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Prasanna Kasthuri: Keeping Indian art alive

April 26, 2013

Soorya Performing Arts under the leadership of Guru Prasanna Kasthuri hosted a three day dance festival in St. Louis in the third week of April 2013. All in all, 22 dance performances, 9 ethnic dance styles, more than 150 artistes who had flown in from India, France, United Kingdom and cities from all over the USA were the hallmarks of this dazzling event. Prasanna Kasthuri, Artistic Director of Soorya Performing Arts and chief convener of the 5th St. Louis Indian Dance Festival, shares his thoughts on organizing such mega festivals.

What is the first thought that comes to your mind the day after hosting a three day dance festival?
After 10 months of non-stop working, emails, calls, meetings, rehearsals, skyping, scheduling, web designing, publicizing, etc I feel calm and satisfied that I could share my energy and my resources to spread the beauty of classical dances and give an opportunity to co-artistes to share their art with the wonderful people of St. Louis.

Other than the regular logistics issue that you face as an organizer what are the issues that you faced putting up such a huge show in America?
First of all, we have to understand that we are immigrants in a foreign nation. The only reason we are doing this festival is to keep the Indian art alive. As an immigrant crowd we are small in number, there is no infrastructure to host a dance festival of this level and I have to start from the roots. One support that I look up to is from the local Indian population. But they are themselves trying to get a foothold in this nation with their immigration status, house, jobs etc which makes it difficult. Fortunately, it is slowly building up and we are trying to build more. Trying to convince the Indian crowd that classical arts can be interesting too is a challenging part because not all Indians love classical arts due to their exposure or any other reason. So communicating to such a crowd and convincing these people that classical arts are as important as their religion, language, food is the most difficult part.

One major hurdle is that we live in the Midwest region where unlike bigger cities like New York, California or London the western crowd and media is less exposed to Indian arts. It is more challenging to get a full house and it feels like we are doing this festival in a less conducive atmosphere. But I take this as a personal challenge which I'm sure I'll overcome.

Your personal dance productions that you present during these festivals suffer because you are organizing and choreographing at the same time.
It IS very hard. My Guru Maya Rao would say either choreograph or perform, either organise or dance. But our problem is that if we don't present it this time of the festival, we wouldn't be able to show our talents to the other dancers/artistes who visit us. There are of course logistics like raising funds, selling tickets, hosting, local hospitality, travel (More than 150 artistes travelled to St. Louis over the weekend) etc that we have to deal with and fortunately we have good friends who help us and our Soorya team who work day and night to bring all the possibilities together.

Being a Bharatanatyam dancer yourself, do you wish to focus on Bharatanatyam in your festival?
I perform both Bharatanatyam and Kathak and I wish to include all 8 classical art forms of India. It would include people from all communities and all states. But I insist that we include only pure Indian art forms and not so called "Bollywood" dances. This year for the first time we included Sattriya and Yakshagaana. We wish to bring smaller known forms like Chaau and many more.

Also we cannot call Bharatanatyam a representation of the whole nation because our country has a myriad of art forms. We have many art forms that are still unknown to the west and I wish to bring such art forms to the people here. It also gives an opportunity for artistes from one dance style to work with artistes from other dance styles.

What is special about your festival? What do you want people to remember about St. Louis Indian Dance festival?

This happens to be the only dance festival in the whole country that has consistently focussed on original Indian dance forms. I wish to give equal opportunity in our festival to senior dancers as well as second generation Americans.

Has the Indian govt helped you in any way so far to conduct the festival?
It has not so far. If bureaucracy allows, yes, I would definitely look forward to being supported by the Indian govt. We could invite more artistes to present their talent here in St. Louis.

You have been organizing dance festivals in India since you were 23. Most Bangaloreans remember your first few festivals which were in the suburbs and little hamlets near Bangalore and now you are doing it in the Midwest of America. What drives you to work in such adverse conditions?
I always wanted Indian classical dance to be available to every common man. We always have a new kid with no knowledge of classical art. And thus it's an ongoing process where we have to keep trying to keep the tradition alive. With the growth of multimedia and technology entertainment comes to your door step. The one which suffers most is "Live Art Form." So, as traditional artists we have to try harder for our traditional dance to reach the next generation.

Do you think Indian dance schools in the US echo your sentiment?
It's sad that most dance schools just focus on their annual dance shows and stop at that. My wish is if every dance teacher keeps aside a part of their income for art promotion it would build a network of festivals where youngsters, co-artistes could be promoted. I think it's time for everybody to move forward and look beyond their dance schools and students and take a new step towards promoting Indian arts.

In the last dance festival there was a discussion about setting up a standardized curriculum and syllabus for all dance schools in the US. Has there been any progress with regard to that?
We started discussing about that in the 4th dance festival and everybody supported it. It's easier said than done. Things are still in its infancy stage and it has a long way to go.

Will there be an Indian Dance festival in Los Angeles (Soorya Branch) or Bangalore?
We will try to do it, if it's permissible. But anybody with a little interest and support from the community can do a festival.


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