South Asian Australians forging new identities through traditional arts forms

As a seven-year-old, picking up the Aussie accent and learning to play netball, Sruti was living a much different life from her early years in Chennai. Eating fairy bread and idly sambar on the same day, assimilating to a new life but holding desperately onto the previously familiar one, she was finding it increasingly difficult to feel comfortable with her dual identity. 

‘Not knowing how I was going to merge the two parts of me was probably the most difficult part of it all,’ Sruti says, recounting her experiences growing up as a migrant Indian in predominantly white Australian suburbs. 

Many South Asians here in Australia live this way, wanting to maintain a connection with their countries of origin, but being unable to participate in it fully. As an immigrant, straddling the label of ‘not enough’ for both one’s home country and country of residence can be exhausting.

For Sruti, it was the deliberate practice of traditional arts, such as dance and music that provided her the opportunity to stay in touch with her cultural heritage and feel comfortable discussing her cultural identity in the broader community. 

‘Dance in particular was an immense escape for me…. I really needed it’.

The rhythmic and powerful dance of Nandi (credit: KSR Photo and Video)

Traditional South Asian arts are centuries old, ranging from vocal, instrumental, and dance to the visual, graphic, and literary arts. Melbourne alone has dozens of arts schools scattered around the suburbs that teach these forms, from professional studio classes to at-home setups in the garage or living room. These schools contribute heavily to the cultural and social landscape for the South Asian diaspora in Australia and enrich the connection these communities have with their ethnic origin.

The teaching and practice of these arts in a Western country boils down almost exclusively to the passion of a guru, a teacher who wishes to impart decades deep intricate knowledge to their pupils. Their love for the art and passion to ensure its longevity are the reason many immigrant families can access classes here in Australia. 

Sruti has been practicing the South Indian traditional dance form Bharatanatyam since she was five years old, under the tutelage of gurus both in Chennai and Melbourne. She is one of hundreds of young artists in Australia who continue to practice these arts. I met Sruti through Bharatanatyam classes, and have myself trained in Mumbai and in Melbourne, with the majority of my training undertaken in Australia. 

Bharatanatyam is a physically and spiritually demanding artform, which holds its origins in sadir, a devotional dance style founded by the devadasis of Tamil Nadu. The dancer combines a range of rhythmic nritta, dramatic natya, and lyrical nritya to share stories primarily imbued in the various forms of shringara rasa, also known as the emotion of love. The dance pieces themselves can range from five to fifty minutes, taking an audience from dazzling rhythmic flourishes to deeply heart wrenching emotion in within a single performance. The dancer is traditionally accompanied by a live orchestra specialising in Carnatic music, and the interplay between instrumentalists, vocalists, and dancer creates a uniquely electric stage environment.

For the dancers dedicated to reaching a high level of competency, it is no easy feat. I know from experience that the practice of these arts can be described as a complicated, confronting, and a non-linear process. 

To develop the stamina required for performances that stretch for hours, dancers can spend anywhere from two to four years mastering the basics of the art form, from gruelling physical exercises to strengthen the thighs and arms, to watching oneself in the mirror for hours on end to perfect subtly nuanced expressions. In addition, centuries of theoretical knowledge surrounding the history, culture, religion, colonisation, and subsequent resurgence of the art must be understood to do justice to the artform. Musical and rhythmic theory, focused on the incredible mathematical arrangements of Carnatic music and dance, must also be processed and internalised. In short, to genuinely understand the artform is a lifelong commitment. 

A pooja for auspicious blessings before the concert (credit: KSR Photo and Video)

For my fellow performers and I, it also deeply emotional and takes up just as much mental strength as it does the physical. Our rehearsal rooms and practice studios have seen hours of sweat and tears, of injuries and joy, of being chastised by our gurus. So why is it that Sruti, me, and so many of my fellow dancers continue to engage with this difficult process? 

In Sruti’s case, dance became a way that she could comfortably identify as an Indian-Australian, and bridge the gap between two aspects of herself. When she mentioned that she was a traditional Indian dancer, people of other backgrounds were interested and excited by it, wanting to know more about this element of her identity. Sruti was able to come to terms with her South Asian identity inside the walls of practice rooms and studios, and then express that identity in broader society.

