Introducing to you, Sruthi Mohan,
Curator, Creator, Producer, Performer, Student & Teacher, Founder & Creative Director, Tat Tvam Asi, Austin, Texas.
Her mother held her hand at the age of three as she walked into the world of classical dance and music. Her mother was her guiding star and her inspiration. She was a dreamer who had once carved her dream world and her life was built around her dreams. She was a performer, and says, ‘I literally grew up on stage.’ Her first win was a consolation prize and it paved the way for her entry into competitive festivals and performances.
Sruthi grew up in Abu Dhabi, had a memorable and exciting childhood. She moved to the U.S. and her life changed. The dreamer landed into a reality that changed the course of her life. She was an easy-go spirit, and she went along the flow, and made her life what she wanted. She fashioned her life to make it better for her. Sruthi was blessed to have many gurus, mentors, and supporters who shaped her path, helped her carve her niche, and influenced and supported her to be herself.
‘All I wanted was to see a live performance of my favorite artist’, which led to her accidental entry into entrepreneurship as a Show Producer which led to the beginning of Tat Tvam Asi. At Tat Tvam Asi, she does more than program a season. She spots raw talent, develops and shapes careers, identifies trends, and creates context around what artists are presenting. She started by curating a show, then this led to organising master classes and then that led to the dancer’s retreat series which was organised twice a year pre-covid and now Sruthi is working on digital platform with artists from around the globe.
One fact that Sruthi firmly believed in is the art of giving, which her parents instilled in her. ‘Whatever Tat Tvam Asi makes, go back to the Tat Tvam Asi community’. She believes in the power of giving and her twelve-year break from work due to a visa restriction shaped her life around the concept of giving and giving back to the community wholeheartedly. These years serving society shaped her future and made her who she is today, a woman truly inspiring.
Learn more on Sruthi’s childhood, her love for dance, her forever path to a life of giving and her journey towards the making of Tat Tvam Asi and all in a life she never ever imagined.
A conversation with Chippy & Sruthi Mohan, Founder, and Creative Director, Tat Tvam Asi, Austin Texas, The U.S.
|CKC———-||I am excited and it’s so good to finally see the face behind the name.|
|SM||It is true! So good to see you! We did for the last two years live in an online bubble without meeting in person and am sure we are going to continue interacting with people virtually for sometime till the pandemic settles down. Having said that, personally, I have used this time to introspect and reflect on life.|
|CKC||Covid has brought us a lot closer than before with people whom we otherwise would never have met. Like you and me.|
|SM||Absolutely. I feel it also gave us a space to sort through all the noise that was out there and made us sit down and think about what you really want to do with life, who do you want to hang out with and somehow I feel the right people arrived at the right time. That was one positive outcome in the last two years due to the lockdown. Online interactions let us meet a lot of people who otherwise we would never have met.|
|CKC||True. Now tell me, who is Sruthi?|
|SM||Chippy, I don’t know… Who am I? I am still in search of that answer. I read a lot. I am a dreamer, I understand dystopia and yet I am someone who likes to live in my own utopia. I feel I am very attracted to people who are giving. In everything I do I try to think of how I can give back. I’ve practiced this philosophy very consciously with every aspect of any work I have undertaken. I have always centered my work around building community. Even with dance. If you look at what I have done in the last 10 years, it’s not been about my performances, it’s been about building community and giving back to dance and that’s given joy and a deep sense of peace.|
|CKC||So you live in your own curated dreamland.|
|SM||I actually am a very introverted person in an extremely extroverted space. I am very good at carving out and projecting my voice and my own identity within a crowd, and I believe it’s a strength. I am very comfortable in my own company which makes me think deeply and process life patiently as it unfolds around me. I love listening to people talk. I really like getting to know what makes a person thrive and this helps me with what I do at Tat Tvam Asi. It’s a lot about understanding people and making them feel better about what they like to do and being of assistance to their creative processes.|
|CKC||Would you say professionally you are an artist?|
|SM||That word has bothered me for a while. Who is an artist? I work with a lot of people who call themselves artists. I am still trying to figure out what that word means. The closest that I would say is that I am a creator. I think of ways to create, not just artistically. I honestly don’t know how to slot myself. |
Am I an artist? My work makes me think like one. Do I earn a living as an artist? I don’t. Do I work with artists? Yes, I do. Do I aspire to be one? Honestly I don’t. Because I like my freedom and I feel if I put myself in that artistic bucket then I would be forced by society to behave in a certain way, dress in a certain way. I dislike being stereotyped. In short, it’s a yes and a no.
|CKC||Tell me about your childhood?|
|SM||Oh! Nostalgic. I was born in Bangalore. I grew up in Abu Dhabi with my younger brother. Our universe was small, just the four of us, living a very private life. Summer vacation was shuttling between my parents’ home in Bangalore and visiting my ancestral home in Thrissur. My entire childhood years went on like that.|
Chippy, I had a very easy childhood. I have no complaints, nothing dramatic. This is the 80’s and 90’s. Abu Dhabi was truly a city that embraced various cultures. I attended an international school and my whole childhood was a mixture of friends from Arabic countries, from parts of Europe, from America and all my teachers were a mix of educators from different parts of Europe, Middle East, India and the US.
