The Female Energy

For those who know me, it doesn’t take long to realize I am all about equality and empowerment. Yes, you may even label me as a word everyone seems to be afraid of these days – Feminist. It is but natural that some of my personality would leak into this blog, leading to a crossover of Feminism and Art.


Such a crossover occurred when I attended a Bharatanatyam workshop by Smt. Vidhya Subramanian at Hyderabad a couple of weeks ago! After a stunning performance at CCRT to celebrate Hema Arangam’s first anniversary, Vidhya akka was at location ready to teach bright and early the very next morning. We started the day with warm ups and yogic stretches. Vidhya akka is known for her agility and speed in movement and explained that “Yoga is very important for dancers because it connects the mind to the body.”

The attendees of the workshop arranged by Hema Arangam with the lovely Smt. Vidhya Subramanian (center)

Finally when the time came to start learning an item, we were excited to hear that we would be learning a piece from Vidhya’s repertoire the previous night. Jai Durge—a hindi bhajan adapted to Durga ragam. Durga, or Kali as she is also known is one of my favourite symbols as far as Hindu mythology is concerned. She is empowered, at once a force of destruction and creation, famed for being a dark-skinned beauty and conquering demons. This goddess, famed for being deadly and beautiful has always struck me as the epitome of my Feminism.

The Left hand Mudra depicts a Lion (you can imagine the wild mane), and the Right hand Mudra depicts a whip. Durga is depicted as the one who rides a Lion as her vehicle. Talk about fierce.

Here are some of the lyrics translated for you:

Jai Durge, Durgati pariharini

Victory to Durga, the remover of sorrows

Shumbha vidarini Mata Bhavani

Remover of evils/ demons, our Mother

Adhi Sakthi Parabramha Swaroopini

The Primordial energy, the Ultimate form

It’s really wonderful that the Indian arts still find a way to communicate stories from the scriptures to the next generation. The piece that Vidhya Subramanian taught begins with a choreographed conversation and battle between the demon Mahisha and Goddess Durga that can be found in the Markandeya Purana (Vedic Scripture). In an act of arrogance, Mahisha received a boon that he could only be destroyed by a woman. When he sees Goddess Durga, believed to be the Ultimate energy, he scoffs at her unable to believe that she could defeat him. As they battle using various weapons, finally Durga kills him with a spear to his neck, a scene immortalized by many sculptures and paintings in India.

Captured on a temple wall during my trip to Chidambaram, here is a sculpture of Kali/ Durga. The invaders may have chopped her arms off, but her power transcends all!

The primordial energy—the energy of creation is understandably exhalted in the female form. Womanhood is marked by moments of pain, strength and endurance. The story of Durga, dated to Vedic times is indigenous to the cultural history of India which is ironic given the current situation in the country. With female foeticide still happening in India (and not just the rural areas either), dark-skin shaming, acid-attacks on women who would *dare* to spurn a man… with politicians answering “boys will be boys,” when asked to comment on increasing sexual assault, it is indeed a paradox when the very same men in power pray to their Goddesses to get their seat in politics. It then becomes exceedingly important that the female energy in the form of Durga remains relevant and contextualized in the 21st century.

It is important to mention that Smt. Vidhya Subramanian has worked on projects such as Aham Sita that bring a modern perspective on ancient mythology by giving a voice to the female characters. When hearing Vidhya akka speak about such projects, I felt a kinship grow and look forward to more artists using traditional art to address current issues. In terms of learning, I appreciated Vidhya akka explaining the meaning and intention behind every movement. I find that within our generation, it is becoming increasingly rare to find people with a knowledge of Sanskrit, so it is extremely vital that as students we at the very least record word-for-word translations. She was patient and made sure that all students present understood the meanings and gave personal attention to each individual’s queries. When we had a Q&A session she had a lot of stories to share about her experiences learning from her Vadhyar Sri Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai, and touring with my Guru Smt. Anuradha Jagannathan. It is always wonderful to see how people who learned from Vadhyar speak with such fondness about his individualistic teaching style. Vidhya akka shared a sentiment that I have heard from my Guru as well – that Vadhyar was one of the last nattuvanars who designed pieces with the student’s strengths and weaknesses in mind.

