Insights on clarity, Art and Leadership from Dancer and Researcher Anupama Kylash

Insights on clarity, Art and Leadership from Dancer and Researcher Anupama Kylash

Featuring: Anupama Kylash
Classical Dancer, Senior practitioner – Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam, Researcher and Academic

Curated By: Chandrani Datta

Can you figure out an instance when Art moulded you and your leadership?

Well, I can’t recall any particular incident. But for me, the journey was maybe more predictable because after I completed my schooling, I pursued the rest of my education in the field of dance. I did my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD in dance. The last time I was in a mainstream academic field was when I was doing my Intermediate, which included history, literature, and civics.

However, one thing which I do know, and which I find very significant now when I think back in retrospect, is that from a very young age, I was working with dance and music and putting up productions in school or college. This automatically gave me qualities of a leader, as I was working with multiple components. I was working with literature, music, movement, and different kinds of people who were trained and untrained.

When you work with multiple companies, whether it’s a dance school or a general college, you have to work with different kinds of people who are trained or untrained. When you take the initiative to have a cultural event involving music and dance, you are forced to figure out a methodology to make everyone speak the same language and do the same thing. This automatically inculcates some leadership qualities as you are at the helm of the whole thing, trying to create something that brings harmony to a situation that may not be conducive to you.

From the time I was 15 or 16, I was interested in creating original pieces of literature. We had a studio recording just behind the college, where we used to gather some friends, one who played the flute, one who played the tabla, and record original music or borrow music from anywhere. Then we used to create our own productions based on a point of Sarojini Naidu or a drive in the north. From college days itself, this definitely created an automatic need to coordinate and lead, although it was not a conscious effort. I cannot recall a particular incident, but in retrospect, I feel that this may have started the whole process of trying to create something at which we are at the forefront, and taking people along with us. This is what a leader does, right?

How does an artist balance creative spirit and the instinct with logic and reason?

What I have always felt is that the root of the word “abhinaya” is significant. The word “Abhi” and “naya” means face-to-face, and when you face somebody directly, it implies leading them. Therefore, the word “abhinaya” means coming face-to-face with somebody and leading them where you want them to go. The root “naya” is only used for Nyah and anything to do with “naya” is leadership theory. This idea of leadership is ingrained within the art of dance itself. You are leading somebody to believe your reality, to understand things the way you are perceiving it.

This leads us to the question of what to do with this information. The logic comes in the translation from thought to visual. For a trained dancer, this may be straightforward, but the audience may not be trained. Bridging the gap of understanding requires logic in creating an image, a motive, a metaphor, an analogy, or a paradox that goes across. Essentially, you are leading the audience to understand and appreciate your performance.

How should a leader understand the word “presence” from a dancer?

The way I see it, it’s a subjective thing, and I can’t give an objective view because different things are relevant and applicable to different people. However, I believe there are a few components that create presence. First, complete understanding of the subject is crucial. If you’re not sure about what you’re talking about, or you have only skimmed the surface or pretended to study things, it only gives you false confidence. So, knowledge is the first step towards presence. Second, clarity is essential – the ability to translate your knowledge in a way that people can understand. Thirdly, it is important to talk with people, not talk down to them. A leader must not be patronizing or condescending because that will not inspire anybody to follow. The attitude should be one of sharing, offering the idea with conviction but without appearing superior. A combination of these three things creates presence, not only for speakers but also for dancers. In performance, it’s about how you put your idea across — offering it for understanding or showcasing how big you are. The difference lies there.

What would you advise younger lot of dancers who would become leaders?

I’m not sure if I’m equipped to give advice, but when I think about it, I’m not in agreement with many senior people who say that younger dancers today are not good, that they’re very selfish, etc. I think there is a lot more competition out there today, and we’re all striving to prove ourselves.

In this context, I believe that young dancers need to do two things. First, they should decide early on in their career what kind of dancer they want to be. For example, if they want to be a performer and dance 20 programmes a month, they should be willing to do what is required to achieve that goal, even if it means stepping on some toes. However, if they don’t think they can handle that, they should decide on a different direction that doesn’t require as much struggle in the mainstream. The key is to have clarity in their decision-making.

