In 1978, Mythili Kumar moved from Central India to California because a Rotary Club gave her a full scholarship to UC Davis as a “cultural ambassador.” Surely the Club had little idea just how dazzling an ambassador Kumar would turn out to be.
Kumar had trained in a variety of classical Indian dance forms and was especially skilled as a performer of Bharatanatyam, a South Indian style passed down by temple dancers who used its elaborate gesture language -- called abhinaya -- to reenact Hindu epics. After graduating (with a degree in nutrition), Kumar married and settled in San Jose, where Indian families soon began begging her to teach their daughters to dance. Her husband -- then a Stanford professor -- was all for it, and in 1980 the Abhinaya Dance School of San Jose was born.
Today the Abhinaya school has trained more than 100 Bharatanatyam dancers to the point of giving their arangetram, a rigorous solo debut that marks a dancer’s arrival as a professional dancer. The 14-member Abhinaya Dance Company, founded in 1986, has performed nationally and internationally. And Kumar herself has been honored with a long list of prestigious awards and fellowships. On April 22nd, she will collect one more when Silicon Valley Creates recognizes Kumar’s 35 years of artistic accomplishment by presenting her with its Legacy Laureate Award. This Sunday, the Abhinaya Dance Company will present a special concert featuring guests flown in from India.
Everything Kumar does seems driven by a sense of service rather than from personal ambition. On a recent Friday, after returning from the airport where she picked up special concert guest Indra Rajan, Kumar asked if we could delay our interview 20 minutes so that she could serve her now 85-year-old former teacher a homemade lunch.
Kumar returns often to India to visit Rajan, her living connection to a sophisticated cultural past that immigrant families hope to keep alive in their children. For many Indians who immigrated, Kumar says, “When they were growing up in India the focus was on studying and getting a job, not learning music at home.” Now these immigrants are excited to give their children a cultural experience they never had.
At a time when Bollywood threatens to overshadow classical Indian history, Bharatanatyam quickly connects children to a full heritage. “If you consider ballet class,” Kumar says, “at four or five years old, all they do is run across the stage.” By contrast, in training for Bharatanatyam, there’s an emphasis from the beginning on the culture that inspired the dance: “It’s not movement alone, it’s knowledge of the mythologies behind it. Dedication, perfecting the technique—that comes later.”
Surprisingly, connections to other cultures have also come, thanks to the initiative of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. “Without the Ethnic Dance Festival,” Kumar insists, “we would have remained in our own separate world.” Backstage festival conversations with San Jose Taiko led, for example, to a 1993 world premiere collaboration with the Japanese drumming troupe. “Talking with the taiko drummers, you see we have the same rhythms,” Kumar says. “Still, putting two cultural forms together is not easy. The process involves a lot of difficult compromise.”
Less difficult was the project of expanding Abhinaya’s productions beyond Hindu epics and into contemporary tales of social justice. The rarified gestural language of classical Indian dancing is unexpectedly easy to follow and adaptable, because it has long been the practice in India and the US to verbally narrate the action for the audience either before the dancing or during. Kumar has been especially innovative on this front, even having another character within her evening-length production of Gandhi tell the flashback action about to be danced by Gandhi from the side of the stage, as though the character were recalling a memory.
“Any kind of story is possible with our gestures, not just stories of gods and goddesses,” Kumar believes. “And you can take combinations of steps that are ancient and bring something contemporary to [them].”
Now Kumar’s daughters are doing just that. Both Malavika and Rasika Kumar dance with Abhinaya. Malavika, an attorney, is renowned for her nattuvangram, or vocal leadership of the live orchestra, while Rasika, a software engineer at Google, has launched her own choreography career. A 2013 solo concert of hers called Courage included a dance about Rosa Parks.
Rasika, Malavika and other Abhinaya members will surely be listening closely this Sunday when their mother’s guru, Rajan, and fellow special guest Nandini Ramani lecture and demonstrate. Kumar will dance, too, and plans to restage her full-evening production of Gandhi this fall. She says her daughters will not yet let her retire, but even when they do, “I always will teach. And when we teach, in this art form, we create.”