By: Alyssa Curran
Sonia Chaudhuri is the Founder and Creative Director of the Upasana Performing Art Center, the largest school for Kathak classical Indian dance and Hindustani vocal technique in Tennessee. We talked with Sonia about the the importance of Kathak dance and how the artform fits into the Nashville arts community as a whole.
You’ve been dancing since age 4. How did your professional dance career lead to the founding of the Upasana Performing Arts Center?
My parents immigrated from India in the 70s and I was born and raised in the US. I was introduced to classical Indian dance as a young girl. It spoke to me as a way to connect with my roots and explore more traditionally and socially what it means to be an Indian girl and woman in America.
As I got older and became more involved with classical Indian dance, I wanted to intensify my training. I went back to Kolkata, India for a year to train under a master teacher. This immersion was so important in my study and solidified my passion for the art. I returned to the US to pursue a Bachelor of Science in dance and education and a Master of Arts in teaching. In 2003, we moved to Nashville and I knew that I wanted to provide a resource and space for others, whether of Indian descent or not, to connect with the allure of Indian performing arts. I opened Upasana later that year.
You describe your programming as more than just dance. Tell me more.
For young Indian American girls, hearing the languages, music, traditions, and stories of India are important connections to their families, culture and heritage. As the students grow up studying at Upasana with peers through the years, they begin to have important conversations like, “What does it mean to be an Indian American woman in this country?” “This character that I’m representing in dance may have different values than me or they may not correlate with my American way of thinking – how do we evaluate and interpret that?” It’s empowering for young girls to share their passion, and one that’s not often featured in the mainstream. There’s a real power in that representation.
Our programming is not just for children. I teach students from age 3-65. Indian American women are able to express the concept of beauty through dance. To be able to enjoy the costume, jewelry, traditional makeup and feel elegant and beautiful in that attire, helps define their own sense of beauty and identity in this country.
What’s the significance of the Kathak form of classical Indian dance?
Indian classical dance involves storytelling and acting. It’s graceful, feminine, and sensual. There are eight different styles, but at the Upasana Center, we teach Kathak – which means “the one who tells a story”. Kathak is the only style of Indian classical dance that is a fusion of Persian and Hindu music and culture. Kathak has evolved into a dance form that is considered very secular. For example, I have choreographed dances from South Indian Christian hymns to Sufi poetry to Hindu poetry and more. We have the freedom to interpret our art.
Not only is dance taught, but also history and the knowledge and understanding of Hindustani classical music. It’s important that students of any classical dance form have a true understanding of the art they are studying in every aspect. Kathak lessons can be used to enhance all areas of learning and growth while building resilience and confidence.
How does the Kathak dance form fit into the greater Nashville arts community?
Our professional dance company participates in several prestigious events with organizations such as Festival of Nations, Celebrate Nashville, Contributor, International Festivals and various local community events. I’ve been invited to perform at the Ryman and the Schermerhorn for world music events. Additionally, in July, we had a large production based on the legend of the Taj Mahal that we’re touring in India this summer. This project was put on by the Upasana Foundation, where we continue to create more projects that bridge the connection between artists from India and America.
We love representing India and Indian art and culture at these events, but it would be nice to promote our artform as a classical dance form in its own right. There is opportunity for growth there - to not just be considered for “diversity and inclusion” type events, but to be featured as the prominent classical dance form that it is.
Reaching out to non-Indian Americans as well has been a challenge. Many non-Indian Americans see and love our productions, but they don’t feel like they can participate. That’s simply not the case. I would love to have more students come in to explore a different form of movement. With classical Indian dance, you can take it as far as you want. If you want to focus on the fitness and agility side of it, that’s fine. If you want to take it further and focus on the performing side of things, great! If you want to go even further and focus on professional side of things, we can support you in that way, too.
Where can we learn more about the Upasana Center and sign up to dance?
At the Upasana Center, we are committed to authenticity and innovation. We are affiliated with the University of India because it’s important to me that my students are at the same level of instruction as students in India. It allows us to provide certifications and diplomas to our students directly from the University in India. It’s been a wonderful way to assure that our quality remains at the top level.