It was a true delight sharing these experiences with Smt. Vidhya Subramanian and my new friends in Hyderabad. Jai Durge!


8 Things I learned from doing Outdoor Photoshoots

I am finally back in Canada and I am really grateful for some of the unique opportunities that came up while I was away. I had the chance to do a couple of outdoor photoshoots for the first time and while I am no super-model to be giving any advice I thought I’d share some tips.

  • Work your angles. This takes exercising some vanity in front of the mirror. It’s better if you have a few ideas of poses you want to do and understand how your body looks. Work to your strengths. Fix your posture and hand gestures as though you were being pulled up by a puppeteer. Most importantly, shift your body from being straight in front of the camera/mirror to being 45 degrees, and 90 degrees away. See what suits your desired pose best!


  • Practice your different smiles. Again, this will engage some of your vanity, but I guess it’s a good thing we are all getting accustomed to taking empowering selfies! The thing is, sometimes your natural laughter or natural smile might be too wide and reflect too much light off your teeth. The irony is that your close-lipped, unnatural smile ends up looking more natural on camera and your genuine mirth can look insincere. Also remember how your makeup has been applied – if you go too overboard with your facial expressions and have dramatic makeup on at the same time it can be too much.
  • Stretch before you do the photoshoots and after. Doing photoshoots may seem like its easier than actually performing on stage. In some ways, yes it is. But remember you are required to hold your pose while the photographer adjusts his lights and level of flash. And you can’t let the strain show on your face! Because we aren’t models by profession this is probably the hardest part of the job. All those early lessons in adavus come handy in holding aramandi and muzhumandi!
  • Think about your makeup before the day of your photoshoot. My friend over at Drishti Photography (IG: @drishtiphotography) told me that natural light in India can be harsh and wash you out. She advised me to make sure my makeup is bold, because subtle makeup won’t photograph as well – it’s a good thing Bharatanatyam makeup is striking to begin with! She also said something that all photographers will remind you of – don’t face the sun directly because it will hurt your eyes.



  • Chose the people you work with wisely. Going back to Point 3, yes it’s difficult to hold your concentration and your pose at the same time. This means that who you have around you should be chosen wisely. People that purposefully make you laugh a lot are fun to have around on most days, but hysterical laughter doesn’t photograph too well (refer to Point 2). It’s good to have someone around to arrange the pleats of your outfit, make sure your jewelry is in the right place and encourage you. Complete silence isn’t great either, so have someone supportive around who will make you feel confident!
Red Sky
The Muscat Sunset. This isn’t a green screen, this is real life!
  • Use the natural space around you to its fullest. I had a lot of fun working with both professional and amateur photographers because no one stopped me from climbing up on rocks and bring out my inner wild-child. If you have family around, be prepared for a lot of tsk-ing and gasps—but don’t let it stifle your creative ideas. And remember, it’s sometimes easier to grab footholds while climbing up, but harder when coming down!

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    At Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Hyderabad is famous for its dry air and rocky terrain.
  • Trust your photographer. Don’t be that person that stops them all the time to find out how the shot went. They can make magic on Photoshop happen so trust them! Stopping every five minutes will cut into the creative flow. Instead, if you really have an idea in your head talk to them about it before the shoot starts. Communication is key in almost everything! I was really lucky to have Michael Monteiro Photography at Hyderabad, because he was incredible at using the location and understanding exactly what I wanted.
  • HAVE FUN! It’s a privilege to have access to talent, costumes and jewelry. It’s become a necessity to constantly self-promote yourself no matter what field you’re in, so yes you go ahead and take every opportunity to strike a pose and capture your moment. Remember you love to dance and you know you look like an ethereal supernatural being!



