Dance Entrepreneur– Swaroopa Unni
Interviewer: Ankita Menon
Swaroopa Unni is a dance entrepreneur based in Dunedin, New Zealand where she founded Natyaloka School of Indian Classical dance. Natyaloka is a Sanskrit word for the ‘world of dance’ and the school embodies that word by offering classes in Bharatnatyam and Mohiniyattam.
Currently pursuing her PhD in Dance studies from Otago University, New Zealand, Swaroopa began her dance journey from the tender age of four. She has trained in Bharatnatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi and Kathak, each a distinct Indian classical dance style of its own over a span of 15 years from various distinguished dance masters and has performed across many stages in India. She has also won several prizes at the University, District and State levels whilst representing her school and college.
Born into a family of artists that encouraged dancing amongst girls, she never faced any objection from her family members to pursue this field and believes her husband Siddharth Nambiar is her strongest supporter and critic who equivalently helps her in the technical aspects of her dance shows.
Natyaloka was never a “pre-planned” idea for a start-up and began in the flow of her married life after shifting to Dunedin in 2010.
In an email interview, she writes, “I knew that dance would be a part of my life though I was not sure how long or how much I would be involved in it. I was the happiest when I was on stage. So I had a hope that I would become a performing artist. But once I moved to Dunedin, I was asked if I could teach /train the youth from the Indian diaspora here and so my journey began. It just all fell into place and Natyaloka was born.”
For someone who has been performing her whole life, surprisingly, teaching dance to 25 students of all ages gives her utmost satisfaction.
Prior to Natyaloka and after moving to Dunedin, Swaroopa participated at the Dunedin Fringe Festival in 2011 and was nominated for the outstanding performer and best newcomer, thanks to the support of the Dunedin creative arts community. The local community at Dunedin was only familiar with Bollywood dance and in her own little way, Swaroopa was instrumental in creating an interest in Indian classical dance forms through workshops, lecture-demonstrations and various tutoring sessions within the Indian diaspora as well as with the local population in Dunedin. As a culmination of all these, Natyaloka was born on 6 October 2011 “at a spare room in her apartment with just three students.” She felt Natyaloka would be the best launchpad to promote herself as a dance instructor as well as an artist.
Natyaloka was the first Indian classical dance school in Dunedin and its main USP was that it was an all-inclusive performing arts center catering to all skill levels and abilities. Class, religion, age, ability and gender were not taken into consideration and the main aim was “to inculcate a healthy and supportive environment for learning the dance forms.”
Analyzing the SWOT of her dance school, Swaroopa writes. “My idea was not commercialization of the dance form, our culture or to make profits. I just wanted to share my passion for dance with the others and identify similar artists, art appreciators within my dance school and outside. So I didn’t identify any threat nor am I insecure”
She never considered the competition while starting out and doesn’t really mind it as long as it is healthy competition where her art can speak for itself.
Dance is an art form that often does not provide enough financial impetus especially in countries where dance appreciation is not fully developed or encouraged. Like any solo dance entrepreneur, Swaroopa, too, struggled to gain financial incentives only through her dance school. She reminisced that when she started Natyaloka, the classes used to initially take place at her apartment and there was hardly any cost involved apart from knowledge generation. But as the dance school grew and more and more students enrolled, she decided to move the classes to a studio for which she pays the per week’s rent. Initially, she had to do a couple of odd jobs to sustain the rent payment but now she pays from the fees given by the students.
She admits with complete honesty,” I don’t make much earning through my dance school. But I am doing it for the love of it. I just want to share my passion and love for art with everyone around me. “
Dance is an expensive field on account of the costumes, venue and stage options. More so for Indian classical dances because the tradition of performing it on a proper stage in front of a knowledgeable audience adorned in the traditional attire and jewellery has to be followed. The financial expenses intensify with the addition of live music, which is why many artists prefer to use recordings rather than live orchestra. Swaroopa acknowledged that the struggle is real when it comes to arranging the venue, stage, lights and costumes and to add-on to that, promotion of shows and sale of tickets/ invites. However that hasn’t stopped all her shows from being a sell-out until now!
Natyaloka usually hosts its annual productions between August and October every year and apart from that, participates in several cultural events set up by the Dunedin City Council.
Explaining the process undertaken for her annual productions, she writes-” I look for a theme for my show every year and rehearsals start 7-8 months before the actual production. Initially during class hours and then closer towards the programme, say 2-3 months before we meet on Sunday for extra rehearsal. Planning for Themes for production start right after one is finished the previous year. I start with booking the venue, hiring sound and light and hiring the tech and photographer and letting the students and their parents know about the production and rehearsal details at the beginning of the year. Costumes and jewellery are sourced from India which my parents help me organize.”
A lover of all dance styles, currently she is focused on Bharatnatyam. While the performer in her believes in maintaining her individuality in the choreographies, as a teacher she encourages her students to find their own individual style in synchronization with the choreographic works. Swaroopa enjoys projecting contemporary issues in her dances as well as undertaking concepts showcasing women as powerful characters. She writes,” Creativity is a process on its own. I observe a lot. I read a lot too. So when I come across something that is interesting to me, that triggers a spark in my mind I go about researching it and try to come up with a choreography and music.”
Her passion for using dance as a medium of change is explicitly indicated in her belief that Indian classical dance has a bright future ahead due to its beautiful story-telling feature which can be used to address contemporary issues of today and not just remain as an “exotic spectacle.”
Swaroopa feels that in terms of marketing, self-branding plays an important role for a dance entrepreneur to attain opportunities and use it as a wheel for promotional activities. Although she admits at being bad in promoting herself, she takes every given opportunity to promote her students through Natyaloka. Apart from that, she indulges in word-of-mouth, Facebook, fliers-around-the-city and articles in local newspapers as marketing strategies before a show. However, at the beginning of every year she does advertise for new enrollments at local newspapers in line with the promotion for Natyaloka.
Even though it took 2 years for Natyaloka to create a name in the Dunedin dance scene, Swaroopa is happy with the active participation of Natyaloka in the Dunedin dance community and the name it has created for itself in the dance sector. Although bigger cities like Auckland and Wellington have a number of Indian classical dance institutions, she feels the sector is small but growing.
When asked how things would have been different if she started her school in India, she writes- “India would have been different. Easier to get students because dance is part of our lives and there is no need for an explanation. But I am happy I started here because I can look at my dance objectively. My perspectives, ideas and philosophies have changed.”
It is a one-woman army handling everything for now and she doesn’t want to make it an enterprise unless she gets the opportunity to work with like-minded people who will foster and support her endeavours.
Her top three requirements for anyone setting out to be a cultural entrepreneur in the dance field are passion, love and courage. As a concluding note, she writes- “If you are looking only for money and financial gain or expecting profits, it is not easy. I think this is a profession were whatever meagre amount you earn from a project in invested again for the next one. It doesn’t stay in your account. Unless you are successful to procure funding for the projects which is a highly competitive area.”
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