Kalaakriti: Swathi Jaisankar
The Kalaakriti series aims to highlight the stories of different artists with South Asian backgrounds. In today’s installation, check out Swathi's story about her work as a dancer!
Swathi Jaisankar is a Bharatanatyam Dancer based in New Jersey, USA who has won numerous accolades and has given several solo and group performances in the US and abroad. She has been training for the past 16 years under Smt. Suba Parmar and Sri. Swamimalai K. Suresh and more recently under Smt. Aishwarya Balasubramanian as well. Her recent notable performances include performing solo margams at the Chennai Margazhi Festival for Brahma Gana Sabha and Narada Gana Sabha. She is the Creative Director of Dance for IndianRaga, through which she has choreographed and performed in over 25 major productions over the past three years that have received millions of views on YouTube and wide acclaim from the artistic community and broad audiences alike. One of the pieces that she led and danced in, Shiva Shambho, has received over 11 million views on YouTube. She has also used this platform to bring attention to social topics such as women’s empowerment (Still I Rise) and LGBTQ awareness (Revelations).
She has been invited to perform at the:
· The World Government Summit, Dubai before the Prime Minister of India’s Keynote Speech
· The United Nations, NY
· The High Commission of India, London
· The Erasing Borders Dance Festival
· The Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and many more
Swathi is also a National Youngarts Winner, Cleveland Aradhana Finalist, and has been awarded the title of “New Jersey Natya Shiromani”.
In addition, she has been a part of New England’s Premier Bollywood Fusion Dance Team, Boston University Jalwa for three years and has won “Best Female Lead” at Jhoomti Shaam 2019 in LA. Through this team she has been able to choreograph and dance in various styles such as Bollywood, Bhangra, Contemporary, and Hip Hop. Swathi recently graduated from Boston University with a B.S. in Computer Engineering and is now working as a Product Analyst at Putnam Investments, while continuing to pursue her passion for dance.
How were you introduced to dance?
Ever since I was a kid, I have always been interested in trying out everything and anything. It was hard for me to put all my focus onto just one extracurricular because I was interested in so many different things like tennis, piano, flute, karate, swimming, and more! My dance journey started when I was four years old. My Mom had to find a way to keep me busy, so she enrolled me in ballet, tap, and jazz classes. A few years later, I started taking Bharatanatyam classes as well. Being a little girl, I was just astounded by the beautiful costumes, jewelry, and makeup involved in the traditional Indian art form. The best part was that the more I danced, I realized I was portraying the same stories of God and Goddesses that my parents and grandparents would always tell me. At one point when it got to be too much, I had to decide between these dance styles and I eventually chose to transition my focus onto Bharatanatyam. Doing Bharatanatyam gave me a feeling of warmth and familiarity as well as a strong connection to my Indian culture and tradition.
At what point in your life did you feel that following this passion was what you wanted to do?
After completing my Arangetram in High School, I didn’t have a clear path in terms of dance. I continued as much as I could by learning, performing, and competing especially because I wasn’t sure how things would change after moving away for college and if my priorities would shift. Fortunately, I joined IndianRaga the summer before college started and that felt like a huge turning point for me in my dance journey. By being a part of the program, first as a Bharatanatyam Fellow in 2016 and then as a Creative Director for Dance since 2017, I learned so much about myself as a dancer. I had the opportunity to collaborate from artists around the world, both musicians and dancers, and create our own choreographies! It was such an enriching process being able to work with like-minded individuals who were passionate about dance and who were willing to experiment. We started from scratch with the ideas, storyline, movements, and formations, then moved onto working with musicians on the kind of music we wanted, to finally executing full-on video productions.
One of my pieces, Shiva Shambho, became the Most Watched Bharatanatyam Dance Video on YouTube, and that was a stepping stone for us in receiving performance opportunities around the world. I was grateful to receive opportunities to dance at various prestigious venues like the World Government Summit in Dubai and the United Nations in NY. Also being a Creative Director of IndianRaga, I was able to expand my skill set by directing and guiding new Dance Fellows who joined the program.
As an Indian-American, how has being a Bharatanatyam dancer influenced your identity?
It has allowed me to stay connected to my Indian culture and tradition. Recognizing that I was depicting the stories that I heard as a kid from my parents and grandparents was so interesting to me. Over the years I’ve found myself wanting to learn more about the traditional stories portrayed in Bharatanatyam and to learn about its rich history, why we do the movements that we do, and what the significance and meaning behind each piece is.
