Kala Vandanam is a life-long commitment to one of India’s oldest dance forms

Suchitra Sairam, founder of Kala Vandanam Dance Company in St. Paul, has been dancing classical Indian dance for 30 years. Still, she says, she got a later start than most girls.

“It’s usually something you start when you’re five, seven, ten at the latest,” she says. She started in her mid-teens, but her “late” start wasn’t for lack of effort on her mother’s part.

“My mom put me in a class when I was very young and I hated it. The girls in the class were mean and I was very happy playing soccer and doing tap dance; I had no interest in Indian dance,” she recalls.

Now she is very grateful that her mother didn’t force this dance style on her at a young age because it allowed her to come to it naturally and develop her own earnest interest in it, which has turned into a lifelong dedication.

In her mid-teens she saw some young girls performing classical Indian dance and thought she could do it better.

“It was a very competitive reaction!” she laughs. “But that time whatever I didn’t see in the art form before I suddenly did. It wasn’t just the costumes and the jewelry and the makeup; it was a somewhat intriguing and competitive thing. I started training at that time. It was partially because it came to me by my own choice instead of forcing it on me when I wasn’t connected to it and that I’m still doing it now.”

She continued dancing while earning her bachelor’s in chemical engineering at MIT, then moved to Houston for her first job in chemical engineering after graduating, where she continued her training intensively. Later she married and began teaching a few children in Houston as an assistant to her own teacher.

Twenty years later and she is still teaching, now in St. Paul, as part of her own dance company, Kala Vandanam.

The name “Kala Vandanam” comes from Sanskrit, one of the oldest Indo-European languages, and means “Salutation to the Arts.” She founded the company in 2002 with the vision of sharing the beauty and depth of Bharatanatyam, the oldest and most widely performed classical dance tradition of India that began in the ancient temples of South India, in a way that connects with modern audiences.

“We’re all very fortunate to have access to a tradition like this,” says Sairam, “but also to have freedom from tradition. We can take that framework and apply it in a way that is relevant to today.”

She started with just a few students and was very intentional about growing slowly and conservatively, all through word of mouth. At the time she was also balancing her corporate career, but felt that in order to make a commitment as a teacher she needed to give her students the maximum amount of time possible and her very best self – which meant keeping the number of students under her instruction small.

Still, by the end of 2010 she had about ten students and found herself at a crossroads. She knew she wanted more time for her art and had to decide what she wanted from her corporate career. She decided to leave the career and give herself more time for art while also pursing an entrepreneurial endeavor – she co-founded a startup toy company called Enlivenze in 2012. She now runs the two businesses and works what feels like 24/7, but says she has far more time for art now “partially because whatever I’m doing is my own doing, not someone else’s need or whim.”

Kala Vandanam focuses on three core areas: education, outreach, and presentation. Sairam currently has 35 students and she teaches every last one of them herself, seeing them from the very beginning as five-year-old dancers toddling around to mature dancers aged 18 ready to transition into professional careers.

“For me it’s really a long-term commitment,” she says. “I have very little turnover. Once students start with me they stay with me for years.”

Because of this she has to watch her capacity very closely. “It’s just a personal choice that I’m teaching everyone myself,” she says. “At some point in the near future some older students will be serving as mentors, but I don’t want to abdicate responsibility for anyone’s training.”

As an instructor, Sairam is less concerned about a dancer’s “potential” or innate ability, and more concerned that they are willing to make the long-term commitment she expects of them and that they understand her philosophy – and this isn’t about instant gratification.

“I’m setting the tone that this is a long and fruitful journey rather than something to just dip your toes in and try,” says Sairam. “If you look at this art form holistically, it is a confluence of movement vocabulary. There is centuries-old and new poetry; there is a connection to music in melody and rhythm; there is a connection to history, mythology, storytelling, architecture, sculpture, the practice of yoga, mind-body connection, the obvious physical practice body, an awareness of fitness and health. There is a connection to spirituality if you so choose. This confluence of all of these things is certainly a very unique feature of Indian dance art, plus the aspect of storytelling as well as the flash-bang of beautiful body movement. None of those things can be missing from the art form. All of these ingredients are important.”

She says it takes most students four to five years before “they know what’s going on and can really start enjoying themselves.” That investment early on that gives them the foundation to learn faster. “I want all of these students who committed to this to feel like they will continue to be challenged. When they get to the point that they have outgrown me – and I hope they do – they’re really going off to something that is a big step. That means they’re really doing something with it. That’s my goal and dream.”

Kala Vandanam also presents touring companies and soloists to introduce their work to the rich arts community of St. Paul and give both students and the St. Paul community an opportunity to see performers – many of whom are from India – that they would never otherwise have the chance to see.

She says of her students, “I want them to see professional artists and feel inspired, and have even more to aspire to.”

As passionate as Sairam is about fostering a deep respect and appreciation for Bharatanatyam among her students, she is also passionate about sharing that appreciation with the public through outreach by partnering with other organizations and performing at events like the St. Paul Art Crawl. Kala Vandanam gives performances showcasing dancers at different stages of experience and showcasing the company’s repertoire “without watering down the essence of the art form.”

The company has a repertoire of several pieces that tell stories steeped in classical Indian mythology and spirituality through the expressive language of Bharatanatyam. Currently Kala Vandaman is working on adding a new piece to that repertoire: as a 2015 winner of the Knight Arts Challenge, Kala Vandanam is creating a brand-new, full-length feature piece with an original score inspired by the concept of the seasons as understood and depicted in different cultures, incorporating elements of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and its accompanying poems with a fourth-century Sanskrit work while also utilizing contemporary staging elements.

“One thing we’re trying to illustrate with this project and with the students is that so much of the foundation repertoire they learn is driven by stories of Hindu mythology, depicting different emotions. Those are universal types of emotions. I really want them to know and understand and show audiences that this content can be universal. This is a way for us to demonstrate this is a living, breathing art form. Though it has roots in ancient texts, sculpture, and tradition, this is contemporary and we continue to breathe new life into it.”