Love of Life as Survival: Malini Srinivasan and Bharatanatyam Dance
When I was twelve, every Tuesday night at 7 p.m. I would stand in ballet shoes on cracked wooden floorboards. Ms. Connie would pull her arms in and push them out from her chest, her back curving and straightening like a stretching cat, and tell me to make my body like a rubber band. I couldn’t quite grasp the concept.
At twenty-two, the idea of turning my body into a rubber band still eluded me, until I saw Malini Srinivasan dance at the 2017 Folklife Festival. Finally, I understood what Ms. Connie had meant.
I watched Malini cross her arms, then burst into a series of dynamic poses, her ankle bells jingling as she pounded across the stage. She bent her knees, then stamped out a phrase of Morse code with the heels and balls of her feet. I saw energy build up, rest suspended, then empower each movement. It was as if the July heat had set the stage on fire and she was stamping out the flames.
A professional Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, Malini participated in On the Move for a presentation called “What We Bring,” sharing the cultural contributions her immigrant family has made to her community here. The session was presented by City Lore, a New York-based organization that is working with several artists to develop a performance and exhibition on the topic of immigration.
I was initially apprehensive about talking with her (my understanding of traditional Indian dance is limited to the “Bollywood Homicide” episode of Psych), but watching her put on her ankle bells I was reminded of wrapping the ribbons of my ballet shoes. I felt connected.
Malini walks in the footsteps of her grandmother, Kolima, who danced on clay in India “and every time she struck her feet, they would make holes in the floor,” she said. The grace and power with which Malini moves embodies the persistent joy her grandmother carried through life, and now Malini carries through hers.
The art of Bharatanatyam was passed down from her grandmother to her mother to her. In this way, its history is one of matrilineal tradition—and one that greatly changed in the twentieth century. Women who performed Bharatanatyam in public were equated to prostitutes, because it was seen as immoral for a woman to publicly display her body. The tradition struggled to survive. Kolima learned the dance from male teachers who emphasized strict rules and discipline. She continued as a student until she married at the age of fourteen and moved to Bombay. While in Bombay, she taught Bharatanatyam, but her husband forbade her from ever seeing or participating in performances.
When her husband died, Kolima was expected to dress simply and withdraw from life. In spite of these cultural expectations, she wore silk saris and her best jewelry. Malini believes this reflects the “love of life” that helped her survive poverty and the struggles of being a single mother in India.
She opened a dance school in Bombay where she trained hundreds of students. Malini said she was “the most gentle dance teacher you’ll ever come across,” running her classroom with kindness and the joy. “Dance class was like playtime,” Malini continued, explaining that Bharatanatyam and other forms of traditional dance can be challenging to teach because students “hate the rigidity, the structure, the discipline, the coldness of it.” Children who only experience these elements of dance class won’t continue because they don’t associate dance with happy memories.
Malini takes inspiration from her grandmother as a teacher, saying that when she teaches she gives students “space to move and to sweat and to focus, a vibrant experience in their bodies.” Even if students don’t become professional dancers, they grow up active and engaged people.
“That doesn’t come out of thin air. That comes through engaging.”
Traditionally Bharatanatyam teachers don’t share information or exchange ideas, but Kolima wasn’t afraid to bring in other teachers when she felt she wasn’t knowledgeable enough on a subject. Acknowledging her strengths and weaknesses “made her perfect to carry on the art.” According to Malini, the art of Bharatanatyam is “an ocean,” and it’s impossible for one person to know everything.
Malini too works to knock down barriers. She invites her students and audience into the creative process, giving them a behind-the-scenes look into the form. Listening to her talk about breaking down the image of the prima donna dancer reminded me of watching mothers cake makeup onto their daughters’ faces at dance recitals. It can be challenging to prove the importance and the accessibility of dance as an art form when dancers are so often pushed into the bubble of perfection.
The value of creating community is something Malini’s family has passed down for generations. In her grandmother’s home, “if you wanted any privacy you had to lock yourself in the bathroom.” The two-bedroom apartment housed nine people and served as an afternoon dance studio for thirty students. Kolima hosted benefit concerts and performances with her students in Bombay.
After moving to D.C., Malini’s family carried on the communal tradition. They chose their house because the basement was perfectly suited for Malini’s mother’s Bharatanatyam class, and for her father’s impromptu concerts with visiting Carnatic musicians. Malini teaches classes at home as well and expects that her children will see being part of a large community as a norm.
Watching her now—with each jump, Malini makes it clear she wishes to go through life with as light a heart as her grandmother. When I asked about her sense of responsibility for Bharatanatyam, she responded, “If I thought about it too much, it would seem like a burden.” She sees her role as a dancer and teacher as a unique privilege.
“I get to interact every day with these ideas and these movements, and it makes me feel good,” she said. “That has to do with being connected to the past and being able to carry something to the future.”
It’s also a unique way for her to connect with her family history.
“I don’t have to always engage with the past in a sad way. I think they taught me to lighten up a little—enjoy. That really is the best gift a parent could give a child.”
Malini dances to stay connected to her community, her culture, and herself. By dancing and teaching Bharatanatyam, she keeps her family history alive.
“In this way, I bring back the spirits and struggles of my mom and grandmom, and somehow it feels like I’m continuing what Kolima started many years ago in a different time and place.”
Emma Cregan is a media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where she studied kinetic imaging.