Just a year after moving from India to Oregon in 1989, Jayanthi Raman started performing traditional Indian dance and never let up. Since then she has given hundreds of performances in the Northwest and toured extensively throughout the nation. She has choreographed 25 full-length works and numerous shorter ones, founded a successful dance school, collaborated with jazz artists to create new contemporary pieces within the format of the traditional dances and given countless lectures on Indian dance and culture. In a nutshell, Raman is the pioneering ambassador of Indian dance and culture in the Northwest.
Through her trailblazing presentations of Indian dance, Raman found that she has often had to educate her audiences. So she usually gives a talk that provides context for her performances. She tells how the dances reflect the religion, art, science and culture of India, and how it is all wrapped together.
“At first I only tried to talk about the dance and the cultural background,” says Raman. “But people also wanted to know why I wear the bindi on my head and how I met my husband. After I explained our custom of arranged marriages and much more, I realized that I had to develop lectures that tell my story. So the storytelling of my life has become part of my dance presentations.”
One of the hallmarks of Raman’s dances is their authenticity. She adheres to the strictest of standards and has worked with the top tier professional musicians and dancers from India.
“I’ve made sure that my dances are authentic and not some diluted version like what you see in Bollywood movies,” adds Raman. “I cannot disrespect the traditional art form. It is just like when I want to eat Chinese or Italian food, I prefer the real thing.”
Because of her efforts to bring Indian dance to American audiences, Raman has received many grants and awards from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Dance Project and the Collins Foundation. Critics have called her performances “the gold standard of Indian dance.”
Yet even though Raman has so much experience, she is always discovering something new. She recently had an “aha” moment while one of her lectures was relayed to the audience by sign language.
“I was surprised that some of the gestures I use for the storytelling part of my dances are very similar to those in American Sign Language,” remarks Raman. “I am going to look into that some more.”