So it was idyllic in many ways, even though I grew up in an international system, I had a lot of encouragement especially from my British teachers, who were very supportive of me pursuing and truly living my inherited Indian culture. They wanted to understand more about BharataNatyam and Carnatic Music, which they knew that I was training in. I got a lot of support from my school, classmates and teachers.
|CKC———-||How did you get introduced to dance?|
|SM||Amma, my mother. Amma always wanted to learn to dance. But in her days they never encouraged girls in her family to pursue dance. She grew up in a very orthodox household. She was homeschooled till 5th grade. The teachers would come home to take classes. They ran a school for the community and yet Amma and her siblings were taught separately inside their ancestral home by teachers who would come home to them, five of them. Eventually Amma said, ‘I want to go to school.’ She convinced her father. My mother was the youngest daughter and she had a strong personality even when she was a little girl. Those days she was called Unnimol (roughly translated to ‘baby girl’ ) at home, so when she insisted on going to school with other kids, she had to arrange for various documents including her birth certificate, for that she went to the government office and her uncle who was sent to accompany her gave the authorities her name as Unnimol, she immediately responded, ‘my name is not Unnimol, I am Sheela Bai!’ She named herself! She was always like that – assertive and confident. |
My mother’s side of the family are known for their philanthropic work and are very supportive of the artistic and larger community in Thrissur. Our forefathers have set up a railway station, had their own post office and given away land and buildings to set up a dance and music school. So Amma would go there as a child, look in through the windows and she was like, ‘I want to learn to dance.’ But she was not allowed. It was funny that they supported the arts but Amma did not have access to it. She grew up thinking that when she had a child, she would somehow make her learn this art form. My mother was very strong, determined to follow her own path, dance to her own tunes and always very sure of what she wanted to do.
So like my mother hoped, I started my dance in Abu Dhabi at the age of three under the guidance of M.S. Sheela Ramaswamy. She is renowned for her contributions to Carnatic music and is a Sangeeth Natak Akademi Puraskar awardee and she was also well trained in BharataNatyam. I was her student until she moved back to India and then I later learned dance under Kalamandalam Ashokan Sir. That’s how I started my dance and music journey. And the learning still continues.
|CKC||Were you able to manage academics and dance?|
|SM||‘You have to learn to manage your time and learn to balance everything as is right for you,’ Amma said. She played a key role here. It was important that we did well academically. And like most expatriate kids, you are expected to fit in seamlessly into your adopted country’s culture and succeed at straddling both cultures with ease. I am a bookworm, and I love studying and the arts. So I was not really torn between this or that. I was and still am a very ‘go with the flow’ kinda person. Honestly I can say till 13, going to dance class was something I had to do for my mother. It didn’t really click for me in its truest sense till my 14th year. Dance till then was regimental, it was something that was planned and organised by my mother and I was happy dancing.|
|CKC||Were there many competitions and dance programs you participated in?|
|SM||Yes. You know Chippy, I definitely did not start with grand victories. I was very lucky to have wonderful teachers, wonderful peers, throughout my growing years. I can’t remember who enrolled me for my first competition where I won a consolation prize. I won something really small at age 14 and it truly shifted things for me. This was the point Ashokan Mash (my dance teacher during my high school days) entered my life. He was really involved in my dance life from there on. |
Sir entered my life when I was entering the world of competitive training. Once he came in it was very disciplined, especially during competition season. I remember, Amma used to wake me up early in the morning, then you practice, get ready, have breakfast, go to school, come back and practice again. I went on like that for many years and started winning prizes and reached a point where I was getting the coveted overall championship awards. Mashu had strategised and said, ‘we have to take part in multiple events so that she can win the overall championship.’ And that’s how I started training in Mohiniyattam and later folkdance. I also took part in and won trophies in various subcategories for these championship competitions – drawing, public speaking, mono acting, light music, Carnatic music, writing short stories and essays and so on.
All throughout Amma was always there, designing what suited me and what did not. However she was not one of those competitive parents either. Somehow she made it fun and easy for me even though I was in that competitive track. This is my life throughout my 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th Grade – the so-called academically challenging years. All through this period I was expected to achieve academic excellence along with my pursuit of the arts. During this phase I shifted schools as well.
|CKC||That must have been quite a blow. You were in a very comfortable space, your whole world just changed. Now this means you have to make new friends, new teachers, and a new environment to get used to.|
|SM||I was thriving in my old school, I had my friend circle, I had teachers who supported my love for Carnatic music and Indian classical dance, and I am being asked to go to this other school. I didn’t know if this was the right thing for me. But, as always I trusted my parents.|
|CKC||A little bird told me you also participated in a pageant.|
|SM||Chippy, I literally grew up on the stage in Abu Dhabi! The Pageant, it just happened! My mother’s friends suggested it and one day when I was back from school my Amma said, ‘looks like you will be participating in the Teen Princess pageant.’ It was organised by the Indian Social Center and it was an event designed around the thriving Indian Community in the UAE. I had an exam the next day and I was walking the ramp and sitting and studying in the green rooms the previous night!|
This is all thanks to my parents, they wanted me to enjoy everything that comes in my life. Everything was looked at with a deep sense of gratitude and all blessings were held with reverence. My parents have always told me, ‘You can do more than one thing in your life. Don’t miss out on life. It is all about learning to prioritise and learning to navigate time intelligently’. Basically, they gave me the opportunity to truly live life to its fullest and not miss out on life’s blessings thinking that you are limited to doing only one thing. If you really need to do something, learn to streamline your energies with what resources you have available. Learn to optimize and execute.
