An American (um, Indian...wait! Indo-American...eesh, I don't really know) learning Bharatanatyam...
Updated: Feb 24, 2021
I identify as an Indian...but also American. Many Indians see me as an American, most Americans see me as an Indian. It can get a bit...smudgy, to say the least. I grew up using the term "Indo-American" to describe my ethnicity but somehow, it never felt right. Back then no one knew what that meant unless they had the same background...and I did not meet many others like me for some time.
How we identify ourselves says a lot...at least that is what I read. I am first generation American born to parents born and raised in India. I came into this world in Phoenix, Arizona in the 70's. Diversity was pretty much non-existent at that time, so I did my best to blend in. My father, a brilliant doctor who immigrated to the USA in 1963, faced so much adversity then that his goal for his children was to seamlessly blend into American culture. My mother, on the other hand who was and is, all heart, held tightly onto her roots. Two lovingly opposing forces.
When I was seven years old, a bharatanatyam dancer, Srimati Asha Gopal, moved to Arizona from Bangalore, India. Mom was thrilled! Every Indian in Phoenix with a young daughter was ecstatic! Here was a way to bring in some of the Indian culture to their very American children. Back then no cultural associations, places of worship, or festivities existed for people from other countries. Parents were solely responsible for passing on the millions of lessons to be learned. No computers or easy access to other immigrants as well. Zero outside help. And in my mothers case, it was just her cooking and cleaning, raising 3 kids of a foreign country and doing her best to find time to teach us a bit about Indian culture and religion. Asha Gopal unknowingly gave hope to mother's across Arizona. I was to be signed up immediately. I had been doing tap, jazz and ballet from the age of 4 and now was presented with this "new" form of dance which was...hard, different and not mainstream. I struggled with it for some time. But mom was non-negotiable, I had no choice no matter how many tears I cried before class....and boy did I cry.
When I first started learning bharatanatyam, I did not tell my American friends. I was sadly embarrassed as I wanted to be seen to be just like them. I thought being different meant not being accepted. Around 12 years old, a change happened...I started to fall in love with this art form and truly appreciate its nuances and the stories it told. I held my head a little higher and I felt proud to be learning this dance form which engaged the mind, the soul and the physical body. And the mommas were right...this was a way for us kids to feel connected to our history. We were not just learning this demanding dance form with its endless bending and stomping, its exacting gestures and movements but stories of the Gods, of love, of deceit, of character, of good fortune and bad. We were also learning how to tell these incredibly ancient stories through our physical self. I mean really...this is some pretty amazing stuff. And I was wrong about feeling accepted by my school friends...though I was making life-long friends who were just like me in dance class, my other friends were perfectly fine with who I was. Most every child struggles with some form of acceptance, mine just looked different than theirs. The shift which happened in my early tweens was life changing. I became proud of who I was, where I came from and how much I loved Indian dance. I realized that I am who I am...an Indian, an American and an Indo-American.