Coffee with Govind

“I think it’s amazing what people can do for themselves when they love something.”

At the age of six, Govind started to learn classical Indian dance from his older sister. Many years later, when his sister became a survivor of domestic violence, Govind set up Karma Dance, as a means to help her heal through dancing. This story of family, tradition and creating new stories through dance are the many layers that make up this gorgeous human being.

How were you introduced to classical Indian dance?
We were living in Papua New Guinea at the time. I was six years old and my older sister used to take classical dance lessons. It looked so beautiful and athletic. I saw how the students spent so much time together in class, laughing and hugging. At home, I would ask my sister to teach me her dance steps. My mum saw this unfold for a few months and then asked me if I would like to join. And I was enrolled.

Coming from a traditional family, was it a big step to send the son to a classical Indian dance class?
It was a big step. My parents had to navigate this as much as I did over the years. Enrolling me as a young boy was fine but after a certain age it starts getting a bit different.

Tell us about your dance journey.
Because we moved around a lot, I didn’t get continuity of training. I ended up self-teaching myself till I was about 18. I would find videos or pieces on TV that I could learn from. This continued for a long time until I finally decided that I loved it too much. At age 20, I went and sought out a teacher in Sydney.

When I arrived at Hamsa aunty’s doorstep, I was a dancer who had a deep love for the dance but didn’t have the craftsmanship. I don’t think I would have pursued dance so heavily if I hadn’t found Hamsa aunty, who is so rooted in tradition but is open enough to work with someone who hasn’t had a traditional pathway. It was a real case of when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. I’ve been with Hamsa aunty for 17 years now and I still travel to Sydney to train under her.

Watching you dance, one is always struck by your technique. Yet you say that you are mainly self-taught. How is this possible?
A lot of people comment that I have the aesthetic of a Chennai dancer. I think because I loved the dance form, I spent hours watching it on my own, watching fingers, watching eyes, and training myself for a long time. I think it’s amazing what people can do for themselves when they love something.

How many boys are there in Hamsa aunty’s company?
Hamsa aunty started with a very small class and back then I used to be the only boy in the class. Now she has one of the largest schools in Sydney (Samskriti School of Dance), with over 200 students. And I’m still the only male dancer.

If you look at Ballet, there’s a really strong contingent of male dancers. And in India, you also find many male Bharatanatyam dancers. So why as a classical form here in Australia does it have this strange context? I think it’s because of what it means to be a migrant here. For example, when I was in school in New Zealand in the 80’s, I was the only brown person. I was so self-conscious. And most kids won’t add more layers of marginality if they can avoid it. When you are the only brown person, then you are also not going to be the only male dancer.

When did you decide to start teaching?
I used to think it would be really boring to teach classical dance, doing the same drills for years. But in 2012 I met a migrant family in Melbourne who didn’t have many connections in the community. They said they were worried about their children growing up without any culture and asked if I would teach them dance. The parents were keen, the kids were keen and I do love kids and so I thought, ok let’s do it. So a few families got together and sent 5 kids, and I was teaching in their garage. Soon 5 turned into 10, then 15, and now we are at 75, and expecting 80 enrolments this year.

How did you start teaching at Studio J?
Studio J was a meeting of minds. My dance partner, Raina Peterson, is family friends with Jaya. One day Jaya said to Raina that she was looking for a Bharatanatyam teacher. And simultaneously, I had a desire to work with advanced students. And then Jaya called and we both went “Oh, this is it!”

I do feel we are upsetting the norms a bit at Studio J. At first we had to deal with a lot of politics. The whole student-teacher relationship in classical dance means that when a student gets to an advanced level, it is very difficult to change teachers to get another level of training. We had to deal with a lot of background phone calls amongst the gurus in the community to try and negotiate our ethic around this. And I think we have successfully navigated that and it’s become a safe place for students to come without judgement.

Studio J is the only platform that a student can come for a focussed advanced lesson outside of their own school. It’s a very unique model. Sydney doesn’t have something like this. Even cities like London and Canada that have a big Indian diaspora, don’t have a space like this.

Through the advanced students at Studio J, you have also morphed into a performing Bharatanatyam dance company.
Yes, this is really exciting. The core group of dancers for the company are so motivated and have all put in individual energy to come to a particular level. We have toured to Byron and we raised $25,000 for women in India. We’ve just been to Woodford Folk Festival where we did three beautiful performances.

I think what’s exciting is that we can build new stories and themes using very traditional bodywork. Previously, there hasn’t been a platform for dancers of advanced training, all from different teachers, who can put something together of a high quality.

You work with a lot of new themes in your work, like the plight of the refugees, domestic violence, post-natal depression. How do you come up with these ideas?
I usually start from a very traditional place and then I naturally find discomfort at some point. For example, I might feel that something is not right about how the women are portrayed in a piece. Or how we force dancers to have a particular look because that’s what the textbook says, even though it might not be genuine to the dancer’s personality. And then I end up breaking the mould.

How did Karma Dance begin?
It was started by my sister and me. She is a Kuchipudi dancer in New Zealand and a survivor of domestic violence. She wasn’t allowed to dance in her home and stopped dancing for many years. When she came out, she was helped by a women’s refuge organization called Shakti. I saw her deteriorate as a person because she had no dance and family. My husband Adrian and I wanted to put on a performance that would give her the confidence to get back on stage. Plus we wanted to use the funds to raise money for Shakti. That’s why the name Karma is there, because it was about giving back. Our first show was packed out with 800 people. It got covered on TV and made a big impact. We toured the performance in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. By then Karma Dance had developed a reputation for doing traditional dance that touched on new themes.

When I met Raina, it seemed like the logical way to grow that platform into a contemporary space. We started with neo-classical and contemporary work, still dealing with traditional themes and then moving into gender, sexuality, queer issues and diaspora identity through four full length works over six years.

How do you negotiate gender issues in such a conservative environment?
I was 26 when I properly came out to my parents. It was really weird at the time to think that there were thousands of people in Sydney from the classical dance community and yet none of them identified as queer. It felt impossible to come out.

But in another way I feel that classical Indian dance helped me because I am so used to taking on different identities on stage. When I enter the stage, I let go of my birth certificate. I’m not a particular age or gender or person. I’m empty. It helps with letting go of the baggage you have associated with identity.

When the poster for our ‘Bent Bollywood’ show came out, I was worried about being judged for playing too much with tradition. Which was odd because I’m a strong believer that we should be authentic. But to my surprise, communities intersected and I learnt that people were ok with it. I was lucky that I only got positive hugs from everyone. Maybe the ones that didn’t like it just didn’t say anything (laughs).

How do you balance your corporate career, family, dance, cooking, partying and performing?
There are things that I really love, which are very high on my priority list. Then there are things that are not part of my passion, but serve a really good purpose. I’m very good at putting boundaries on the things that are on the bottom rank. And I give very generously to the things that are close to me. I love hanging around with my students and I can’t drag myself home from a good party. And my time with my partner Adrian is amazing. We love just being together, cooking and having friends over.

So what’s next?
Well right now, I’m in such a different mind space because Adrian and I are starting a family! This is the first time that I’m standing in January looking out into the year where dance isn’t governing my year. It’s a very strange feeling.

Follow Govind and his Karma Dance projects via:

To enrol in Govind’s next Bharanatyam advanced level course at Studio J:
13 week course: 6 April – 29 June 2020
Time: Mondays 7pm (90-minute class)
More details here