Miti Desai: Dancing, Design & the Journey from Form to the Formless
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Mar 4, 2017
Trushna: Miti is a designer, professional dancer, educator, and seeker of truth. Her journey began with graphic design, which eventually lead her to explore inner design through the classical Indian dance form of Mohiniattam. She sees dance as a way of life and a tool to reach transcendence. This journey of dance has transformed her life and ignited a passion for educating others about the rich stories and offerings of classical indian arts, Ayurveda, and a general holistic approach to living. She is deeply engaged at the Shakti Yoga Ashram, where she is also the Executive Trustee, under the mentorship of her teacher, Mandakini Trivedi. Design continues to be apart of her life as she is also the founder and creative head of Miti Design Lab in Bangalore. Welcome Miti!
Miti: Thank you so much for the introduction.
Trushna: Your journey was so inspiring to read about such a merging of two separate fields -- dance and design. How do you understand and experience this relationship between dance and design?
Miti: So actually my relationship with design and dance is very interconnected. They are like two sides of the coin, and almost two different dimensions through which I express myself. I don’t really differentiate between the two. They are forms and tools to express, engage and communicate. They both happened to me. There was no plan, there was no strategy of choosing these two. It was a flow that one came into my life and one led to the other. They are two aspects of who I am now.
Trushna: I understand that. At an early age you’d taken dance and then you explored design in school. How did you have the idea to say -- okay there’s this inner form, this inner expression that I need to bring forth - I need something more than just design in the commercial aspects?
Miti: Actually as a little girl I did train in classical Indian dance, just like many other little girls in India. My mother was really keen that I pursue it. So I joined a bharatanatyam class which is a classical dance form from Tamil Nadu. I was not really engaged or involved in it. I just went through it because of my mother's persistence. At some point I almost left it because when I went into college I got busy with college work, my undergraduate was in Applied Arts which is Commercial Art and Commercial design. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree I had stopped dancing but as part of my journey I did complete my initial Arangetram in Bharatanatyam. But I was not really into it. After I graduated, I instinctively took up a job in a very well-known design firm at that time. It was my first job, and my first day at work I went in, and I had a very terrible feeling in my tummy. I felt extremely uncomfortable, and a couple of days passed and I was actually in deep pain and trauma. I felt that I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. The one thing that struck me at that point is that I was getting a so-called salary for the work that I was doing for the company, the company was getting money from a client for what we were creating for them, and eventually the client was taking what was created by us in the company and selling that product and making money in the end. So I just felt that the whole transaction is financially -through and through and I can’t be doing this for the rest of my life. I did not know what I could do, at that point -- so I was howling and crying, and I just felt this urge that this is not it. But I did not have any answers. So I left the job, very quickly. I don’t even know if I finished a month. I left the job and the only logical thing that occured to me was maybe I should go abroad for further studies.
So I applied, and went to a really lovely design school in Atlanta Georgia called Portfolio Center. I was very fortunate that I found that school and went there, but as soon as I got to the USA, and the first day, the second day of my new course, and new school and a new country I felt that everything that I am going to create over here is outside me -- in the form of brochures or books and yet -- and nothing is going to be internalized and I said, “this is not it!” I don’t want to do this. I want to engage with holistic design.” And that’s a term that just came to me I did not know what it meant and it’s actually taken me many years to really define for myself what I really understand or experience when I say holistic design. And I said I want to engage with design holistically. I want to engage with body design and I want to design and create with my body and not outside my body. How do I do it? And so I went to my dean - he’s a very very dear mentor. I went to him at that point and said I need to leave. And I had come to the country at that point for a two year program. And I said I’m going to leave because I don’t want to engage with design at an outward level. I think I just need to dance. And that was something that just came to me. It is not something I’d read. And we had a really long conversation and he understood what I was pointing towards and he told me, just stick on to the two years, and you can do non-commercial projects and engage with design in a different way and then you go and dance. And somewhere I really connected with him as a mentor, and so I stuck on for the two years,. But the moment I graduated I was itching to go back and train in dance and it was a very normal thought that I will train in classical Indian dance because I had done it before. So after my graduation I moved back to India and that's how I came back to dance. So it was basically design that got me back to dance. An engagement with internal body design.
Trushna: I’m curious, while you’re talking about this journey that sounds so amazing, it was so uncertain at the time -- what type of principles or lessons or values that you had up to that point really allowed you to walk on that path of uncertainty? I feel like maybe your roots or your family -- there has to be some sort of foundation that allows you to take that leap of faith.
