Arts and Culture

Polyrhythmic beats and the sounds of a variety of languages including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit may echo through the South Central Regional library this month, as Indian classical dancer Shyama Iyer participates in the Louisville Free Public Library’s COLLIDER Residency program.  

This program, which has already hosted a couple of dozen Louisville-based artists since 2017, offers artists a dedicated space to create. It also offers community members a way to directly interact with various art forms ranging from poetry and photography to ambient soundscape and ballet, as each month’s resident artist offers classes and other interactive experiences.

Iyer said she inherited her interest in Indian classical dance from her mother.

“I guess I can start a little before my existence, my parents  actually moved here from India in 1997, and so I’m a first generation American. I was born in Louisville,” Iyer said. “My mom was always kind of obsessed with Indian classical dance and music. So she started her own school (Guru Handana Arts Academy) in Louisville to bring Indian classical dance to our community, because there is a growing population of Indian immigrants.”

Every artist’s life and experiences influence their artistic practice, but for Iyer, her life has been tangled up with Indian classical dance since before she can even remember, specifically the discipline of “Bharatanatyam,” the oldest form of Indian classical dance.

“I learned how to pop my foot in rhythm, when I was like, 18 months old. That’s something that I’ve had  in me before I could even walk. So I’m so lucky [my mother] to give me that passion, and inspire me to keep doing that,” she said.

Currently Iyer is a rising senior at Western Kentucky University, where she’s majoring in Musical Theater.

“I was sort of stuck with the whole ‘what should I do in college,’ thing, because I really wanted to do Indian dance, but that’s obviously not a college major. So I had to pick up something new,” Iyer said.

To do so, she started by focusing on acting, and then studying Musical Theater at The Youth Performing Arts School. Those experiences set her on her unique artistic journey.

“I got really into American theater and American music, and American dancing and all that fun stuff… So I’m still kind of between the American arts and the Indian arts. I need a little bridge between them.”

Courtesy Shyama Iyer

One way Iyer might create that bridge is by the use of traditional hand gestures from Indian classical dance.

“It’s almost like a sign language; [you are] communicating a story through your fingers, your hands and your eyes. It is something that is very specific in the rule book for Indian classical dance,” Iyer said.

Despite her interest in bringing the art form forward, her classical roots are strong and she often teaches by the book. And that’s not a turn of phrase.

“There is a rule book,” Iyer said. “It’s called the Natya Shastra, a dramatic text that was passed down through oral traditions and listening through the generations.”

The oral tradition includes stories as well as gestures, another part of the multifaceted culture of Indian classical dance.

“Indian dance and music is based in the Vedas, which is a text in Hindu culture and religion. So a lot of the stories originated from having to do with the Hindu gods and moral lessons that they are supposed to teach,” she said.

But much like the western canon, the stories told in Indian classical dance, and some of the stories Iyer herself dances, have a lot more going on in them than moral lessons.

“Later on there are definitely so many traditional love stories,” she said. “A woman pining for her beloved, or a woman whose husband cheated on her and she’s mad at him. So all these kinds of very universal stories that are told in all cultures.”

So toss some “Romeo and Juliets” in next to the Vedic deities. But Iyer is ready for the art form to move even further into the present, and she says that the dance supports such creations.

“Nowadays you see Bharatanatyam being an art form that tells all kinds of stories. Stories about depression or anxiety, or who knows. Being abused. There are so many ideas that can be portrayed,” Iyer said.

She’ll be teaching some of that movement vocabulary during her library residency, along with other essential skills, like footwork and an introduction to Indian music.

While some western forms of classical dance — such as ballet — can trace its heritage back hundreds of years, Bharatanatyam can trace its roots much further.

“It’s believed to have come into existence around 2000 BC. It’s pretty old,” Iyer said.

For Iyer — and her mother, who started dancing before immigrating to the U.S. — dance is just one piece of a heritage.

“[My mother] came here, started a family, and found ways to bring  her culture here, and find a conversation between America and her homeland,” she said.

Iyer will continue that conversation long after her month long residency at the library ends.

“That’s probably what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life, I think.”

Iyer’s residency runs the whole month of August at the South Central Regional Library. She’ll offer “Storytime Gestures” for kids ages 4 through 8 on Saturday August 17 at 11 a.m. All ages are welcome at The Basics of Carnatic Music on Tuesday August 20, at 6:30 p.m. Catch Iyer and other members of Guru Handana Arts Academy performing on August 18 at 3 p.m.