Featuring Interviews with Mika Godbole, Sheela Ramesh, and Vaibu Mohan
India, the most populated country in the world as of May 2023, is home to 1.4 billion people (and counting). Subsequently, thousands of different cultures, traditions, and customs are contained within its borders and beyond in the diaspora. So, when it comes to defining theatre in India, it’s difficult and unfeasible to narrow it down to one all-encompassing definition that accurately reflects the diversity of these innumerable existing art forms.
Some of these art forms, such as Bollywood – the Hindi-language sector of the Indian film industry – have had more representation in mainstream Western media. However, it is important to remember that Bollywood represents the stories and experiences of one language out of the 400+ existing languages in India, and that there are various language-specific film markets such as Kollywood (Tamil cinema), Mollywood (Malayalam cinema), and many more.
Many of these modern-day film musicals, as well as other forms of theatre in India, are heavily-influenced by traditional Indian art forms dating back to ancient times. One of those art forms is Indian classical music, typically divided into two genres: Carnatic music and Hindustani music. Carnatic music is classical music originating from Southern India that includes religious elements from Hindu texts and traditions. Hindustani music, on the other hand, is classical music originating from Northern India that contains Persian and Arabic influences as a direct result of Islamic conquests in the region during the 13th century.
Another traditional art form is Indian classical dance, which is often divided into the following groups: Bharatanatyam, Chhau, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Odissi, and Sattriya.
Having just celebrated AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Heritage Month, we are highlighting India’s rich history of art and culture and exploring its influence on artists today through conversations with three amazing artists of Indian heritage: Mika Godbole, Sheela Ramesh, and Vaibu Mohan.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
1. How did you first discover performing arts and what made you want to pursue it as a career?
MIKA: Public school was my first introduction to the performing arts in the Western classical tradition in the United States. My family has always been deeply embedded in the arts through various mediums. My grand-aunt is a renowned Kathak dancer and her sisters, my mother, and my aunt have always been musically-oriented, pursuing North Indian classical vocal styles.
I didn’t pursue music until much later, in my high school years when I was really drawn to percussion. The initial attraction was because of a boy, in all honesty! I changed high schools a few times and with each new school, I kept getting drawn further into the music programs until I finally made the decision to pursue it seriously during my senior year. I knew that I could pursue multiple career paths but there was something about drumming that stayed with me.
Once it got into my system, I knew I had to do it, or be near it, or something. It’s hard to elucidate those feelings early in life.
SHEELA: I don’t actually remember how the first seed was planted. My grandfather was a beautiful flutist in the Carnatic tradition, though that was not his profession, and my mom had always loved Bharatanatyam [dance]. There was often music playing at home – mostly Indian and Western classical music and Golden Age musical theatre.
One of my earliest memories involves receiving a toy keyboard when I was a toddler, and immediately sitting on the steps in my house to plunk out every kid’s song I knew. I’ve played piano since then. Not long afterward, I also began studying Bharatanatyam and singing both Carnatic and Western music. For as long as I can remember, I was dead-set on a music career, and I went to college and graduate school in conservatory programs as an operatic mezzo-soprano.
But at some point, I began to believe that a career in classical music was not a useful way to contribute to the most pressing issues in the world, and I was also hungry to explore other intellectual interests. So, I put music aside and became a lawyer for sex-trafficked teens.
The young people I worked with had experienced countless horrors and were fighting to access basic human needs—housing, food, safety, and family. Yet many sang, danced, drew, and wrote poetry as though it were the most important thing in their lives. They taught me that art is much more powerful and indeed necessary than I’d realized, and they inspired me to rediscover my own artistry. I owe my current career in the arts as much to them as to my earlier musical life.
VAIBU: My mother is a professional Bharatanatyam dancer and she was dancing when she was pregnant with me, so I think my artistic journey started before I was even born. My whole life, I saw my mom balance her career as a professor with her passion for dance and teaching. Having dance as an essential part of my life just made me believe that this is something I could do for the rest of my life.
