Journey of Tara Rajkumar, Founder of Akademi

Martha Graham once said, “Dance is a form of communication, and so the great challenge is to speak clearly, beautifully and with inevitability”.

Tara Rajkumar and Prof Ann David from Roehampton University

This was probably the vision of Tara Rajkumar in her twenties, who left behind an incredibly successful dancing career in India and stepped ashore the cold and historical landscape of London in the early 1970s. By 1979 she had founded and established the Akademi, then known as the Academy of Indian Dance in London, with the support of the British government. The Akademi imparted training in various Indian classical dance styles and hosted productions, events and seminars. The establishment of the Akademi even caught the attention of the Government of India and was mentioned in question time in the Lok Sabha in India.

Under the able and daring leadership of Mira Kaushik OBE (Order of British Empire), today Akademi is the United Kingdom’s leading South Asian Dance organisation. This year celebrates the 40th Anniversary of its establishment. ‘The visionary founder and celebrated Mohiniattam artist’ Tara Rajkumar and her senior disciple Bindu Rajendren were invited to reminisce and present dance works part of the celebratory events.

Tara Rajkumar, who has received the Order of Australian Merit (OAM), is an internationally renowned Mohiniattam and Kathakali danseuse who currently lives in Melbourne. She has made distinguished contributions to dance in Australia, the United Kingdom and India for over four decades. She has taken the classical Indian dance forms of Kathakali and Mohiniattam and contemporary productions to many parts of the world, from village halls to prestigious venues. Tara’s work in UK in the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as her current work in Australia, continues to bring many accolades.

Her senior disciple Bindu Rajendren is a performing artiste, dance researcher and educator based in Brisbane. Bindu is a specialist in the classical Indian dance style of Mohiniattam and works under the mentorship of Tara Rajkumar, her Guru, collaborating to compose, conceptualise and choreograph new works.

The first event held under the auspices of the Akademi was presented by the Department of Dance at the University of Roehampton. Acclaimed Professor and Head of the Dance Department Dr. Ann David hosted Tara Rajkumar and Bindu Rajendran.

At this lecture-demonstration, Tara explored the evolution of South Asian arts over the last four decades. She spoke about the types of knowledge, this evolution has created and its relationship with contemporary choreography, especially in today’s setting. Bindu presented one of their latest choreographies which uses rhythmic syllables from the edakka, the percussion instrument used in Mohiniattam, researched by Tara about 40 years ago.

The music composition incorporated rhythmic syllables by Tara and poetry by Bindu harmoniously. The Mohiniattam choreography presented themes relating to social justice and inequality. Tara also touched upon the similarities and differences in pedagogy between the past and the present.

Following this Bindu demonstrated the adaptation of the Bhoomi Charis (leg movements mentioned in the Natyashastra) into the style of Mohiniattam. The session ended with a dynamic question and answer session by the students, academics and other guests who attended the event. The audience members included some of the best in the dance academia included Dr. Avanti Meduri and Bindu’s Masters research supervisor Professor Alexandra Kolb.

Akademi and the Bhavan hosted the following spoken reflections and performance evening aptly titled ‘In conversation with Tara Rajkumar’. Renowned Bharatanatyam danseuse and choreographer Chitra Sundaram introduced Tara Rajkumar. Chitra was an early collaborator who worked closely with Tara at the time Akademi was established. She spoke nostalgically about the begging of the Akademi referring to Tara as ‘the Rapunzel with long hair’ who worked hard to establish a platform that allowed collaboration and teaching of Indian classical dance to co-exist. Prof. Ann David interviewed Tara in the spoken reflections section where she spoke about the early days when London was a barren landscape devoid of South Asian dance styles, particularly Indian classical. She recalled that she saw the need to communicate to the audiences in the language they understood to pique their interest;

“There was a lack of communication and that is why I decided to set up the Akademi”

Tara brought back memories of how with the support of many – Mathurji, Sunil Kothari and Robin Howard – she established a firm foothold in the landscape of Indian classical dance in London enabling her to establish the Akademi. Magdalene Gorringe in the footnotes of her article ‘Ruminations’ writes –

‘When Robin Howard saw Tara dance, it was probably about 2 weeks after he had fallen in love with Martha Graham… if he had seen Tara before he had seen Martha Graham, he would probably have made a big push behind classical Indian dance – and not contemporary dance. And he meant it’

Tara further highlighted how the anti-racism policy and Britain’s acknowledgement of the minorities led to the growth of South Asian arts in the 70s and 80s. The real motivation for Tara to set up the Akademi was to not only bring the people to the art form but also to pave a pathway and bring the art form to the people.

