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Anjani Ambegaokar honored with National Heritage Award

June 28, 2004

At Guru Sundar Prasad Kathak Mohostav,
Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi on Feb 3, 2004

Anjani Ambegaokar has been training in Kathak under Pundit Sunderlal Gangani for more than 20 years. After doing her MA in Kathak at the MS University in Vadodara, Anjani came to the United States in 1967 and founded the Sundar Kala Kendra Dance School. It has about 5 branches in Los Angeles and Orange County and has trained hundreds of dancers, while her company, Anjani's Kathak Dance of India, has performed around the world. Anjani has made a name for herself as a dedicated dancer, choreographer, and educator of Kathak. Her daughter, Amrapali, is now the principal dancer of her company.

Anjani is the recipient of several awards, including the Choreography Fellowship from California Arts Council for 2000. She was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Choreographers Fellowship grant for 1991, 1992 to 1994, 1994 to 1996, given to only one Kathak dancer / choreographer in the USA.

To add to her laurels, Anjani Ambegaokar has been awarded the prestigious NATIONAL HERITAGE AWARD by the National Endowment for the Arts for $20,000 for 2004. This is the first time that the award is given to an Indian dancer/choreographer/teacher in the 22 years of history of the award. This the highest award for traditional and folk artistes in the USA and is given by nomination.

Anjani shares her joyous feelings and aspirations with narthaki online.

The prestigious NATIONAL HERITAGE AWARD is the highest award for traditional and folk artistes in the USA. When and how did you get to know of this honor?
On the 12th of May, Barry Bergey, Director of Traditional & Folk arts section of the National Endowment for The Arts called me at home in the afternoon. First when he announced his name I thought, this must a call for some questions regarding my application on behalf of my Sundar Kala Kendra Foundation for the next project. Then Barry said, “You have been given the National Heritage Award,” and I kept saying to him, “You are kidding, this cannot be true,” and he said, “It is true and I am calling to congratulate you.” And finally when it started to sink in as he explained the details of what it means, my next reaction was what an honor this is!! He also said that this is the first time an Indian dancer has been given this award. Amrapali (my daughter) was in India, so I woke her up at 3 am and told her about the award and then called my husband in the office. Both of them were very happy and excited. It feels wonderful to know that my work got appreciated on a national level and has appeared in papers such as New York Times, Los Angeles Times etc.

This fellowship category is not open to application. Fellowships are awarded on the basis of nominations from the public. Did you ever dream that you might one day be nominated for this honor?
I was nominated in 2001 and I knew about it, I had to give all my supplemental material including video of my work. The nomination is reviewed every year, up to five years and I did send them updated material once a year. This year I did not even think about the award because it has been 3 years and I thought there is no chance of me ever getting this award, and then it happened! There were about 270 nominees this year of which 12 were selected for the award. There is a review panel of excerpts in the fields of traditional and folk arts, which changes every year. This year there were 11 experts in the traditional and folk arts field and they worked for four days to finalize the list from 270 to 60 to 12. The award is also given to performing and visual artists, from blues singer, tap dancer, Mexican musician, American Indian quilt maker, Cambodian artist, Egyptian Santoor player etc.

How does it feel to be the first Indian dancer / choreographer / teacher in the 22 years of history of the award?
I feel very honored; it is a very humbling experience to be chosen as the first one among the dancers. I also feel very strongly that I have received this award with my parents and my Guruji's blessings. Starting from my 'Papa' Dr. Sitaram Ambegaokar whose dream was to see his daughter dance, my 'Aie' my mother who always supported him, my dear Guruji - Pandit Sundarlaljee Gangani who believed in me, and taught me this incredible art of Kathak dance, my two brothers who were always there for me, my husband Jagadish who has admired and appreciated my work and has helped me to carry on my work, of course my beautiful daughter Amrapali who is one amazing dancer/performer and my best friend who is carrying on this tradition that I am very proud of and has been there for me in every aspect of this devotion that we have, dancers of my dance company who are always there to perform who have become part of the extended family, my students and their parents who have supported all my projects, my musicians who have believed in my creative ideas - this award I share with all of them. The wonderful part is my Guruji turned 75 on May 19th and I could call him and share this news with him, what more could an artist ask for? I believe that an artist can dream, but he/she needs a full support system to make that dream a reality. I am grateful to all who have made it possible for me. The three great artists who have received this award in the past are Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain and T Vishvanathan.

At a time when so much of funding and grants for the arts are being slashed, this fellowship must be a great blessing. What do you propose to do with the amount?
What do I propose to do with the amount? To tell you the truth, I do not know yet. I will receive the check in September at the Award Ceremony in Washington. D.C. There will be four days of festivities including Banquet, Reception and performances at the Library of Congress and at George Washington Univ. The additional performance at the Library of Congress is by myself with my artists only. Every year one artist is selected to perform at the Library of Congress and this year they have selected my work, which is another great honor. Anyway, I hope I can use at least part of the moneys for my future artistic projects.

“Fellows are selected according to criteria of authenticity, excellence, and significance within the particular artistic tradition.” Do you perceive this as a big responsibility to live up to, or do you just feel a sense of satisfaction for recognition of your work?
Both. First, it is a wonderful satisfying feeling to receive such an honor, specially since I was not expecting it at all and was not even thinking about it. I like to believe that truth prevails and I have always tried to be very truthful to my work and true to my Kathak dance. Yes, it is a big responsibility. Berry Burgey highlighted some of my projects, teaching, sessions about mathematics and Kathak rhythms and passing on the Kathak tradition to Amrapali and her achievements including Cirque Du Soleil. I would just like to continue to do what I have done so far and dream about my projects and make them realities as often as possible, and cherish the process of making that dream come true.

Can Kathak be categorized under 'traditional and folk'? What is the status of Kathak on the American performing arts scene now?
At present Kathak is categorized as part of the Traditional and Folk arts of this country just as all the other classical dance forms of India. In the old days they were part of the ethnic category and Kathak is also considered as part of the world dance. When I request funding from the National Endowment for the Art, I can apply for either dance category or Traditional and folk arts category, so I still have the option of choosing between the two and I like to have that option depending on my project. For the Kalidas' Shakuntalam dance drama, we received funding under dance category, in competition with all other dance forms of USA including ballet and modern dance. The status of Kathak dance is very good and getting better. I would say that my receiving the award is a perfect example that the dance form is recognized nationally. In the 37 years that I have lived in the US, I have always made a genuine effort to promote Kathak in its true form from Alaska to Florida and from Hawaii to New York.

What are the challenges ahead of you as the winner of this award?
I consider them opportunities and experiences and I am truly looking forward to all of them. I do not know that they will be, but my goal has always been to continue to strive to make myself a complete artist with a deep rooted tradition and new ideas and a mission of taking Kathak dance to new heights, and new places, and new audiences.

(as told to Lalitha Venkat on e-mail)

Anjani Ambegaokar
"Sundar Kala Kendra Dance School"
1934, Peaceful Hills Road
Diamond Bar, CA 91765
Ph: (909) - 595-8934
Fax: (909) - 598-3351