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Through online classical Indian arts events, our cultural community strengthened its bonds | CBC News

Through online classical Indian arts events, our cultural community strengthened its bonds | CBC News

Anjana Srinivasan says she was in denial when the world closed its doors at the start of the pandemic.

”We figured, you know, a couple of weeks, a couple of months and be back in person,” said the family doctor and mother of two. “I don’t think anyone realized it would be for two years.”

Srinivasan is also an accomplished South Indian classical violinist, who can’t wait for the curtain to rise this Sunday in the first in-person event her Montreal-area cultural association will be hosting since the first wave.

“It’s very exciting because we’re going to be doing group performances and that energy will be there,” Srinivasan said.

Last year’s virtual event did feature group performances — through some careful editing by Srinivasan. She cut together separate audio and video recordings to make it seem like everyone was singing and playing together.

She’s become an online recording aficionado, turning part of her Town of Mount Royal home into a virtual concert hall and recording studio.

It’s what she had to do to keep the Indian community in the greater Montreal area connected to the arts when venues were shut down and people were confined to their homes.

“I bought a mic, I kind of learn things basically by watching YouTube,” Srinivasan said.

Srinivasan has a YouTube channel of her own, where she’s posted a series of videos, many in collaboration with other local artists and some in India, including her guru.

WATCH | Anjana Srinivasan performs a Carnatic version of Für Elise with her brother Ravi: 

She has shared many of those videos to mark holidays such as Tamil New Year or the Hindu festival of Navaratri.

“I feel like I have gotten back to my roots,” she said.

Indian music and dance: Part of who we are

Srinivasan’s upbringing is much like my own. Both of us were born in Montreal, with our parents hailing from India.

Neither of us grew up watching Bollywood movies or performing Bollywood dances. As popular as the genre is, that was not part of our South Indian heritage.

Both of us had direct ties to the classical art forms of the region through our mothers, who are teachers in our community. That’s how Srinivasan learned South Indian classical, or Carnatic, music — a style that is centuries old, with a variety of scales or melodies known as ragas and beats or talas.

My mother taught me the Indian classical dance style of Bharatanatyam, also a centuries-old tradition with rhythmic movements, hand gestures and facial expressions — storytelling through dance. Srinivasan learned from my mother as well.

We both grew up performing in rented halls for local community events such as Deepavali, more commonly known as Diwali, and Pongal, the Tamil harvest season.

Srinivasan and I, along with other youth, would dress up in our Indian attire or costumes to sing or dance. After that, the community would gather and enjoy a meal, often cooked by our aunties — us kids all sitting together.

Sudha Krishnan performs in the Mohiniyattam style, a classical dance form from Kerala, India. (Submitted by Sudha Krishnan)

Our weekends were all about music and dance. When we weren’t performing, we were practising (I would later teach as well). We spent our summers on family trips to India. Our time away from school was about our art, our roots.

Srinivasan studied Carnatic violin as a teenager from teachers in India and still takes lessons from a renowned South Indian maestro. I still learn dance from my mother.

But those moments of connection have largely been over Zoom for two years. It’s allowed for an online dance class reunion of sorts, as I danced virtually with my sister, who now lives in Texas, and my other dance sisters, who have moved to Ontario and Arizona.

For Srinivasan and myself, Indian music and dance are part of who we are, our outlet that keeps us in touch — and sane — during the pandemic, amid our demanding careers.

It’s why I agreed to take part in an online Indian dance show that Srinivasan helped organize in March.

I practised almost every morning before I went into the office to anchor the late-night news.

One Sunday, I returned to the dance studio where my mother would, before the pandemic, hold her classes. Decked in my costume, jewellery and bells, I danced as Srinivasan and her husband set up the recording equipment. As soon as the music played through the speakers, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I fed off that energy and danced.

I felt the same way when my mother’s students finally returned to the studio for a rehearsal. My eyes welled up with tears watching them in person, realizing what the pandemic had taken away from us.

Virtual was ‘vital’ for the community’s youth

Srinivasan did not hesitate to keep her lessons going when the first wave hit.

I think it was vital. It had to happen like that,” she said, adding that virtual community events kept students, including her teenage son, motivated.

“It’s hard to sit in your basement and just practise for the sake of practising.”

She felt the same way about the online dance classes for her daughter, who is now learning the craft from my mother.

Srinivasan believes teaching the community’s youth keeps their link to the culture alive, much like the same way our parents immersed us in music and dance growing up.

Shanmukh Iyer has been learning classical Indian violin from Anjana Srinivasan since he was seven years old. (Ari Muniswami)

A direct connection to ‘back home’

Srinivasan’s first student, Shanmukh Iyer, says the violin strengthened his bond with relatives in India.

“Especially with my paati,” he said, using the Tamil word for grandmother. “She would ask me to play something. So it’s definitely a direct way to connect back home.”

Born in India, Iyer moved here with his family when he was a child. He was seven years old when he first picked up the violin. At 18, the Vanier College student recalls how the first wave was such a confusing and isolating time, cut off from school and from seeing his friends.

Playing the violin from his Dorval, Que., home was his outlet. He says virtual concerts made him less anxious.

When you’re online, it’s kind of, you know, performing for your computer. So it was different, but I guess a good kind of different,” Iyer said.

Still, Iyer is looking forward to playing on stage this weekend. Sunday’s in-person show will have limited seating, as the community still wants to play it safe as local artists do their part to keep music and dance alive.