As part of our YOUTH VOICES SERIES, we share an interview with Atmika Sarukkai. Atmika began learning kathak at Pandit Chitresh Das’ institution in 2006 at the age of five, and auditioned and was accepted in to the youth company in 2009 when she was eight, following her elder sister, Mayuka. She has since performed at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Opera House, Zellerbach Hall, in collaboration with the a Taiko drum group, Eden Taiko, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and many other prestigious events.

CDI interviewed Atmika in anticipation of her Youth Company Senior Graduating Showcase performance, Ritu Ke Rang on June 29th, along with her three fellow graduates and guru sisters, Gauri Bhatnagar, Ishani Chakraborty, and Ruchira Rao.

When do you first remember thinking that this dance was really something you wanted to pour your heart and soul into?

Atmika Sarukkai (AS) I think the first time I really felt a deep connection to dance was the first year that I presented a kathak yoga piece where I played the bansuri while dancing for Dadaji's 68th birthday. The fact that I'm still trying to develop kathak yoga pieces where I play the bansuri while dancing almost a decade later is a testament to the fact that that experience was quite instrumental (no pun intended) in fostering a deep personal connection to the artform. As I watched the video of my performance recently, a wave of nostalgia hit me. I recalled the intense focus my 10 year old self tried to maintain throughout the piece as I attempted to sustain a melody on my flute while stomping out complex rhythms, and I recalled the relief that washed over me after every successful execution of a cycle of footwork. Although I would like to say that my love for playing flute while dancing was fostered completely internally– a product of my intense love for music and dance combined– I know that that is only partially true. When Dadaji voiced his recognition of the physical challenge of playing the flute while dancing and his appreciation for the mental gymnastics that was required to execute such a piece, I knew that I wanted to continue to challenge myself and to make him proud. But even after Dadaji left us four years ago, I felt more connected to kathak yoga than ever before. I think I now understand why he encouraged us to explore kathak yoga: there is no greater feeling than knowing that you can be completely self sufficient– you are your own musician, dancer, metronome, etc. I thank Dadaji for making me realize that it is when I am completely aware and in control of myself that I am able to exude a kind of liberation from reality that is the essence of dance itself.

What is the thing you're most scared about?

AS The four of us have put our all into building our stamina, and infusing our individuality into our choreographed pieces, and I think the scariest thing about going on stage will be having to perform individually in front of an audience of ~300 people. It isn't that I haven't performed in front of large audiences before, but this whole process has been a mostly introspective journey, and the fact that in a few weeks I will have to stand on stage by myself, vulnerable to the public gaze as I attempt to confidently and effectively communicate to individuals who may have little to no knowledge about the artform as well as perform for my own friends and family is daunting, to say the least.

What is the thing you're most excited about with your graduating performance?

AS I am most excited to interact with the musicians and my three guru sisters on stage. When I watch Kathak performances, I am always excited by the raw energy that is organically created on stage, often times in the form of improvisation. For this performance specifically, I am excited that my dad will be playing the mridangam during my Thaat, in which we will perform a "trade off" where I will perform a series of footwork patterns, and my dad will follow, playing the same sequence of beats on his mridangam. I am beyond excited to share this experience with my dad, and I know seeing his face on stage will make me feel so much more relaxed during the performance.

What is next for you with your dance? How will you continue your dance past youth company?

AS I would love to take part in performances anywhere that I can, and I know I will find lots of opportunities to do so at Cal. I would love to drop in on Youth Company classes during college breaks (to make sure my stamina hasn't dramatically declined), and maybe even TA a class if I get the chance. I know that no matter where I go, the determination, precision, and groundedness I have developed through dance will follow, and I am sure that I will fall back to dance time and time again as an emotional outlet and as a way to feel in control of my own life during hectic times.

What are three things you want people to come away from your performance with?

AS I want people to recognize that Kathak is still a very relevant artform and the central energy of this artform transcends time. The four of us have intentionally chosen to focus on themes of female empowerment and inner strength because this artform does represent those things for us, and we hope these messages will transfer to the audience as well.

I also want people to take away a piece of our personalities after the performance. Yes, the four of us have danced together in the same studios for the last decade, have been given the same choreographies, and have learnt from the same teachers, but we have all discovered our unique artistic identities in the process. I think the real beauty of dance comes from the fact that when we dance, we emote from our souls, and our movement reflects what we truly feel. I think the four of us have reached the point where we are able to connect more deeply with the dance and instead of just absorbing and learning movement, movement has become a form of communication.

What do you hope for future Youth Company members?

AS I hope future Youth Company members feel empowered by their femininity. Being a part of the Youth Company is probably the most rewarding and empowering experience I've had as a woman, and unfortunately today we are constantly surrounded by a narrative that somehow women are inferior to men. The narrative that Dadaji instilled in our minds from the moment we stepped foot on the dance floor was that we are female warriors capable of anything we put our mind to, and he emphasized the self-empowering nature of dance. For incoming YC members, I hope they will fully internalize the message that they are truly capable of anything they want to accomplish because that is a message that has given me strength both on and off the dance floor.

Tell us one story about Dadaji that illustrates why he was so important to you and to so many others.

AS There isn't one story that can capture all that I love and admire about Dadaji, from his simultaneously intense and caring nature, to his ability to command a room, to his ability to bring a community of students, teachers, and parents together in a way that only he could.

One experience I can recount is one of the many classes where he made us do the same chakkar composition multiple times in a row, and although we were all on the verge of passing out, we never stopped turning. Yes, our technique deteriorated over time as our arms flailed around, our vision blurred, and our balance faltered, but we persisted. Every class he would push us to our physical limits, but that day when he told us, "Today you'll, hate me, but tomorrow you'll love me," for maybe the 100th time, I remember actually believing him. Because at that moment of pure exhaustion, I realized that by pushing us to our very limits, he was challenging us to find the strength to persist, and when that drive to persist is obtained, we are prepared to take on any obstacle thrown our way. This story illustrates what I loved most about Dadaji— he made every class a lesson in life. I will treasure all the moments I had the honor of spending with him, and I will carry their messages in my heart always as I begin the next chapter of my life.

Tell us one story about Charlotte Didi that illustrates why she is so important to you and so many others.

AS One of the things I appreciate most about Charlotte Didi is the fact that she loves her students like her own children. She makes sure her students feel equally loved and equally capable, and she both values the qualities that separate us from one another as well as encourages us discover a unified spirit on the dance floor. Because the solo is what is currently on my mind, I will recount a very recent event, where at the end of one of my solo sessions, Charlotte Didi emotionally professed how much she would miss the four of us next year, and how she was so proud of us for carrying on Dadaji's legacy. Charlotte Didi has a way of connecting with us emotionally and making us feel like we can bear our souls to her, our struggles in our personal lives as well as the achievements we are proud of. I really believe she exemplifies everything a teacher should be– approachable, extremely dedicated, and most importantly, compassionate.

Tickets for Ritu Ke Rang are sold out but Atmika can be seen on July 6 & 7 with the Chitresh Das Institute dancers performing Charlotte Moraga’s choreography the opening weekend of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival at Zellerbach Hall. For tickets click here.

 Photo of Atmika Sarukkai by Ravi Kohli