Q&A with Ananda Shankar Jayant: The power of myth and metaphor

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Before her TEDTalk posted today, the TED Blog caught up with classical Indian dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, she continued dancing and gave an amazing performance at the TEDIndia conference in November 2009. Now in remission and still enjoying life to its fullest, she gives an update on her health and explains in detail how metaphor, narrative and dance carried her through some of her darkest times.

First of all, how are you doing now, health-wise?

I finished my chemo cycles in March 2009 and then started a drug called Herceptin, which is to be taken intravenously for a whole year. When I came to TED, I was in the middle of that. In March 2010, I finished that and I just finished my second-year review last week and I’ve been declared ok!

Wow! So, now everything’s fine? You’re in remission?

Well yes, but it’s just the second-year review — they keep reviewing you once a year for the first five years, and then every two years after that. So, as of now, crossing my fingers, it’s all ok.

That’s wonderful. Now, dance took you through cancer and you’ve danced your whole life, but how did you begin dancing?

I started dancing when I was four. My mother took me to a temple in the city and a stranger looked at me and immediately said that I had very large eyes, and I should be taught dance. In India, we have several classes of dance, and I perform two styles: Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. Bharatanatyam is one of the older styles of dance, and Kuchipudi is one of the styles from the state that I come from. The styles are very close to each other, both incorporate a lot of geometric design in the movements of the body and a lot of rhythm. And, as with all Indian dance forms, they are stationed on a bedrock of poetry, philosophy and, of course, the Hindu religion. Bharatanatyam is based solidly on myth, metaphor and philosophy. Kuchipudi has more roundedness to it — it’s more worldly and is based on the metaphor of a love story. They are similar, but also very different.

Can you explain a little more how Indian dance is different from dance in the Western world?

Indian dance uses the body completely from within and without. It also uses poetry from the different languages of the country, which could be ancient, medieval or modern poetry set to music in either of the two renowned classical music forms of India — the Canartic and the Hindustani. I do mostly the Canartic, which is from South India.

The philosophy of using the poetry and music in dance is that while overtly there is the story of the gods and the goddesses, although they are part of a myth or metaphor, they really represent stories from life. They represent stories that you and I can relate to and that all of us go through at some point in time. And, it becomes more than just a story. You represent the story, and your own story comes through as well.

Indian dance is also supposed to be a prayer or a yagna, as we call it, and through the dance form itself, you forget the grammar. While you learn the grammar, while you perfect the grammar and the geometry, in the end you need to go above it. You need to go beyond even the poetry and the music to really touch surreality, as it were. I call it “to touch one’s self” — to find yourself through your art form. It goes beyond the performance itself, it goes beyond the virtuosity. Your have to rise above your body and above being one person, and connect to the world at large and to a reality (if you believe in one) that is larger than you. My dance has been that journey. It has been a journey of connecting to that one spirit which connects all of us, the one thing that makes us all human. To me, that has been my journey.

How exactly did you use dance and symbolism to get through your worst times with cancer?

At that time, at the minute I was diagnosed with cancer, I decided not to focus on the whole thing. The only way I could escape focusing on the cancer was to focus on something that animated me and moved me and touched me. And, I found that in my dance. Dance is really who I am. Dance is really my life’s breath, in that sense of the word. I — consciously, with a whole lot of visual and mental cues — pulled myself out of the thought processes that send you into that emotional whirlpool that cancer can push you into. It does that. There were times that I shed tears and times that I was miserable. But, because I had something else to focus on and something else to shift my mind to, I found that I was able to cut this whole thing out of my mindset. Your mind is really your final frontier. I was able to take my thoughts and push them into my dance. I made it so that the cancer was not a big deal. I would go and get my chemo, take the three days rest that my body needed, and then I was back in the studio dancing, teaching class or doing choreography.

