10 Years In The Making

Introducing to you, Performing Artist, Dance Educator, Researcher, Student, Founder & Director, Natyaloka School of Indian Dance, Swaroopa Unni.

When asked if she could take a walk back to the last ten years and document what a decade resembled to establish as a Performing Artist, that’s where our journey began. In south India, growing up in the city of spices, Swaroopa was surrounded by dance and music. At the tender age of four, she walked into the world of dance and since then, her life has never stayed the same. 

A sea-change to Dunedin, New Zealand in 2010 brought in the most immeasurable transformation within herself. Swaroopa was determined to establish herself as a Performing Artist in New Zealand. For this, she worked tirelessly to discover herself, her art, and her growth was in the making. In this passage, she founded the first and only Indian dance school in Otago that trains in Bharatanatyam. 

With over 20 years of expertise in Indian classical dance, Swaroopa is a trained Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, Folk, and Kathak dancer. She has collaborated with musicians from India, Hip-Hop Artists, Taonga Pūoro artists, and Taiko drums percussion artists from New Zealand and many more. It’s worth noting, she has started learning Māori.

In a span of ten years, Swaroopa has not only built awareness of south India’s distinct art forms in New Zealand but also made herself a part of the Dunedin community, making it her home and flourishing here as an Artist and teaching dance to a new generation of artists. No wonder, she was acknowledged as “Our Women: 125 of Dunedin’s Extraordinary Women” in the Otago Museum’s exhibition marking the 125th year of suffrage in New Zealand. Swaroopa is brilliant and inspiring, and she is a woman to watch out for. Let’s find out how aspiring to own her own chocolate factory ended by founding her own dance school.

Let’s find out how aspiring to own her chocolate factory resulted in founding her dance school. Joining us in Conversation is Swaroopa Unni,
Performing Artist, an Indian classical & contemporary dancer and choreographer, Otago, New Zealand. 

A conversation with Chippy & Swaroopa Unni,
Founder, and Director, Natyaloka School of Indian Dance, Otago, New Zealand. 

CKC ———–How are you, Swaroopa? You are an artist, was a full-time employee, and now a mother too. First, how is motherhood treating you? 
SUGreat. Thank you and we are all doing great. Yes, I am a mother now. Yes. Life-changing, yes . My daughter’s name is Nakshathra. Once the pandemic hit New Zealand, I knew it would be a different scenario. We will have to handle everything ourselves and we continued to do so. 
CKCIt must have been hard on you. How did you manage to balance it all? 
SUPandemic and a baby and life in lockdown in New Zealand were challenging. During the initial few months, it was overwhelming. I missed the warmth and support of my family who couldn’t be with us. But at the same time, I also realise that we are very lucky to be alive and well. Nakshathra’s grandma’s and pa’s have not met her yet. But video chats have helped us connect with each other. So basically we are all living in an online community for now. 
CKCGlad to know you are adjusting to a new life altogether.
SUMy wish is for life to go back to normal. Back to how things were. We all managed to balance it all well. But I cannot wait to have our lives back to normal. 
CKCWish the same. Let’s start. If I ask you ‘who is Swaroopa?’ How will you define yourself? 
SUIn a nutshell, ‘Performing Artist’. I am an Artist, Dance Educator, Dance researcher, a Dance student, a part-time employee, and now, a mother. That’s me. These define me. Also, I am the Founder and Director of Natyaloka School of Indian Dance which is the only Indian dance school here in Otago Region and I teach Bharatanatyam.