Rama Vaidyanathan, a Bharatanatyam dancer, in 2009. (Flickr)
And when I was young, my father used to write plays in Tamil (my first language) for the children of our immigrant community so we could all practice speaking in Tamil. It was such a beautiful moment for all of us to come together to rehearse every weekend and put on these plays. It was also the first time I saw someone create something where nothing existed before, which was incredibly inspiring for a young person.
2. How does your Indian heritage contribute to your artistry? Do you ever incorporate elements of Indian culture into your own work?
MIKA: For whatever reason, my heritage has not manifested into my creative life whatsoever, but not for lack of trying!
I spent a year studying tabla after high school in Mumbai and I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t wake up in the morning obsessing over the intricate rhythmic cycles. I love listening to Indian music, Northern and Southern styles, but it has never impacted my pursuits in any meaningful way. This has been one of the things I’ve been wrestling with, even before this question arose in the context of this article.
There are so many incredible artists of Indian origin who are able to fuse their identities to create meaningful work and for whatever reason, I’m not one of them. Although I have a deep, intrinsic love for my cultural roots, very few tendrils, if any, have made their way into my musical ethos.
Indirectly, however, the one Indian cultural trait that I, along with so many others, carry is the ability to assimilate. I had a great conversation with my mother about this because I couldn’t quite fathom that assimilation is a trait that Indians carry with them. So many cultural tributaries have flowed into the story of India, each bringing with it an abundance of textiles, food, art, and philosophies.
I used to think of assimilation as a denial of my own culture until I realized, only yesterday, that it is my culture. My openness and ability to adapt, passed down through generations of ancestors who have also incorporated other cultures into their own, is how my Indian identity expresses itself.
That realization brings with it some more questions: Where is the line between assimilation and colonization? Am I judging myself, and my entire Indian community by extension, on parameters imposed by a dominant artistic culture that thrives on creating narratives rooted in power?
SHEELA: I grew up as a child of the Indian diaspora, surrounded by Indian music and dance. It’s so intertwined with the non-Indian facets of my background that it’s hard for me to pinpoint the specific contributions of the Indian strands.
Attempting to parse it out, I probably think about vocal sounds in ways that are influenced by Carnatic music: I’m very interested in movement in between pitches you can hear on a piano, and the manipulation of vowels and consonants to create something more instrumental than words. I also think about rhythm, especially polyrhythms, in ways I suspect come from my experiences with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.
VAIBU: My heritage is in everything I create. My Indian-ness, in some way, influences everything I do.. Coming from an old culture which has art, music, dance, and theatre baked into it is the greatest blessing I have received in my life. Coming from a family that greatly emphasized forming connections with my cultural and artistic practices is another great blessing. .
I am developing multiple shows right now, from Bharatanatyam dance productions to musicals to operas to screenplays, all of which incorporate my perspective as a Tamil woman. Something I have learned is that my work does not have to be explicitly “Indian” or “South Asian” for me to incorporate my perspective and view things through my specific lens. I originally thought of expressing my culture, especially in predominantly-white spaces, as an act of rebellion. It was when I was younger and needed to assert myself. Now, culture is just a part of who I am. I’m not rebelling – I’m just being and leading with joy.
3. How do you think performing arts can be impactful in terms of amplifying Indian voices and stories?
MIKA: The arts have a delicious way of worming their way into the psyche of a human, and I think they’re a fantastic conduit for creating empathy and understanding. Additionally, it’s such a meaningful platform to approach dark, difficult topics via artistic means and create spaces for voices that have never seen their stories reflected on stage.
Like all immigrant cultures, we’re not a monolith, and we all present our Indian-ness in our own way. We all have stories to tell and with each iteration, we get an opportunity to change the lighting, try a new frame, zoom out and in, and create nuanced dimensions.
SHEELA: My first thought is about the opposite.
When I was growing up, pretty much the only South Asian people I ever saw in the arts were those making specifically-Indian art. I rarely saw any South Asian actors on TV or in theatre, South Asian musicians performing any kind of Western music, nor South Asian dancers dancing any kind of Western dance. Naturally, the message I internalized was that Indian voices and stories could only be portrayed through Indian art forms. And since I didn’t see those Indian art forms as valued by mainstream American society, I didn’t think Indian voices and stories were valued either.
