Narrative and Interview by Abigail Cannon
Ramya Kapadia is a Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, instructor, and Carnatic vocalist. Bharatanatyam is a classical South Indian dance form that focuses on specific hand gestures and footwork, abstract movement, and expression. Every part of the dance form is important to mastering the overall style and learning the true meaning of the art form, to become a more empathetic person. Hand gestures are paired with body language; the geometric and abstract shapes created with the body can be related to the surroundings or stories, and expression can originate from the face, lyrics and melodies, or through the body.
Kapadia started her professional dance training at 23 years old, though she originally studied to be a doctor. She earned a Biomedical Engineering degree in Mumbai, India as well as holds Masters degrees in Medical Physics and Neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin Madison. She first studied Kalakshetra, a traditional form of Indian dance, under Shantha Gopinath for two years. The Kalakshetra style is considered a modernized style in contrast to the more historic or formalized Bharatanatyam form. Hand movements are the primary focus in Kalakshetra. The movements themselves tend to flow from the words and lyrics. The movements tend to be angular, straight, and precise.
Kapadia then studied under Dr. Jayasree Rajagopalan, a well-known teacher and spokesperson for the Bharatanatyam style, at Nrityodaya Mumbai for 10 years. It was under Rajagopalan that Kapadia was taught aesthetics and choreography before finally studying with Kripa Baskaran, who has had the biggest influence on Kapadia’s dancing and life. In 2003, Kapadia and her mentor Kripa Baskaran helped form Natyarpana Dance Company. With this performance troupe, she was given opportunities to travel and perform all over the United States. Kapadia also taught workshops at the University of Wisconsin Madison as well as throughout the Madison and Milwaukee area. She was eventually made a part of the teaching faculty at Natyarpana Dance Company in 2007. Kapadia also completed her training in the Bharatanatyam dance form under Baskaran in 2008. In the same year, she established the Natyarpana School of Dance & Music in Durham, North Carolina. Kapadia’s goal with establishing this school is not only to teach Bharatanatyam, but to share traditional Carnatic music to the younger generations.
Kapadia is credited with choreographing four evening-length works: Aum Sadgurubhyo Namaha-”Ode to the Guru,” Sitayana-”Epic Tale of the Earth Born,” Krishna-”The Blue Hued Cowherd,” and Vande Mataram–”This Land, Our Home.” The four pieces are centered around reflecting on oneself, one’s values, and one’s outlook on life, in general. The works ponder hard-hitting questions about facing our true nature and accepting those who have ideas and notions that differ from our own. From these pieces, Kapadia draws from events that happen in her home country of India. Kapadia’s choreographic works have been well received by audiences and critics. In 2010, she received the Ella Pratt Emerging Artist Award from the Durham Arts Council as well as the Choreography Fellowship from the North Carolina Dance Alliance in 2016. In 2016 she joined the Prakriti Dance as the Assistant Artistic Director. She continues to teach as well as lend her voice and compositional talents for dance productions. As a dancer, her main focus is to spread the Bharatanatyam artform and to promote empathy and make the world a better place.
Can you tell me how long you’ve been choreographing and producing dance and what led you to decide this career path?
Kapadia: I’ve been doing this for about 20 years now and I never really started out thinking that I’d be a dancer or a musician at all. I started training a lot of kids in India, growing up learning either music or dance. My mom is a singer and I started learning to sing from her. That was the whole thing always. I came to the US and I got a Masters in Medical Physics and another Masters in Neuroscience, but I’d always kept singing. When I was in high school I also used to sing for other dancers. So, art was a part of our lives. I never thought of it as a career, but it was just there and we always did it. My mom held us up to a very high standard, so it was you just gave it your all. Even if you didn’t make any money or think of it as a career you just did.
After I moved to the US and I was in Madison at one of the Indian functions, I met this lady, Kripa Baskaran, and we became really good friends. I sang something at the event and then she performed. She danced at the event and we said to ourselves, “Wow, that was really nice.” We became really good friends. One thing led to another and then she said, “You know, you should really take dance lessons.” I had taken two years of dance lessons when I was a kid, but I sang more. I think just having watched so much dance and having sung for dance, it came quicker. I knew the stuff, but it felt like I was in an old body. I was 23, I’d busted my knee. With all of that it took a while for the dance to get into my body and look nice, but I just loved it. I’ve always loved dancing and performing or just being on stage creating things. So, I took lessons from her. When I graduated, I moved to North Carolina and the plan was for me to apply for a job as a Medical Physicist or a Neuroscientist at Duke University. I had interviews set up but then I went on tour with this amazing dancer from India, to sing for her. This was through all of Europe for three months. Again, things just kept kind of happening. I kept going on more and more tours and I never wrote my resume, I never applied for that job. I kind of just fell into this whole thing of doing music and dance full time. I kind of stumbled into it.
Where do you find your inspiration when dancing or coming up with choreography?
