CA: Where did you perform?
LP: At sorority events, the Rotary Club, and Toastmasters, and a few other organizations.
My first job was working in a Rexall drug store. My job was that of a cashier, or stocking shelves. Believe it or not, I did it in my sari! In those days women wore dresses and skirts to work. I had no option, because I didn't wear skirts, and fortunately for me, they said, “Fine, you can wear your sari.” That's what I did, and I never felt out of place.
I went on to working at the Bank of Montreal as a teller, still in my sari. I remember one of my colleagues saying, “You're the most popular teller.” On payday, every two weeks, the miners would come to the bank to cash their paycheques, and there would always be a long lineup for my wicket. They lined up to see this strange woman with a dot on her forehead, who wore a sari and spoke impeccable English, with an English accent!
We travelled to Churchill to see polar bears and beluga whales and learned how to cope with the blackflies in the Manitoba summers. They might sound trivial now, but I think these were very important ways of beginning to integrate and assimilate into the culture. I am very grateful for that experience, because I am convinced it forged a strong Canadianness in me.
Our first daughter, Brinda, was born in Thompson. I continued to dance, but always had regrets that I couldn't continue my studies or my dance training. But even in those five years in Thompson, I went to India three times, because I felt a yearning to continue with my dance training. I would bring back music for new repertoire that I was to perform. I remember travelling to perform in Selkirk and Brandon, Manitoba, and Regina, Saskatchewan – so even then, I was beginning to tour.
After five years, my husband was transferred to Indonesia. I went to India to have my second daughter, Arti, while Vishnu went ahead. Vishnu, as a geologist, was responsible to assess the economic viability and feasibility of the nickel deposit on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.
We had to fly in by helicopter because the mining site was a remote place in the jungle. What an experience – Indonesia is such a beautiful and culturally rich country. The people are amazing – and some of my strongest friendships were forged while I was in Indonesia.
A further connection that gave me much joy was that Indonesia has a rich tradition of dance. While there I met Balinese dancers and Javanese dancers. I trained and studied with them, and they, in turn, wanted to learn bharatanatyam. Also, I was pampered with the wonderful Indonesian house help and nannies and gardeners. I volunteered in the mining project's high schools to teach English. And through that, I learned my Indonesian – which honestly has not left me … even today, I speak Indonesian fluently. It just became part of who I am.
So dance continued, performances continued, my own immersion into Indonesian culture also happened during that time. And of course, the mining project grew, a refinery was built. It has gone on to become one of the most important laterite nickel deposits in the world. Because we were in a remote location, we got “R and R” …
CA: Rest and Recuperation?
LP: Yes – every four months we could go on vacation for a week. We would fly out to Singapore and feel “normal” again. We also used that as a point for me to return to India for my training. I would take the girls and go back to India and then probably return four to six weeks later. We travelled extensively too, to the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia. It was ten years of rich cultural experience.
Those ten years went far too quickly. We returned to Canada in 1979, back to another mining project in Sudbury, which of course had a larger Indian population. My performance career became very active again at that time, along with teaching. I also taught in the Sudbury Board of Education.
CA: In the high school system?
LP: Yes. In those days there were Heritage classes where you could teach languages, and music and dance from other cultures.
We had a full life, and our girls were grown up, and beginning to train with me. I was training many young women, and before I knew it we were doing small dance productions on stage. We were very actively involved in the Indo-Canada Association, so we invited Menaka Thakkar and Viji Prakash, an established performance artist from Los Angeles, to come and perform in Sudbury. I continued to go back to India every year, to return to my guru. Sometimes I went alone and sometimes we went as a family.
CA: Where was your guru?
LP: He was in Bombay. My parents, at that point, had settled in Bangalore. I'd visit them there, or leave my daughters with them in Bangalore and go to Bombay. I was fortunate that I could continue, though certainly not at the level that I wished I could … but then I was a mother with two children, and that was of course my first responsibility. I studied Spanish and computer technology. But because of my love for travelling, I decided to go back to community college to train as a travel agent and got a job I would come back to at the end of the summer of 1985 … when my whole world came crashing down.
That summer, on June 23rd my life changed forever. On that day, I was rehearsing in my guru's studio in Bombay, India, when I received the fateful call informing me that the flight Air India Kanishka 182, with Vishnu and my two teenaged daughters Brinda and Arti on board, had exploded over the Atlantic ocean, near the Irish coast, killing all 329 passengers aboard. A terrorist bomb was responsible for the downing of this flight bringing my family to India.
Devastated, I returned to dance intuitively and instinctively, putting in long hours of training and rehearsing. Like a woman possessed, I made dance the reason for my existence and for my return to wholeness. I came to experience the profound spirituality embedded in the art form and understood that dance would be my pilgrimage towards healing and acceptance.
CA: Did you stay in India?
LP: I returned to intensive dance training in Mumbai after a few months. The day after the tragedy, I had to deal with going to Cork in the Southwest coast of Ireland, the closest city to where the crash took place in the Atlantic ocean. Meeting and grieving with hundreds of families who had also been shattered by this loss was a heart-rending experience. At the Cork hospital, we were witness to the terrible process of recovery and identification of the victims. Brinda and Arti were recovered and cremated in Dublin. Then I returned to Sudbury to a packed and overwhelmingly emotional memorial service. I sold my home in Sudbury, knowing instinctively that I did not want to live in Sudbury anymore and yearned to return to India to lose myself in my dance. It seemed the most natural thing for me. I had no idea of the role dance would play in my life and the catharsis it would bring about. I had no goals, no plans. I just wanted dance in my life.
For five years, I trained long hours, forgetting that I was thirty-eight years old. Thinking back, I imagine those five years could probably translate into fifteen years of training. My guru comes from an illustrious lineage of master teachers and conductors. I was very privileged to train under Kalamamani Guru Kalyanasundaram on a one-to-one basis, while being welcomed as part of his family. Guru kulam was the tradition of how artists trained, many decades ago, forging a deep bond between student and teacher. Many a day, I would just stay in my guru's house in Bombay, and become part of the daily activity – I'd cut vegetables in the kitchen, go with him to the temple – he was a very devout man – and be part of the extended family and its many festivities. I think that is such a rich, valuable experience, because it gives you access not just to the art form, but to the history and ethos of the art form, imbibing its artistic and spiritual values. I was fortunate to train with such an incredible man … so creative, so generous.
In those five years, I also spent a good deal of time with my sister in Chennai, revelling in the “magical and mad” arts season. Chennai is literally the centre for bharatanatyam and in the months of December, January and February, the city swells with visitors for what is a virtual bonanza of music and dance performances, conferences and workshops. Most precious for me was the opportunity to train with Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan, world renowned for her mastery over the art of abhinaya – the interpreting of poetry and music through gestural and mimetic expression. I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to train with two of India's great master teachers.
Five years went by. Imperceptibly, a healing had occurred in my life, where I was finding myself drawn to the spirituality of the dance form. All those narratives and compositions with profound metaphorical messages now resonated at a different level. I was no longer just dancing a character but embodying the many nuanced and layered truths of the devotional music. (next page)