There have been enormous changes since then. I see so many more visible artists of Indian and other South Asian descent – many of them from my own generation, perhaps growing up in this country in a similar vacuum and nevertheless choosing to step into the void themselves. Some tell stories that are explicitly about their South Asian-ness; some don’t. Both of those still blow my mind. I can only imagine how differently I would have felt in my own skin and about my heritage if I were growing up in today’s cultural environment.
VAIBU: India, and South Asia in general, is one of the most diverse places in the world, yet I see today’s Western media landscape still views Indians as a monolith. I encourage those in power to listen to us when we say that we are more than Bollywood. I hope that people are able to see beyond our colors, vibrancy, and big, show-stopping song and dance numbers to see us as people.
I feel that even in 2023, we are seen as the “hot diversity hire of the moment.” This is something I’ve heard over and over again from my peers, and it is currently given as a compliment when it is very much not. We’re not a trend, and I feel that the performing arts right now is very interested in capturing trends, and in that narrative, Indian and South Asian people are seen as trendy.
I greatly respect pieces like Monsoon Wedding in the musical theatre landscape, which still deliver production value, fun, and entertainment while also tackling serious issues such as gender dynamics, the role of the patriarchy in society, and caste politics. It does not have to be one or the other: entertaining or thought-provoking. The more we can expand our mindset, the more interesting, compelling, and entertaining art we will see.
4. Do you think India or Indian culture are represented well (or at all) in musical theatre/opera? What are some good and bad examples of representation?
MIKA: This is a great question and something that I can’t answer comprehensively because I haven’t watched Indian-influenced musical theatre or opera in a long time, so I don’t know where the current cultural needle is hovering. I don’t know if there are any examples that are simply good or bad – things hit each person differently.
For my personal taste, I found the Bollywood influence unsatisfying though understandable. I loved Amitabh Bachhan and Rekha as a kid – I still have a collage I made of him somewhere – and then Aamir Khan (QSQT, anyone?) but my tastes ultimately pivoted away from that genre. I grew up with my grandfather and mother weaving the epic tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into my imagination, and reading Amar Chitra Katha comics full of complex myths and fables. I adored all of those and continue to derive much contentment from them.
The Bollywood machine, however, became the sole representation of a rich, multifaceted culture and, like butter chicken and yoga (don’t get me started), it became the dominant flavor and narrative. That said, Bollywood has since come a long way, and I’m lucky that my mother makes me watch movies with her that highlight more substantial issues within Indian society. She and her sister have a deep relationship with the theatre, along with my uncle, who’s a ridiculously incredible actor and director. They have a wicked sense of humor when it comes to old Bollywood tropes and an incessantly high standard for compelling performative value.
I can speak about the artists in the contemporary music field that are writing new instrumental works and bringing some incredible art to the forefront: Nina Shekhar, Juhi Bansal, Kamala Sankaram, Amirtha Kidambi, Reena Esmail, Sunny Jain, and Rohan Krishnamurthy. They’re all legends in my eyes, and if I ever get around to starting a podcast that features artists of Indian origin regaling me with their tales, I would start with them!
SHEELA: There is so much art out there that I know nothing about, but from my limited knowledge, it seems like the musical theatre landscape is recently much more interested than it had been in explicitly Indian and South Asian representation.
Off the top of my head, Monsoon Wedding, The Lunchbox, Bhangin’ It, Come Fall in Love – The DDLJ Musical, and numerous other shows have all been in the works around the same time. Obviously, there is much to unpack. Which stories are being told: are they providing the right kind of representation? How do we avoid the stigma of stereotyping and tokenization? Who is on the teams making the decisions about all of these things?
But personally, I’m not eager to call out “bad” examples of representation in contemporary theatre because I see so much good intent amidst genuinely complicated issues. One person’s celebration of their culture onstage is another person’s stereotype reinforced for the masses. A hiring decision can feel simultaneously like an opportunity for representation and an awkward example of tokenization. Of course, there’s work to be done, and at the same time I think there’s probably no way to the other side of the muck except through it.
