Sukhi Krishnan is the Artistic Director and head teacher at classical Indian dance school Saraswathi Mahavidhyalaya in Perth. She speaks to us about telling stories through dance, discipline, and spirituality.
I’m Sukhi Krishnan. I teach at Saraswathi Mahavidhyalaya (SMV), formerly known as the Temple of Fine Arts, and we’ve been around since 1981. We teach many classical forms at our school, and most of our teachers including myself are volunteers. Our ideal is to promote art for the love of it.
I come from a family of dancers. I started my formal training with my parents and teachers at the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) in Kuala Lumpur. As a child I was surrounded by dance and music. My father used to choreograph at home and had musicians at home quite often. This was the environment I was brought up in. At school, I did well in gymnastics and represented my state. Being in Asia apart from classical Indian dance, I was exposed to Asian culture and learnt Malay and Chinese dance. I loved my Malay dance training with my teacher Marion D’Cruz. I did some ballet training from my teacher Lee Lee Lan, a good friend of my dad.
I completed my schooling in Malaysia. I also completed my dance graduation at The Temple of Fine Arts Kuala Lumpur. I then came to Australia in 1987 to do my degree in Politics, Philosophy and Sociology. I studied in Melbourne initially and then transferred and completed my degree at Murdoch University in Perth. I got married and have been living here ever since.
The Beginning of Saraswathi Mahavidhyalaya
Our founder, guru, and mentor, Swami Shantananda Saraswathi, with the help of my father Gopal Shetty started the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) here in 1981. They also started the Temple of Fine Arts in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Sri Lankan and India. The Temple of Fine Arts is an international institution.
Our founder wanted art and Indian culture to be accessible to everyone, especially for Indians and Hindus living in a foreign country; to be able to understand their culture and art form.
He wanted for the general community to appreciate and understand Indian art and culture. I met Swamiji when I was five. We belong to spiritual group that met on Sundays. As my parents were dancers, Swamiji decided to start the Temple of Fine Arts. Indian art has spirituality as it’s backbone.
I started teaching in Malaysia as a teenager. My dad used to choreograph on me and I was expected to teach the choreography to the students. My father learned Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, Kathakali, Kathak and moment from Udhay Shankar. I am blessed to have had been part of numerous creations, choreographies and productions done by Swamiji and my father. These experiences mould who I am today.
At SMV we teach various classical Indian dance forms. This was something every student leant at TFA. Learning various Indian classical and folk styles was part of our syllabus. Creating a dancer that had a diverse vocabulary of movement was the uniqueness of TFA. This holistic teaching began in the early ‘80s from the inception of the institution. It’s quite different from most other schools. I too learnt all of these various styles.
When I came to Australia, I continued my learning at WAAPA and studied classical ballet and contemporary dance. Learning various forms enriches a dancer physically and mentally.
Swan Festival of Lights
My life revolves around SMV and I head the institution. My individual achievements are also collective achievements. It’s great to see our school grow. It’s very rewarding to see kids come to you to learn dance from the age of five and continue till they graduate at nineteen or twenty years old. I believe it’s an achievement to keep them inspired and passionate to want to continue dancing.
It’s absolutely fulfilling to be able to pass something cultural to the next generation.
One of our huge achievements is the creation and production of the ‘Swan Festival of Lights’ in Perth. What started as a simple celebration of Deepavali grew into a Festival that has attracted 30,000 to 40,000 people to attend over three days. We’ve run it for eleven years now. And it brings the whole community together. Personally as artistic director, I have had the pleasure of curating the festival for the past eleven years. Something I never thought I would do one day!
I think the fact that my whole family is involved in the arts is something I am most proud of. I’m very blessed to have my three kids dance. It’s also rewarding to lead and nurture a fraternity of dance teachers in our institute who have the same passion and dedication for the arts. Most of us volunteer our time at SMV.
Having a team that’s so passionate is the strength and pillar of this institution. Producing dance productions yearly is something we take pride in, like for example we just did a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with our school.
Telling Stories Through Dance
Indian dance is all about story telling. Dance was created to tell stories to the masses. Hindu epics, stories and legends were passed on through storytelling, using dance and music as a medium.