Tara Rajkumar and Bindu Rajendren

The engaging talk was followed by performances from Bindu presenting both traditional and contemporary choreographies. Bindu first performed the Ganapathi Chollu highlighting intricate nritta patterns followed by abhinaya that conveyed the legend of Kotakkal Ganapathy. Coincidently both Tara and Bindu are from a family lineage related to this deity from the northern part of Kerala.

The second dance was ‘Karukare Kaarmukil’ a composition in the sopanam style by the erstwhile poet Kavalam Narayana Panicker. The choreography is often performed as an ode to the monsoon god; however, the presentation depicted a deviation from this pattern, responding to the recent floods that devastated Kerala and highlighting the effects of climate change.

The padam ‘Chaliye Kunjanamo’ that portrayed the beautiful sringara bhava and ‘Mahadeva Shiva Shambho’ that showcased stories from the Shiva Purana were also performed.

Bindu Rajendren

Bindu’s performances clearly highlighted the lineage of dance developed by Tara over the past forty or so years. Tara trained under legends of dance and abhinaya – Smt. Kalyanikutty Amma, Shri. Krishnan Nair and Shri. Mani Madhava Chakyar – and this training in abhinaya was evident in her disciple.

This was followed by a question and answer session where members of the audience were able to engage in a conversation with Tara and Bindu. The evening was one filled with nostalgia and ended on a high note with many having listened to the founder of the Akademi and also having watched her work developed once she left the shores of Britain.

The third event ‘Rumination’ was an evening of performance, film, and dialogue, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Akademi. This evening marked the evolution of its pioneering work and its contribution to Britain’s international reputation for innovation in South Asian Dance.

Tara Rajkumar, Prof. Ann David, Bindu Rajendren at the Bhavan

Reflecting on British Indian Dance in London since 1979, this event highlighted the archives which are held at the V&A while honouring its legendary founding Director Tara Rajkumar.

Bindu performed the much-acclaimed choreography ‘Sarpa Varnam’ alongside students of Padmashri Pratap Pawar and Pushkala Gopal. Gorringe writes –

‘Giving us a glimpse of the charm Rajkumar must have wrought as a performer in her younger years, Rajkumar’s disciple, Bindu, gave the second performance of the evening. Depicting the destruction of the Khandva forest to make space for the city of Indraprastha, Bindu’s vivid evocation of the death of the animals caught in the fire had a clear resonance with the concerns of today’s Extinction Rebellion campaigners”.

The final event titled ‘Brown tangle’ at RichMix theatre was staged to explore fresh perspectives on South Asia’s artistic legacy. The first part of the event was a retrospective programme featuring screen shows and re-stagings from the earlier times of the Akademi.

Tara was introduced as the one who “Set the path…the pathbreaking way to move the south Asian dance forward in the UK’.

Here, Bindu performed a newly embodied Cholkettu composed and choreographed by Tara. Tara indicated that when she first arrived in London she performed the Cholkettu that was taught to her by her Guru, Smt. Kalyanikutty Amma. Since then Tara has re-embodied this choreography that has now take on a newer and different form.

Tara’s contributions to the dance world are profound particularly at a time when India was reeling from the post-colonial effects and working towards enlivening the art forms that were believed to have been lost. She was perhaps one of the first Kathakali and Mohiniattam artists of her time to have been able to popularise these artforms internationally. Her work that commenced more than forty years ago clearly indicates the vision she had and the success that continues to benefit the artists of today.

Mira Kaushik with Tara Rajkumar and Bindu Rajendren

The events held in London to celebrate 40 years of South Asian dance in Britain acknowledge and celebrate the tangible contributions of Tara Rajkumar. They have been able to highlight and point to works that have been built on the foundations laid by Tara at a time when the South Asian arts were not as popular or understood as it is today.

The further work done by Mira Kaushik for almost 30 years have firmly embedded South Asian dance in the cultural and historical fabric of United Kingdom’s Dance scene. As Mira Kaushik passes on the baton to the new directors, Subathra Subramaniam and Kirsten Burrows, we hope that the foresight laid by Tara Rajkumar continues.

This is most definitely one of the important individual achievements in the cultural and historical stories of South Asian dance outside India. As an Australian South Asian artist, we need to learn to take a leaf out of the book of South Asian dance celebration in the United Kingdom to acknowledge the works done by South Asian artists such as Tara Rajkumar in Australia and provide more funding and resources to create a fertile growth of these artforms to the growing South Asian diaspora in Australia.

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