To most NRIs, Indian dance is the stuff of Bollywood movies, a fast-paced high energy colorfully plumed kind of dance little girls spend hours mimicking in front of the TV.
Gayathri Arumugham isn’t your regular run-of-the-mill dancer. Born in the US, she grew up trying to find a way to connect with her heritage--something deeper than eating curry and wearing a sari--without becoming “the Indian girl.” Today, she’s an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer, has traveled all over South India, and even dreams in Tamil. Last week, we sat down to chat about the joys--and frustrations--of being an NRI.
Can you give me a quick run down of your Indian street cred? Born in the US to parents from etc.?
My parents are immigrants but no one else ever came so we would go for 3 months at a time. I speak Tamil fluently and have been back 10 times, including a 6 months stint during grad school. I’ve travelled extensively throughout the south and I have my own scene there now--dance, friends, etc. I did HIV/AIDS related work for my grad thesis while there. Spending time there as an adult allowed to find my "own" India.
Going back so often, it's clear you love it. But it must be difficult, being on the outside and the inside, yet liberating to be able to see from two perspectives.
My Serbian friend described it perfectly. She said, "Gaya, you are one of the few who can live in two worlds". Some people think I am contradictory, but I’m just who I am. I think defining "culture" is up to the individual.
Do you ever have trouble working out where home is? Do you miss wherever you're not?
Oh God, "home". What is that? See, my parents moved from Massachusetts, where they were for 25 years, to Texas. Now I don’t even have a place in the US which I call "home". The closest thing is our house on the Cape where I have 20 years of memories.
Lately I have been really, really missing India, dreaming in Tamil, stuff like that. I woke up one Saturday a few weeks ago desperate- desperate for one of my mom's dosas.
What sort of dance do you do? How did you get started?
Bharatha Natyam. Growing up, that was the only Indian activity available. In Boston, there were two dance teachers, one Gujarati, one Tamil. So all the south Indian kids went to Jothi Auntie. Before that, I danced a bit when I was 7, but I hated it. I thought it was painful and that my teacher was crazy--well, good thing was my parents didn’t push me and now I am good friends with that first dance teacher.
How old were you when you started with Auntie? What made you return to dance?
I went back to dance at 15, after I saw my friend Rita dance--she was the captain of the track team, and also Tamil. Then I was like. . . "oh, I can relate". It made it [dance] seem relevant to me, you know? And then I just fell in love with it.
It's hard to feel like you can be both, the perfect Indian and the perfect Westerner. Something has to give, doesn’t it?
Yes, and Rita was a phenomenal example. And we went to a super liberal high school, so I felt very, very proud of my bi-cultural heritage.
Did your mum ever do the Bend It Like Beckham cook a perfect Thali thing with you? [
Laughs] No, she knows I can cook. She's just so distressed by my state of singlehood.
Having typical--or perfect--Indian parents is a double edged sword. It gives you credibility, but at the same time, it's hard to live up to.
My mom is a typical South Indian woman; my dad is a super chilled out kinda guy. [He’s] totally not the average Indian man. I had a kind of different upbringng from a lot of my friends--since I was the first, and my brother is six years younger than me, my dad just treated me like his little buddy so we were always out fixing things and doing yardwork, which I loved. My mom is embarrassed by me, now--due to my advanced age and not being married. I've been instructed to lie about my age, so I can't tell you how old I really am.
Ha! For most Indian families I know an advanced age and single is about 22!
[Laughing again] And I am way past that. Thank god, though, I don't care anymore- I mean, now I am confident in who I am.
My parents were pretty disinterested [in dance]. My mom specifically went out of her way to not be interested and her family in India was really snobby about the whole thing. My dad was sort of supportive, from a distance, and his side of the family (the poor village people side, ha) were actually kind of entranced by it, though not involved. I guess it's weird that I spent sooooo many years doing something I loved so much which is from my culture--especially being from Tamil Nadu--but then having my family be on the whole, unsupportive. It’s weird...and unusual. I say this, too, having been a dance teacher myself for so many years- usually Indian parents are ecstatic when their kids want to study dance!
How many Indians were at your school?
