Bollywood might get a lot of attention from Western audiences, but Sreedharani Nandagopal says India's movie industry doesn't quite do it for her.
"I'm all for tradition," she says, nodding to her husband Mallur. "We both grew up in different places, in the same area of South India" before moving to the states. And where they grew up, traditional ceremonies and celebrations in the region's temples led to a love of distinctly South Indian pre-Bollywood styles of performance.
Nandagopal prefers a more classical entertainment, like the Kuchipudi style of drama and dance that's been part of South Indian cultural life for hundreds of years. That is partly why, as one of the organizers of Spokane's South Asia Cultural Association, she's bringing a performance by the Kuchipudi Art Academy to Spokane Saturday night.
Besides the inherent entertainment the academy is bringing to America on its 45-date tour of a show called Ardha Nareeshwara — full of dancing, singing and music — the Nandagopals hope the show adds some rare cultural diversity to Spokane's entertainment scene. They've spent much of their 38 years as Spokane residents working toward that goal by booking various touring Indian acts for stops in the Lilac City. The shows have taken place at venues ranging from churches to community centers to theaters — Saturday's show is at the Bing — and when the Kuchipudi Academy last visited in 1998, they performed at North Central High School.
Both Nandagopals recall that show as an eye-opening success, given that they booked it last-minute. Sreedharani recalls having to turn people away, while Mallur remembers the standing ovation at the end of the show.
"Some people who were at that program [in 1998] now come to all the programs that we bring," Sreedharani says. "And they'll say to me, 'Sree, when are you going to bring a program like that again?' And now I say, 'Here it is!'"
The story in the Ardha Nareeshwara show is told by the dancers' hands, feet and facial expressions, and relates the legend of the Ganges River, considered a female in Indian lore. The ultimate message that audiences walk away with is equality of the sexes, illustrated by a dancer in the role of Shiva performing half the show as a woman, and half as a man.
If that sounds daunting to comprehend as a Western audience member, rest assured the academy's talented artists bring the story to life in a way that Americans can understand. In fact, while the Kuchipudi style of dance was at one point nearly extinct, a rebirth in the '60s led by Vempati Chinna Satyam not only kept the form alive, but led to a serious resurgence. Now groups tour the globe to present Kuchipudi events, and there are schools for the form based in the states.
When Satyam started the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, he didn't even have a dozen students. Now, with the academy being led by his son Venkat Vempati, there are nearly 250 students. And those students have toured the United States no less than nine times.
Getting the academy to stop in Spokane is part of the reason the South Asia Cultural Association exists, Sreedharani says. While Spokane has been home for her and her husband for nearly four decades, and their children have all been born here, they want the city's citizens to be as proud of its cultural opportunities as they are of its natural ones.
"We've been doing this for so long," Sreedharani says. "The people that come to our programs are often returning patrons, because there's a thirst for this. They keep coming.
"In Spokane, we don't have very many Indians, although it is increasing. But even Westerners are interested in seeing what the other world lives like, so they come, too." ♦
South Asia Cultural Association of Spokane presents Ardha Nareeshwara • Sat, Sept. 28 at 6:30 pm • $30 • All ages • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague • target="_blank">bingcrosbytheater.com • 227-7638