The home of Hinduism Today was blessed in July when Asako Takami gave a stunning performance of Odissi dance as part of the celebration of Guru Purnima. Our publisher, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a life-long aficionado of dance, said, “She is the best Indian dancer I have seen, since the legendary Devija of Bali in the 1940s and 50s.” She is a much sought-after and popular performer. Hinduism Today’s staff interviewed her after the performance.

I saw Indian dance for the first time when I was twenty years old. Before that, I was not interested in it at all. I liked doing painting and calligraphy and was studying Japanese design at the Women’s College of Fine Art in Tokyo. One professor often brought Indian artists to the college, and in a small classroom, I saw Bharata Natyam and Odissi for the first time. It was beautiful, but I didn’t really want to do it by myself. I was amazed by the rhythm and the footwork. I’d never seen women who were really beautiful and really powerful. That energy I’d never felt in anything–that was my first impression. I could not forget it.

Getting started
At this time a Japanese-born Korean women, Mina Kang, went to study philosophy and dance in India. I met her and learned the basics of Manipuri and Kathakali. I wanted to study more and went to India after three years of training from Mina. But in India, I could not meet a suitable teacher in Kathakali. I came back and saw Sanjukta Paniegrahi perform in Tokyo. She was completely in a different space. I saw a big, bright light from inside of her connecting from there to here, really strong. She was dancing with her body, but she was something else. I thought, “What is this?” I was very shocked that one human body can change the space and energy. I didn’t think I could do that with my body, but I wanted to. Right after this performance, I met my teacher, Kumkum Lal, who was visiting Japan from India. I went to her place and said I wanted to study Odissi. She just started teaching in her kitchen. That’s how I began in 1983.

Going to India
I went to Delhi and Bhubhanesvar and studied with Kumkumji’s guru, Padma Bhushan Kelucharan Mohapatra. He’s the person who recreated Odissi in the 1940s, after it had become nearly lost. In the summer, I would go back to Japan. Whenever I had money, I would go to India again. A friend of Mina’s gave me a job. After I started, I thought about this dance all the time. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be able to dance, but my body didn’t know how to dance at all. For fourteen years I would go to India six months at a time. I am still learning. Last spring I went to Guruji’s place.

Spiritual guru
I think the dance is my spiritual guru. In my house there is a small Shinto shrine and Buddhist shrine. Both are there, and we celebrate both. As for Hinduism, I think I’m experiencing it through Odissi.

Should dance again be done in temples?
God loves art, music and dance. Through dance, through your own body, you can experience God. I can feel the devas which you cannot see. But, to perform in the temples again is maybe not my work. For me, Odissi is a very individual, spiritual practice. Now it is on the stage, not in the temple. In this society, the stage can become a temple. I experienced that. But coming here [to Kauai Aadheenam and its temples] is so different an experience, because the spiritual energy, the space is already open. It is easy to just be there and open that part of myself.

Innovation and variation
I studied a little bit with one of Balasaraswati’s disciples in Chennai. [Balasaraswati was the great exponent of Bharata Natyam in the tradition of the devadasis, the temple dancers.] This disciple taught me an abhinaya [set of expressive movements]. I would learn it one way, and the next day she would do it differently. She showed me that you can tell the story in many ways. Each time can be spontaneous, but you have to know the origin from which to express in different ways. It was very confusing for me, and very difficult. But that is how, once you know the form, the language of the dance, you can express in many different ways. I think Balasaraswati understood dance with her whole body and mind. She was free from structure. My Guruji interprets differently the same song, the same story, according to his mood. But mainly in Odissi the dance is done the same each time.

Is Odissi remaining pure?
Classical Indian dance is traditional, 5,000 years old. But it’s always new. Odissi, as well as Bharata Natyam, is always changing. They take different movements from different things. My Guruji really likes all the different dance forms–gymnastics, for example. He likes to see other movements and to translate them to this dance form. So Odissi is changing, but the essence is always there. That essence is liquidity, softer movements, perhaps, when compared to Bharata Natyam, also roundness. Our bodies are like water, liquid. In Bharata Natyam the torso never moves, but Odissi moves the torso. The movement is continuous. There is no beginning, no ending.

Is Odissi designed for the Indian body?
Yes, yes, very much. I feel so limited [in a Japanese body]–for example, in facial expressions and the eyes. In India there are facial expressions used in daily life, and many hand expressions. But I never used my face nor my hands very much for expression. I was born in a very cold place, and I never opened my feet as required in Odissi. Everything in this dance form is for the Indian body. The dancing is very harsh for my body. As I continue, it is destroying my body. I don’t know how I can continue dancing. But again I just do so somehow, it just attracts me so much. This is one of the most ascetically and spiritually high and sophisticated dance forms. That’s why I really love to know and learn more.

Her students
Some students have continued for the four years I’ve been in America. But it’s difficult to practice every day, and once a week is not enough at all. My students are like my friends. They are not young, rather in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. It’s a limited study to learn to feel this dance form. To really learn, they’d have to dance every day, or go to India. I’m out of town half the year, so half the students don’t continue when I return.

Schools of Odissi?
In Orissa, there are small schools, the guru’s house where all live together and learn dance. There is nothing big like the Kalakshetra school for Bharata Natyam in Chennai.

Her plans for the future
Since last year, I’ve been working with dancers from New York and with African and Chinese dancers, 12 people, all from very different backgrounds, both traditional and modern. The group is based in New York. When I first came to this country, I met some people with whom I could share what I feel in Odissi. They were also practicing their spiritual path, but through another dance form. We share and communicate with different body language. That interests me very much. They make me question myself, why I’m doing this dance form as a Japanese? How can I express my own experience with my physical body through the Odissi dance form? I know this Odissi dance language a little bit, but now my interest is finding how I can make my own language.
Asako Takami: 4025 West Street, Oakland, CA 94608 USA