Now, just doing dance, the performing itself, that’s one thing. But beyond that, as I said before, there is a whole lot of myth and metaphor. We’re always talking of these gods and goddesses — you know the Hindu religion has so many — and their stories, which are so akin to human life and human behavior. To a large extent, I think that we human beings created the gods we believe in, so those stories really reflect our own. When I was dancing, I kept with me the story of the mother goddess, Durga, which is a very powerful idiom and metaphor in the Hindu philosophy and religion. She was created by many gods, who invested all their special energies in her, and she was created to destroy evil. So, she became my mentor and my image. I said, “I’m going to be like her.” Durga was supposed to have 18 arms, because she held all these different pieces of weaponry in her hands as she rode out into the battlefield to destroy evil. To me, each of those hands meant radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, etc. So I said, “Now, I’m going to do this. I’m going to ride out.” And, she rode a lion. My lion was my own inner strength, my inner resilience — that all of us have. I just decided that I was going to tap into it, into this extraordinary source of energy and strength that we have, but we don’t recognize.

We’re always looking outward, and we forget to look inward and find our reservoir of strength. It wasn’t easy to do. It’s so easy to wallow in self-pity and misery, and to get lost in tears. But, the dance gave me energy, it made me happy. The dance and the metaphor became a conduit that allowed me to find my inner strength. It also helped to give complete focus to something outside of what was happening to me. I accepted the fact that I had to deal with cancer, but I didn’t allow the cancer to become larger than what it was. Usually cancer is very shattering, and you tend to believe that it’s the end of your life. I said, “No. It’s just one stage and I’m going to deal with it. I will not let it ruin the rest of my life.” I tuned out of cancer and tuned into my dance.

Your experience really reveals the power of metaphor and the power of storytelling. We don’t often think of the arts as tools to get us through the worst parts of life, but do you think that we should and that other people in difficult situations can do what you did?

I completely agree with you. What we have done over the years, as human beings, is to cut ourselves away from centuries of learning, thought and philosophy by believing that stories are just stories. We say, “Oh, those are just myths and legends, we don’t need to worry about all that. That cannot really happen.” Now, you may need to cut away a lot of the hyperbole that accompanies myth and metaphor. But, making it too literal and asking questions like, “How can someone have 18 arms?!” — I mean, you could ask questions like that of Ulysses, of Krishna, or any of the prophets or stories of our world — let’s not go into that. It’s not important whether that miracle really happened or not, whether Durga rode out with 18 arms or not. I’m not interested in proving something right or wrong. I’m interested in taking out the essence of what that story is telling me. And, I think we all need to connect with the stories of our growth as human beings, because we are losing out on a large limb of education, learning and knowledge.

These stories may not be able to be tested and verified in a lab, but they resonate with us. They create what Jung called the “collective unconscious” and help us through all the good and bad that life throws at us. Life is meant to be learning process, whatever that process may be — if not cancer, every one of us faces some ups or some downs, that is the truth of life. Every one of us will face something, whether it is the loss of someone you love, the loss of your belongings — it’s really unlikely that you won’t face anything. But, if you have something to fall back on, some story that you feel could be similar to yours and that you can learn a lesson from, that makes you say “If so-and-so can do it, I can too!” it can take you through. That’s why we need to reconnect to that storytelling and narrative culture we have lost as human beings.

READ MORE: Ananda Shankar Jayant relates the reaction of her family and India’s dance community, talks about losing her hair and laughing, and blending the modern and traditional.Now, when you were diagnosed and decided to continue dancing, how did the artistic and dance community in India react? How did everyone react?

Actually, I’ve had a very interesting experience. On July 1, 2008, I was diagnosed in the doctor’s chambers and he said, “You need to go into surgery on the 21st of July.” And, I said, “21st of July? My God, I have a show. Can I come into surgery tomorrow so that I can dance by the 21st?” That was my first reaction. Then, I came home that evening, and told myself and the world at large, “I’m not going to allow this to bother me. This is one stage in my life. I’m not going to let it affect the rest of my life, I’m going to ride it out.”

