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Practical challenges of Indian classical dances in USA and the role of Hindu temples
- Prasanna Kasthuri, St. Louis

October 20, 2009

When I started dreaming about coming to USA and starting a dance school almost a decade back, I understood it would be a challenging one. The main goal was to spread the traditional art form beyond its traditional base of India. Upholding the cultural and spiritual values of great Indian traditions was the core intention of this approach. As time changed, it made the physical boundaries vanish by free trade across the countries. Civilizations connected through extraordinary communication facilities, such as internet and television, which is unprecedented in human history. So, it makes us believe our dance forms get more limelight than what it had previously. But one can see that this is not happening with an onslaught of heavy media works such as television and movies. Due to this the classical dances fading slowly. Although there is a decent following, because of few devoted families, but it has not gotten out to the masses as it did just a century back. According to my analysis, it has to do with the following points.

1. Majority audience has less knowledge of philosophical and spiritual interpretations of the dance themes.

2. Disappearing pride among Indians to save their art forms. If Japanese could be proud of Kabuki and Chinese can be proud of their classical music, we see less percentage of Indians having the same enthusiasm.

3. Availability of enormous modes of entertainment activities, such as cable TVs. Most working class youngsters are seen spending time in front of television channels, rather than going out and enjoying a live classical performance.

4. Less exposure of classical dance forms in these mass media in India and USA. Apart from the Government controlled Doordarshan, no private television channel in India or outside are broadcasting Indian classical dances on their channels. These channels are so much profit based, this attitude promotes the erosion of great performing arts culture.

5. Less encouragement from organizations, associations and their leaders. My observation of Indian organizations in USA such as language based or state based or university based organizations, lack the knowledge of deep work and effort of classical dancers. Most of the times, their events avoid any classical performances. Because of the misconception that it is not a crowd puller.

6. Less encouragement of local artists. Local dance teachers work very hard to bring in the professionalism in the community. Most teachers struggle to create awareness of philosophy, tradition and their relationship with a performing art such Bharatanatyam. Teaching dance to an NRI kid is very hard. Because, they understand each kid has to live with two cultures. But making them understand will be their priority. After years of work of dance pedagogy, I have seldom seen a community offering any award or respect to any artist. Organizations should recognize and honor the works of these artists.

7. Very less representation of Indian performing art form on national stages in USA/Canada. Although there are 1.8 million Indians (taxpayer!), I guess, the coverage for performing arts either in an American newspaper or on any television or in a National dance festival such as American Dance Festival is too less. The barrier of culture and race still hogs these areas. There are no international art critics in major newspapers across American cities, including St. Louis. But if one goes to India, one can see most of the entertainment section of newspapers such as Times of India filled with American icons such as Hannah Montana, Britney Spears, even in a small city like Nagpur or Hubli.

8. While performing and teaching in India, we had our homes as the teaching places in India. We all went to our teacher's home and believed it as Gurukula. We have no such pleasure in USA, as each housing subdivision has its own rule to avoid such "commercial" activities. Many of dance teachers are given county warnings for conducting dance lessons in our homes. Most of the Indian dance gurus are stuck in Catch 22 situations, where they cannot buy or lease a Studio, just like an American dance company, because we do not have so many people learning, particularly in places like Midwest. As a professional dance teacher it is painful to see hard earned livelihood is spent on the studios, theaters, publicity and other costs. Most of the dance teachers still continue living on meager income, just because of the "bhakti" to a divine art form such as Bharatanatyam.

I just met one of the greatest musicians of India, who happens to be with us in St. Louis. While discussing with him I enquired about his organization. He said it's been dissolved. It does not exist anymore. He said, "I can only be an artist, I cannot manage. The working committee vanished slowly."

When I attended a conference in New York, I saw a great art management in American Performing Arts. When I see great Broadway musicals running in Fox Theater for 2 weeks and three weeks, I feel sad. Don't get me wrong, when I say this. I have full appreciation for what these people do. I am disappointed because we have such a difficulty in making a fraction of these events in an elegant way, because I do believe we have so many artists in our area, who can do marvelous productions. We hope for an artistic vision among the Indian community, which can convert this talent into many great projects.

In my opinion, temples have a greater role in making this happen, because all our music and dance, whether it is north or south, are driven by bhakti (devotion to Lord Almighty). One cannot see a Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi or Mohiniattam or Kathak performance without a Hindu deity being prayed to. Every show is much intertwined with the philosophies of great Acharyas. Yet the support from the temples is very less. I suggest temples not only be the places of worship through rituals such as pooja, havana, homa and vratams, but also a place of worship through "kala" (art form). Indian classical dancers revere performing in a temple. In India, we have great temples like Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Konark and many others carrying great sculptures of dancers. Great dance festivals are held and professional artists and amateur artists are invited and respected. By providing a sincere encouragement to the professional artists in USA, Indian temples could promote a true Hinduism with allied art forms such as dance. This will encourage the second generation children to take up dance as a career. This also gives ample opportunity for artists towards more spiritual and philosophical works, which can only be understood by devotees of temples. Hope temples will become the center of artistic ventures through:

1. Arranging dance festivals

2. Arranging workshops from the reputed teachers, so local students and teachers can benefit.

3. Providing rehearsal spaces with studios to teach traditional dances.

3. Funding some special projects to local teachers and encouraging them to involve local students, so local students can identify the relation of art and religion.

4. Make temples not only religious centers, but also cultural centers promoting traditional art forms such as classical dance and music, just like churches have their choir and music performances.

Temples are already serving as a meeting place for many with prayers. But addition of art will only make it a better place. With hundreds of temples in USA today, they can carve a great influence on the general public with a support to dancers, musicians. One hopes for that day, when Navarathri and Shivarathri can be celebrated with more dances of Durga and Shiva with deep bhakti.


Guru Prasanna Kasthuri is the Artistic Director, Soorya Performing Arts. Since 1999, Prasanna Kasthuri is teaching two classical dance forms - Bharatanatyam, Kathak. He has performed extensively across USA, Europe and India. This article was written for the 12th annual celebration of St. Louis Hindu Temple. His website:

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