Medha Yodh, 79; classical Indian dancer and arts advocate taught at UCLA

Times Staff Writer

Medha Yodh, a distinguished classical Indian dancer and arts advocate who taught for many years at UCLA, has died. She was 79 and had been in failing health for some time, said her daughter Kamal Muilenburg.

Yodh died July 11 at Muilenburg’s home in San Diego. A memorial service in Los Angeles is being planned for the end of September.

“She was a very progressive person and a valuable member of the community,” said Ramaa Bharadvaj, a prominent Southland dancer, choreographer, teacher and leader of her own dance company. “I always thought she was way ahead of her time in what Indian dance should represent. She was also a very frank and open critic, and whenever I did something new, I always wanted to get her opinion.”

Yodh was born July 31, 1927, in Ahmadabad in the Indian state of Gujarat and began dancing before the age of 5. She soon became particularly fascinated by bharata natyam, one of the best-known classical dance forms of India. She later called it “a magnificent tool to center human beings, to give them an inner sense of being and to teach them focus, poise, discipline and the integration of different arts. I think it develops character.”


Her education, however, put a priority on science. She received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Bombay and a master’s in chemistry from Stanford University. And it was her knowledge of chemistry that brought her to the U.S.

“I have a proper Brahman background,” she told The Times in 1984. “I grew up in British India, and I was expected to learn the arts, to go into the sciences and to travel abroad.”

Her travels changed her life in many ways. She met, married and later divorced a Swedish medical student, Carl von Essen. She discovered modern dance as well as other world dance idioms that she began to study. And in Connecticut, not India, she met Tanjore Balasaraswati, the most revered Indian dancer of her time, who became Yodh’s lifelong role model.

“When she arrived here in 1962,” Yodh recalled two decades later, “four of us went and sat at her feet and said, ‘Teach us.’ ”


Yodh joined the UCLA faculty in 1976, teaching Balasaraswati’s style and artistic values. Locally based choreographer and company director Malathi Iyengar studied with her in the early ‘90s as part of a master of fine arts curriculum and remembers her “giving me wonderful feedback. She kept emphasizing spirituality and devotion and tried to open my mind.”

Iyengar also saw Yodh dance during this period and describes her approach as “pure and emotional -- she was a very loyal student of Balasaraswati. She didn’t like a lot of glamour; she was more involved with interpretation.”

In 1987, Yodh created a documentary film, “Garba-Ras: A Glimpse Into Gujarati Culture,” much respected in academic circles.

She retired from UCLA in 1994, then served as an advisor to various arts organizations -- including the Dance Kaleidoscope showcase series -- and continued to dance at a number of local venues.


As late as 2000, she performed in the “Spirit Dances” series at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, “looking seriously possessed,” in the words of a Times reviewer, “with hearty foot slapping and filigreed fingers.” She also did private teaching in Oakland until 2002, when she moved to San Diego.

She is survived by Muilenburg; another daughter, Neila von Essen of Alameda, Calif.; and two granddaughters. Her son, Eric von Essen, a noted jazz bassist, died in 1997.