For the Joy of Dance

This past week in Hyderabad, a fantastic opportunity arose. Hema Arangam, run by Kiran Mayee (disciple of Hemamalini Arni) celebrated its first anniversary with a celebration of the best that Bharatanatyam has to offer. The celebrations were spread over two days, with Day One featuring a sand artist, an outdoor exhibit by Ghana (Chennai artist) and a thematic presentation by Kiran Mayee and her students. It was an artistic mind’s haven, and I enjoyed making new friends with fellow art connoisseurs!


The outdoor exhibition of ATLAS by Ghana. Photo Credits: Rokhsan Delbar

Day Two of the festival– A night featuring Aniruddha Knight—grandson of the illustrious T. Balasaraswati, followed by Vidhya Subramanian a disciple of Guru Sri Rajarathnam Pillai. Watching Sri Aniruddha perform is to witness the embodiment of joy. It was a learning experience for a student of Bharatanatyam, to see such unrestrained expressions on his face in an era where restrained performances are becoming the norm. Every movement of his eye, every mudhra (hand gesture) held at the correct 90 degrees to the wrist and every foot placement was executed with purpose and specificity.

Appropriately titled “Reminiscing Bala,” Aniruddha Knight’s repertoire started with a traditional Alarippu accompanied with the recitation of poetry. He then announced that the abhinaya portions of his performance would be in the Manodharma style, where nothing was pre-rehearsed. This was followed by the beautiful Sarasijakshu Pada Varnam in Kalyani ragam, wherein the abhinaya portions were a delightful symbiosis of music and dance and the nritta portions were lively. Aniruddha Sir has a unique ability to be so involved in his art that he would sing along with the orchestra in certain parts of the concert. The inherit joy he has is contagious. I often found myself turning to exchange smiles with my mother when the singer or flautist executed a particularly beautiful sangathi (variation) in time with a stroke of brilliance from Aniruddha sir. When my eyes would turn back to the stage I would catch the musical ensemble exchanging similar looks with Aniruddha as well!

aniruddha knight and orchestra
Annirudha Knight with his orchestra Nattuvangam: Nrithya Pillai Vocals: Usha Shivakumar Mridangam: Douglas Knight Jr. Flute: T R Moorthy

The abhinaya pieces of the evening were Mosamaya in Ahiri ragam, a Kshetragna padam, Neelamayil Vahano in Neelambari and Maharajuka ramanave in Behag. The experience of watching someone steeped in the arts like Aniruddha Knight is educative and a beacon of hope for those who fear that traditionalism is fading away.

He held a workshop over the weekend discussing the nuances of Manodharma in Bharatanatyam. It involves having mastery over Carnatic music as well as Dance in order to have a cohesive understanding of performing Bharatanatyam. He started the session by having us do ascending and descending adavu patterns at the beginner level, in the way his grandmother’s guru Kandapa Pillai designed it. Aniruddha explained that only after having mastery over nritta can one attempt Manodharma in Abhinaya. It takes having a good grasp over laya (rhythm) and timing to properly time the movements for expression.

When explaining his grandmother’s style of dancing, Aniruddha explained that every member of the orchestra apart from the performer had an important role to play. His father, Douglas Knight Jr. demonstrated the importance of the mridangam in a Bharatanatyam performance while his son danced. It is unfortunate that the traditional art of nattuvangam, the beating of the cymbals along with rhythmic vocalizations, has become extinct with mridangists taking over the role instead. Douglas Knight explained how this has impacted dance choreography by using recordings of T. Balasaraswati concerts and live demos. It truly was a delight to experience such treasures of knowledge as not many would be willing to share such intimate details of their family. I must thank Hema Arangam for providing such a golden opportunity during my stay in Hyderabad. Please stay tuned for more details about Smt. Vidhya Subramanian’s performance and workshop in following posts!

Yours Truly with Kiran Mayee akka