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From Slum Dog Millionaire to 'Temple Dreaming'
- Sumi Krishnan, Sydney

February 19, 2009

Tara Rajkumar, an Indian Mohiniattam and Kathakali dancer and performing artiste was conferred with the Medal of Order of Australia on 26 January 2009. No mean feat, the award is a culmination of work that started thirty years ago.

In fact it started when Tara Rajkumar was barely 6 years old. A six year old Tara who lived in the humble neighbourhood in Ernakulam in a house not far from the sea surrounded by swaying coconut trees and the sounds of Carnatic music and dance. My dynamic aunts, not one but three would spend a great deal of time at Tara's home and on many of those wet monsoon afternoons when there was nothing to detract them, the girls would dance and sing. Their long hair flowing, wrapped in sarees and long skirts. A strong love for the Arts was a bonding feature between them and of course amongst the many feasts of Puttu, Dosai and Idli grew Tara's ability to weave stories.

The Connection between Temple Dancing and Slum Dog Millionaire is a question begging to be answered no doubt. From the simple surrounds of dancing in her small world at home, Tara has attained the prestigious status of that of a millionaire, the Medal and title of OAM, triggered by none other than her power of story telling in a manner that breaks cultural and language boundaries.

Be it the story of Louis Lightfoot or the story of Jamal Malik, the common thread is the purposeful deviation in direction from home to home abroad. The direction of story telling that takes it across cultures and brings continents and its people closer by conquering hearts. In Temple Dreaming amongst others, Tara steps into the life of an Australian pioneer, Louise Lightfoot. The story telling gains an invaluable aesthetic beautiful choreographic spell in the dance forms of Mohiniattam and Kathakali in the hands of this great performer, dancer, teacher and researcher, Tara Rajkumar. Her contribution to her art form is so unparalleled that it has finally received the recognition it is worthy of. Although bringing no monetary reward, the Order of Australia Medal is the highest commendation that a civilian can receive in this country. Tara Rajkumar is one of the first Indian migrant performing artistes to be bestowed with this grand title. "It was all such a surprise!!" says Tara.

Bringing Indian dance to Australia: Tara Rajkumar brought her passion for this art form to Australia nearly twenty five years ago. Working through Tara's well documented career in dance in Australia causes one to be more than impressed with her works and her association with Monash University. Tara's great efforts to bridge the gap between the East and the West is evident in her projects, presentations, papers and productions, a work that has lasted a lifetime of twenty five years.

She was the founder of the Akademi in England which runs to this day. It is not surprising that amongst the many congratulatory messages Tara has received, Mr. James Porter CBE, former Director General of the Commonwealth Institute and a former trustee of the Akademi in London, says, "I am absolutely delighted that after all the years your international contribution to Indian dance, one of the world's great art forms, has been so recognised."

Tara Rajkumar's dedicated work sees her gain Fellowships in the prestigious Monash University and sees her holding the position of Director of Performing Arts at the Monash Asia Institute. She is also the founder and director of her dance company and school, Natya Sudha in Melbourne Victoria.

Empowering Women: From Australia, she has extended the boundaries of Mohiniattam and used it along with the dramatic story telling strength of Kathakali in a large number of acclaimed productions, for example Krishna the Celestial Dancer based on the Narayaneeyam, Mohini the Divine Enchantress, Temple to Theatre which toured in the United Kingdom, and Mahamaya.

Once again her works that deal with parallel cultures is seen in Prakrithi, where she presented choreography to the poetry of famous Australian poet, Judith Wright. Her solo performance in the contemporary work, Malache - Despatches from Another World with Arena Theatre Company in Melbourne was a roaring success. Malache was later re-invented for the Green Mill Dance Festival and presented at the prestigious Malt House Theatre as a double bill along with distinguished Odissi / Bharatanatyam dancer Sonal Mansingh who presented 'Draupadi.'

Both Malache and Draupadi explored the power and strength of women. Malache received many accolades in the main Australian dance magazine 'Dance Australia.' Tara's creative adventure with dance continued in 'What She Said' using the Kurunthukali poems of Ramanujam which focused on women's empowerment. A little known fact is that she was invited to take a cameo role as an Indian dancer in the film 'Emma's War' starring Lee Remick! Tara was honored in the Victorian Parliament and included in the Victorian Honour Roll of Women Shaping the Nation, "honoring her contribution to Victoria and the Nation" in Arts and Education on the occasion of the Centenary of Federation.

Temple Dreaming:
"I have always wanted to take my dance form to the general Australian public and have tried to find contemporary stories through which this can be done," she says. One of Tara's major works has been her choreographed production called 'Temple Dreaming' performed at the Alexander Theatre at Monash University in 1996 which later toured in India at the invitation of the Indian government. Temple Dreaming was perhaps one of the first projects that acted as a catalyst in making her what she is today.

In this project, Tara reflected the dreams of an Australian, Louise Lightfoot, who landed on the shores of India on the way to England and fell in love with its dance forms. Louis Lightfoot dedicated her life to dance by studying and promoting Indian classical dance forms. "I have recently curated an exhibition of her work and am working with eminent dance professionals and scholars in India to form worthy high quality collaborations." Whilst this project is continuing, it seems that Australia is thankfully waking up to the pioneering efforts of brilliantly talented performers such as Tara Rajkumar.

Yet she says, "My contributions to dance and society would not have been possible without the good wishes of so many people I have worked with over the years. Of course, the unending support of my immediate family, my broader, extended family in the world of performing arts, my students and friends has been unbelievably generous. I am deeply grateful for the blessings of God, my gurus and karanavars (elders) and my late father, T M B Nedungadi, former Chairman of the Kerala Kalamandalam whose inspiration led me on my dance journey which I will treasure forever."

A voyage that started in the humid monsoon afternoons of Ernakulam, India comes to fruition here in Melbourne, Australia to make history of a pioneering kind.

Sumi Krishnan is a regular contributor to and runs her website for music and dance news in Sydney.

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