Every month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world (both current grantees and alumni) to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. This month, Parul Srivastava, a 2020-2021 Researcher to the U.S., spoke with Lalitha Sindhuri Y, a 2017-2018 Fulbright Researcher from India who studied in the U.S. through the Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Research Program. The Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Research Program enables graduate students enrolled in Indian Universities to study and conduct a part of their research in the United States.
- How were you drawn towards Indian classical dance (Kuchipudi to be specific)?
As a toddler, I used to move my body with perfect rhythm to the songs played out on TV and this trait continued to shape up all through my school life. However, it was my father, who directed me towards Kuchipudi when I was 12 or so. Kuchipudi is a classical dance form from Andhra Pradesh in India, hence that was his immediate choice, as we are natives of Andhra. My dance master used to travel from Kuchipudi village (250Km away from Rajahamundry, which is my home town) every week to give me classes.
My pursuit of dance has been very natural and unhurried and I consider myself fortunate enough to get right opportunities at the right time which made me take up dance more seriously. I participated in several State and National level competitions and won accolades. Such events gave me the identity of a young upcoming dancer in my State and eventually, I started performing more and more.
2. What led you to pursue a PhD in this art form?
It was only in the final year of my Bachelor of Technology (BTech) in Computer Science, that I chose dance as my full-time career. The department of dance at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) is one of the best in the country and hence, I joined MPA (Master of Performing Art) in Dance, cleared JRF (Junior Research Fellowship) exam conducted by the University Grants Commission in India and joined a PhD in Dance due to my constant thirst for knowledge.
3. What was your Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Research project all about?
My Fulbright Research Project was on my thesis subject, “The Impact of Cross-Cultural Training on the Practice and Pedagogy of Kuchipudi Dance.” In today’s multi-cultural world, dancers are exploring different dance forms for several reasons, for instance to enhance the pedagogy, to condition the body, to get a better understanding of the body etc. As a Fulbrighter, I audited several practical courses like Basics of Ballet, Modern, Flamenco, African, Pilates and also analyzed how my participation in these forms impacted me as a Kuchipudi dancer. My Fulbright experience at Barnard is going to be an entire chapter in my thesis.
4. Why did you choose to go to Barnard College, Columbia University as a Fulbrighter?
As my research topic is primarily Indian, I wanted a supervisor who had a fair understanding of both the Indian and the Western dance forms. My supervisor at the UoH, Prof. Aruna Bhikshu suggested Dr. Uttara Asha Coorlawala who is well adept in Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Modern Dance and was the recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi award too. As Uttara readily agreed to guide me, I chose her and as she works at Barnard College, I chose Barnard College as my host institute. I am very grateful for Uttara and Barnard for hosting me.
5. How different was Barnard College as compared to the University of Hyderabad?
I found students at both Barnard and UoH to be quite serious, career oriented and intelligent. Both the institutions have highly qualified faculty and great education system.
What I found different at Barnard was the student-teacher relation. I think it is a part of the US culture that everything is based on appointments and the student also has the freedom to schedule an appointment with the Professor, based on their availability and they always have the option of saying no. The relationship is quite professional whereas in India, there is an emotion involved in the student-teacher relationship.
As a dancer, one thing I ADORED about Barnard was the studio infrastructure. There are so many studios in Barnard which are available 24/7 for both the students and faculty of Barnard and anyone can book the studio on an online time table for rehearsals. I enjoyed my studio practices quite a lot!
6. What was it like living in New York City?
Barnard and the entire uptown vibe in New York is much more serious than I even expected. Especially, the undergraduate students of Barnard – who were almost 5-6 years younger than me – fascinated and inspired me with their hard work and ambitious attitude.[One] thing that still intrigues me was how people in New York grabbed their coffees and ran to catch their metro trains. I cribbed about how they didn’t have the time to enjoy their coffee which is an essential affair in India. However, after a month, I became a true New Yorker! I would grab my coffee and start rushing.
Other than that, New York, is a multicultural city and the Indian community in Columbia was very active in celebrating Indian festivals like Holi, Diwali etc. So I don’t have any complaints.
7. Where are you from? Please tell us about your hometown.
I am from a small town called Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, India. I did my undergraduate degree there and came to Hyderabad to pursue a Masters in Dance. Once Rajahmundry was known as a hub for all fine arts, but today it has lost its charm. Things are changing slowly. I hope to contribute to my home town one day by starting an institute there which provides quality dance education.
8. What were the challenges that you faced in the US and how did you overcome them/ adjust with them?
Honestly speaking, I had great difficulty in making friends in the U.S. Thanks to my dance community, I found some wonderful friends, otherwise it would have been quite a task for me. I tried mingling more with my fellow dancer friends in New York and did a show with them at Columbia University along with a few other activities that kept me engaged. This is one aspect that I am still working on, as making friends is not easy for me.
9. How has Fulbright helped you grow in your field?
During my grant, I got opportunities to perform across the United States. I gave around 15 performances in California, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Penn State, Chicago, Nashville, Rochester and New York. I also collaborated with my dancer friends in the US and overall, it was a beautiful experience!
After completing my grant, I was given the chance to perform for the Fulbright Conference in Cochin, India, all thanks to Adam Grotsky (Executive Director, United States India Education Foundation (USIEF)). I was also given a prestigious project by the US Consulate of Hyderabad to perform on the story of Taramati Premamati, the court dancers of the Nizams. The project was fully funded by the US State department. The US Ambassador Kenneth Jester also hosted my performance celebrating 70 years of friendship between India and the US State department at Roosevelt House, New Delhi.
Other than the opportunities, Fulbright helped me in growing as an artist. Today, with the vast exposure I got as a Fulbrighter, I don’t hesitate to take up new and challenging projects. For instance, I conceptualized and choreographed a production for the school of Physics in UoH on Women Empowerment. It was unique as I used four inspiring stories of contemporary women Marie Curie, Mary Kom, Malala and J K Rowling in the production and it was very well received.
10. Did Fulbright fulfill your expectations? Why would you urge Indians to apply for the Fulbright program?
Yes. More than I expected. Only thing I feel is that I should have been more open about accepting the new experience as I was a little hesitant. I urge every Indian to apply for Fulbright for a multitude of reasons:
1. The quality education – This provides great exposure and the US has the best institutes as we are all aware of.
2. The culture – Most of our myths regarding the life style in the U.S. will be busted once we enter the U.S. Also, as Fulbrighters, one will be grateful to gain such an experience on a fully funded scholarship.
3. Fulbright changes you as a person – Watching the Fulbright alumni achieve so many incredible things in life including Nobel prizes gives you an aspiration and ambition not just for your personal growth but also for your contribution towards the society. Fulbright also makes you more empathetic and tolerant towards other people and their cultures.
4. Strong Fulbright Alumni Network – Fulbright lives by its slogan “Once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter.” The strong Fulbright alumni network gives you many opportunities and it is like a family to cherish for the rest of your life.
Lalitha Sindhuri Y is an acclaimed Kuchipudi dancer (Classical Indian Dance form). She was a 2017-2018 Indian Fulbright Visiting Researcher at Barnard College, Columbia University where she worked on her research project entitled “The Impact of Cross-Cultural Training on the Practice and Pedagogy of Kuchipudi Dance.” She is the recipient of the Bala Ratna State Award and Balashree National Award which she received from the then President of India, Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam. Lalitha also won a Silver Rolling trophy for winning the first prize for four consecutive years in the National level competitions conducted by Navya Nataka Samiti, Hyderabad in India. She is currently pursuing her PhD from the Department of Dance in the University of Hyderabad in India.