For instance, if they want to be an academic and study the dance form, they should do that and not regret not performing 20 days a month. If they want to be a performing scholar, they should be willing to put in a lot of hard work to gain scholarship, and they should be the type who is willing to do that.

Therefore, my suggestion would be to decide early on where they want to go because there are so many people struggling to get to so many points. They should decide what they want to do, and that clarity will give them the impetus to move in that direction. It’s essential to decide what they want to be or, more importantly, what they don’t want to be.

How has your clarity of thought, decision-making skills, and communication as a performing artist contributed to your development in life and leadership?

From the beginning, I had a clear sense that I did not want to pursue a career as a hardcore performer. This realization led me to explore my interests in the study of literature and certain related aspects of texts. However, I also knew that I wanted to bring these ideas to life visually because theory and practice are inseparable in the performing arts. This led me to create a space for myself where I would only engage in productions or performances with a thematic content grounded in research.

For example, the concept of rasa, or the principle of the audience experiencing an emotional response through the performer’s expressions, is a key idea in Indian aesthetics or Alenka shastra. This concept of universalization or Sadara has been applied in fields like management and psychology, thanks to the work of Amina Gupta. This artistic concept speaks to communication and the interaction between performers and audiences, which has become a blueprint for other fields as well. Universal concepts, such as having a clear vision and communicating it effectively, are relevant across all disciplines. Therefore, drawing from art, we can create a module for leadership, for instance.

How do you keep inner agility within you? How can dance teach that to leaders?

I don’t know whether it can teach leaders. Okay, let me put it this way. I think it’s about working with multiple emotions on different levels. First and foremost, I mean, it may sound ridiculous if I say this, but I think the whole idea stems from not taking yourself too seriously. It’s very important not to take your position as a boss or leader too seriously. Directly get the work done, yes, but also be willing to stretch your relationships, show empathy, and laugh at yourself and with others. Be compassionate when things don’t go according to plan.

At the end of the day, I think it’s very important, whether you’re a leader or just a human being, to understand that we have all come to this earth to do different things. We’ll do it to the best of our ability, but our work is never finished. Yes, we try our best to do things, but let’s not get too stressed about doing everything perfectly. It’s expected, and that’s our aim, but if you want to navigate different emotions and relationships with people who are under or above you, it’s more a matter of letting things flow easily. Let things happen.

Can you share your experience and insights on identifying talent and fluidly helping performers to excel in their roles, balancing various dimensions and accommodating diverse students, based on your intuitive and experiential knowledge as a dancer and producer?

I believe that being perceptive is crucial when it comes to understanding people. In both our personal and professional lives, we come across countless individuals. In fact, poverty is one of the factors that can impact a person’s veneer, and it’s important to look beyond that exterior. As a teacher, it’s essential to see beyond a student’s persona and discern their true nature or Vritti. With time, we develop the ability to identify people’s temperament, even if they may come across as brash or sweet. Everyone has a unique personality, and it’s not about judging them, but understanding them. It’s important to identify a person’s strengths and weaknesses and encourage them to do what they are good at.

Although I used to work on big group productions before, I now prefer small presentations with a maximum of five dancers. When working with dancers, I am cautious to utilize their inherent abilities instead of imposing unrealistic expectations on them. I believe it’s essential to strike a balance between identifying a person’s potential and not forcing them to do something they are not good at. Therefore, both discernment and respecting a person’s inherent abilities are equally important.

How can the world of dance give a message to the corporate world?

I think there’s a fundamental issue at play here. Many people who choose to pursue a lifetime in the arts do so because of an intense love for their craft. They are driven by a deep passion and a single-minded dedication to their art. However, in this context, I believe that for the most part, people are pursuing their work as a means of making a living. While they may not be as passionate about their work as some artists, they are still committed to doing their job well so that they can support themselves and their families. Consequently, that intense sense of passion and immersion may be lacking in some cases, but it’s not their fault. The system is not designed to foster passion, but rather to maximize productivity. This makes it challenging to recreate that passion unless you are working with a small group of like-minded individuals who are all pioneers in their field. The pioneers who create the concept and the blueprint for the idea will likely be the most passionate about it, as they are driven by that same artistic passion. However, those who follow in their footsteps may not share the same level of passion or dedication to the craft.

