FB Pixel

March 2024: Janani Lakshmanan – Dancing Mathematician
By Renée Tillotson

Perhaps you noticed the beautifully authentic voice chanting mantras from India at our 2023 Diwali festival of lights celebration. Perhaps you fell in love with the classical Indian dance performances during that celebration. Perhaps you even tried a bit of Bharatanatyam dancing at our For the Love of Dance event in February. If so, you’ve encountered our enchanting Janani Lakshmanan!

Seldom have I met such a strong cultural exemplar as Janani.

Born in Chennai, southern India, Janani spent most of her youth in Texas and Arizona. So far from their homeplace, Janani’s mother wanted Janani to know her roots. “My mom encouraged me to connect with my birth culture with Bharatanatyam dance classes starting at age 4 and later Indian singing lessons.”

Although Janani was learning the foundations of these ancient art forms, she hadn’t yet found her own foothold of connection. “I was doing these practices because my parents wanted me to,” remembers Janani.

Indeed, Indian singing sounds a lot different and Indian dancing looks a lot different from your typical American fare. As one goes through the pre-teen/early teen years, the urge and pressure to just fit in and be like everyone else can get strong.

In the end though, Janani is more than a “just fit in” kind of person.

At age twelve, she made a pivotal change. “I found my current Bharatanatyam dance teacher, Nita Maliam. She is very different from my other, more traditional teachers. Soft spoken, compassionate. She values each student’s perspective. She’s never punitive or harsh, always building us up. That resonated with me. This dance form that previously happened to me, I now did with agency.”

Janani made her formal Indian dance debut when she was 17 years old. “On the verge of starting college, I began to understand the importance of my culture continuing to pass on through me. I started teaching to small groups at our school, making Bharatanatyam accessible and relatable to the youth and kids, so that they could see how amazing this several thousand year-old artform actually is.” That was in a city in Arizona with a big Indian community.

Coming to study Mathematics at UH Manoa in the middle of the pandemic turned out to be an entirely different experience for Janani, dropping her in different waters all over again.

On the one hand, she thrilled to see the strength of the native Hawaiian culture, with deep roots in history, language, and its hula dance culture. On the other hand, she found only a handful of Indian residents and not much in the way of Indian cultural practice. “I felt I left a piece of me back in Arizona with my family and dance teacher, and didn’t find an opportunity to dance.”

In that void, Janani felt the urge to promote her own culture. She felt a calling – as a person blessed with deep training in a rich, classical dance form – to share what she had been taught. Nevertheless, she felt divided. How could she be both an academic, pursuing her PhD in Math, and also a dancer, with no one to dance with?

At that point Janani saw an Instagram post of Still & Moving Center’s 2022 Diwali celebration with our beautiful Shivanataraj statue in the background. Shivanaraj, “Lord of the Dance”, is the patron deity of Bharatanatyam dance. “I felt like the universe was waiting on me to do something. In that moment I felt that I had to do something. I looked up Still & Moving Center online, and it seem like a beautiful place of cultural preservation.”

I felt thrilled when Janani contacted me about teaching and performing Bharatanatyam at Still & Moving! Janani says, “That conversation sparked the beginning of my collaboration with Renée and the Center. The rest is history. From then on, I kept getting put in touch with people who used to do Bharatanatyam or who wanted their children to learn it.” She soon got one of her best friends, Shreya Sreeram teaching us Bollywood at Still & Moving.

Janani now teaches classical Indian dance to an enthusiastic group of little Indian girls plus two of their moms. She has also been instrumental in forming Aloha Natyam, a group of Bharatanatyam dancers who are emulating the local initiative to preserve, promote and malama (care for) Hawaiian culture. “We teach, perform, and collaborate,” explains Janani. “In our minds we are trying to connect in a similar way to out own cultural heritage and bring that same ethos and spirit to our own artform.”

Initially torn about choosing between dance and academic research, Janani has reached a new vantage point: “I’ve come to accept that I don’t have to make that choice. I’m a dancing mathematician!

“After 3 years in Hawaii, I have a huge amount of respect for Hawaiian culture. I identify with things like respect for elders. Even though we have fewer resources for the arts, I feel closer to being home. I really appreciate what the culture here in Hawai’i has given those of us who practice traditional art forms.”

I appreciate her dedication to cultural authenticity. When Janani prepared to do several traditional Hindu mantras for our 2023 Diwali performance, she first checked in with her brother’s gurus to make sure her pronunciation and inflection was exactly correct. This level of attention to detail is the mark of someone dedicated to preserving the past in tact. Intoning those ancient Indian mantras alongside traditional Hawaiian oli (chants), within a performance narrated in English at Still & Moving Center denotes Janani’s intention to pull an ancient cultural practice into the world culture of the future.

One of my favorite experiences with Janani took place during a rehearsal for our Diwali performance, re-enacting the Indian epic “The Ramayana”. Our Jewish American actor playing the part of Princess Sita and I were wondering to ourselves how an Indian princess might walk. We consulted Janani on the question. Without missing a beat, Janani replied, “It seems counter-intuitive, but think of an elephant. The elephant is actually a very graceful creature, walking with one foot in front the other, hips smoothly swaying side to side. That’s what we say in India.” And by golly, our Princess Sita’s ‘elephant walk’ worked beautifully.

In a recent interview for Gems from the Wisdom Traditions, Janani speaks deeply on her practice of Bharatanatyam dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dAdQmTf-vI

Three cheers for Janani Lakshmanan: Jay Janani! Jay Janani! Jay Janani!

Get the Still & Moving App

This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)