Kapadia: Inspiration just really strikes me from anywhere. I think at the core of it, it stems from who you are as a person at that point in time. I think one of the most important things is that something needs to matter. Something needs to really hit you. It can come from a really sad place or a really happy place. But for me, poetry and music immediately translates into something visual for me. If I hear a line of poetry or a song, anything, like a lyric, I’ll see lighting, I’ll see costumes. Anything I read or hear or even things that I watch-you go to a movie and you watch something, and something sticks in your mind. It translates into this whole alternate world, it’s this whole magical world that gets created on stage. And then you make the decision whether you want to go with it and keep working on it and develop it more or not. But then it’s anything, music or poetry, that gets translated.
What are the steps you take in making a new dance?
Kapadia: For me, the dance form that I’ve been trained in comes with its own vocabulary of movements and gestures. In that way it’s almost like having a language. You have the words in the English language and then you decide how you want to put them together, how you want to string them together. So, I’m not creating new movement per say, but I do draw from a lot of different genres of music. Again, when I say at this point my inspiration was a line of lyric or a poem, for me, an “A-B” kind of thing immediately happens. I hear the sound in my head, and I see the picture in front of me and that guides me into creating the whole piece. Also, because I sing and I compose my own music, or write my own scores, that helps a bit. The process ends up being simultaneous. The music, the rhythm, and the movement all comes together. I’ll be moving while I’m singing or imagining the beats in my head. Then I just have to say to myself, “Write this down” or “Video this,” just to have it on record, so I don’t forget what happened. I feel really grateful that I’m able to do a lot of that stuff on my own.
I was trained in one form of music, a classical Indian style. A lot of times I want a more produced kind of sound, which is more global sounding. I know what I want but I don’t know how to create that sound. So, then I look to other people. I look to my brother. He works in the music industry in India, the Bollywood industry. He’s a singer and composer. I immediately turn to him because he’s the perfect blend. He knows my training and my background because we grew up together. He knows how to translate what I’m saying. I might just make grunts and growls and he’ll know how to translate that into what I actually want. Then, once I know all of that another person will help translate my idea if I cannot do it.
What is your process for selecting and working with dancers or dance students?
Kapadia: First thing I think is commitment. Also, I think as someone who started dancing later in life, I have more empathy for different body types and different body capabilities. If I’m working in a group, the first thing I look for is commitment and having the time. Sometimes you may be committed but you may not have the time. If people are able to be on a project for that specific timeline, and make it to those practices, that’s the first thing I look for. Then when I know, we kind of gauge. Everyone cannot do a split, for example. Everyone cannot jump as high, but some people may. Those kinds of things also guide the choreography. If I have a cast then I know what’s possible and what’s absolutely not possible. That kind of guides the choreography. It’s definitely the time and the commitment to be on a project. Then the next step would be the ability to do certain movements, at certain speeds or emotions. There’s so much emotional storytelling in our dance form. Some people are really strong in those respects, but they may not be able to jump around, say, or do abstract movements for long periods of time. But they might be really strong with their face. When I was growing up this did not matter, everyone was assumed to have the same capabilities so you just had to have the ability. I think that trend has shifted now and it’s a little more accepting and a little more inclusive. The main thing is the commitment and the time and the ethics that everybody follows that says to a choreographer, “Okay, I’ve committed to this so I will show up and I’ll do what is necessary.”
What does success mean to you in your role as a choreographer, teacher, producer?
Kapadia: At the core of it, I think it has always been to make the world a better place. It sounds pretty lofty, but what that could mean is that, in Indian dance, there’s this whole concept of experience. Whatever we show on stage is experienced not only by the dancers, or the actors, or the players onstage, but also the audience. You create a world onstage but the whole auditorium, the audience, the actors, and the dancers are in a world together. Of course, everyone in the audience is at a different place in their lives and they’re receiving that information differently. They’re experiencing differently and we [producers] understand and appreciate all of that now. But it has always been that you do something that means something to you whether or not it’s a box office hit. It has to change you. The process of making a work has to change you for the better, not make you bitter, or upset, or angry or worse off as a person than when you started working on it. When the process of creating a work changes you and makes you more empathetic and more compassionate, I think that automatically leads into the work being true. Then the audience experiences it in the matter and then goes home with that takeaway saying, “No, I want to do something nice.” That, to me, is success. That, to me, is community because then we all grow together. Hopefully it will translate into the tangibles: money, titles, and awards, maybe. But even if it doesn’t do all of those things, I feel that you become a nicer person and that’s good. That moment onstage just goes away, it feels so fleeting. The technical rehearsals are obviously longer than the actual show, but up until that point that you put on the makeup and you start the show, that is the process. It may not always be joyous. Everything cannot be, with the stresses of everything. But it’s the fact that you put in thought because we are forced to think. We are forced to think outside of our own selves and our own bodies. Whether it’s a solo performance, we are forced to interact whether we like it or not. That, I think, makes us able to communicate and understand what that’s like, and then really take an honest look at ourselves. That, to me, is true success.