This sentiment was echoed across almost every fellow dancer I spoke with. What had originally begun for many as a biweekly exercise, a class that they attended out of obligation to parents that wanted their child to maintain a traditional connection with the motherland, had eventually become a defining feature of their lives. 

Soraya admits that she was forced to attend classes as a young child, as it was her mother’s way of ensuring her daughter didn’t forget their roots. Today, she sees it as an experience that taught her more about her body and movement and put her in touch with culture and mythology that she otherwise had no idea about.

Ishaana, who has both Indian and Irish parents, reflected that dance had become a core part of her identity and definition of self. Having very few ways to stay in touch with her Indian side in Australia, dance became a place where she could exercise a connection to the subcontinent. She described the art form as ‘a way of learning about myself, my place in the world, and my heritage’.

Rainah, a dancer of Fiji-Indian heritage, states that dance is ‘one of the strongest ways for [her] to connect with being Indian’. 

I find this particularly remarkable. We live in a world where the connection to one’s home country can be just a click away, with hundreds of videos, songs, recipes, and stories at our fingertips. However, she sees the deliberate practice of a traditional art, spending hours poring over theory and practical studies, as the most meaningful way to connect with her heritage. 

Salangai graces the ankles of Bharatanatyam dancers (credit: KSR Photo and Video)

This deliberate practice is ultimately what makes the practice of traditional South Asian arts in Western countries such a fascinating space. As Malathi, another respondent, articulated: most cultural practices such as festivals are imposed upon the individual. Tradition and expectations of norms, such as dressing or acting a particular way, are enforced in households or at gatherings – a passive engagement. In fact, those particular celebrations of heritage feel almost like they could exist with or without that individual. Living in a Western country can also compound this feeling, perpetuating the idea that the culture doesn’t require one’s input to flourish. 

Whereas with a traditional artform like dance, it is a cultural activity which needs the individual to exist. It needs the dancer’s physical and emotional involvement, and interpretation of the music and rhythm on a deeply personal level, to have justice done. The traditional arts therefore provide the individual with a bilateral relationship of mutual respect. 

The ability to learn a traditional art, to then have the freedom to interpret it and make it one’s own, has provided so many performers with a deep sense of satisfaction, connection to their heritage, and importantly, a connection to a community of like-minded people.

Through my conversations, I found that the secondary reason that so many continued to engage with dance was the sense of belonging that they found in the dance community. It goes without saying that any prolonged activity, whether it be sport or art, provides the individual with a sense of kinship. However, the sisterhood that dance has provided me with is incomparable elsewhere. 

Everyone I perform with understands what it’s like to have a mix of one nationality, and another ethnicity, and how complex it can be to navigate that relationship. Our shared hardships, both with our backgrounds and the practice of dance, bring vastly different personalities under one roof. This community understands not only what it is like to connect with a culture that you live thousands of kilometres away from, but also understands the frustrations we may have with the obligations and norms of that culture. 

In a broader sense, it also provides us with a community of South Asian art practitioners around the globe. From dancers that we know, to those we do not – telling a fellow dancer that we have learned Bharatanatyam strikes up a conversation, unity, and mutual understanding like nothing else. 

Traditional art also gives us a direct link to the South Asian community in general. Not only does being known as a dancer provide us with a certain level of respect, but it also means we are invited to perform at events, meet people who we would have never met if not for dance, and enrich our community connections in a meaningful way.

Gajavadana performed in homage to Ganpati (credit: KSR Photo and Video)

The richness of our cultural heritage is vast and expansive, but it is just as welcoming as it is intimidating. Through Bharatanatyam we understand not only ourselves, our physical and mental limits, and our heritage, but the importance of the arts in grounding ourselves. The stamping and spinning of my feet on the ground reminds me of the connection I am extending to centuries of performers, a parampara (tradition) that lives within me. 

Artists, performers, and practitioners today are finding innovative and novel ways to connect with their culture and people. Their efforts, both within their artistic realm and in the broader diaspora, must be acknowledged and celebrated if we are to continue flourishing as South Asians in Australia.

 


Tanaya Joshi is a Clinical Research Assistant at the Monash Clinical Research / Metro Pain Group.

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