a repository of Indian cultural heritage while simultaneously offering a unique space for Indian-American students to play out their contradictions. In the Valley, immigrant parents with their first generation Indian-American kids seek to secure a link to India and to teach their children their own culture and history. The classroom offers a solution and becomes the instrument, the crucial site for imagining India in Los Angeles. By remembering, the Indian-American has shown India, in Los Angeles, to merge and be merged, to assimilate as well as to combat. Bharatanatyam ultimately is a cultural defense, unraveling nostalgia in a search for roots, healing displacement while simultaneously creating new meanings, inferences, and chasms. In Viji's classroom in the valley, sense memories are drawn from recollections of India and experiences from India-in-America, into a social and cultural drama using traditional materials while improvising and developing others, until a satisfactory world has been imagined for a few hours.