LOS ANGELES: Anjani Ambegaokar’s name is synonymous with Kathak dance in the US. But in 1967 when this young Indian dancer from Baroda landed in Chicago, hardly anybody knew Kathak in America. And there were few prospects for her.
So she went on to do her MBA from the famous Keller Graduate School of Management, Chicago, but soon rejected a career in accounting to pursue her passion and popularize Kathak.
Today, Anjani Ambegaokar, who is based at Diamond Bar in California, is the most well known face of Kathak in America. The National Endowment for the Arts in the US has honoured her for her lifetime achievements in dance – the first for any Indian dancer.
As this Indian cultural ambassador in the US nears completing five decades of her career, she looks back on her journey with pride and talks about her famous daughter Amrapali. Excerpts from an interview:
Q: You virtually brought Kathak to the US, more so to California, single-handedly and nurtured it through school and dance company. Looking back, how do you feel?
A: I feel very blessed. I started performing Kathak in Chicago where I stayed for 10 years before moving to California in 1979. It has been a challenging path – starting from performing in inner city schools in Chicago, driving early morning in the snow and experimenting with different music and performing Kathak to attract students and showing tradition work to them.
It was very interesting. I also realized in the process that arts are universal and the greatness of Kathak rhythms is that you can improvise them to any music.
I also used to perform at community events so that Kathak becomes popular. After moving to Los Angeles, it became a bit easier…I started teaching and performing. Then I established the Sundar Kala Kendra Foundation – a non-profit in honor of my Kathak Guru’s name as well as an umbrella organization for the dance school and the dance company.
It took me some years to figure out what I would want to do with my Kathak. Once I knew, I just kept trying. I think I still do, performing, creating new work, applying for grants, teaching and showcasing and running the organization.
Q: Had you stayed back in India, do you think you wouldn’t still be what you are today?
A: That is a hard question. I moved to the US when I was 22 years old. Of course I always kept going back to India to continue training with my Guru Pandit Sundarlal Ji Gangani and performing at various festivals. In fact, when my daughter Amrapali started dancing well I took her to India several years in a row and still continue to do so. We were there in 2009 for Jaipur Festival and in 2010 for the Kathak Mohotsav in New Delhi.
I have grown as an artist in the US and I am happy that I have taken the liberty to create new work in the area of traditional and non-traditional stories, thus pushing the limits.
Q: You hold an MBA from a famous school. You were into accounting, and you could have made a lucrative career in the financial world. But still you stuck to dance even at a time when there were not many Indians in the US?
A: As I realized that Kathak is what I wanted to do, I just decided to go ahead to pursue my goal. My knowledge in accounting helps me to run my foundation and I also hold an MA in Kathak from M. S. University of Baroda. I do not think I would have been good in the field of accounting. I never have regrets. I have received the highest honor in the traditional arts given by the National Endowment for the Arts for lifetime achievements in Kathak. It was in 2004. And it was the first time any Indian dance artist received this honour, with a proclamation by the US President.
Q: For an artist, audiences are everything. How did you get audiences in those early years in Chicago and then in Los Angeles?
A: I have been very fortunate about audiences not only in Chicago and Los Angeles but also in other cities – from Anchorage in Alaska to New York to Hawaii – that I have toured as a soloist and with my dance company, Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India.
I believe in doing my dance work honestly. My Kathak Guruji said: “Your mind is your mirror, always look at it and you will get the answer!’’ I think the audiences in the US are always very open to great art and that is the best part of being in the US as an artist.
Q: After shifting to Los Angeles, you says you found the city more congenial to your creativity. You went on to establish the Sundar Kala Kendra Dance School in your guru’s name and your company Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India. How did these institutions help the Indian cultural scene – more so Kathak – in California and the US?