So at the competition, I am sitting backstage and studying. I will come out when my chest number is called, do the catwalk, talk and go back to my books, studying for my geography exam. And I won the title and was crowned the ‘Teen Princess’ and I went home, slept and woke up and went on to write my exam. My life goes on and nothing else has changed for me.
That’s why I say I am a very introverted person working in very extroverted spaces. Somehow there were people around me who put that Lakshman Rekha around me and let me be me. For which I’m forever grateful. I learned how to safeguard my creative energies and learned to thrive very young.
|CKC———-||Did you have a dream job you wanted? What did you aspire to become?|
|SM||I wanted to be a Paediatrician, I was specific. During my last year of my first school and as part of the IGCSE schooling system, I had a career counselling session. It was pointed out during these meetings that my aptitude lies within the medical profession and or architecture. They pointed out these areas as where you will shine. I loved biology and really wanted to go into medicine because I love kids. The thinking at that time was I love kids and I want to do paediatrics, so simple. |
My parents shifted me to a CBSE school in my final year of high schooling as they felt it was better for an easier transition to the education system in India. I walked in with my mark list and my principal suggested I choose ‘the all science’ group. But my father said, ‘No, I want her to do Engineering.’ Principal says her mark states that she is going to shine in these fields and this area is where she is good at naturally and she should go to medicine. My father was persistent. ‘No, I want her to do Engineering and she will do Computer Science.’
|CKC||So what did you choose?|
|SM||I did Math and Computer Science!|
|CKC||You gave in to your fathers wishes. What about your dream to get into Pediatrics?|
|SM||Yes. I did. I let go of the dream of doing Paediatrics. At that time, a girl I knew in Abu Dhabi, who was much younger than me, died by suicide. That really stayed with me, for she was really good in studies, so it was not study pressure but some social issues that caused her to take her life, and it affected me immensely. What struck me Chippy was that I saw the parents’ grief and what her parents went through after that terrible incident. And many years later I lost my best friend from those growing up days in the same way. I remember my father saying, ‘those who go away go away, but it’s the people who they leave behind that remain suffering’. His words had an impact and it kept going in my mind and I realised, if I become a paediatrician, I will not just end up being with children, and that I will have to work with sick children, and all the grief and trauma that comes with it. When a child is sick, the whole family is impacted.|
|CKC||At that age you were very mature to think that way, to go into that depth.|
|SM||I guess. That is when I started to question myself, if I was the right person for medicine. So when father, my Achan was choosing Math and Computer Science for me, I was thinking at that point, perhaps maybe Achan is right. I am sensitive and emotional about everything, maybe I will not be able to distance myself from my patients and I hence am not the right person for medicine. I thought I had it in my genes, as I come from an Ayurvedic family who were Ayurvedic practitioners for generations. I believed healing was part of my DNA, but that incident led me to think about taking up medicine differently. Maybe if that didn’t happen, or even if I had spoken to someone those days, i.e. had a conversation with some doctors in my family, maybe things would have been different. But then my Achan was adamant that I do engineering. I don’t know. All these things added up.|
|CKC||So Engineering it is.|
|SM||Predictably! When I went into Engineering, I wanted to get into Architecture as my aptitude test said I had the skill sets for medicine and/ or architecture. But my father said, ‘No dear, you should do computer engineering and in 4 years you are done’. He discouraged architecture studies by saying you will have to go to construction sites, that it will be physically taxing, and that the course is five years. I just think he was very very protective and clearly very persuasive!|
|CKC||So where to now? Where did you end up!|
|SM||I went to Chennai to pursue my Engineering in Computer Science. Four years in Chennai. The choice of the college was very strategic. I had the choice between Chennai and Bangalore, at that time, and I chose Chennai because you have KalaKshetra there, and it was very close to the area where all the Engineering colleges in Chennai are. It’s Chennai after all – the culture capital of India! I was really looking forward to it. So I ended up in Chennai. That’s how much dance has influenced many important decisions of my life.|
|CKC||So the next four years were studies and dance classes?|
|SM||Engineering was a little more intense than what you think you are getting into. So those four years flew like that. I had my music on cassettes and I did keep my practice alive. I stayed in the college dorm for the entire period. I had great roommates and again I found this group of very tight knit friends who were supportive of each other. There were no competitions involved in these four years but I was always active during the annual college festivals and it was a lot of fun and very memorable. |
Growing up in Abu Dhabi, it was classical dance, Carnatic music and some theatre ( a lot of Shaeskpeare and some by local playwrights). Not much of film or other artistic ventures. When I came to Chennai, I was exposed to other areas and industries. You get to learn about other venues for expressing your artistic talents. Because you are in Chennai, you get exposed to different art forms. Classical dance and Carnatic music and films. Campus buzzed with people who are from the film background, music industry, friends who had political linkages, it was a relentless exchange of cultures and creative expressions. The community was soooo alive and vibrant so much that I never felt disconnected from my art form and so, even though I could not train, dance always remained an integral part of my life.