I think we can all agree that making fun of someone for their ethnicity, accent, or similar attributes is offensive. Depictions like the character Punjab in the 1982 Annie film make me cringe. But I see so much more thoughtfulness today, and I am hopeful that continued good-faith exploration of the nuances of these issues will (with some inevitable growing pains) be good for artists and audiences and yield some pretty cool art.
VAIBU: One word answer: no.
This goes back to my point about what Western media values and what it doesn’t. We are seen as a monolith, and in the American context, we are framed within the model minority myth, even though the Asian American community at large has one of the largest wealth disparities out of any immigrant community in America. Art does not have the responsibility to fix problems, but it does have a responsibility to shed light on them.
I don’t know if I can give an answer about good and bad representation because I also don’t think you can call Indian culture a singular culture or Indian people a singular people. Many people call India “the country that was accidentally unified” because you can drive 100 miles in any direction and be in a totally new place where they speak a different language and have a different culture. As of now, I can say that I am seeing one region of India represented predominantly in Western media and musical theater. I hope that spaces open up for those of us who are writing stories from every corner of the diaspora so we can see the whole picture.
However, I hope we as a whole can be more critical and ask more of the pieces that claim to be based on Indian stories or inspired by Indian culture or are set in India etc. I think people feel hesitant to critique a piece when there is such a lack of representation, but without open dialogue and criticism, progress cannot be made.
5. Are there any changes you wish to see in the Indian or global performing arts industries?
MIKA: Yes and yes! There are so many incredible composers, performers, artists of all different kinds, some of whom I’ve named earlier, and I wish we could all just hang out together. I wish we could all form an alliance of some kind to firstly, get to know each other in our own space, and then secondly, advocate for each other.
The immigrant experience can be so isolating, and I generally have a lot of difficulty articulating how I feel about it and how I present my own Indian heritage. I often don’t know where I fit in or if I do at all, and perhaps a space with a critical mass of us would smash those floodgates. We all grew up in at least two different worlds and I’m sure that many struggled with synthesizing those worlds. That’s what I would personally want to change within our community.
As far as the larger performing arts world is concerned, I would love for the bigger arts organizations to really dig deep as they tackle issues of representation rather than making superficial, perfunctory changes.
SHEELA: I’m not knowledgeable enough to weigh in on the performing arts industry outside of the US! Within the US, I hope the industry will continue working to expand access for creators, performers, musicians, and audiences who haven’t typically seen themselves included in this world.
I’d also love to see less siloing between related performing arts traditions – for example, musical theatre, opera, pop and rock concerts, and everything that gets relegated to the “world music” category. They have lots to teach each other, and often the most interesting art (and most fulfilled artists) transcend the boundaries between them.
VAIBU: I hope that we stop shying away from past mistakes. When your artistic culture is as old and entrenched as India’s, it is easy to get stopped by tradition and what has been done. The status quo is difficult to break and patterns of abuse fester.
India went through its own #MeToo which truly went nowhere. The people who were accused are still working and are still lauded as titans of their respective fields, which continues to push out and discourage this and the next generation of artists from entering the industry and changing it for the better. Of course, this is not a problem unique to India or the Indian arts space. But preserving tradition doesn’t mean we have to blindly follow it. I hope we keep moving towards change.
On the other hand, I also believe the world has a lot to learn from Indian arts culture. We are diverse and our diversity makes us stronger. Each state has multiple styles of music, dance, theatre, and art and each discipline can be a lifelong pursuit. I hope that this natural diversity is something we can develop as an industry as well.
I have also always valued the Indian art space’s community aspect. The spaces I have inhabited have generally been positive, loving, and safe, and I credit the people around me for creating those environments. I truly believe that we can keep working towards creating inclusive communities where everyone is safe, valued, and happy, and both the individual and the collective are important.
There is still much work to be done when it comes to amplifying Indian voices and stories. It is not enough to just achieve authentic representation in the performing arts, it is also essential to ensure these voices do not reflect a singular, monolithic experience. But change is happening, and Mika Godbole, Sheela Ramesh, and Vaibu Mohan are among the creative and hardworking artists paving the way. To keep up with these brilliant artists’ works, visit their Maestra pages and follow their social media accounts!