Meenakshi Ganesan and the Kalaanjali School of Dance: The Art of Indian Classical Dance

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Meenakshi Ganesan (r), the founder of the Kalaanjali School of Dance with her student Yogitha Rajkumar who recently earned an Indian Raga Fellowship that will allow her to train with practitioners of Indian arts from around the world.

By Jonathan Gramling

As a little girl growing up in India, Meenakshi Ganesan, the founder of the Kalaanjali School of Dance, seemed to naturally enjoy dancing.

“I always loved dancing,” Ganesan said. “My mom would say that I danced more than I walked. I just loved dancing. Any music would just make me move.”

But then tragedy struck when Ganesan was six-years-old. Her father died. And while the door was closing on her life with her father, another door was opening that led her to the world of Indian classical dance.

“We moved in with my aunt and uncle, my mom’s brother and his wife,” Ganesan said. “And my aunt is my first guru. She’s my dance teacher. In the midst of all that

happened in my life with my dad passing away, I think there was guidance because I came and lived with my aunt and learned dance from her in my house throughout. It was very traditional in the olden days for the student to stay with the teacher. My aunt was my ‘parent’ because my mother worked during the daytime. She took up my father’s job, so my aunt took care of me as my mother, as my teacher. That’s how my training began at the age of six. Any dancer needs to have a complete knowledge of the music to go with the dance. That’s when you learn how to choreograph, how to understand the words and meanings and the melody of the ragas. My aunt got me enrolled with a classical music teacher, a Carnatic music teacher who came to my home and trained me in Carnatic music. That’s how at the age of six I started both formal training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music.”

For the next six years, Ganesan continued to study the art of Indian classical dance and Carnatic music.

“After many years, I still continue to learn from my gurus,” Ganesan said. “I started at six-years-old. My official Arangatrem, the ascending of the stage — similar to high school graduation — happened in my ninth grade, six years after I started training. That is the official announcement by a guru that the student is ready to pursue the art form. That is a three-hour dance recital with the orchestra members who are live. And you prepare for it intensely for 1-2 years. From my seventh grade to my ninth grade, I prepared for my Arangetram. I presented my Arangetram in 1992.”

Another life-changing event happened when Ganesan met her future husband Arvind Ganesan who lived in Madison, Wisconsin. After they married, they moved to Madison in the early 2000s. And as Ganesan continued her involvement in Indian classical dance and founded the Kalaanjali School of Dance, it was Arvind’s continuous support that allowed Ganesan to focus on the art form that she loved.

“I have seen so many of my dance friends who have given up teaching and dancing as their family progressed further,” Ganesan said. “I don’t think I could do what I am doing today if not for Arvind’s support. There were days when he was doing more and more in Kalaanjali that I was doing. I was teaching and creating and practicing. But there were so many aspects to the organization.

“When we got married, he knew that I wanted to dance. He was one of those people who was very particular about marrying someone who could help further our culture and transfer it to the next generation via music or dance. It is one thing wanting to do that and another thing being married to a dance teacher who is constantly teaching on weekday evenings and weekends. We never got to do our regular outings even as a couple before we had our oldest son. We couldn’t take off to Minnesota for the weekend because I would have scheduled lessons. Once we had our first child, you could see him at performances with the baby in one hand and the video camera in the other. He would make every performance and tape it and label it so that I could go back and see what I could do better. Those days, you would find him in the front row taking notes. He would come back and give me feedback. Some days, he took so many notes, I wondered if he watched the dance.

“The amount of work that he has done along with me to help preserve this culture, I would say that he has kept it going. I don’t think I would have sustained doing this — I love to dance and teach — overall with the class structure, being able to communicate with the parents and the audience, all of those aspects to the point that two months ago at the Overture Center at 5:30 a.m. when they had the Morning Muse Interview. We had to wake up at 4 a.m. I asked him, ‘Aren’t you tired after 20 years?’ He said, ‘No, I can’t let you go by yourself. I will be there.’ It was the Lord of Luck and blessings from my parents and his parents to have him as a support in my life. I don’t think Kalaanjali would be standing where it is or going in the future where it is without Arvind’s support.”

Just like when Ganesan was a little girl, the household that she maintains is steeped in Indian culture and traditions.

“Arvind learned Carnatic violin for a very senior teacher in Minneapolis,” Ganesan said. “When our kids started learning vocal, he worked on vocals. My oldest son, Surya, sings and plays Mrudangam. When he was learning the Mrudangam, Arvind learned with him to help him train. My younger son, Sathya, does vocals, but he also plays the ghatam and so Arvind learned how to play the ghatam. He has learned to play percussion instruments and he continues to learn the Carnatic violin.”

In many ways, it is Indian classical dance — Bharatanatyam, the art form that Ganesan practices, is just one of seven major dance forms — that holds Madison’s Indian community together. It is the fabric of the cultural bond that exists within the community.

“I think first of all, in terms of learning this art form that is ancient, there is so much depth,” Ganesan said. “It gives enrichment. There is discipline. It doesn’t come overnight. The amount of discipline you need as a dance student, you have to practice every day. You have to grow with the practice. You have to learn new pieces. As you learn new pieces, you learn the mythology. You learn the concepts and the stories and the purpose behind the dance. You learn literature because you have to learn to understand the meaning of the dances. You learn how to sing it. You might not be a vocalist, but then you have to be able to sing in order to dance. It provides the complete knowledge and training in so many aspects while it is so close to the spiritual as well as the cultural aspects of the Indian culture. Dance is just such a rounded art form that you can learn.”