|CKC||After studies, did you start working in an IT firm like most those days? Interviews, Placements, prep and planning?|
|SM||The truth is I fell in love during my late teen days and soon after studies we got married. I did not work after my studies. I was getting ready for the next stage in life. Marriage happened and my husband was in the US. So I honestly did not try to find a job in India or the UAE, that is the truth of it. In hindsight, that was a very uninformed decision. I should have. I should have. |
Those months just flew by and next thing I know, I am in the U.S. and am still here. I arrived in 2001. It’s been 21 long years in Austin and in the same zip code too. I have grown my family and friends and life around this great city of Austin, Texas.
|CKC||21 Years…Wow. It’s been a long time and how did life transform from here on?|
|SM||I lost many years of any sort of employment opportunities and more importantly experience. I got married and came to the US on a H4 Visa. It’s a spouse Visa for someone who is on a H1B Visa. People on H4 visas were not allowed to work ( though I read very recently that that law is changing now! ) Nowadays I see a lot of young women of Indian origin, who grew up in India, get married, come here and they recognise the limitations of a H4 Visa and they choose to migrate to other countries where they can seek gainful employment. I wish I had that kind of clarity. I see young girls today and am so incredibly amazed at the way girls and families think today. I was not as smart like that and definitely did not have a support system that would have allowed me to work away from home.|
I got married and came here, and was on a visa that did not allow you to work, and the truth of the matter is I was fine with that. The next twelve years here, I could not work.
|CKC||Oh dear! That’s a long time. Before we delve in more, tell me about your initial days in the US. Did you adapt well? How was it for you? How was your initial experience?|
|SM||The first four months we travelled across Europe. My husband is an eternal traveler. We just did not settle anywhere, it was full of travel all the time. Literally I was like ‘I don’t know what is happening to my life now!! People are very different, they are not like the people I grew up with’. Suddenly the Lakshman Rekha that I had around me, that had protected me my entire life, just disappeared. And that was not a liberating experience. |
In 2001, all my friends at that time were busy applying for jobs. The conversation in my friends circle was, ‘I applied here; I got here; I didn’t get here or this is what my interview was like’. Some were talking about getting married but they wanted to and their preference was to work for an year or more before getting married. And all were in India and/ or the Middle East while I’m here. I had nobody here. I don’t have family here, still don’t have family here. It was just my husband and his friends, and all were in the tech industry. It was always tech chatter at home. Nobody knew anything about classical dance and nobody cared for it. For them Bharatanatyam was a fast and colourful performance but Mohiniyattam was so slow and they would fall asleep in front of you! That was what I entered into in this part of the world.
In those early days in Austin there wasn’t much classical dance programming. If I have to watch a classical performance, I would have to wait a couple of years. A local organisation that has been here for the last 40 plus years served the art lovers in the community but their prime focus was always on exquisite Carnatic Music, with some excellent dance performances in between. So that means that you had countless lovely Kacheris featuring wonderful famous singers who toured the US. They would perform in Austin ( also called the Live music capital of the world). The music scene was just vibrant. But when it came to classical dance, including western classical ballet, there was not much going on here at that time.
|CKC———-||You absolutely cannot work. Did you have any plans for your life ahead?|
|SM||There was not much time to think about things as I moved quickly into the next phase of my life. That is motherhood. I wanted to grow my family and that was very important for me. Then when I got pregnant, it was my doctor who said, ‘you will have to take a break from traveling and settle down in one place now.’ It was an extremely exciting phase of life for me. Pregnancy was unremarkable and I honestly didn’t like being pregnant, for me those 9 months were months I waited impatiently to pass by as I was eagerly awaiting for my baby’s arrival. I was completely thrilled about becoming a mother. |
I had my first girl in 2002, and then the next two years just flew by, and then my second girl arrived, times just flew by. I thoroughly enjoyed motherhood and still do.
|CKC||Being a mother, how was your experience?|
|SM||Chippy, those years I look back at fondly, because I love being a mother. I had travelled with my babies so much, it was fun. My kids are chilled out kids, no hassles and no fuss. I have never had any issues while traveling and when I look back, all this was possible because I was in love with life even through the difficulties that were plenty at that phase of life. That is me! I am in love with life, in love with my children, and just happy to be given this chance to experience love like this. |
Time just flew and my girls have been the forever easy go lucky children, very adaptable. We have travelled so much with them and it’s crazy. My husband, he is what can I say, an eternal traveler. He comes from work and he will say, ‘tomorrow we are going to Australia,’ and the next thing is we are packing up and we are leaving tonight with our baby! That’s how he was. Plans always changed at the last minute and the three of us learned very quickly that we had to adapt to be happy.