I have also become an Artist in Residence with a few major schools in Dunedin And, I am also a dance student, who is continuing to learn dance in-depth and building myself as a Performing Artist as much as possible. Learning never stops. I am currently training under Dr Rajashree Warrier and Nrithya Pillai for Bharatanatyam and Guru Nirmala Panicker for Mohiniyattam. I am also learning Marga Nritta Karanas with Vithya Arasu. 
CKCQuite an impressive resume. How did this all happen? Take me through your life. From the beginning.
SUI grew up in Kerala. To be specific in Kozhikode, South India. My whole life, childhood, and schooling until under graduation were all there. My family still lives there. 
CKCWhen did dance enter your life?
SUIn my family there was a tradition where when we turned 4 years old, we were introduced to dance and music education. I did my ‘Arangetram’ when I was 9 years old and started Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi thereafter. I was trained in Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi at Nrithyalaya School of Indian Classical Dance run by the renowned and beautiful artist Kalamandalam Saraswathi. For the first five years in that dance school I trained under Kalamandalam Vinodhini and later trained under Kalamandalam Saraswathi herself.

I continued as a student and an artist in the performance troupe until I turned 20 years old with a lot of love and dedication. During my school years,I was also trained in folk dance by the wonderful Job Master from Thrissur. Then, I had to move to Coimbatore for post-graduation and for 2 years I had to discontinue.  Those two years without dance were quite challenging for me.
CKCGrowing up, what did you want to be? Did you have any aspirations?
SUAs I was growing up, I had different ideas.  Oh! My first dream job ‘I wanted to own a Chocolate Factory’.  That was when I was in my 5th grade. My thought was ‘if I had my factory, I would never have to ask anyone to get me chocolates’, I could have as much as I wanted and as much as I pleased. Anytime, All the time, Chocolate for me.
CKCThat’s not a bad dream. For a ten year old you were thinking very logically. Kudos to you. Then what happened?
SUDoctor. I wanted to be a doctor but that phase got over when I reached high school. Later, I was fascinated by history and then I thought maybe I should be an Archeologist. I was a good student but had difficulties with science, especially Physics, Chemistry, and also Math. The options were simple after 10th grade. For Pre-Degree, choose the first group, you will become an Engineer, choose the second and you will find your way to become a Doctor. So when the time came to choose a track to the future, even though I loved Biology I did not prefer it and was sure I didn’t want to do Engineering, so opted out of that as well. I was very very sure about what I didn’t want. So the question was what next? 

And guess what? All through my school years I was involved in dance competitions, mostly group competitions. The only time I went for solo competitions was when I was in Grade 10 for which I won prizes at State Level competition. And you know how competitions are a huge part of our school lives in Kerala. I was moulded as an artist by all those experiences too.
CKCWhat next? 
SUThose times there were not many options to choose from among courses in Kerala . So if not first and second, the only other option was the third group. It was a mishmash of a lot of subjects. People presume it is taken by those who are below average in studies and if you didn’t get through the 1 and 2 and it was your last and only option. 

I had great grades and I remember my friend’s parents advising me ‘why are you wasting time with the third group. It’s your future, and if you choose any of the other options you can either become a doctor or at least an engineer. And you will get solid and stable job opportunities with it’. Stable income, that’s what you should aim for, that was what was engraved in our brains those times. 

After two years of Pre-Degree I chose B.Com for undergraduate studies, and then I planned to go for an MBA. That was the pathway set, by whom I don’t know, but it was the way forward and I thought I will do so.
CKCI have heard college life in Kerala is exciting for students who are artists. How was it for you? 
SUEven though I was a Commerce student, dance was my only subject during my college days. To be frank, I was always dancing. In an academic year, if it starts in June, I get out of the class by the end of July or by August and it’s then dancing practice for university competitions. There were so many competitions around the clock, and I was just prepping one after the other. Inter-collegiate, University-based competitions, independent competitions, and then representing the college. By the time we get back to class, it will be December. The college always understood that ‘I am away with practice or competition representing the college.’ Then came College Union Elections and I was elected the Fine Arts Secretary during my final year. 

