Chitra Vairavan is Committed to Seeking

Chitra Vairavan started dancing when she was two years old, watching her older sister learn and practice South Indian Classical dance. Vairavan was born and raised on the north side of Milwaukee (on occupied Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk and Menominee land), which she describes as similar to north Minneapolis. She says dance has always been valued in the communities where she has lived.

Chitra dancing at age 2
Chitra dancing at age 2

Milwaukee was a segregated city, and Vairavan and her sister were enrolled in a program called Chapter 220, which bused city kids to suburban schools. “There were tons of white students [in my elementary, middle and high school] and we took a long bus ride with other kids from my neighborhood. I went through an identity crisis,” she says “I was aware I was different; there were not many brown folks in my schools. The Black community really held me in a way. It was the first image of myself where I felt loved.”

Vairavan continued to study Indian classical dance. Milwaukee, like most midwestern cities at the time, didn’t have much of an Indian dance community, so until just before she finished college, her parents drove Vairavan to Chicago almost every weekend for more formal lessons at a school there. As she studied formal South Indian Classical dance form, she realized she did not have a true passion for it. She loved learning dance in a more communal way.

While Vairavan was a student at the University of Minnesota, she met more people of South Asian and Asian descent. She was active in the Asian Student Union and attended cultural events. In 2004, through those activities, she attended a dance performance by a trio of South Asian artists and fell in love with the music and the form. They had a clarity and spirit about them that attracted Vairavan. One of the artists, Pardeepa Jeeva, happened to be the co-founder of a Sri Lankan-American arts collective, Diaspora Flow, along with Chamindika Wandarugala, a 20/20 Fellow, at the time.

Ananya Dance Theatre 2015 production, Roktim, photo by Maria Nunes
Ananya Dance Theatre 2015 production, Roktim, photo by Maria Nunes

Soon after that show, Vairavan learned from Pradeepa  that a woman was on campus holding auditions for women of color who wanted to explore social justice through dance. That woman was Ananya Chatterjea, who would go on to become the Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theatre.

“Being around other Indian folks was intimidating at first” Vairavan says, “but I loved being around black and brown women of all ages and experiences. It was all for love and it was all volunteer work in those early years of the company.”

In 2005, the women Chatterjea gathered were spending more time in the dance building on campus. “It was a very white dance space at the time, and when we came together all eyes were on us. We could tell they were thinking ‘they don’t look like dancers,’ but we changed the culture of the building.”

Vairavan remembers studying a particular movement called the long back women. As she shares this memory, she makes a beautiful and fluid gesture with her left arm and hand. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor and speaking with soft patience. “It took me a long time to get the long back,” she recounts. “I did it more for Ananya than for myself. Finally, I got it. It clicked in my head.” Vairavan had an epiphany of sorts. “I can use the muscles in my body to engage in a new way,” she realized. “After mastering it, Ananya kept me by her side. I climbed a hill, and Ananya looked at me differently.” Vairavan joined Ananya Dance Theatre as a founding member.

Vairavan remained with Ananya Dance Theatre until 2015, when she branched out on her own. In 2016, she applied for and won a prestigious McKnight Artist Fellowship in Dance. McKnight encouraged her to dream big, so Vairavan used the time to study with a mentor, Eiko Otake. Vairavan had seen Otake perform at the Walker Art Center in 2009, and the performance haunted her. “It was a spectacular visual thing, two haunting ghostly bodies that barely met.”

Chitra with Eiko Otake (center) in New York City, 2016
Chitra with Eiko Otake (center) in New York City, 2016

“She threw me right into her residency time at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Vairavan says. “I followed her around the city. She’s not the type to sit and reflect, and she’s a fast walker. I had to jog to keep up with her, but when she performs it feels at times like she’s barely moving.”

Of her time with Otake, Vairavan says “she changed my world. I’ve never met someone so free.” In terms of dance, Vairavan says “what was once about form was less about shapes. She taught me how to do something for myself. I found myself asking questions like ‘how do I decolonize form and practice?’ and ‘how can I liberate through dance?’” You can read more about her process with Eiko in Mn Artists, here.

“I felt guilty,” Vairavan says, talking about changes she made following a period of self-examination inspired by her time with Otake. “I trained for so long, and now I care less about training. Now I’m conspiring on how I can liberate in the body and mind as an artist. I’m thinking about myself more bravely. I’m writing and doing poetry and feeling scared.”

2020 was a year of transition for Vairavan as well. Coming off the successful experience with Otake, she found herself transitioning away from her career in arts administration and shifting towards cultural work and education.

“Now, as an artist, I identify as a seeker,” she says. “It implies strength in being committed to who you are in a search. It’s not a destination. ‘Artist’ felt like a destination. I don’t feel comfortable using the word ‘artist’ these days. What are the responsibilities? What does [artist] embody? Seeker means I can be on a perpetual search.” She continues to speak about this transformational moment with all the zeal of a new convert “I don’t have to be anywhere. I can be curious and take risks.”

Chitra performing in Aniccha Arts' Every Other (2015), photo by Alice Gebura
Chitra performing in Aniccha Arts’ Every Other (2015), photo by Alice Gebura

Which is not to say she isn’t focused. Vairavan is a 2020-2021 Springboard for the Arts Fellow, and has used her time to develop a creative liberation practice focused on BIPOC artists – a collective of artists centering their rest and liberation over the pandemic. “The barriers start in my mind,” Vairavan says, “and the decolonization starts there too.” She wants to help people “figure out how to work with each other differently” and plans a series of workshops and lessons to do precisely that.

Vairavan is currently working as a teaching artist through Upstream Arts and Program Director and educator through Young Dance. She calls her time there “a tremendous breath of fresh air.” Reflecting on where she has been and thinking about where she will go, Vairavan “thinks about all the serendipitous moments,” the music and dancing at the show she saw during her time at the University of Minnesota, Otake’s performance at the Walker Art Center. “Being a seeker means not settling for perfection, she says. “I’ve removed that expectation from my body.”

Cover photo: Water is Life solo by Chitra, collage art by Sham-e-Ali Nayeem