Anuradha Naimpally, the founder of Austin Dance India, is a thinker.
After teaching Indian classical Bharatanatyam dance to students in Austin for over 22 years, traveling for public performances and putting together a program two years ago called “Girl Power!” at the Long Center, she was drawn toward creating social change. Naimpally wanted to highlight the confusion in the minds of teens and senior adults who are suddenly uprooted from vibrant lives in other countries to come and live in a foreign land. For her, these are the hidden voices that need to be heard in a world where heated debates are taking place about the laws of immigration.
Her work is being recognized along with four others who will inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame by the Austin Critics Table on Monday. A recently launched project illustrates the heart of her mission and approach.
Perhaps it was Naimpally’s global upbringing (Canada, India and the U.S.) that connected her to the plight of immigrant South Asian seniors and refugee high school students at Reagan High School in Austin. Or it might have been her own mother’s struggle to enjoy a new city in her old age that made Naimpally create her pilot project, “Dance for Global Goals — See Us Move. Hear Our Story,” a dance performance that unites immigrants and refugees. Naimpally explained that when the seniors and the students dance together, their steps are meant to convey the following:
“See us move. Listen to what we are saying. Isn’t this human? Each community has different unique struggles. In the end, they are all human struggles. Human hopes and dreams. We are not a threat; we want the same thing. We are people, too. Don’t push us aside.”
Naimpally is an artist and not a social worker. She needed help to make the seniors and the students comfortable enough to share their feelings onstage.
She reached out to Sarayu Adeni, her student at Austin Dance India. Adeni graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Public Administration in Development Practice and was working at the grass-roots level in the Dominican Republic and Chile. When Naimpally told Adeni about her struggle to highlight hidden voices, Adeni came on as a consultant and stage manager.
The project received an artists’ innovations grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance and had a venue set at the Asian American Resource Center on Cameron Road.
The city of Austin connected Naimpally with Julia Remington, a social worker at Reagan High School who knew the refugee students from Myanmar/Burma. Remington and Naimpally began a three-month after-school project, and Naimpally started meeting with students once a week. In this safe space, Naimpally came up with dance moves out of the expression of the students and their stories. Real-life issues, such as conflicts with a parent’s work schedule or not having transportation, prevented some students from participating, she said, with three students able to be onstage for the performance.
At the same time, Naimpally’s mother, who lived with her part of the year, was attending classes at SAIVA, a local nonprofit that organizes social and community activities for South Asian seniors in Austin. The group met at the Asian American Resource Center weekly as part of a city of Austin program. So Naimpally asked Shubhada Saxena, founder of SAIVA, to reach out to seniors to participate in the project. Seven seniors came forward with their stories.
After three months of practice, the big day arrived on April 7. Naimpally, cellphone always in hand, went through her mental checklist while the seniors in their turquoise SAIVA kurtas (long shirts) stood together practicing dance steps. They were all done up, some with red bindi, some with gold malas (long necklaces), hair pinned or tied and neatly oiled in fresh coconut, kohl on their eyes and beaming with pride. They were ready.
When asked how they felt about the performance, Prema Raghavan, lovingly called Prema Aunty, replied for the group, “Bohat khush! Bohat khush! (Very happy! Very happy!)”
“At this age, who is going to give a chance to the seniors?” she added.
NweNwe Than, Aye-Aye and Sher Htoo from Reagan High School sat in colorful T-shirts speaking to each other in Karen, a language they spoke back home in Burma/Myanmar. They said they felt nervous and excited. Naimpally smiled and asked them to throw their nervousness on the floor and stomp on it. They giggled and followed. This was their first public performance, and they trusted Naimpally.
Pitch-dark and quiet, the spotlight went on. Lata Hoskote, an elderly aunty, stood onstage holding hands with Naimpally. Somya Ashok, the narrator in the background, let the audience know that Lata Aunty came to Austin from India to live with her son and his family. “I left India at this age, so I want to be as happy as I was in India.” Hoskote dances with Naimpally.
One by one or together, the elders danced to songs from their young days, lip-syncing and smiling. The high school students followed. They acted out the civil war in Burma/Myanmar and then expressed their lives in Austin. Well-known musician Oliver Rajamani played the sarod, oud and cajon (multicultural musical instruments).
The narration continued in the same style for every voice onstage: “I live in Austin. My heart is in my home country, but my life belongs here. I am confused and happy, and I keep going.”
The message was serious, but the mood was light. Local female vocalist and world musician Nagavalli helped Naimpally set the tone. “Nagavalli and I discussed the mood, rhythm and overall tone of the piece and eventually chose songs that were uplifting and also from their era of Bollywood,” Naimpally said, humming a romantic song from 1958.
This production served several purposes. Naimpally said she hopes this moment creates a ripple effect and motivates more people to be aware of hidden voices and work toward a sustainable world, as envisioned by a United Nations project that sets 17 global goals to be achieved by the year 2030. Adopted at the U.N. in 2015, the goals of the Sustainable Development Project include eradication of poverty and hunger, improving health and well-being, equality, sanitation, and peace and justice.
Naimpally also hopes that she can re-create this pilot project in other cities, with each step working toward the global goals of the U.N. Her eyes light up and a 1956 Bollywood song echoes her sentiments in the background:
“Panchhi banu udati phirun mast gagan mein, aaj main aazaad hun duniya ke chaman mein (I am a bird flying high in the sky – today I am free in the garden of life).”