We never had semester-based exams, it was just one final exam that happened at the end of the academic year . We had sufficient study leave, so it never affected my studies. It was easy and tension-free. I juggled my dance classes, performances and all college events with a lot of happiness. I didn’t want anything more.  
CKCWhat is the next step? As planned an MBA? 
SUDuring B.Com, I got introduced to the world of media. I managed to do a number of anchoring stints. I handled and anchored TV Shows and also Live shows as well. I don’t know where I got the courage, not sure if I will do it now but I did it those days. So I thought maybe Media Studies is a good option,  so with my limited knowledge I felt maybe Mass Communication could be a great path ahead.
CKCThat’s how you landed in Coimbatore.
SUYes, I joined for a Master of Arts in Mass Communication. I could not continue my dance. It was rough two years without what I always had, dance. I missed dancing, I could not practice and life was quite dull. 
CKCSo now you’re heading for a career in Media.
SUYes. After graduation, I moved to Bangalore. There I worked for Indian Express & later with Bangalore Mirror. But I couldn’t live without dance. So I joined a new dance school in Bangalore – Abhinava. I learned Kathak under another renowned artist couple Nirupama-Rajendra. I was part of the Abhinava Dance Company, and toured across the country. There, I was trained in handling different aspects of being a professional dancer. 
CKCAll these while you never had thought of dance as a career.
SUIt was never in my radar. College And dance schools nurtured my artistic drive within me. But the fact there is no career in dance was always blocking myself from pursuing or even thinking about a career in dance. So I believe, I also went behind a stable career like everyone else.
CKC ———–So now your life is in Bangalore as a Copy Editor. How and when did your life shift to New Zealand? What prompted that move?
SUSiddharth. We met during my postgraduate days. After our graduation, we both took up jobs. Siddharth moved to Chennai and me to Bangalore. It was a long-distance relationship for a long time. Siddharth always wanted to work with wildlife and was passionate about natural history filmmaking. So he decided to do further studies, either at Otago University or in the USA. We got married in 2009. By then Siddharth was accepted to Otago University, he came here first, and I followed.
CKCWow. Love makes things happen. Now, you are in an entirely different county, how were the initial days settling? 
SUIn 2010, I moved to New Zealand. I am in a city called Dunedin in the South island. Beautiful city, the architecture and cultural heritage is absolutely wonderful. But super cold! I felt that Dunedin was completely cut-off from the rest of the world, amazingly isolated. In the first few months, I loved it here. So calm, peaceful, and serene. 

Then slowly loneliness creeps in. Before it dragged me down, I made sure I pushed myself, so I started to build my life here, and after giving a lot of thought, I aspired to establish myself as an Artist. I made myself what I am today with my dance. I made my life here with my dance. It’s the truth.
CKCHow did you build yourself?  Dance was never in your vision. How did you decide this is what you wanted to do in life? 
SUI never had ambition as such, I didn’t have one and if I had, it kept changing, it’s only after I moved to New Zealand that I knew I wanted to do something with dance. But what? As I was figuring it out I realised, all this while I have been dancing, and I never thought much about pursuing a career in dance because dance is never a stable career.  I thought to myself, ‘I am not sure how but I want to establish myself as an Artist’
CKCEstablishing yourself as an ARTIST, how did that go? How challenging was it? 
SUWhen I came here, it was a huge culture shock. It’s a student town.  And people of my cultural background were hardly here. There were about ten families among the Dunedin residents that were my people. In the University nearby there were students from different cultural backgrounds but they were cut off from the actual community.

Once I had a clarity on what I wanted, I reached out to the Dunedin community, and there were some wonderful artists. I would go and introduce myself as a Bharatanatyam Dancer and people didn’t understand what Bharatanatyam is. For them, Indian dance means Bollywood dance. So I was always perceived as a Bollywood dancer.
CKCOh! That’s hard. Must have been had to handle.
Initially, I used to be disturbed by this assumption. Then I thought, ‘Bollywood dancing is also a style of Indian dance and it’s a lot of fun. So, I will choose this route and take on Bollywood dancing and see where I go.’ The dance community here was very helpful and they invited me to perform for them. During one such performance, I introduced myself and opened my routine with Bollywood dance and ended with Bharatanatyam. I planned in a way they can see the difference and the similarities  in the two dance forms. I always explain in the beginning that ‘I am going to do a mix of two styles and start with Bollywood and end with Bharatanatyam, which is a south Indian dance form.’ I will explain the meaning of my performance. Then they see there is a different dance form.  That’s how I started breaking into the wider Dunedin community.

