She’s been dancing since she was five-years old. It’s something that has always been a part Nartana Premachandra’s life, even though it took her a while to realize it.
“I had no choice in learning classic Indian dance growing up,” she joked. “My mother, Asha Prem, is the Artistic Director of Dances of India in St. Louis. Growing up I didn’t think of our dance company as a big deal; I just thought of it as something my parents did.”
Premachandra’s father was a research scientist and prominent supporter of dance. He started Dances of India with his wife in 1976. Last fall, the dance company celebrated its 44th year. See Dances of India featured on Fox 2.
“We are one of the oldest classical Indian dance companies in the United States,” she explained. “We produce one annual performance every autumn, featuring originally-scripted dance-theatre. We also teach dance in schools, corporations, museums – you name the occasion, and we’ll create a show for you!”
In 2014, Premachandra’s father passed away. She took the reins of Dances of India as president.
“People think they won’t understand classical Indian dance–which I totally get,” she said, “We really try hard to convey the significance of our dances to a non-Indian audience. I think that’s why people appreciate our productions so much–because of the effort we make to render our performance accessible to anyone.”
Though dancing has played an important role in her life, Premachandra admits she has another passion in life – writing.
“I started writing as soon as I learned the alphabet,” she quipped. “I started writing my first novel when I was in graduate school. Since then, I’ve written poetry, essays, short fiction, and more novels. I believe the novel I’m working on right now is my favorite. It’s called The Palace of the Seven Stories and I’ve been working on it for years. There’s a unique concept in it, and I think I’m near the end. We’ll see.”
Combining her love for writing and love for dance has continued to spell success for Dances of India.
“We are committed,” she said. “We are committed to the art form, committed to sharing our art with absolutely everyone, and committed to doing our best to create a professional, entirely new, performance every year.”
Premachandra’s father always insisted Dances of India kept inclusivity at the heart of the organization’s mission. Over the years, they collaborated and performed with the Saint Louis Ballet, Ashleyliane Dance Company, Viva Flamenco, Diva La Tap, and many others – even guest artists from India and France.
“Dance is so singularly unique and important in the world today. All you really need is yourself. You are the instrument; you are the music; you are the tempo,” she shared. “You can put all your devices away and forget yourself in dance.”
While performing to share Indian culture is the cornerstone of Dances of India, it also trains students in the art of Indian dance. Soon, it will graduate its 100th student. It’s no small feat – it can take 7-10 years for a student to graduate from its program.
“One of my students, Hope Gregory, recently completed a course of classical Indian dance with us. I asked her why she became interested in classical Indian dance. She replied, ‘I went to the art museum one day, and there was an Indian dancer there. She was doing a dance about Krishna, and I thought it was really pretty. So, I told my parents I wanted to learn.’”
That Indian dancer? It was Premachandra. “To know my performance inspired someone else to dance was an incredible feeling,” she said.
Premachandra believes St. Louis is a great place for the arts and is only getting better.
“We have a huge selection of dance, theater, music, and literature. I think sometimes people just don’t know all St. Louis has to offer,” she said. “A couple of years ago I had some essays published in The St. Louis Anthology. At the reception for the book, I danced, a Bosnian woman sang incredibly beautifully, and many people from all over St. Louis read from their work. The event was at a very cool bar on Cherokee Street, and I remember thinking how eclectic and creative St. Louis is!”
Asha Prem is a 2018 St. Louis Visionary Award recipient and a 2020 Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis Artist Fellow. Nartana Premachandra was recognized as the Missouri Arts Council Featured Artist in March 2021. She also recently had essays published in the journal Parabola.