What My Teacher Taught Me: Sonali Skandan on Maya Kulkarni
November 19, 2021

I met Maya Kulkarni through the Indian classical dance scene in New York City. It’s quite a small group, so it was inevitable that we, two women who are quite active in the choreographic scene, would eventually meet. In 2016, I asked her if she wanted to rework some solo choreography for me and she agreed. Our relationship grew from there.

Maya came to New York as a young performer in the 1960s. She was one of the earlier Indian classical dancers presenting in the city, and has come to be known as a visionary. I’ve had the privilege of training with many legendary teachers of the art form, but what stands out to me in my work with Maya is that she helps me expand my canvas.

Sonali Skandan (left) and Maya Kulkarni (right). Courtesy Skandan

Classical Indian dance exists within a structure. A lot of the themes and poems were written hundreds of years ago and traditionally involve devotion to a deity or a love between a dancer and a Lord. Many of the songs were composed hundreds of years ago too and involve Hindu mythology. With Maya, though, I’m expanding these themes into secular work that is more universal. We are working with new ideas, stories and concepts that aren’t already part of the art form, while still maintaining the foundational movement. For example, we recently worked together on a work, called “The Adventures of the Naughty Bee,” that premiered at the Erasing Borders Dance Festival this past September. It’s a film about a bee born in a temple hive in India who is very adventurous.

Maya helps already established dancers push their boundaries beyond what they thought possible. Indian classical dance has a codified set of hand gestures that have meanings. For example, if I want to say “flower,” my hands demonstrate a flower in a specific way. Maya has created something unique by relying less on gestures and more on the way the whole face and body tell the story. She encourages us to discover what’s going on in our heads when we are acting as the character by exploring their emotional underpinnings. She probes us on what it would feel like to be them in each instance.

Stepping away from the traditional expectations of this art form and creating her own path has inspired me to take risks in my own career. Maya has taught me, through example, that boundaries aren’t fixed and to not box myself in to a particular way of doing something.

Sonali Skandan (left) and Maya Kulkarni (right). Courtesy Skandan

I teach these same lessons to my own students today, and see elements of Maya’s mentorship in all of my work. I also strive to find new patterns of movement and modes of expression now. For example, I just did a dance about the sun rising and falling in the day. Rather than relating it to a fixed narrative, I created imagery and embodied it myself. Rather than showing sprouts sprouting through gestures, I became the sprouts myself. It’s Maya’s vision that has inspired me to approach movement this way.

It’s very special to have a mentor in your life who pushes you to try new things. Maya has given me the courage to go beyond boundaries that have been placed on me and has guided me through my artistic journey. I’m so grateful for our unique relationship.

Sonali Skandan is a bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer in New York City. She is also the artistic director of Jiva Dance.

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