What have your biggest challenges been as a choreographer, teacher, and producer?
Kapadia: I would say the biggest challenge is more like a women’s issue. In a lot of South Asian societies, a woman’s role is very defined. You’re either a good daughter, good wife, or a good mom, and there are certain tags that come along with that-what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. I am breaking out of those stereotypes because dance, or any type of art, is not seen as valid work. So, if I said to somebody [in South Asian culture], “I’m a dancer,” they’d say, “Oh, that’s really nice, but what do you do?” I don’t have a nine-to-five job. That culture is changing, of course. People are changing, perceptions are changing. But when I started out, this [change] was not a thing. Especially for people who knew me. I was very driven to be a scientist. Being a scientist and being in a good school, all of that, just automatically translated into a high-profile job with the perks. And then: “You’re a dancer? What happened? But you spent all of that time studying!” For me, it was never a waste of time. I feel like nothing you do is a waste because you are giving it your all regardless. A lot of people still have trouble understanding what [dancers’] contributions to society are because it’s not tangible. And then if I go on tour it’s like, “Oh, but what happens to your husband?” and then, “What happens to your kids? Who takes care of them?” Things like that. Those have always been my biggest challenges, not the actual creation of the work. Because I think if you’re creative-and I think everyone is creative in their own ways-that doesn’t stop. But to have to negotiate those kinds of societal pressures or judgements with grace and not lose it completely . . . Staying strong enough and positive enough to keep continuing to create work or even to just practice every single day . . . That’s what my biggest challenge has been.
Why is dance important, and what are your hopes for the field and for yourself?
Kapadia: I think this kind of ties into that success question. I’ve actually often thought about this because I started off as a singer who also wanted to dance. Now that I do both, I sense these shifts in energies. Sometimes I just need to get up and move. I just need to get it out of my body. I need to dance. But sometimes I’m content just staying still or just singing. The whole sense of fulfillment of my own mental peace . . . When that happens I feel you’re in complete resonance with whatever energy it is with the universe. And you feel that is just right. It gives you, it kind of opens a window. You’re able to see good, positivity, and beauty.
I live in Knoxville now, and we have mountains everywhere, and hills, and it’s fall. It’s beautiful, but when I’m not feeling good about myself or the day and I’m just grumpy, I don’t notice anything. We just go through life. You don’t have to be in Knoxville, you can be anywhere. Just the blue of the sky: We don’t notice it because we’re just like, “Just go to work and do something, blah, blah, blah.” But then, when you’re able to tap into that energy, or that perfect resonance, your eyes just open and I think, “Oh, wow, it’s a good day to be around.” I just hope that I don’t feel people need to practice an art to make money or for it to result in anything tangible. Just like anyone could go to yoga, I believe that all is art. Anything that allows you to become a nicer person, allows you to see beauty, allows you to see the value of someone else’s existence; that is my hope about what dance and art will do for the community.
Takeaways: Ramya Kapadia’s Impact
Throughout her dance career, Ramya Kapadia has taken it upon herself to make herself a better person, and to challenge her audience to feel inspired to do the same after watching her works. The purpose of the Bharatanatyam dance form is to create something that makes the choreographer, dancers, and audience want to be more empathetic. Every gesture, movement, and expression is thought out to match the lyrics and words, the surroundings, or a story. Everything comes down to the intention of the choreographer at that point in time of their life. Most choreographers can agree that the process is much more rewarding than the final product. The final product is far too short in comparison to the hours of preparation that go into creating a dance. The hours that go into a dance make it worth the hardships faced. What’s even more rewarding, especially in Bharatanatyam, is if you can learn something from the creative process that goes into making you a better person. That is the form’s ultimate goal. It’s not for the applause or materialistic wishes that come from a work, it’s the process that is the most rewarding part. This approach makes dance more authentic to an artist’s intentions and their particular stage of life. Kapadia has stayed true to this mentality throughout her dance journey.
As someone who started dancing later in life, Kapadia feels that she is more sensitive to dancers’ bodies and their capabilities as performers. There is no denying that there is a heavy demand placed on what dancers can do in the field at large, especially at the professional level. What most choreographers look for is someone who is well-rounded in style and training, is physically capable of handling whatever movement or ideas are given them, as well as being mentally able to get through the tough rehearsals and shows. However, in terms of physicality, there are skills that some dancers may never be able to do. When choreographing a work, Kapadia tries her best to gauge the physical capabilities of her dancers. She also is sensitive yet open-minded about how a dancer’s body looks. But just as with some physical demands, some dancers may never look like what is valued. Kapadia is very aware of these things and wants to focus more on what her dancers can bring to a piece, regardless of the standards and stereotypes. Kapadia hopes that people will be more open and change perceptions of the arts as a job and of what dance can do for a person’s whole self.
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