Kalaanjali dancers will showcase Indian culture at International Festival 2021

Meenakshi Ganesan

“Knowing there is diversity in our community and giving people a taste of diverse performances, food, artwork and local businesses is a fantastic educational experience.”

When Meenakshi Ganesan first arrived in Madison from Mumbai, India, 20 years ago, she and her husband attended International Festival, then held at the Civic Center. The moment she saw the variety of cultures, she fell in love with the festival.

“International Festival has a special place in my heart,” she explains. “The amount of culture and richness that comes together under one roof is amazing.”

Ganesan is the artistic director of Kalaanjali, LLC, a dance and music school she founded in Madison in 2003. She offers training in Bharathanatyam, an ancient dance form from Southern India that blends eye movement, hand rhythms and footwork set to classic Indian music.

Ganesan and students from Kalaanjali participated for the first time at Overture Center’s International Festival in 2011, and they’ve returned every year since. The dance group has also performed many times at Kids in the Rotunda.

“International Festival is one of our favorite festivals to perform in,” said Ganesan.

Ganesan has been dancing since age 6, learning the art of Bharathanatyam from Guru Smt. Prema Nagasundaram, her aunt, and Guru Padmini Radhakrishnan, whom she continues to train with today. By age 11, she was an assistant teacher at her aunt’s dance studio. She has participated in more than 2,000 performances around the world.

“Dancing is part of my soul,” she said.

Ganesan came to the US through an arranged marriage in 2001. When her parents sought her husband, Ganesan requested one who would let her continue to dance and perform. When she met Arvind Ganesan, her then prospective husband, she told him she wanted to have her own studio someday, which would mean working evenings and weekends. He was supportive of her dream.

Once settled in Madison, Ganesan began performing Indian dances at local events in Madison and the Fox Valley. Parents who saw her dance asked if she would give their children lessons as a way to keep them connected to their Indian roots.

Ganesan started with a couple of students on a volunteer basis, then founded Kalaanjali, LLC. Her students range from 4-year-olds to adults. Lessons begin with learning basic steps, then various expressions are added to emote feelings and convey stories.

Many of the songs and dances praise Hinduism gods and goddesses. For example, a dance may worship Shakti, the personification of strength, a mother and protector. The moves address her lustrous, healthy hair, her jewelry, her grace, and how she protects her children and destroys evil.

“From Shakti, we learn what women are capable of, and this is beautifully expressed in a dance,” said Ganesan.

Performing artists at the annual International Festival are allotted 25-minute segments on stage. Each year, Ganesan performs a solo as well as group dances with her advanced students. The dancing is physically demanding, requiring rhythm and stamina to dance nonstop for that amount of time.

Managing a dance studio and performing, while working full-time as an account manager at Drake & Company Staffing Solutions and raising her family, can be challenging. But Ganesan finds great satisfaction when her students take on a personal passion for dancing.

“I love being able to transfer my Indian culture to the next generation,” she said.

The Wisconsin Arts Board has provided Ganesan with the Folks Art Apprenticeship Grant as a Master Artist in Bharatanatym since 2015. She takes on dedicated students as apprentices each year and presents a grand recital with live musicians, just as it is done in India.

Ganesan’s dance lessons and performances went virtual last March when gathering in-person was prohibited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, she says her studio has done more recitals than ever before.

Ganesan is the curator of a Facebook dance page, NatyAkademi, that provides dance opportunities for aspiring dancers around the globe and has hosted 100-plus live dance recitals. Ganesan and her students have performed more than 40 virtual recitals for various organizations during the pandemic. She and her team of creative parent volunteers have set up her basement studio with black curtains, lighting and a stage for the recitals.

Dance preparations begin with creating the choreography, followed by 10-20 hours of practice. For younger students, it takes three months to learn a song. Applying make-up and getting into costume for a performance usually takes two hours.

Ganesan is happy that Overture is going forward with a virtual International Festival this month and finding a way to bring artists and the community together, and she is thrilled to participate and help people learn about her Indian culture.

“Knowing there is diversity in our community and giving people a taste of diverse performances, food, artwork and local businesses is a fantastic educational experience,” she said. “Those who go to International Festival get a dose of the arts, culture and beauty and gain pride in their culture.”

For Kalaanjali’s virtual performance, Ganesan recorded each dancer individually in her studio, and a team of talented parents merged the recordings together. Ganesan and four dancers present an opening piece and then seven dancers perform a song, praising the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, a remover of obstacles.

“My students and I really look forward to International Festival,” said Ganesan. “We always create a unique production and premiere it at the festival. We hope our dances will bring audiences joy during this unusual time.”

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