Later, I started giving volunteer dance workshops. Again, people expect Bollywood dance,  so I start with a two-minute Bollywood dance and move on to Bharatanatyam and end with  exploring hand gestures in Bharatanatyam. Slowly people realised and accepted that there is another dance from India that I practice apart from Bollywood. So now, my art reached out to more people.
CKCIs that the beginning of your school?
SUYou may say so. It was not intended, so a few parents from the South Asian community approached me and asked if they could send their kids to dance class. Initially I didn’t think much about starting a school. I wanted to be an artist more than be a teacher. To be a dance educator  is a huge responsibility. But then everyone insisted and I thought I will give it a try. 

In October 2011, I founded my own dance school called Natyaloka School of Indian Classical Dance. I started dance lessons in a spare room in my apartment with eight students.  
CKCIt’s 2021. This is huge, you just crossed ten years.
SUYes, and for our tenth anniversary we celebrated by being part of Dunedin Arts Festival. Today, Natyaloka is a multicultural dance school. Over time, I moved into my own dance studio. 

For the many parents, sending kids to my class  was a way to connect to their roots, and culture and for those students who are not from a South Asian heritage it is pure appreciation of the dance form and wanting to know more.
CKCNow your school is open, how are you succeeding as an artist?
SUIn 2012, I did my first solo performance for the Dunedin Fringe Festival. Siddharth did my light and sound design for the show.  I worked hard on publicity work. As part of the promotion, I went around and did a lot of push to promote my show. At the volunteer workshops, I gave my details about my upcoming performance and also did door to door campaigns. I was the only South Asian artist, a brown artist, a minority artist in the Festival.

I understood, there was quite a lot of curiosity but I was not sure how many people would turn up. We sold 10 tickets via online sales and a handful of complimentary tickets were handed out. I said to myself, ‘it’s alright, 10 is good. THIS IS IT.’ I was happy but then came the heavy downpour. I thought, ‘Now the chances of the 10 confirmed are also in question.’ I would be really at peace if they turned up. My heart beat was audible to everyone around me. I was nervous. 

Suddenly I saw Siddharth rushing and coming to the green room, ‘did the organisers cancel my show because of no turn out?’ I asked him. He said, ‘no, we have a problem, we have to turn people away. The hall is full and I am trying to find seating for a few more people who have come till now.’

It was a small theatre, it could only accommodate 80 people. ‘All seats are taken. I managed to add a few more chairs, also convert the passage and the steps as seats and now the theatre is filled,’ Siddharth told me.  Somehow we managed to get some extra chairs and we managed to squeeze in more people and the rest we had to turn away. It felt bad but we didn’t have any other option. All came and were curious to know what this is. I did Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi together. People did not realise the difference. That day I decided I will concentrate on one dance form. And I chose to focus on Bharatanatyam. 
CKCThe fringe festival changed your life around. 
SUYes, it helped me create an identity as an Artist in Dunedin. 
CKCWho are your students?
SUIt’s a multicultural classroom of  students from the age of five onwards. Age has no limit. Apart from the Indian community, some of my dancers are French, Irish, British, Americans, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, People of Indian Origin, from South Africa, Malaysia, & Fiji who have never been to India. Some join to connect to their roots, for some it is only now that they got a chance to learn the dance form, for some it is about being part of a creative community, for some it is a celebration of physical movements. So many different reasons but the link is DANCE.  
CKCAge is not a barrier.
SUYoungest student I have just turned five years old, and the oldest is above sixty. Natyaloka is a safe space for anyone who wants to learn dance in depth and be who they are without any inhibitions.
CKC ———–Dance School is open during weekends only.
SUYes, only weekends. I do take during weekdays when I can squeeze in some time for some classes. 
CKCDay Job. All these 10 years you had worked a day job. 
SUPerforming Artistry is never a solid career, and dance is an expensive medium of art. So I knew I had to have another job to sustain my dance. So I let a stable income come from a day  job to establish myself as an artist. 

