By Prerana Sannappanavar
Pranita Nair, director of Chicago’s Mandala South Asian Performing Arts organization, first came to the United States in 1985. She had been married to an Indian man who had made a life for himself in the U.S. and was accompanying him as his dependent. This was the story of many Indian women during the late 1980s and 1990s, but Nair carried a larger vision to introduce the beauty of South Asian culture to the Western world.
She founded the Mandala nonprofit in 2014 as a means of bringing South Asian performing arts to the U.S. As a trained Bharatnatyam (a dance form that originates from the state of Tamil Nadu in India) dancer, she wished to channel her love for the art form to educate Western audiences about the richness and beauty of South Asian culture.
“I would like Mandala to be representative of all voices in the performing art, folk and classical as well as contemporary hybrid forms that are coming out of South Asia,” she said. “The idea for me at Mandala is to pull all those linguistic, ethno-geographical differences apart and be united through dance and music.”
The Mandala group has managed to attract a diverse range of individuals over the years. While there is a pattern of second-generation South Asian families enrolling their children to learn their native dance forms, adults from unique walks of life are also driven by their personal passions to come to Mandala.
Greer Hutchison, 25, a contemporary dancer and choreographer, was introduced to Bharatnatyam through Mandala when she was still in high school. Her intrigue with the dance form persisted after graduating, and today she works with the organization, learning more each day.
“When Pranita came to do the workshop at my high school, it was just such a different experience and unlike any kind of dancing that I had ever done before,” Hutchison said. “I was just really intrigued at how complicated and intricate the movement is, and I appreciated how hard it was, coming from a long background of dance. It was still something that was so challenging and different.”
Hetal Desai, a student at Mandala, has been dancing with the organization for more than seven years. Desai comes from a background of dance, having done a bit of ballet and some Indian folk dances over the years.
She said she was always interested in classical Indian dance but had never actively trained in it until she was introduced to Mandala. Her love and fascination for the dance form grows as she describes it as “accurate and precise” and “very strong, yet very graceful.”
The Mandala logo is representative of its founder’s vision. It is a brown circle fit inside a blue box that looks like it has been shattered to pieces.
“Symbolically, this artistic piece stands for the desi, brown power in the circle shattering the blue skies,” Nair said.
Prerana Sannappanavar is a graduate student in the social justice specialization. Connect with Prerana on LinkedIn.