Although the lights were dimmed and the studio soundless, a chair, front and center, bespoke a human presence. Taped to the wall, a sign declared that a set of ankle bells had recently gone missing.
Before long, the pitter-patter of pint-sized feet filled the room as did sollukatu — rhythmic syllables corresponding to the sounds produced by musical instruments. Ramya Harishankar demonstrated immaculate body posture, hand gestures and expressions while clad in traditional Indian attire.
Coming from Irvine, Newport Beach, Foothill Ranch and Corona, the girls, ages 5 to 8, began and ended the four-hour class with namaskaram, or obeisance to Mother Earth. With only about a year’s training under their belts, they warmed up and then executed adavu drills — a combination of movements of the arms, legs and feet.
This was just another day in the beginner’s class at Arpana Dance School, which Harishankar and her husband, Harish Murthy, founded in 1982.
Since then, she has conducted four- to five-hour classes six days a week and trained intermediate and advanced students. Her oldest student, who enrolled for the love of dancing and exercise, is over 60.
Childhood in India
At 56, the Irvine resident has had a love affair with Bharatanatyam for nearly 50 years — first as a student, then a performer and now a teacher.
Enchanted by its timeless beauty, Harishankar regards the ancient Indian dance form as a language and is constantly on the lookout for interpretations of contemporary themes.
“It’s like planting a seed, and then you see sprouts coming up, and then you have a bud and a flower,” she said of her role as a mentor. “I almost feel detached in a way because I can’t believe that I helped that happen. It’s as if I just saw this gawky little kid who couldn’t even stand straight, and now she can express herself and move people to tears.”
Harishankar grew up in Chennai, a city in Tamil Nadu heralded as the “cultural capital of south India,” where creative and performance arts were part of daily life. Mulling over the experiences and awards Bharatanatyam has brought her way, Harishankar credits her mother for never letting her give up.
What resulted, though, was a short-lived onstage career because Harishankar and Murthy moved to Southern California in 1981.
“I felt the urge to explore other cultures and live in a diverse cultural environment,” he said.
Soon after embarking on this new phase of their lives, the first-generation immigrants took it upon themselves to orient the Indian community around their shared heritage and learn from people of other nationalities. While Murthy joined corporate America, Harishankar began a local dance school and company.
“I started teaching and the school kind of happened, and enrollment steadily grew,” she said.
Murthy’s sister, who lived nearby, triggered a wellspring of interest in Harishankar’s skills, allowing her students to expand from seven to 25 in the first six months. Many had been practicing in nearby garages and family rooms until then. Thanks to continued word-of-mouth support, she now works with 120 to 150 girls per year.
Although the studio is open to boys, almost none enroll, and those who do tend to drop out quickly, according to Harishankar.
“Strangely, Indian families are OK with boys doing Bollywood dances, but not Bharatanatyam — ironic,” she said.
Spreading the joy
Over the years, students not only from Orange County but also Sri Lanka and Malaysia have benefited from Harishankar’s tutelage. Most of those who have completed their arangetram, or solo debut, join the Arpana Dance Company. The event, comparable to a graduation ceremony, is a rite of passage in which dancers present what they’ve learned to a private audience.
The dancers, who have varying years of continuous training, complement Harishankar’s solo performances with their own routines when on national and international tours. The company has garnered headlines with shows in Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Fontana, as well as partnerships with University of Redlands, UCLA and San Diego State University. In the fall, Harishankar will also team up with UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts.
“Culture gives us roots,” said Harishankar, who counts a sense of pride and stability among its benefits.
Although no longer with the dance company, Ahila Gulasekaram, 34, looks back on her 31 years under Harishankar — or Ramya Aunty, as she calls her — with appreciation.
“The word I can use to best describe Ramya Aunty is generous — with her time, knowledge and love,” she said. “Having a passion for something makes life so much sweeter, and dance does that for me. I owe that to Ramya Aunty — her love for dancing is infectious.”
Moving to Dallas three years ago was “traumatic,” she said, having always lived between 30 and 60 minutes away from Arpana. Classes, rehearsals and productions are second nature to Gulasekaram, who not only starred in the company’s first production in 1992 but also spent her first year in Texas flying back to Irvine to dance.
Having learned the importance of discipline and practice at an early age, Gulasekaram, a physical therapist by training, considers learning a lifelong process. Although far away from her guru, she continues her artistic career by collaborating with the Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art as a resident dancer, teaching after-school programs at elementary schools and conducting yoga classes for children.
“I think it says a lot about Ramya Aunty that I have moved away from Irvine but my heart is still there,” Gulasekaram said. “She gave me this incredible gift and taught me not only about dance, but about life.”
In 2004, Harishankar and Murthy came up with the idea of establishing a secular arts and culture center, formerly known as Arpanda Foundation and now labeled the Ektaa Center.
“I always had this vision of a space that people could enter and be transported to a different world,” she said of the independent nonprofit, which she serves as a board member.
The Irvine-based venue has served as a hub where community members conduct Indian-themed dance, music and language classes, lectures, book signings and film screenings. This has also helped budding dancers, Harishankar said — by her estimation, 30% of learning is done through watching others.
Ektaa, which means unity in Hindi, has a twofold meaning in this case, since it’s a reflection of the couple’s teamwork as well.
By their own admission, Harishankar is artistic and creative, whereas Murthy, who sports the official title of executive director, works behind the scenes as an event organizer, producer and technical assistant.
“It’s not like we wake up every morning and say, ‘We want to make a difference,’” she said. “It’s just that we don’t know any other way.”
For both, a heartening aspect of their work is being able to connect people of different backgrounds who, without the unlocking of cultural doors, might never have even communicated.
Asked to name the most important quality that she tries to pass on to her students, Harishankar simply said, “relentless passion.”
Arpana Dance Company
Founders: Harish Murthy and Ramya Harishankar
Address: 2691 Richter Ave., Irvine
Information: https://www.danceramya.com or (949) 874-3662