A leader must not be patronizing or condescending because that will not inspire anybody to follow. The attitude should be one of sharing, offering the idea with conviction but without appearing superior.

What is your take on having innovation while keeping fundamentals strong?

Firstly, I believe that having strong fundamentals is crucial, as you mentioned. It’s like building a fancy building on a weak foundation — innovation won’t be effective without a strong foundation. Once the building blocks are strong, whatever you create will have depth to it, whether it’s a traditional or innovative approach. It’s important to have a deep understanding of your subject matter, as half-baked knowledge can hinder the success of innovation or experimentation. You must know the original context and basic fundamental units of your art form. When innovating, it’s important to understand the basic principles of your type of art form. For instance, Indian art relies on the audience’s understanding of the piece, as the immersive experience cannot be fully appreciated without comprehension. In Western aesthetics, the audience is invited to be a viewer, whereas in Indian art, the audience is invited to be a participant. Thus, creating innovation or tradition that is easily understood is crucial. I don’t have an issue with creating or innovating and never stuck to any particular format or module of dancing. My only concern is communicating my idea effectively and whether it creates thought or enjoyment in the audience. It’s up to each individual artist to decide what is important to them.

Can you tell us about a time when someone was inspired or provoked by your work and used it as inspiration for their own creative endeavours?

Even if you’re not inspired, did seeing me do something give you that moment of, “Oh, this is nice, this is really beautiful” or “I didn’t think of it this way?” If I can create those few moments, I think my work is done. The rest, I don’t care. I mean, you’re doing whatever style you’re doing, whatever you’re doing, but one thing I know for sure is that if your fundamentals are not correct, you cannot create. It goes without saying that the fundamentals have to be strong.

How do we strike a balance between boundarilessness and boundaries?

There is a lot of boundarylessness, but at the same time it needs to be within a boundary. When you do imagine a scene, when you’re creating, you’re taking a line of literature, and you’re working on it. Then you’re creating images and you’re making that picture a little clearer and also ornamenting the picture. But ultimately, once the picture is made, once you’ve dabbled with everything, you have to put a frame to it. Without the frame, you feel that there is no ending? The whole idea, and I think that frame is important. You know, many people will not agree with me, they’ll say why can’t you just go on stretching? Stretching? Why do you need a frame to it? But then, the more it stretches without a frame, the lesser the people will understand.

What is one story that connects everything for you and you are proud to talk about?

I don’t know about a story. But for me, the one thing that connects the younger me to them, to the teenager, me to the T’s, the 20s, 30s, 40s and now 50, in an uninterrupted line, has been literature. It has been literature of different languages. And that only drew me into, you know, doing a PhD also on literary aspects through which I met my master who helped me with my Annamacharya work, who led me to the whole process of understanding how to interpret literature, looking at the subtextual literature, looking at the possibilities in literature. This is my uninterrupted story. This is something I’ve always been doing. At a stage when I didn’t understand anything I was doing, to the stage where I started understanding a little more and a little more, and I’m nowhere near understanding it completely. But the process is like this is a continuous process for me. So, this is my thread. I don’t have a story, but I have a thread.

Anupama Kylash

Anupama Kylash,

Businesswoman | Classical Dancer, Senior practitioner – Kuchipudi and Vilasini Natyam, Researcher and Academic

Anupama Kylash is a renowned Indian dancer and choreographer known for her expertise in Vilasini Natyam and Kuchipudi dance styles. She began her dance journey with Bharatanatyam under the guidance of Guru Jayalakshmi Narayanan, later advancing her skills in Kuchipudi under Guru Uma Rama Rao and Vilasini Natyam under Padma Bhushan awardee Swapna Sundari. Anupama earned her Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. in Dance from prestigious universities in Hyderabad. She has performed in various national and international dance festivals and also teaches the Masters Program in Kuchipudi at the University of Silicon Andhra. Anupama has also authored content for the Kuchipudi dance style syllabus for the Central Board of Secondary Education and curates ‘The Thinking Cap Series’ for promoting research and interaction in fine and performing arts.

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