I worked full time for 5 years so I can freely do my dance. Even though I was successful in getting grants from funding bodies, to sustain as an artist, you have to have a job here. Especially my kind of artistry. Another point is that Indian dancing is very expensive. From music to costumes to jewellery and apart from that, when you are planning a performance, you have to also foot in money for finding and hiring the venue, the stage, the lighting, the equipment, the sound system, everything you have to fund. So a job helps me with some sort of back up. Also helps pay my bills.

After having Nakshathra, I started with a new part-time job. It’s a lot of balance, you have to do as an artist, especially when you don’t have many opportunities, as well. Paid performances are null. Being in Dunedin, you have to hustle all the time. If Artist Residencies are available, I will apply for that. If there are paid performance opportunities or workshop opportunities or there are dance festivals, I apply for them as well. That’s how I sustain my career here.
CKCIt’s not easy being a performing Artist.
SUNot at all. Not anywhere and especially in Dunedin. And during these pandemic times it’s not at all easy. At times it sure is frustrating in a lot of ways because there are not many opportunities.  Being a niche artist myself and trying to be part of the New Zealand mainstream dance platform, it is a lot of work but something that I am determined about. You have to understand that not many people do this, because it is very hard to get into, to sustain the audience and also to push the audience to come out of their comfort zone and watch me. So I have to get out and get talking and invest time to network. Out of all this, I find networking the hardest to do. 
CKCWas there anyone who encouraged, supported and, cheered for you?  
SUInitial years, I shamelessly used to knock on doors for opportunities. And one of those doors was opened by Alison East – a scholar, educator and a trail blazer! She just took me under her wings and has been absolutely amazing. She is there for all my dance projects – supporting and cheering. Lisa Wilkinson who gave me my first performance opportunity along with her and a few of our peers. I also taught Bollywood at her dance school for 5 years. My first teaching gig! Kathryn Olcott who included me in all dance projects and performances that she organised.

So many from the creative community in Dunedin and the wider Dunedin local community as well who always turn up with a lot of goodwill and support. Grateful to all of them. My students, who push me to be a better person and an artist. My family back home, my parents, my brother, especially my mother. From my childhood, taking me to every dance lesson after school to being always there with her silent support at every performance. She has been my strength. Also friends, my Gurus, my fellow artists from all over the world and Siddharth who always asks me questions so I dig in more into my practice. 
CKCWhere did you get the courage to knock and seek? 
SUMy upbringing was such that ‘if you want something you should approach, you should go for it. No-one else will do this for you, so you should do it by yourself.’ My dad is a go getter and I think I am inspired by his attitude and his style of making things work for him, I think I definitely am inspired by him. To go out, ask and look for opportunities.
CKCPure push from your side.
SUOh yeah. Constantly pushing is exhausting to be frank. I am from Dunedin and most of the mainstream dance projects happen in Auckland and Wellington. So unless I push myself, I am not part of anything. I know that now, being part of the online world and globally connecting with dance is the thing. But I am not ready to explore that yet.  
CKCHave you collaborated with other Artists? 
SUYes, I have worked with Sandeep Pillai and Jyolsna Panicker , renowned musicians from India, collaborated with Taonga Pūoro* artists from Dunedin, with Lisa Wilkinson (Hip Hop/Contemporary dance artist), with O-Taiko, a group of percussion artists who play Taiko drums and so many more. 