Especially being one of the few Indian kids in my elementary school, doing Bharatanatyam made me feel like I had a special talent and gave me a sense of familiarity. Even though I felt different and ridiculed at times, looking back, I didn’t seem to let that stop me. I would wear salwars and lehengas to picture day at school and I participated in the Talent Show every single year performing Bharatanatyam, answering the questions that people had about the artform and about our South Asian culture.
While I continued to pursue Bharatanatyam in college, I also wanted to try new things so I joined Boston’s Premier Bollywood Fusion Dance Team, Boston University Jalwa. Through this I was able to expand my skill set by learning various dance styles and compete across the nation. I loved that we could do Classical in a dance set that also included Contemporary, while staying true and respectful to each style that we performed.
You have experience with performing all over the United States, as well as in Chennai, which is considered the gold standard for individuals who are really interested in pursuing the Indian classical arts seriously. What has been your motivation to expand your dance realm from just the US to India as well?
Performing in Chennai my first time during the well-known Margazhi Season (Music and Dance Festival) was definitely nerve racking. In order to be able to perform there I had to put in long hours of practice and really focus on improving my form and stamina. I always love going to Chennai during this time because it is truly inspiring to see so many exceptional role models and artists showcase their talents and moreover being able to dance on the same stages as them!
Being in this field I’ve definitely realized that there are always going to be some people criticizing you. If it’s a meaningful critique I will definitely internalize it and be happy to apply it in my dancing but I’ve learned to ignore the rest. I’ve tried to always see these as learning experiences. Surrounding yourself with positivity and supportive people is very important.
What changes would you like to see when it comes to how Bharatanatyam is perceived in the mainstream media? What would you like to see representation-wise?
I think a common misconception that people may have is that Bharatanatyam or any Classical Dance Form is boring which is why it’s not seen much in mainstream media. This is one reason that I appreciated being a part of IndianRaga because its motto is to “Make Classical Cool”. Through being a part of it, I’ve been able to see the global reach we’ve had to diverse audiences by connecting with them through showing modern day, relevant stories in dance.
We’ve been able to explore themes revolving social issues like Women empowerment with our piece called Still I Rise, based off of Maya Angelou’s poetry - this is a strong, empowering story about breaking the traditional roles given to women by society. Also, A Salute to Soldiers, which was a piece dedicated to veterans appreciation - a story about the hardships and loneliness that soldiers face going to war.
Finally, one of my favorites, Revelations: Celebrating LGBTQ Stories through Bharatanatyam, which explores the story of a daughter coming out to her mother and the challenges that both characters have to overcome. Along with telling a coming out story, this piece focuses on the pure, unconditional mother-daughter bond which is what makes it so widely relatable. We researched a lot of coming out stories to understand peoples’ experiences thoroughly in order to do justice to such an important concept like this. This included understanding both the child’s side and the parent’s side as well as all the emotions felt by the two, in order to depict that in the most accurate way possible on screen. It was humbling when people reached out to us saying that they cried – one person in specific said they felt that this piece understood their emotions more than their own family members did – I was so taken aback and realized how important it was that we show pieces like this. Topics like these are not portrayed too much in Bharatanatyam so in some way we felt we were able to raise awareness for these issues through our dancing and connect with broader audiences. The benefit of using instrumental pieces is that there are no language barriers, just pure emotion that is communicated across.
What’s something you’d tell your younger self or to any upcoming young artists?
To any upcoming artists, my advice would be to make sure to surround yourself with people who support your goals and to never give up no matter how many setbacks you face in trying to achieve that goal. Be proud of every step you take towards your goal and do not settle along the way. Keep pushing yourself to be the best possible version of you. These are things I have to often remind myself and wish I could’ve said to my younger self! It is very easy as artists to get discouraged or feel inferior which is why you shouldn’t compare yourself to others and remember that you can't please everyone! Art is so specific to each individual and is truly a means for expression which shouldn’t be measured by likes or followers. It is so important as artists to constantly keep creating and getting inspired by each other to create an engaging and supportive community. Finally, I would say to keep creating and experimenting with new ideas. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there by sharing your art - be loud and proud about it! Take that first step, it’s never too late to start.
Can you list people that you think are worth knowing about in your field?