Last month’s Navadisha conference organised by New Dimensions Arts with support from Sampad was a mixed bag of artistic delights, and inward looking group therapy sessions. I’ve been planning to do a write-up since leaving Birmingham, but have been cautious with my words being misinterpreted as those of another. After reading Anita Ratnam’s analysis, I felt it was worth giving my own contributions partially in response to some of Anita’s points, and also in response to many discussions I engaged in at Navadisha. I thought I’d also jump on the therapy bandwagon and write an introduction to give context to my own complex relationship with dance. This is the first post in three separate blogs analysing some of the discussions at Navadisha and some further thoughts.
To start off, I must come clean and admit that I am the daughter of a supposed gatekeeper, Mira Kaushik. She is my mother and I love her, an emotion many people feel towards their mothers. She joined Academy of Indian dance (as it was then known) a year before I was born, while Akademi was on the verge of shutting down. I have an interesting relationship with Akademi, treating it like an older sibling with whom I have fought for attention. Mira worked intensively long hours, my father was living in Mumbai for work, so I grew up in the corridors of South Asian dance. I attended the last Navadisha sixteen years ago. I remember Akram Khan and Mavin Khoo’s duet distracting me from my Harry Potter book. As a hyperactive, perpetually performing nuisance child Mira put me into Bharatanatyam classes (which I left because I couldn’t tolerate aramandi), and into Kathak which I turned out to be very suited for.
I grew up to be a satisfactory Kathak dancer (there are some links available at the bottom of this page.) At one point I decided I wanted to become a dancer as nothing else gave me the joy I felt while dancing. Mira said if I want to do this, I need to understand my weaknesses and work on them. I lost two thirds of my body weight, worked on my fitness, and started to take tabla lessons because I knew my laya was not up to scratch. I took twelve hour overnight buses on a fortnightly basis from Aberdeen to London for training. At university halls I received two formal warnings for the nuisance caused by my footwork practice in the morning. I shifted my riyaaz to the ground floor boys’ toilets as that was the only place I was able to dance without being evicted. I could only use the boys’ toilets three times a week. Mira’s response: Not good enough. If I wanted to be a dancer I needed to practice every day.
At one point I confronted my mother. I said that she was treating me differently because I was related to her. Mira told me that it would be difficult for Akademi to give me a platform because of the impression it would give. She understood the perceptions within the South Asian community, and felt that some people would assume I was performing due to nepotism as opposed to talent. This is an example of the difficult decisions Mira has had to take because of her commitment to fairness within the South Asian dance sector. She encouraged me to make it alone without Akademi’s help. I understood her reasoning. I understood the weight on her shoulders to support the whole industry. I wasn’t pleased, but I was still determined.
I approached other South Asian dance organisations, and the gatekeepers of these organisations did not support me. The reason? I was Mira’s daughter and therefore would eventually become Akademi’s property so their investment would not have a return. Other gatekeepers (Gurus, teachers, other students) locked more doors, (and I have an additional Guru baggage I’m not even going to touch on here). As South Asian artists, we prefer to see people fail and do not support one another. The atmosphere in the South Asian sector is toxic and we do not encourage our peers. We relish one anothers’ failure, bitching about someone missing half a beat in their performance over drinks.
Dance for me creates a never ending emotional rollercoaster. I can be ecstatic at some points while in the moment: uplifted by the music and movement vocabulary. My spirit is pulled down by an unsupportive peer or teacher, and then crashes to rock bottom when I have the realisation that it is unlikely I will progress out of the boys’ toilets. If this is my emotional journey of highs and lows as a junior dancer, I cannot imagine the highs and lows for people who have done this full time for years, and the effect this may have on their mental wellbeing.
This is the baggage I carry as Mira’s daughter. I often shy away from that identity and disown the links I have to Mira in a dance context. I grew up in this sector and understand every corner of its flaws and limitations as someone both let down by multiple gatekeepers, and as Mira’s daughter seeing the hard work and difficult choices she has had to make for the sector.
For the past six years I have lived (mostly) away from Mira. I have stood in the General Election for a parliamentary seat, been on national and international media voicing strong opinions. I have given speeches to large audiences, written for the international press, and now work for a FTSE 100 company. Please do not think that any of my views in these three posts belong to Mira Kaushik. I have achieved enough by myself to deserve to have my own views.
We must encourage debate and have discussions within the South Asian arts sector. Constructive debate: not short sighted calls to shut organisations down. This requires calm and measured readings of critique, and respecting that different people have different opinions.