Today we’d like to introduce you to Sumana Sen Mandala.
Sumana, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Interestingly, i only took an interest in Indian dance after leaving India for the U.S. when i was 10 years old. Learning Bharata Natyam (BN) gave me a chance to be around other girls of Indian immigrant parents and to keep in touch with the home country in some way. I began learning in my teacher’s garage almost 40 years ago and continued into college. Token performances at cultural events that forced me to consider what BN meant to me, growing up in the South Asian diaspora. After graduating and working in Japan, i spent 3 years learning, researching, performing, and teaching full-time with Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam in India. It was challenging, but completing her pedagogy course in Bharata Nrityam gave me new perspectives on Indian dance, and i returned to Phoenix and founded Dansense~Nrtyabodha.
20 years of teaching girls of the South Asian diaspora across the U.S. has been transformative for me as a teacher, especially because i see my own experience of negotiating identity in different cultural spaces reflected in them. I’ve also been shaped by sharing my dance on traditional stages, at public institutions and in residence at public schools around the world. But my upbringing naturally pushes me to emphasize community activism and awareness and that’s shifted my performance style towards more interactive and non-traditional spaces, with productions like The Power of YOU (2010) and EMBRACE (2015). Then, there’s a growing responsibility to help my students explore BN beyond the diaspora—valuing their voice and empowering them to use it. It was natural to pursue an MFA in Dance at Arizona State University as a next step—a wonderful 3 years to refocus my lens on BN: how to teach it centering my students’ voices, giving them a metaphorical box of chocolates (as a dear professor says) from which to taste and share! My recent works, Kriti (2019) and Look into my Voice, Hear my Dance (2020) are manifestations of this research. (https://www.dansense.org/productions.html)
Has it been a smooth road?
Constant moving has been both a challenge and an advantage. Having moved five times in the last 20 years, I have not had the opportunity to fully establish Dansense in one place. On the other hand, being a teacher to students in the diaspora in so many different places has given me a broader perspective on the challenges and strengths of second-generation South Asians in recognizing their unique identity and connected me with students of various experiences with diverse approaches to their dance. This challenge has generated salient questions for me. And, i am always thankful for my husband’s support through the bumps, as i juggle my various roles alongside that of ‘dancer.’
We’d love to hear more about Dansense~Nrtyabodha.
I started Dansense~Nrtyabodha in 2000 and finally took the step to registering it as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization in 2015, which is important for our donors and volunteers, who help us make Indian dance arts accessible to more communities by keeping class fees down and performances free. My students have been the inspiration for my MFA research. Their willingness to practice hard but also think outside the box is evident in their mini-compositions. Sharing these with dance educators around the world at conferences, in performances and through publications is another important function of Dansense. Beyond this, the hallmark of Dansense is its engagement with community to share the beauty and power of Bharata Nrityam by valuing voices that are silenced and by creating & producing works in more accessible, non-traditional spaces.
Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Phoenix has a vibrant arts community in general, but is also filled with BN teachers. This has presented unique opportunities for collaboration and growth. The Phoenix metro cities have a commendable record of working towards inclusion, which promises to prosper with more visibility for its diverse communities. I do believe Phoenix is a great place to do what I do!
For more info: https://www.dansense.org/
- Website: https://www.dansense.org/
- Email: email@example.com
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bharatanrityam/
Naini Mandala, Trupti Samant, Jen Karegeannes, Sumana Sen Mandala, Lawrence Fung, Ri Lindegren