*Taonga pūoro are the traditional musical instruments of the Māori people of New Zealand
CKCI believe you are leaning a new language now.
SUTe reo Māori. Yes, I am a basic learner, Te reo Māori is the native language and one of the official languages in New Zealand. I am learning the language to know more about the history of this land that I am living in.  
CKCWhat is ahead for you?  Your future.
SUI am influenced by what I see/hear/feel around me. I want to humanise my dance form. Perform stories about socio-political and cultural issues that we face. Explore more feminist stories using my movements. There is this belief that we have to use contemporary dance movements to convey these stories. No. I want to use Bharatanatyam or Mohiniyattam vocabulary to dance these stories with the help of spoken words. I would like to tour with my solo dance theatre Ātete – Resistance in New Zealand and in India and anywhere else globally. I want to continue learning my dance forms more in-depth. 
CKCYou said you want to humanise the dance form. How do you achieve it?
SUMost of the Indian dance forms that we see now have a very complex history. It is a product of nationalist, colonialist, patriarchal ideologies that were used to marginalise the traditional dancing communities of women. A history riddled with caste and class injustices. Learning that history itself has been a huge eye opener for me. From then on, I have been on a quest to dispel the myth that our dance and the dancer are these really traditional, pure, divine women who dances only in the name of God, Sanskritised books and Bhakti.

Personally, I want to humanise the dance form and bring it back to a level where the audience can actually interact and not see us as Goddesses. I want to negotiate that space of being part of a mythology or a certain kind of woman – an ideal woman – the docile woman who follows patriarchal or casteist rules . Being a woman myself, I can embody the women’s’ stories.
CKC ———–How do you handle criticism? 
SUI always try to take what I would like to improve in my craft from the reviews which can be verbal or written. I am all for constructive criticism. You need that constructive feedback to learn and grow. Negative feedback for the sake of negativity can be ignored but it’s hard not to notice. We tend to hang on to it, right? There were negative criticisms that were directed towards me about establishing myself as an artist here, patronising, doubting if I will make it, for sharing more about the complex history of the dance forms, but those kinds of criticisms can actually fuel our ambitions.
CKCHave you thought of moving away from Dunedin to pursue and for better opportunities?
SUI have thought about it a lot of times. At the same time, I know I have worked so hard to build my identity here, to create a name for myself, here in Dunedin. And to leave all of that and go one day. I am finding it hard to come to terms with. I don’t know if it will ever happen. Then, one may never say never. 
CKCSpeaking of children, what are your dreams and hopes for Nakshatra? 
SUI will let my daughter be what she wants to be. I will definitely give her a taste of all things possible, like arts, music, writing, sports and more.  And let her choose what she wants to pursue. She loves dance, I know that. She has sat throughout my dance school programs and she has enjoyed it without crying or sleeping. But who knows.
CKCShe has one more person to look up to.
SUSiddharth, yes for sure she can go that way too. He is a Producer now, he is involved in creating and producing works for channels like NATGEO, and Discovery. He makes her watch all these documentaries on nature, wildlife and he shows her all the animals and I have noticed she is keen. 
CKCOne last question. What will you tell your 18 year self? 
SUI would tell her to place her passion of being an artist in front, even though it’s a struggle, it’s satisfying. The satisfaction you get from dancing, the adrenaline rush you get from doing a performance,  learning a dance, sharing your knowledge about dance, or learning under more just go ahead and do it. There were a lot of inhibitions that I had, and also had this self doubt within me that I don’t have that much talent. Do I have the talent to teach dance? I will tell my younger self, ‘don’t doubt yourself and just go for it’.
CKCWell said. You said you prefer a live audience. Everything is online now. Right?
SUThat’s true. I want the audience to interact with my art in close proximity and that is very important for me. I thrive as an artist from that connection with the audience. And yes, for me it makes a big difference. But the last 18 months and the foreseeable future online performing is life. Having a baby during pandemic has kept me a bit busy as a mother and I am currently in pursuit to enter the online platform. I have started reaching out and I am also keeping my fingers crossed. Hopefully, next year we will learn to live with this virus and live performances will also come back to popularity. 
CKCI wish and hope for life to go back to normal. Hope you will soon be in front of a live audience too. Thankyou for sharing your incredible journey. You are truly inspiring, encouraging and amazing.
SUMy pleasure! Chippy, this has been wonderful. Look forward to a better future for all. 
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