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Pranita Nayar: Bringing Cultures Closer through Performing Arts

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Pranita Nayar performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. She has also taught and choreographed pop star Shakira for her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

She has also performed at some of the most prestigious places in America such as at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C; at Lincoln Center in NYC; The Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago based Pranita Nayar wears many hats. She is an artist, an accomplished dancer, curator of performing arts and the Artistic Director of Mandala South Asian Performing Arts – an award-winning organization that promotes and preserves South Asian music and art forms.

Her MacArthur Award Winning organization brings together various art forms, often from various parts of the world, and fuses it with the rich repertoire of performing arts from the subcontinent, showcasing an uncanny symphony that often exists between cultures and communities.

Pranita Nayar:

Born and brought up in Delhi, India, Nayar came to the United States after she got married back in 1985. But she did not let the challenges of adjusting in a new place deter her from following her passions. A trained Bharatnatyam dancer who had spent years under the guidance of legendary Sonal Mansingh, Nayar began thinking about putting her cultural tapestry on the American stage.

Since then, Nayar has accomplished many firsts. She has performed at some of the most prestigious places in America such as at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C; at Lincoln Center in NYC; The Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Newark Museum besides many other Indian and international venues.

And for all those who thought that ethnic Indian art forms are enjoyed by a certain genre and do not have an appeal for a younger, contemporary crowd then this couldn’t be further from the truth. Pranita has showcased the mesmerizing power of Bharatnatyam at some of the platforms favored by the gen Z and beyond. She is one of the few Indian artists who have performed at some of the most sought-after events in America. Pranita Nayar performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. She has also taught and choreographed pop star Shakira for her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

When she landed in Allentown, Pennsylvania back in the mid-eighties, Nayar confessed that she did not foresee this. She says she was just thinking about pursuing her passion.

The 80’s in America

Nayar recalls that the times when she first came to the US were definitely different from times today with much less people aware of Indian arts or cultural practices. She says, “The 80’s saw a bigger population of Indians in America. I would say in terms of the Indian population, it was less than what it is today but more than what it was say in the 1960’s. Same could be said about awareness about Indian cultures and not many people understand the intricacies.”

So, did people know about, for instance, a dance like Bharatnatyam which has a whole detailed background to it. Nayar says, “An art form like Bharatnatyam has costume, hand movements, expression and a history to it. For a majority, the awareness of India came from and still comes from the influence of Bollywood, tandoori food. So sure, there were challenges as everyone may not be ready for an entire discipline and culture that this dance form brings along.”

Nayar recalls a funny and telling episode. She says, back in the day when we started teaching Bharatnatyam at an American Dance Institute, there were also bhangra classes. Suddenly bhangra classes were getting fuller. Ofcourse, people were taken in by the peppy, fast moves.” Understandably, performing arts like Bharatnatyam require more dedication and focus but once you are committed to that you can unravel the whole perspective changes.

Setting Stage in Chicago

Today Pranita oversees one of the most prestigious institutes promoting not just Indian but other indigenous art forms too in the heart of Chicago – a place which has become the mecca of cultural diversity in America and especially in the midwest. But interestingly, Chicago was not always this melting pot. Pranita says, “When I first came here, after my degree in dance, I thought I would get a research job. But it didn’t work in Chicago. The city, not many would believe, was not as diverse culturally as it is today. I ended up being a founder-director of a dance school called Kala Priya. After 20 years it was time to explore the possibilities beyond Indian cultural dance.” Talking about Mandala Performing Arts, she says, “Mandala as a platform is forward looking, forward moving and forward thinking. We explore the boundaries and find similarities in the most unlikely places and that is the beauty of it.”

When Shakira came to Chicago

Pranita is rather humble about teaching dance to none other than Shakira – a pop icon for millions around the world whose music has blurred the barriers of language and cultures. While this is a feat most would shout about from the rooftops, Pranita Nayar remains unaffected by the enormity of it and says, “Shakira’s team was performing in Chicago and she came to see one of our performances. After the performance she came backstage. I was definitely nervous but this is how it began she said she loved what she saw.”

Pranita also recalls another interesting anecdote. Shakira for her song, “Hips Don’t Lie,” wanted to incorporate Bollywood dance moves. It was during this time that Farah Khan – the famous Indian choreographer and I were in the same room with Shakira and talking to her about Indian dance forms.”

And that is the power of dance and music. It creates invisible bonds and brings people and places together – a journey Pranita, with her Mandala – South Asian Performing Arts is spectacularly embarking on.

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