Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash is ready to push the boundaries of Indian classical dance. Despite being deeply rooted in the tradition of the genre, she is using her works to question long-held social constructs related to femininity, beauty and mythology.
Prakash studied bharatanatyam from childhood under the tutelage of her mother, Viji Prakash. Viji, who trained with gurus of the genre in India, started a bharatanatyam school in Los Angeles, California, in the late 1970s called Shakti School of Bharatanatyam, where she remains artistic director and choreographer today. Prakash saw the school as her true home and was raised there, surrounded by dance students and musicians. “Since childhood, the movement, music, stories, characters and philosophies in which the form is so deeply embedded became a part of my own identity and how I perceive the world around me,” she says. After high school, Prakash attended college at the University of California, Berkeley, where she continued to perform and practice (often in gym racquetball rooms), then toured her own solo productions around the world. Some of her solo works include Stree Katha, Jwala, Seasons of Love and, commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow, AR|DHA. She was also featured on NBC’s Superstars of Dance as a bharatanatyam soloist and portrayed the wife of Pi in Ang Lee’s award-winning film Life of Pi (2012).
Here, Prakash shares the biggest turning point in her dance training, her current artistic focus and her dreams for the future.
On the biggest turning point in her dance training: “The biggest turning point in my dance training was when I reframed the idea of ‘performance’ in my head to ‘offering.’ From a young age, performances would cause me stress. More than the pressure of judgment or having to deliver, there was fear of stamina. Bharatanatyam is a hugely demanding solo artform, in which the dancer dances practically nonstop onstage from anywhere between 90 minutes to 3 hours. I remember one particular temple tour in which I was performing an incredibly hard dance. But because the occasion was one where ‘offering’ was the purpose and the audience was there for prayer and not entertainment, it changed the way I approached the show. The fear and pressure were replaced by surrender and gratitude. I decided that was how I wanted to dance in practice, rehearsal and performance—no matter the occasion or context.”
On her most influential teacher: “My mother was my first role model growing up, and I have never met someone with such unabashed passion and grit. She shaped my love for the artform and the rigor of my work ethic. I learned by watching her approach her dance with contagious all-consuming love, and I caught the fever too. Her path of discovery, curiosity, excitement and questioning have shaped the path that I continue to make my own.”
On her current artistic focus: “Exploring myth. As a young Indian growing up in America in the home of an Indian classical dance school, I was surrounded by colorful and fascinating Indian mythology. Dancing, singing and reading these stories made the characters and their adventures feel real to me. Now, as a mother trying to keep these stories alive for my daughter, and as a teacher trying to do the same for young students, I continue to see the stories through the shifting lens of time. Has the messaging changed? What is our role as artists in telling and retelling these stories? What is the responsibility and freedom in our interpretations?”
On her dreams for the future: “I want to continue to broaden my perspectives. I’m interested in exploring the dramaturgical possibilities in the theatricality of bharatanatyam. Having grown up with a specificity of caste/class textual interpretation of myth, I’m also interested in learning the stories and myths from a broader cross-section of Indian society. This is important to me for my personal and artistic journey, but also for how I pass on these myths to future generations.
“Once the strong impulses of my journey as a dance soloist start to recede, I want to develop a company of the immensely talented dance students in our bharatanatyam dance school, Shakti. I want to make dance a viable career option for all the young students who are passionate about their dance but do not pursue it due to financial constraints. The community that has shaped me since childhood and been the birthing ground of my artistic journey is the community that will be my future.”