Like 3. I chose to go to the University of Michigan for college because there was a big Indian community. That's where I really started performing, and then I "turned pro" after college. I had an amazing opportunity to go on tour with a group from India. It was a crazy time in my life. I'd just broken up with the love of my life, was out of work, living with my parents and just went to dance class to have a little happiness. And then my teacher asked me to come on this tour and I knew I had to dance (not to sound cheesy). But being around these incredible artists every single day for 3 months took dance to a new level for me.
Do you ever feel like you have to prove your Indianness? Prove yourself?
Yes! All the time. However, the older I get, the less I try to prove myself.
Do you find dancing helps you relate to other Indians? Or do they see it as a bit try-hard?
Depends on the Indian! Some think it's amazing, some think it's silly- like, "Why would you bother?"
I find most Indian Americans assume I dance because my parents forced me to. Actually, my parents were the least involved they could be. They actually think it's kind of foolish--[that it] should just be a "hobby"--and have only seen me perform 3 times in my 20+ years performing. Indians from India assume I don't know what I am doing, since I am "American".
Although Indian dance [is] in part culture for me, [it] became something I fell in love with for its own thing, if that makes any sense. I always thought of myself as a "dancer" not specifically an "Indian" dancer.
Do you think some of your confidence and positive attitude is a result of being an NRI and not quite fitting anywhere? Personally, I've found most NRIs and half-Indians I know are better at owning themselves--it's like they get to that place where they realize no one else can do it for them--faster.
Yes--I don't quite fit anywhere, but I can relate to anyone. It’s like we get forced to think about who and what we are. I got my eyebrows threaded the other day and afterwards, the lady asks me my name and she [says], "Oh! You are Indian!" But she had that look of "hmm" since I have tattoos and I am dark and I guess, I don’t know...
Skin color is so variable throughout India, do you ever find it frustrating?
Oh girl, don’t even get me started on skin color! My life would have been very different if I was lighter. In dance class, I had one teacher who always put me in the back and she'd put bad dancers in front who were fair skinned. My teacher in India yelled and yelled at me when I picked out saris for dance costumes which I loved--pink and purple--[saying], "It makes you look black! Not nice!" She made me return them and get different colors. Ugh. Then when I went for the photo shoot, they put makeup everywhere--[even] my ears and my feet!
Where do you think the color issue is worse? In India or the US?
In India--and [with] Indians. No one non-Indian ever has a problem with my skin color. I get compliments on my skin color all the time, especially when I go to the beach. Random people compliment me.
Do you find it strange (I do) how so many Indians are dark, yet seem to abhor the richness of color so much?
It is very, very strange. I have concluded it's partly sexism. Every Indian girl gets criticized for everything--the way we look, our weight. Boys can just be. I mean, you'll never see an arranged marriage where the woman is darker than the man- why is that?
As a dancer and performer, how do you feel about just how pale all the Bollywood women are? Some, even Aishwarya Rai, are so pale in some films they appear white. And yet, Asha, goddess of all things music a couple of decades ago (and still, I think), is dark--properly dark and untouched.
Well, black people have the same thing, and Latinos--[they’re] all obsessed with color. It troubles me. I mean, they call Sushmita Sen "dusky"--and she is way lighter than me. I hate that I even have an awareness of this!
Every time I go to a store in India, they "suggest" Fair & Lovely [a skin whitener] for me. Last time I was in India, I was out with my cousin:
"Madam, you take some Fair and Lovely."
"Uh, no thanks."
"Madam, you take."
"No, Madam is fine"
cousin: "He's just being nice."
She [my cousin] was embarrassed that I wasn't all excited to take the Fair & Lovely. I'm like, fair and lovely, my ass!
When you’re dancing--or teaching--what’s most important to you?
I try to make dancing positive for my students. My teachers in many ways were abusive in their constant criticism and merciless negativity about my skin color and body shape. I even had a well-known dance teacher in India tell me that "God made me completely wrong". I try to always create an atmosphere of positivity and acceptance in my classes, and to encourage dancers to see their assets and appreciate what their bodies can do--and that way dance becomes something positive and enriching--not a critical voice in your head- but a celebration of beauty and culture, which is what it should be.
Gayathri Arumugham, photo by Alvydas Kesas, makeup by Migle Kesiene