So I am in my cocoon, with my kids and am 24 at that time. I literally grew up with my girls. We did a lot of travelling, we travelled across many cities in Europe, Australia and more. Life just flew past me every time I blinked.
|CKC||What about you? Still no plans for yourself. Now what!!!|
|SM||I still could not work. I was raising 2 tiny kids and used to go to pray at the Austin Hindu Temple. One day a volunteer approached and asked me if I would want to join the Gurukulam program. My parents have always shared this belief that it was always important to give back in some way or the other. So I said yes and started volunteering at the temple. I just eased into the role of an Assistant Gurukulam Teacher. |
Later I also started to perform for small events and stage programmes in Austin. So a couple of people knew me. Eventually I was asked to Volunteer as the Cultural Committee Chair and I said, yes because I had built valuable resources. I knew the people who are performers here in Austin, Houston and Dallas. Like that 10 years just went by.
|CKC||Unknowingly and without an agenda for the future, you started making yourself visible as an art lover, an artist and a performer.|
|SM||I started actively performing and building that network of dance lovers and music lovers, so I had access to a lot of people in and around Austin. All that pulled me into the role of the Cultural Committee Chair. This helped me learn how to organise and execute events. I don’t have any formal training or any experience in this beforehand. All this experience was hands-on and you learn how to talk to people and you learn how a non profit organisation functions. The Austin Hindu Temple ( AHT ) was not your typical religious entity, for them the Austin community as a whole was and still is important. They opened doors for everyone, not just for a certain kind of believer, they are open to everyone from all walks of life. Community service was key for all of us at AHT. It’s the core guiding principle we always center and prioritise our decisions around. Those were the 10 years before we got our green card, I was completely involved here.|
|CKC||So Austin Hindu Temple made you realise your inner self, your time there helped to find yourself.|
|SM||The temple is heavily invested in the growth of the larger Austin community, which involves people who are not only from the Indian community, but from all backgrounds. I go to represent our Indian Community, to talk about Diwali and Navratri festivals on Public Radio here. That happens because this temple, over these many years, has built a strong relationship with the local governing bodies. When you are in that kind of a space, the people who volunteer with you, my mentors within the temple community, are people who have an expanded view of how this spiritual philosophy helps us grow as individuals and valuable contributors to society. This space is a very open and welcoming space and this space allowed me to bring in dance, and music into the temple. This is a very unique temple space you will find in this part of the world. This is where I learned to organise big festivals. I continued to volunteer for many more years even after my visa status changed and still continue to volunteer actively even today.|
|CKC||So this means you are eligible to work in the U.S. now.|
|SM||Yes and years passed and I am actively involved with my Austin community, the temple, the pan Indian communities that I know through my various social networks, I am also performing at certain government funded events around the country. What I realised then is that I loved classical dance. It’s not going to leave me, it’s not like I tried to leave it but I wanted to train with certain people and that didn’t happen, but somehow the dance still continued with me.|
|CKC||How did Tat Tvam Asi happen?|
|SM||In 2009, I met Ms Rama Vaidyanathan in person after a live performance and we instantly connected. A very warm, wonderful person, Ramaji interacted with so many of us and I loved those moments with her. We had an instant connection and we kept in touch and she would share her schedule with me and I would be invited to watch her performance. For the next couple of years, I would drive to San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and George Town and I would always ask her, ‘Oh Ramaji, just come to Austin.’ In 2015, I remember asking her, ‘Could you add Austin into your tour?’ And that’s how Tat Tvam Asi happened. Again this is something that I never even thought would happen.|
|CKC||Tell me more, this is getting interesting.|
|SM||I created the posters and sent out the invitations; I ran around trying to find a venue and I reached out to a huge TV network to come in and cover our event in Austin. It took a lot of grit and resilience to produce the show alone, right from coordination to completion. All these years of volunteering and community service had helped me pick up and hone the required soft skills and people management skills needed to manage large events.|
|CKC||Entrepreneurship is a hard path. How was the initial phase of your business?|
|SM||A friend suggested a couple of names and Tat Tvam Asi spoke to me. That’s how Tat Tvam Asi began and Ramaji’s was our first show in 2015 and she did a wonderful production called Dwita- Duality of Life. It was a housefull show, and till that happened I was not even sure how to fill all the house seats for a Bharatanatyam show. I did have a big question mark over me. But people surged in Chippy! |
And that was Ramaji’s power. That is the kind of artistry she has. I was very lucky that she was my mentor. From there it grew. Every year she comes to the US and works with Tat Tvam Asi (TTA). She has done multiple shows and she has also offered master classes.
In 2017, I started a Dancer’s Retreat program. It continued till the lockdown happened. From 2015 to 2019 we did various TTA live concerts. So it started with these shows and then I expanded it to the show and a master class format. From there it grew to a show, a master class and a dancer’s retreat. Our last retreat was in 2019 and we did two master classes yearly, one in summer and one in winter. This is something I am truly proud of. For the summer retreat we had 60 classical dancers fly into Austin to take part in this retreat. I expected 15 to max 20 people to participate, never expecting it to grow to 60. That was a huge achievement because it brought in all these dancers and dance lovers from different parts of the world together.