The third thing I decided was that I was not going to keep it a secret. In India, to a large extent, cancer is still not really talked about. It’s kept quiet and within close circles — maybe your family, maybe your close friends would know, but people don’t really talk about it. But, I decided to pick up the phone and call everyone. It was cathartic. And, I decided that I didn’t want anyone coming to see me with long faces. I didn’t want anyone coming in and giving me that look that says, “Oh my God, poor you. Are you going to die tomorrow?” I didn’t want that look, because I’m not going to die tomorrow. So, I also told everyone, “If you’re feeling upset about the fact that I’ve got cancer and you’re feeling weepy, do your tears at home. Don’t weep in front of me.” I sent those kinds of messages! In fact, my mother-in-law, who had moved in with me to help take care of my nutrition and diet, said “You’re telling more people about this than you told about your National Award!” For me, it was important to ensure that I wasn’t overwhelmed with sympathy or pity. I didn’t want people coming to visit and making those clucking noises over me. I also never asked, “Why me?” I think this helped me not to do that.

As far as the dance community is concerned, when I said that I was still going to have the performance on the 21st, just three weeks after surgery, they supported me. I personally couldn’t dance, but I had my troupe performing. I had my surgery, I was home on July 10th, and on July 13th I was at my studio ensuring that rehearsals were happening. Before I could even register that I had had surgery, I was busy with my dance. There was a national festival that I was curating, with 11 of the supernova dancers of India performing and I just focused on that. And, the whole dance community just said, “Fantastic. Good for you.” In turn, I just kept doing what I loved — traveling and performing.

I have no idea what to say. You really are something.

(Laughter) Well, I don’t know. But, I’ll tell you another thing … I don’t know how it is in the US, but going out here with a bald head is not really something we do. When I lost my hair to chemotherapy, it was quite difficult. For some time, I did wear a hairpiece. But, eventually I just gave up. I said, “You know, I think I look nice bald.” And now, there’s a photograph of mine in some newspaper under the title “Bald Beauties of India!” And I thought, “This is all I need now!” And you see, that was also part of what I did — I laughed. I laughed and laughed. I kept my spirits about me.

Also, some of my biggest support came from my husband and from my mother-in-law, who moved in with me. Now, most family members would tell you that you can’t dance, you have to rest, but they didn’t. My husband said, “Just do whatever you can and listen to your body.” My doctor said the same. So, I never felt that I was an invalid. I never got into that state, because my family was there to support me all the time, saying “You can do it.” And, usually I travel alone to perform, but for the last two years someone from the family accompanied me on every trip. Only in the last six months have I been traveling on my own.

As you tell your story, I can’t help but notice how you blend the modern and traditional in all you do. How do you balance those elements in your life?

You see, I was in an institute called Kalakshetra where I trained to be a classical dancer, from the age of 11 until 17. That really molded me and made me who I am today. When I came back to my city of Hyderabad, I started teaching and performing, at 17. I have always danced, and on a major level, dance is my tool of communication. Just like I speak English or another language, I speak in dance. And, what an image can say in 30 seconds, in language would take me ages.

In the late ‘90s, there were a lot of women’s issues being discussed in the newspapers, from dowries to female foeticide to rape to the treatment of widows. All of it churned my stomach. In Indian dance, women are often portrayed as the beautiful heroine waiting for her lord or her beloved. And I asked myself, “How can I portray this with what is happening around me?” That was what triggered the production I called “What About Me?” It was in English. I used contemporary English poetry by a senior police officer who was a woman, and I raised questions on the myth and metaphor I was performing and how that can be misrepresented in everyday life, causing gender issues. It had a fantastic run, because people came backstage and asked, “Are we really like this? Are we really behaving like this?” And, I said, “Yes. Sometimes, even without our own knowledge, we do it.”

But, I don’t think there is a dichotomy between the traditional and the modern because we, as human beings, cannot divest what has been received. We can’t rid ourselves completely of tradition because we do something modern. You can be both, and really, that’s what we all are.