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Learning a traditional Indian art in a foreign country is not an easy journey, says dancer Lakshmi Iyengar
Lakshmi Iyengar, a Bharatanatyam dancer, is a disciple of Malathi Iyengar, guru Narmada and Bragha Bessell. Lakshmi has also been trained in Odissi by Nandita Behera. She has performed extensively in the U.S., Canada and India, including the December music and dance season in Chennai and Bangalaore.

As a lead dancer for the Rangoli Dance Company, she has performed in all choreographic works of Malathi Iyengar. Lakshmi, a recipient of the Alliance for California Traditional Artists 2004 Award, has received multiple Lester Horton dance award nominations for outstanding achievement in performance. With two decades of dance experience and training in film and video production, she has been a production designer for Rangoli productions since 2001. Lakshmi has studied Italian literature and theatre at the Universita' di Bologna, Italy and worked for the Cineteca di Bologna. Lakshmi has a B.A. in Theater (Production Design) and Italian from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently pursuing a degree in Masters in Entertainment Industry Management at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. She talks to Sangeetha Shyam on her dance journey.

How easy is it to learn a traditional Indian Art in an alien soil?
Lakshmi: Learning a traditional Indian art in a foreign country is not an easy journey. It takes a special kind of commitment, passion and determination to continue pursuing the art form for any number of years. I would like to place on record my appreciation to my parents, who have played a vital role in helping me to cultivate my dedication for dance. Since we are so removed from India, I can understand how one could easily lose interest in his/her artistic career. However, I strongly feel that people closest to you can create a strong support system.

Did you feel comfortable among your peers in the earlier stage?
Lakshmi: By nature, I have always been a rather shy individual, especially when it comes to sharing my skills with others. I think I spent a great deal of my adolescence finding a comfortable ground upon which to share my love for dance with my peers. It was difficult, since Bharatanatyam is so different from anything my peers had ever seen before. Today, I find it is much easier to share this part of my life with my friends and colleagues, essentially because we have all matured and developed our own level of respect for the arts.

How do your classmates view this today, now that you have established yourself as a professional artiste?
Lakshmi: I am very fortunate to have the kind of support and encouragement from my peers, especially because most of them are non-Indian, and have very little exposure to the classical Indian arts. Yet, they come purely to support my family and our love for the arts.

How is the interaction among upcoming dancers in the U.S.?
Lakshmi: I find the interaction between the upcoming dancers in the U.S. to be a developing relationship. We are all second-generation artistes, who have unknowingly become keepers of Indian tradition and culture. There is a special connection we all share, though we may not necessarily be close friends. There is certainly a healthy co-existence amongst artistes born and raised here because we understand what it takes both in India and in the U.S. to be considered 'established artistes'.

Have you chosen to be a full time dancer/teacher/choreographer?
Lakshmi: I have not chosen to be a full time choreographer, dancer or teacher. This does not mean that I will ever stop dancing. I personally feel it is important to establish security not only in arts but in our careers as well. Therefore, I have chosen to divide my time between dance and work.

How do you allocate time for practice?
Lakshmi: The classical arts require attention and time. Therefore, it must be taken seriously. One must simply make time for it. I like to practice in the morning. I feel it works the best for me because I feel the most alert in the mornings and it further creates time to proceed with the rest of my day.

How similar or how different are your approaches to Bharathanatyam and choreography?
Lakshmi: I think my mother (Malathi Iyengar) and I are similar. Yet, we are different in our approach. I believe we have the same taste in what works and what do not. However, our individual methods of approach vary.

Do you agree that it is easier for NRI (non-resident Indian) kids/foreigners to attain physical perfection and proficiency in Nritta, whereas it is harder for them to grasp and present the abhinaya-rich pieces?
Lakshmi: I agree that it is easier for NRI students to attain proficiency in Nritta over abhinaya. However, it must be made clear that it is not impossible. I often feel abhinaya is like learning a new language. And, the best way to master a new language is to live and experience the culture from which the language originates. Having said this, I believe presenting abhinaya pieces with proficiency can be achieved by immersing oneself in India's culture – along with a great deal of practice, of course!
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