Tat Tvam Asi with its various programming and learning initiatives simply exploded. It spoke to people from all over the US, people flew in from Canada, and has grown beyond my imagination. All I wanted was to watch Ramaji live without having to drive to another city. So that’s how it started. It just grew.
Chippy, the growth was very organic. It was always, ‘here is an artist whose work speaks to me. And she is the same kind of person as I am’. I am always attracted to people who are selfless and giving. And all the artists that I’ve been fortunate to be associated with, share the same values.
|CKC||You have grown a network for performing artists.|
|SM||My community of dance lovers slowly grew from Texas to a global community of similar thinkers. We are all really good friends now who care deeply about each other’s growth. This friendship is no ordinary one. These are people who are living, breathing and consuming dance and who live for dance, people who’s universe is dance, who are passionate about dance that they only eat, talk, drink and indulge in dance. They are also committed to building people who are genuinely passionate about the art form. These are not just people who dance because it gives them joy, these are people who are invested in the growth of people who are dancing because it gives them joy.|
|CKC||Where did this concept of giving enter your life?|
|SM||My parents are very spiritual and they believe that it’s important to give back. Even now, when I set up Tat Tvam Asi, some of the people I have in my life who I call my mentors, are women who have that same thinking. They ask you this, ‘what have you given back?’ ‘How have you given back?’ ‘Are you working with Artists who have given back?’ I think this is like a very central theme with all my mentors and they are my role models. |
Amma for sure always taught me to reflect on this. She lives by the spiritual principles of the Bhagavad Gita. She says, ‘it’s very important to watch what you talk, if what you are saying is harmful for someone don’t say it, don’t do it.` My mother has influenced me a lot. She is an avid reader, I think I get those qualities from her. She used to read her books aloud to me. She used to read aloud to me books in Malayalam like Jeevitha Chintakal by KP Kesava Menon, Tat Tvam Asi by Sukumar Azhikode, back when I was growing up. Recently she mentioned K.R. Meera’s Hangwoman, a much celebrated work of fiction. She spends a lot of time everyday pouring over her countless collections of the Ramayanam, Mahabharatham, Bhagavatham and other similar texts. This is the kind of person she is.
Even my mentors in New York, I work with very senior people in this industry, they have always encouraged me to introspect, ‘Sruthi, what have you given to the community today? What has Tat Tvam Asi given?’ They taught me to look at that on a very different level, Chippy.
It’s not just BharataNatyam and Mohiniyattam anymore. It’s not even just Indian Classical Dance anymore. It’s about dance in its entirety.
|CKC||In Abu Dhabi you only knew classical dance and music. In Chennai you were exposed to more different art forms, now in Texas you realise dance is universal, it doesn’t belong to any one culture, it belongs with all, in different ways.|
|SM||There is a reason for this. In 2017, I was invited by Jacob’s Pillow, one of the oldest organisations here who is focused on dance and building the dance community in the US. Apart from artists they also invite dance curators. I was one of the fifteen who got invited. This experience and exposure changed the way I looked at dance. You have to understand, I started with just a passion for dance, someone who just loved to dance, and in whose life dance always played an important part. |
Now I got into the business of curation and I say the business of curation because you have to start thinking about funding, talking to investors, and stake-holders, it’s not about you anymore. I stopped being just a performer way back in 2015. It became about how do I build this community by promoting others who are in this space. It’s not about me anymore, it’s always about the art form. It’s about how this classical dance from another country fits into the overall narrative of this country. I didn’t want to continue to position this dance as a novelty or an exotic experience as that was the norm till very recently when very exciting and very progressive shifts have been happening in this country.
|CKC||How did you manage to make a change in the mindset of people with regards to Indian Classical dance in Texas?|
|SM||In Texas these kinds of conversations are difficult because here dance is essentially treated like a sport, it is not art. In New York it’s different, they look at dance as an elevated art form. And my mentors have definitely helped me. The stint that I had in Jacob’s Pillow was really useful for me. Because you meet producers from all over the country and these are people who have worked with famous artists from all over the world. So it started in one place and it kind of spread all over.|
|CKC||What are the projects Tat Tvam Asi and you are working on ?|
|SM||I’ve been focusing on learning and working on my fundamentals. Tat Tvam Asi has been focussing on offering various masterclasses online.|
|CKC||How was your transformation from a performer to Curator?|
|SM||There was a time when you put me on a stage and all I am thinking about is where are the lights, because I have to position myself on the stage for my choreography. Now I walk into a venue and I am counting the number of lights there, what are the tech facilities available, is this venue disability accessible, what’s parking like at the venue etc…. I am thinking like a producer these days.|
I dived headlong into this world of curation and dance production. It’s a different way of thinking needed here, the kind of people you interact with on a day to day basis is different. You deal with stage managers, producers, music producers, light technicians, people who book your venues and catering and other vendors. It’s a very different kind of conversation I am having now. These are conversations that a regular dancer won’t care about.
