ONE of the pioneers of WA’s multicultural arts community, whose story has links to famed ballerina Anna Pavlova and the rescue of an entire artform, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of teaching classical Indian dancing in Western Australia.
Jayalakshimi Raman was a founding member of the North Perth Ethnic Music Centre in 1983, known in later years as Kulcha, and is one of the few remaining exponents of the Bharatanatyam dance form to have been mentored by Indian legend Rukmini Devi Arundale.
Arundale played a crucial role in rescuing Bharatanatyam after it was banned by British colonisers in 1910; a fateful railway trip sparking a long friendship with the Russian Pavlova, who dissuaded her from taking up ballet and to look into India’s classical dance instead.
A centuries-old spiritual dance which had flourished in Hindu temples in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Bharatanatyam had drifted towards eroticism in the Indian courts, which prompted the British to characterise its female dancers as harlots and ban all temple dancing.
Arundale and a handful of others resurrected its more traditional form and she founded the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai in 1936, now officially recognised as an “Institute of National Importance” for its cultivation of Indian art and culture.
Singaporean-born Ms Raman had travelled to Chennai in the early 1960s to study under Arundale, becoming the first person from her country to graduate from Kalakshetra.
She returned home in 1967 and spent a decade teaching classical Indian dance as well as performing it on local radio and television, Arundale having ensured her dancers were also proficient at singing the ancient songs as well.
By the late 1970s Perth had a small Indian population, which led to her long connection with this state.
“There was a small group and they asked me to do a concert for Telethon,” Ms Raman said.
“So I came down for the concert and did a short piece of the dance on telly.
“My sister was living here and she said there was not much Indian culture, and they didn’t want to lose any more, so I came here through the Tamil Association of Western Australia.”
She says the effects of the White Australia Policy were still noticeable when she arrived, while ignorance about Indian culture was rife.
“A lot of people kept asking me if I was bleeding from the forehead,” she says of her traditional bindi, which in Hinduism represents the opening of the ‘third eye’.
“People always asked if I was Aboriginal, because the costume confused them,” Ms Raman said.
There was virtually no funding for multicultural events, but Perth’s immigrant population was growing so Ms Raman and her musician husband Raman Kuppusamy banded together with others they’d met at the odd event and formed the North Perth Ethnic Music Centre.
She says these days it’s fabulous to see so many cultures represented in Perth, particularly its restaurants, but she still has another misconception about Indian culture to contend with: Bollywood.
The razzmatazz movies dominate Indian popular culture and are one of its most successful exports, and Ms Raman says when people hear she’s putting on a concert it’s what they’re often expecting.
But there’s a big difference; classical Indian dance follows strict patterns of movement, usually symmetrical forms of triangles and straight lines, while the dancers tap out rhythms with their feet. Bharatanatyam is also about feeding the soul, while Bollywood is about feeding an audience with… well, almost anything goes.
Ms Raman established the Kalaivani School of Indian Classical Arts in 1983, the state’s first school of its kind, initially in Willeton but following the death of her husband, her children suggested something closer to home and she now has a small studio in Morley.
Kalaivani will be celebrating its 40th milestone with the dance and music performance Nritya Mala at Penrhos College in Como on Saturday October 14.
Ms Raman said it will feature around 30 performers, including some who were lured to the eastern states to pursue their careers but are flying back to pay their respects.
Another interesting aspect of the performance is that Ms Raman will be reprising her role as a singer, having been forced to train up her own band of musicians when Covid saw the state’s borders shut. She says she was surprised by the depth of talent locally, though many juggle full-time jobs such as their male singer who is a doctor, or their fly-in, fly-out engineering flautist.
by STEVE GRANT