A: Yes I did because I could start teaching and performing solos – one of the first was at UCLA International Dance Festival where I was fortunate to have Zakir Bhai (Zakir Hussain) perform Tabla with me. Once in LA, I could form a dance company and tour nationally and, of course, establish the Sundar Kala Kendra (SKK) Foundation. Ours was one of the first Kathak dance school in the greater Los Angeles area. I started on a smaller scale, but soon people started sending their students to learn classical Kathak dance. Some of the students and parents became part of the dance company and we toured nationally. The SKK Foundation is one of the first non-profit Indian dance organizations established in Southern California. We have been very blessed to have received several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the California Arts Council for our new projects. This supported our creative work immensely and we could share our artistic creativity with people in the greater Los Angeles area and across the US.
Q: Tell us about your struggles and happy moments during all these years?
A: I didn’t know what to do (with Kathak) when I came here, and where to start. It was a big question. Creative concepts took a while to establish. Then funds and grants came to help bring my creativity on the stage. I always believed in trying and never giving up and I still do the same. There is always something best in every creative work. I am critical about what I like and do not like about my work. I am more excited about the process of getting there when I am creating new work.
Q: You are not only a dancer, but also a teacher. Tell us about Anjani the teacher.
A: Some of the greater rewards have come for me from being a teacher. We have established a family of our dance school. The second generation of my first group of dancers has now started learning from me – it is an icing on the cake for me! I am very proud of my students. I am very fortunate that we have established very high standards of Kathak training. Our students’ college applications always include an essay on their Kathak dance. As a teacher, I am proud that I have been giving admission recommendations for MBA programs, medical programs, and various university scholarships and all our students have been very successful. I still teach little children, and we have other teachers who are trained in our school.
Q: Your daughter Amrapali followed in your footsteps and excelled. In fact, she did a stint with the famous Cirque Du Soleil. Where is she headed today?
A: Amrapali is recognized as a world-class Kathak dancer and I am very proud of her work. She has helped me immensely with innovative ideas, creative concept, choreography, teaching and our work in not only in the US but also in India, the UK and Canada. She continues her quest for creativity in all aspects of dance, including performing dance in US films and TV programs. She has won the Silver Medal for the Super Stars of Dance on NBC. Her being a guest artist on So You Think You Can Dance has helped people worldwide know Kathak.
Q: How has the Indian dance scene changed in the US since you landed on American soil more than 45 years ago?
A: The dance scene here has completely changed . We now have lots of classical dancers, dance schools, performances and organizations supporting dance. There has been national recognition of several Indian dancers in the US.
Q: Finally, what accolades and awards did you cherish most during your long artistic journey? And what’s next?
A: The highest was the National Heritage Fellow award from the National Endowment for the Arts for lifetime achievement in Kathak dance, given to traditional artist in the US. I very well remember receiving it at the Caucus Room in Capital Hill Washington, DC, including letter of honor from the President of the United State in 2004. I was very blessed to be the first Indian dancer to receive this honor in the 25 years of the history of the award.
Also, I was awarded several choreography fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, and the Illinois Arts Council. My new work about Kathak rhythms and Mathematics was invited to present at the Western Carolina University, North Carolina, for the seminar of ‘Landscape of Mathematics.’ I went to other US universities as well.
Very interestingly, I was invited as a lead choreographer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon for the play ‘The Clay Cart’ and got the opportunity to work with some great actors to create Kathak dance movement vocabulary. The play had 120 very successful shows. Then I was the Guest Lecturer for the Dance Department of the University California at Irvine for some years.
Over the years, I have performed at famous venues such as the United Nations; Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, New York; the Cerritos Center for Performing Arts; Hollywood Bowl, and many others. Then we have done some creative work in the form of Kalidas’ Shakuntalam, Amrapali Raj Narthaki, Art of Basketball/Kathak Style, Made in Mumbai, World Music and Kathak Rhythms.
In my native India, I have performed at the Kathak Mohotsav in New Delhi several times, the Jaipur Festival and at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. So the journey continues.