|CKC||Was there a challenge due to the Covid-19 pandemic?|
|SM||After the 2019 dancers’ retreat I thought maybe I should expand a little bit more, let’s do something on a larger scale in 2020 etc, and we all know what happened. That did not materialise. It was a huge financial loss. |
So 2020 was horrendous. Not just for me. Literally every single artistic endeavour collapsed and artists and the artistic community suffered greatly. At the same time, I have managed to carve out a little bit of my time, towards producing and creating my own work. This I would say was an advantage for me personally due to the lockdown. This pandemic gave us that space to step back and re-think, re-learn and re-emerge.
|CKC———-||Did Tat Tvam Asi have a bad year due to the pandemic?|
|SM||I thought Tat Tvam Asi will have a bad year last year but we did well comparatively. All our master classes became digital offerings. Ramaji did a six month technique series and we grew even more. Now it’s not just people who had the access and the income to fly to the US for our masterclasses. When we went live, it was people joining in from Abu Dhabi, Portugal, India, Australia, and all over the world. I felt I didn’t have to work really hard or strategise about Tat Tvam Asi’s growth. I think my core principles were always clear and it’s about giving back. When you embody that kind of energy, you attract that kind of energy. Tat Tvam Asi organically grew. I am really happy about this. Because the right kind of people came together. These are people who are committed to learning. |
Many dancers pivoted quickly and adapted to the changing demands of an online world. Many realised travel was impossible and quickly figured out how to organize online classes. That was the immediate thought process. Initially there was resistance, but I was fortunate to have worked with the few people who are among the first to make online workshops and masterclasses plausible.
All this happened because I never said no to things. I just learned to go with the flow.
|CKC||That’s a good way to look at it. How did you use your time to professionally keep yourself updated?|
|SM||I used this period to continue training and signed up on various amazing master classes and forged new friendships. Online sessions let us meet a lot of people who otherwise we would never have met. So the lockdown was not a bad situation for me personally and professionally.|
|CKC||So it’s an online world you are curating for now.|
|SM||Online lessons are not easy and it is very difficult to learn online. It’s the truth. So unless and until you have that driving force within you, unless you have done that internal homework and introspection needed and are a disciplined person, online classes might not work in your favour. |
So it has required a lot of research to design courses and programming that is catered towards this kinda dedicated community of dancers. I love working for my Tat Tvam Asi tribe! These are an amazing cohort of creatives. These are people with a strong sense of community, the right kind of people, passionate about pursuing dance, not just about learning how to dance but also supporting other dancers and creatives associated with the dance industry. These qualities inherent within the Tat Tvam Asi tribe are those that I am exceptionally proud of. Again, it was not part of any strategy, it just happened.
|CKC||Digital world. How is it going for artists and performers?|
|SM||In the last 2 years, we had to rapidly shift from live events to digital offerings. We had to quickly pivot and learn new skills, and you had to learn it quickly. Lot of us were very unsure if this would translate and so we had to quickly learn everything from scratch.|
|CKC||What was your biggest challenge so far when you went from live performance and live audience to a digital platform? The attention span is 4 to 7 seconds for a video or a reel.|
|SM||There are positives and negatives here. This means we can bring artists from all over the world, no visa restrictions, much less worry about crossing continents… the talent pool is global now, but the question remains of how do you sort through this increased pool of applicants to your festivals?… What kind of artists are you looking for? What is your digital platform of choice? What does your programming budget look like? What do the audience want? We did a lot of research and we figured out that the audience might stay for eight minutes max and watch a live performance online without any distractions but the metrics changed again for smaller screens. Lots of learning and most importantly – a whole lot of unlearning happened. |
We had to learn how to space a performance differently; we had to guide our artists and have those conversations to make their performance enticing to a diverse global digital audience. When you go digital it’s more work for the artists, they can no longer just perform like in the past. This is not a stage performance. The space needed to be digitally and visually captivating for their work to reach more people. It was a challenge and still a challenge for many artists.
|CKC||You are an investor too.|
|SM||Yes. I take a lot of pride in it. Whatever Tat Tvam Asi makes, go back into the Tat Tvam Asi community. I have stringent rules- this is about giving back to the community. I am not going to take a paycut from it. It is set up as a company that invests its resources back into the community. I had to work hard to find ways to make TTA sustainable for the long run. My community is where I derive the sense of purpose that is needed to keep moving forward everyday.|
|CKC||What’s ahead for Tat Tvam Asi?|
|SM||Nothing set in stone. To continue to serve my TTA tribe in ways beneficial to them. To continue to organise digital masterclasses addressing various interesting topics related to dance. Let’s see what the future holds…|
|CKC||Any financial setbacks, challenges?|
|SM||Chippy, when I started in 2015, I was quite uncomfortable about having financial conversations. Today, I can sit in front of anyone and negotiate a deal. And today I do tell women we have to be comfortable about talking about money. Money is not a bad thing, that money is very important and much needed especially, when you want to do something good with it. We need to learn to reframe the way we have these monetary conversations.|
If you want to give your performers a good salary, you have to sell tickets and you have to be profitable to be able to make this whole thing sustainable. This is one area I have worked on really hard. At the same time I am having this conversation with our Board members about having to pay the performers more than before. Why? Because we are asking them to film or dance in venues when they are struggling to pay rent. Production costs have risen and so I argue that we have to increase the pay of the artist to match the labour intensive nature of their work.