So, in those days, communities used to gather in the temples and dancers used to narrate stories like the Ramayana, and Mahabharata through the night. Through storytelling people learnt and understood Hindu scriptures easily.
I think one of the strengths of our institution is that not only do we choreograph Indian epics, but, we’ve taken stories from other cultures like Swan Lake, A Midsummer Night’s Dream a Chinese legend called Butterfly Lovers and a Malay legend called Mashuri and created dance dramas.
We take stories and put our own Indian thought to it. There is always a message in the stories we do.
Ramayana is huge in this region. Well, it’s a very long story. In a nutshell, it’s about someone called Rama. He is the first born child out of four boys to king Dasharatha. He grows up to be loved by all as he is very righteous and kind. He has three brothers, Lakshmana, and Bharata and Shatrughna. And as they grow older, he conquers many demons, he meets princess Sita, who he gets married to. Unfortunately his step mother Kaikeyi gets jealous that he was proclaimed King of his Kingdom and not her son Bharata. She tells King Dasharatha to banish him to the forest for fourteen years.
King Dasharata is force to fulfill her request as he promised to grant her two wishes anytime for saving his life in battle. While Rama is in the forest, his wife Sita gets abducted by Ravana, a demon-king. Rama meets Hanuman the monkey who helps him on his journey to find his wife, Sita, in Lanka. Hanuman and his monkey battalion set themselves to go to Lanka with Rama and Lakshmana to rescue Sita. A Great War takes place and Ravana is defeated. They return back to Ayodhya (his kingdom) and takes his place as King. As victory of good over evil, the defeat of the demon king Ravana and the coronation of Rama as King, celebrations take place by lighting lamps everywhere. This is called Deepavali or Diwali.
Indian dance is spiritual and devotional. Devotion comes through their movement, their expression, their feeling.
Just say you’re talking about Rama, and you’re talking about his virtuous qualities and his beauty and his greatness, in a cultural context it’s devotional to someone who is Hindu and believes these stories. So devotion comes through their movement, their expression, their feeling.
But it doesn’t have to be understood to be appreciated. Because movement itself, when it’s performed, and when you’re onstage, there’s no thought, there’s no ego, there’s no you. It’s powerful! The audience do feel it even if they don’t understand it. It’s a very hard point to hit as a performer. Movement is a form of meditation, I truly believe. You can call it spiritual, you can call it energy, you can call it being present in now, being aware that you are one with everything.
These moments are rare, but they do come. It is when you surrender. There’s no movement, there’s no you, there’s no stage, there’s no audience, you’re just you. You then are transported to a different realm. I think each person as a dancer/artist, especially as a mature artist there is spirituality in your practice. I don’t think this only applies to Indian dance forms. I think it’s universal.
Why do you dance?
I think dance–it makes me happy. I can lose myself in it. In whatever mood you may be in, you know, it elevates you. Yes, sometimes it’s really hard to motivate yourself to get up and practice but when you do it feels great. Its a discipline. You feel good. It’s like someone who exercises, you get up and think ‘oh my god I have to run’, but once the adrenaline kicks in the feeling that you get, wow, its addictive. It motivates me to want more.
I dance because I can express myself better through movement, I think. It’s creative. However dance for me at this stage of my life is also a prayer and a form of meditation.
I dance because I want to learn more. It stimulates my mind and spirit. You are always a student. You cannot really say that you’re accomplished, it’s an infinite amount of knowledge. I am still a student. Always will be.
I love dancing in a group. The collective energy can produce such stillness. I dance also to share, to pass on what I know.
You know, performing produces joy in the audience which in turn produces joy in the dancers. For example you see someone and you smile and they smile back. You feel, ‘that’s really nice, that made my day’. So even as a dancer, when you perform, and someone comes to you and says ‘wow, that was breathtaking’, or, ‘I didn’t even know where I was’, or, ‘I just can’t express how I felt’, those moments that produce joy for someone else, drive you to want to continue dancing.
In the above video, Sukhi opens her Kathak practice with a prayer, a common practice among classical Indian dance styles. Then, she begins some footwork practice. By the end of the exercise, she had reached double the speed of that shown in the video.