Anita Vijay, Founder of Abhinayam Dance Network (ADN)

Photo courtesy of Anita Vijay.

When Anita Vijay’s parents immigrated as refugees from Sri Lanka to Canada in the mid-eighties, they made sure to incorporate their love for their heritage in their daughter’s life. Vijay embraced her culture during her childhood by training to become an Indian classical dancer. 

Later as a university student, Vijay discovered that Indian classical dance could not be used as a dance credit even though it met the requirements of the curriculum. After graduating, she was disappointed once again when she was denied funding for her dance initiatives because BIPOC artists didn’t fit the guidelines for a grant that favoured European-trained artists. This is why she launched the Abhinayam Dance Network (ADN), a platform that strives to represent Indian classical dancers as mainstream artists on the North American stage. Her goal is to equalize funding and performance opportunities for Indian classical dancers.

Debu had the pleasure of chatting with Vijay to learn more about the Indian classical dance form, and how she hopes to make art grants and policies more inclusive with the help of her dance network. 

How would you explain the Indian classical dance form to someone who is hearing about it for the first time?

Like every cultural group, there has always been a form of entertainment that has always been used as a method of communication in their community. So, I would begin by saying Indian classical [dance] represents or embodies the communities around [it]. It strives to tell stories about the community around [the dancers] with [their] hands, feet, and voice. It’s quite theatrical in presentation. It’s not necessarily just something that’s performed at traditional moments, events, or religious festivals. There are eight known classical styles in India and all of them represent the communities that they come from by look, by language, and by the stories they tell.

What are the most popular types of Indian classical dance form?

Bharatanatyam and Kathak are popular. This is because both have made appearances in Bollywood movies, and very little has been concentrated on other styles [classical types]. It’s unfortunate that there is an omission in the arts because each of the classical styles have such a beautiful and distinct element in storytelling. Hopefully with more programming within Canada and the US, we can begin a journey that includes all classical styles on all mainstream stages.

How does ADN hope to make an inclusive space in Canada for classical Indian dancers?

In general, our programming has included the D.E.I [diversity, equity, and inclusivity] lens. One of the main things I have done with my programming is to ensure that we do not replicate any other initiatives on the market or in government funding. Especially, when it comes to diversity initiatives. So, while creating programmes like dance festivals, workshops, and professional development, our goal is to ensure that the artist benefits first and not our organization, not funders, nor audience members. 

Going even further, we embrace everyone in our programming. Age, experience, and network should never limit anyone from attending our programs. A lot of other programming in the industry continues to embrace restrictive definitions that maintain limiting requirements from artists. Programming like this continues to negatively impact the entire arts industry. 

Art forms like ours are still very much an oral tradition, and because of this, it can be difficult to enter mainstream opportunities when the framework is limiting. ADN strives to ensure that the impact of our programming is positive and not controlling. We want to ensure that artists gain tools that further their artistic careers.

Tell us about the importance of NADANAM, a North American dance event, and what does it hope to achieve?

Like most dance festivals in North America, the concentration has always been on the audience and not on the artist. And while that format serves a particular purpose, we found that these formats have saturated the industry and have started to reduce creativity in the arts. With the creation of NADANAM, we want to make sure that the artists benefit from this event. The festival is completely curated and is closed to the public. There is an incredible interactive element that we strive to ensure that is positive and maintained in a safe space. 

NADANAM is a moment where I’m bridging two worlds: the world our artists inhabit, and the world of the mainstream industry.

What are the biggest hurdles that ADN faces in providing a platform to South Asian artists and art forms?

The challenge for cultural artists has always been policy and implementation of it. I don’t want to say that there are ill intentions in our framework, but progress and results have been slow. More education and consultation will be necessary to create a policy that is truly inclusive for the arts. Right now, in Canada, the Ministry of Culture oversees most of the funding initiatives for cultural arts. However, before any more funding is given out to federal, provincial, and municipal arts organizations, a review on the current policies will be necessary. 

A very big part of being in the cultural arts sector is that cultural arts are being held solely responsible for tourism goals for Canada. And while those initiatives should still exist, we need to begin expanding initiatives that allow cultural arts to become independent of this. The future of Canada is already here, and independent artists have already embraced multi-disciplinary tools from different cultures to create their art. If we do not address these policy changes now, we as Canadians will be unable to reflect the population of Canada as of right now or in the future.

Arslan Ahmed | Staff Writer

Summer 2023

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