|CKC||Personal challenges, if any?|
|SM||The whole of 2020 I had this thing about saying YES! to any challenge that was coming my way. I told myself that it is the only way I can strengthen myself. Mentally and emotionally. |
And in 2020 you had to be in front of the camera constantly. You had to learn to put yourself in front of the camera. This was a huge struggle for me. This might not be very relatable to others, but doing master classes and organising online events where I had to be on camera was a struggle initially. I was very unsure about how it all would eventually pan out.
But I was determined to not let my personal discomforts hold Tat Tvam Asi back, and so I swallowed my fears and just told myself, chin up and get out there, get the work done.
Again another example is when a festival in New York invited me to create a dance work for camera, I was petrified, but since I had promised myself that I would say yes to all challenges, I agreed.
I created a work that I called, ‘Love, loss and loneliness’. It’s a work that aims to raise awareness about miscarriages and baby loss. It’s about a woman who loses her baby and the loneliness that she faces, and how she comes out of it. This was my first dance on camera work, my daughter was the videographer, I did the editing, and we shot it on an iPhone, so it was a complete home based production. I created music for it from scratch. Choreography was done to make the message come through and look good on camera.
I continued to train Chippy. I have collaborated and worked with many dancers around the world during the lockdown. Vanasthali and Ramatarattu, are other works that were released during the lockdown and now I am developing a relationship with a poem based on migration. All this happened because of the pandemic. I have not resisted the changes.
|CKC||Criticism. How do you deal with it?|
|SM||Criticism is a part of life. Over a period of time I have learned to sieve through what is constructive and what is not. I do listen to everything that is thrown at me, because feedback is important. I have my core values set in stone, that are critical for growth and what is important for Tat Tvam Asi. I had a few negative and countless positive feedback, and I don’t let the negatives or the positives affect me. I am very clear about what I am doing. I don’t let anything get to my heart.|
|CKC||Who influenced you the most?|
|SM||I have been exceptionally lucky to have good mentors and guides who came along and supported me all through my journey. I have many senior dancers globally who I think of fondly as my mentors, my engineering college professors and counsellors, my teachers at The Cambridge High School (who initially instilled the importance of having pride in your heritage and roots) who’ve always been there for me through each phase of my life. My Cambridge teachers loved to see me in my BharataNatyam costumes and they loved to see me wear sarees, and so I grew up being completely at ease with celebrating my Indian roots that even here in the US I wear sarees when I go out. I don’t feel small or don’t feel compelled to wear a pantsuit to work. I believe a well draped saree will look exceptionally professional in any industry. |
My gurus shaped my life when it came to the way I think about dance and music. I have always been around giving people, and they never kept their art to themselves. They always promoted their students. We learnt not just about dance techniques but also how to deal with difficulties and how to navigate life with elegance and panache.
But none of this would have been possible without the strong foundation and loving support that my parents gave me during my childhood. They continue to amaze me and will forever be my ultimate role models. They gave me wings to soar and truly allowed me to fly even if they always had a watchful eye on us. It’s amazing how they managed to achieve that kind of balance.
|CKC||If you get to meet your 18 year self!|
|SM||Oh my gosh, the 18 year old me was a complete dreamer! I would tell her to be a little bit more realistic. We are living in a time where you know the world has opened up in a magnificent way that you would miss, all these pathways if you are lost in your dreamworld. My very private world helped me for sure. It helped me, it kept me safe and secure, but after I moved to the U.S. I had to re-learn a lot of things. So, my advice to my 18 year self would be that the world in your dreams is beautiful but the world outside is even more beautiful. So learn to embrace everything that comes to you.|
|CKC||Sruthi, it’s been three hours, this has been a long conversation. I am certain I can listen to you for hours and hours. You made each situation you were in ultimately work for you and you didn’t complain nor make the choice to move to a dark space rather made it work for your personal growth which in turn supported your professional endeavours later, the art of giving definitely has given so much back to you.|
|SM||Chippy, I never do what I do expecting anything in return. I truly want the best for everyone. My parents have instilled the thought of giving early on in my life and I am sure that helped me during my early days in Austin and have made the best of my life here. I have always been going with the flow, and if there were any hurdles along my path, I have cleared them and forged forward. Life has taught me quite a lot of lessons and I am glad I made it through the hard, the easy, the challenging and the unexpected. I find happiness in giving and always will. It’s been the greatest gift of this lifetime – the opportunity to learn to love everyone and to be of service to my community.|
|CKC||I am glad I had the honour of knowing you. It was truly a delight.|
|SM||It was so wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much for your time Chippy.|
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