Beyond Studio J with Rashan

“It has happened that when students come to my class, and they realize I am Muslim, they don’t sign up.
I tell them, if you are looking for a good teacher, then come to me. If you are after religion, then please don’t come.”

Born to be a dancer & a warrior at heart, our Kandyan hero’s story is nothing short of a film story, filled with resilience, passion and survival! Read on to discover Rashan’s incredible journey.

Tell us about your background.
I’m from a village in Sri Lanka, called Narammala. I come from an orthodox Muslim background, the youngest of seven siblings.

How did you get into dancing?
When I was in grade 1, my elder brother was in grade 11, and I had to wait for him to finish school so we could go home together. While waiting, I used to listen to the sounds from next door, which was a Kandyan classical dance class. I loved the sound of the drums and that got me interested.

My dance teacher at school was Indirani Hemalaeha, and she recognized my talent and supported me a lot. After grade 7, I also joined another dance class in my village

You come from an orthodox family. Did they allow you to pursue dance?
It was a challenge. My father is a very art loving person and was the only one who supported me. My mother and siblings were against it. They thought it’s just a hobby and after school I would stop. But I didn’t. People always said that you can’t achieve anything in your life with dancing. But I thought, no, there are so many people in the world who are living through performing and teaching.

In year 12, my family didn’t allow me to take dance as a subject, so I did commerce. One day, my economic tutor said to me, “Rashan, you are born to dance, not to do economic subjects.”

Then I took part in a TV dance competition. Through that, I met a teacher called Prageeth Anuradha, and that’s when my life changed. He is one the best Kandyan dance teachers and was based in Colombo. I spoke to him about my desire to learn dance but that I come from a Muslim background, and I don’t have much financial support. He said, if you are really interested, then come to Colombo and we will sort it out. My family was shocked at this decision and tried to stop me. But I told them that they have to let me go and see the world.

In my village, my dance training was very basic. If I hadn’t moved to Colombo to study with him, I think I would have probably finished year 12 and gotten a job, and my life would have been totally different. He taught me not just about dance, but also about costume and make-up and performing arts in general. He also referred me to study Bharatanatyam with one of the most famous Bharatanatyam teachers in SriLanka, Vasughy Jagathishvaran. Vasughy encouraged me to go to Kalakshetra in Chennai (India), for further studies. I applied, got admission, and the rest is history.

Tell us about your Kalakshetra experience?
So, this is a secret. My family didn’t know I was going to Kalakshetra to study dance. I told them I was going to study costume design. Also, I come from a middle-class family, and my family couldn’t support me financially. I saved up all my money to go there.

Being at Kalakshetra totally changed my life, from how I eat and how I dress. We had to wake up very early, eat breakfast and then we would all sit under the banyan tree, and do the Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian prayers. Then we would begin the long day of practical dance training, dance theory and more practice in the evenings.

That must have been very tough financially.
Yes, in my final year I had no money. I still remember the day when I had to pay my fees before I could attend the final exams and I had no idea how I would be able to achieve this.

But throughout my journey, I have been so blessed to have met the best teachers and most generous people.

My very first Bharatanatyam student was a lady of around 45 yrs. Her parents hadn’t allowed her to learn dance. But after marriage and having two kids, her husband supported her, and she began her training with me. One day in our class, she could see I was very worried and asked me what’s wrong. I started to cry and told her that I have no money to pay my fees. She straight away gave me a cheque for the entire amount that I needed. I was so shocked.

She treated me like her son. Being a Brahmin Hindu, she never ate eggs. But whenever I went to her house to teach her, she would give me two boiled eggs and a glass of milk. She always said, “Rashan, you are dancing all day, you have to eat.” And once a month she would take me to an Ayurvedic doctor.

I’m still in touch with her. Now she must be in her 50’s, and she is still performing on stage.

Is it difficult being a Muslim dancer in the Indian classical dance world?
The journey has not been easy. There is a lot of discrimination in the dance community. I got bullied a lot because of my religion. Many times, in a dance competition, the organizers would say to me, ‘You are Muslim. You are not allowed to do Kandyan dance. There are so many Buddhist dancers here. Why should we give the prize to you?’

This was very heart breaking. They would say that Bharatanatyam came from the Hindu tradition and Kandyan came from the Buddhist tradition. There was this constant labelling of that I am a Muslim and I don’t belong in this dance form.

I always say, dance is an art. Don’t bring religion into it. It’s about talent and dedication. It’s only because of the support of my teachers, that I was able to keep dancing. Even today, in Australia, I get criticized. It has happened that when students come to my class, and they realize I am Muslim, they don’t sign up. I tell them, if you are looking for a good teacher, then come to me. If you are after religion, then please don’t come.

How has your journey been after coming to Australia?
I came 5 years ago on a student visa, to learn hairdressing. I struggled a lot financially when I arrived in Australia. I worked 7 days a week, from 5am to 10pm, any job I could get. I worked as a cleaner, in construction etc. One day, during my cleaning job, I was so hungry, that I saw a leftover sandwich on the office desk, and I ate it.

I gave myself a target. I said to myself, that somehow within five years, I am going to build a house for my mother in Sri Lanka and get my PR. And by god’s grace, I have been successful. I worked very hard, every single day, I hardly spent on anything and saved all my money.

But like I said I have always been lucky and met beautiful people. In Australia, when I was planning to buy my house, I was short for my deposit. And this lady that I know from the temple, lent me the money, without any hesitation. These people who think about helping others, I feel they are beyond human beings, next level to God.

Same like Jaya. She supported and encouraged me a lot in making the Studio J Kandyan class happen. I love her a lot. She is just like my sister.

Life is not easy. There is so much going on in the inside. I want to dance more, but I also have to earn.

What do you do now?
After coming to Australia, I started my dance school in August 2015, Pravaha Dancing Foundation. Pravaha means moving forward in Sanskrit. I am teaching Kandyan and Bharatanatyam.

A year ago I started an event planning company, Samsul Creations. It was doing really well. In one year I did 8 events. But now because of lockdown, I am working as a full-time electrician in manufacturing.

You recently went back to Sri Lanka to see your family. How was that experience?
When I applied to come to Australia, I didn’t tell anyone. It’s only when I got my visa, I told them that I am going and that I will only come back once I have gotten my citizenship. After getting my citizenship, I booked my tickets and went back home in March 2020. And of course, because of Corona, everyone was in lockdown. I got two and a half months of beautiful family time.

My family still says, Rashan, enough with the dancing now. I try to explain to them that it makes me happy. Especially after seeing them recently, I miss my them a lot. But I came to Australia for a better life. In Sri Lanka, everyone is struggling for money. I don’t think I could have helped them this much if I was there.

You have achieved an unbelievable amount in just five years. What motivates you?
I always think about the people who are struggling more than me. When I was alone, and struggling here, I really felt that what I am going through is nothing. Some people don’t even have a grain of rice. That motivates me.

Now my biggest dream in life is to start a charity for education. There are so many students in Sri Lanka who can’t afford to study. Anyone who wants to study, I would love to help them. Now I am saving up for this.
I am a very positive person. I never give up. I don’t have the word ‘no’ in my vocabulary. I will never give up without trying.

Interviewed by Joshinder Chaggar
10 August 2020

More details about Rashan’s Kandyan dance classes at Studio J: Kandyan Fusion (currently only available online)

Watch Rashan’s full interview which previously streamed live in ‘Beyond Studio J’ on 5 September 2020: