| Cynthia practises kathak in class. Picture by Aranya Sen
A class of energetic youngsters is matching steps with the teacher at Nupur Dance Academy in south Calcutta. Among the crop of local students, clapping with their feet and reciting tabla bols, Cynthia Lee stands out by her appearance.
Cynthia has come all the way from California to improve her kathak skills. The 23-year-old American of Taiwanese descent absorbs every instruction from guru Bandana Sen. Cynthia follows a five-hour practice regimen six days a week, before retiring to her Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture room to hone her newly-learnt lessons.
In 2002, a teacher from Calcutta had initiated Cynthia to the dance form while she was studying in Swarthmore Art College, Philadelphia. “I am an atheist. Yet I was fascinated by the relation between religion and dance that kathak represents. I found dancing to be a spiritual experience,” she says.
Soon after, Cynthia received a scholarship from the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program for a project entitled “Dancing the Body Divine: Religious Dance”. Thanks to the $22,000 grant from the foundation, Cynthia has embarked upon a learning tour, starting with Thailand and Brazil where she spent eight months. She landed in India four months ago. Her first stop was Kumudini Lakhia’s Kadamb Foundation in Ahmedabad, before she signed up with Bandana Sen.
Though Cynthia has been in Calcutta for just a few weeks, she already feels at home. “My teacher treats us like her children. I love the way she calls me ‘shona’ and ‘mishti’ all the time,” Cynthia smiles.
And it is not just dance that Cynthia has picked up here. She wears salwar-kameez, eats with her hands and offers pranam to her guru like the rest of her classmates. Her relatives who call her from the US make fun of her because she has even picked up the Bengali accent. But Cynthia does not mind. She loves immersing herself in local culture.
“My adaptation may have been facilitated because I was brought up in an Asian family. We, the Chinese, share some customs with Indians, like respect towards elders and obedience to our teachers,” Cynthia explains.
And she has been warmly accepted in the fold. “Cynthia is a hard-working and focused student,” Sen said, studying her feet movement.
Cynthia is soon to leave for California. A year of travelling all over the world may have broadened her horizons but she does not know what tomorrow will bring. “I want to use my dance experiences to become a choreographer,” the young dancer states.
But a part of her wants to stay back in Calcutta. “I will miss the friendly atmosphere of the academy”. One good news, though, is that her guru has asked her to perform here. So come February, Cynthia will be back in town.