Miti: When I was still studying in the USA and doing my two years in design -- I feel more than anything it was an inner intensity. The urge was so strong that I held onto it even after the two years because somewhere my dean and parents felt this will pass by the time she graduates. But it was a very very deep rooted urge I felt, and I held onto it because the moment I graduated I had my portfolio and my dean wanted me to meet designers all over in NY and I told him that, “Hank I need to go back to India”. He said give me one week and I want you to meet a few designers and actually set up meetings for me with all the top designers in the industry. I was really really fortunate that in one week I had fifteen meetings in NY to show my work because somewhere he thought maybe I’ll stick on or find design as an avenue to express myself. And I went through all the meetings and conversations and it was very enriching and lovely but at the end of it I still knew I had to go back to India. So I started looking for a dance teacher at that point and I called my mother and asked, “Do you know a dance teacher? Can you look for one for me?”. And she said well we have to look into it, and obviously she was not very sure and then through someone she came to know of a lady very close to our home in Bombay and she said, there is so and so lady and this is where she stays and she teaches. So I said can you please get me her contact details and I wrote her a letter and I sent it through my mother and my mother went and gave it to her and she said I can teach anyone who comes to me so if she wants to learn she has to come and train. My mother told me and it was a matter of six days that I had packed my bags and was back in India. And I had just received my work permit and at that point I remember work permits were very precious for students. And I had received my work permit at the doorstep as I was leaving for the airport. I was with my uncle in Boston and they said, “Are you sure you really want to go? You just got your work permit”. And I said that I'm going. So I would just say that it’s just-- it was a very innate urge and an intensity. It was not something that I was forcing. It just happened. I don’t even know what made me hold on.
Trushna: Sounded like you were very much in touch with your inner voice and inner calling and you were just trying to be really true to yourself in that moment.
Miti: And I was not analyzing any of this. It was just something that I knew I had to do. It wasn’t that I was logically thinking if it is my inner voice or not. I didn’t have that vocabulary at that point. I was 22 years old, and I was not exposed to a larger picture of life at all at that point. And so I did not have the wherewithal to even assess what I was feeling and what I was doing. So I came back to India in a week saying that now I will dance.
Trushna: To go into a little bit more about the dance -- can you tell us a little bit about your teacher and the dance form of Mohiniyattam?
Miti: Yes of course. So Mohiniyattam is a dance form that comes from southern India from Kerala. It is a very very beautiful dance form which has swinging, swaying, circling serpentine and elephantine movements. These movements are really inspired by nature that it comes from -- the swaying palm trees, undulating waters, and the style has a slower pace than the other classical Indian dance forms and somewhere it is more internal and more circular in its form. It has a very rich mimetic tradition also. Though I had no idea about these aspects - the beautiful aspects of Mohiniyattam at that point, I thought I was coming back to India to train under a bharatanatyam teacher. I had no idea the teacher I had picked was a Mohiniyattam teacher. When I came back to India I called her and she said, “Yes, you can come and meet me after a week at this so-and-so ashram.” Though she lived five minutes from my house in Bombay, she also runs an ashram that is three hours from Bombay. So she called me to the ashram because they were having a dance program. So she said come there and we will talk. So I went for the retreat at the outskirts of Mumbai and I reached there and in conversation I realized that she was not a bharatanatyam teacher. She was a Mohiniyattam teacher and I did not know what Mohiniyattam was.
I was like I have come all the way from US leaving a work permit to learn bharatnatyam and she’s a Mohiniyattam teacher what do I do? She told me yeah if you want a bharatanatyam teacher you should look for someone else. But somewhere I just connected with the essence that she was and she did tell me in the conversation styles are not important but the teacher is. And I think that was enough for me to process -- what it really meant in its true sense and so I just said whatever you teach I will learn. And that’s how I came to Mohiniyattam. So I did not choose Mohiniyattam but I chose my teacher. And actually I am very blessed and fortunate I would say that I did not have to hunt for many teachers to find her. It was on a platter that this was the lady my mother came across and I wrote to her and I came there and I just met her. So I feel extremely blessed. And it was the formless energy that she had that I think attracted me and now if I look back and try and understand - when I say - the shastras the Indian traditional texts say from the formless comes the form and the form is meant to take you back to the formless - I feel that really fits into the journey. It was the formless energy that she had that held me on through which I learned this form. And I am still practicing the form and somewhere this form is meant to take me back to that formless energy. So it’s kind of all just comes together so yes I have a deep connection with my teacher and she has opened up a whole world view not only of classical dance but Indian art, Indian philosophy, thought, holistic lifestyle and just assimilated living with spirituality at the core. So I received everything in one package through finding dance to what I want to engage with.
Trushna: How has your teacher and the dance form changed your daily living and your practice? Has it changed the way you approach the world on a day-to-day basis?
Miti: Yes, completely. It actually just turned my life around and has changed everything from the way I think to the way I engage with people from the way I sleep, eat and pray, even professional work changed. So everything changed because through this channel I received a way of life. And it has given me a tool for how to assess, engage and live life and it is the most precious gift that I have received from nature. So if I didn't have this facility then I would have been a different person. I turned around completely through my training. Family and friends for a interim period thought I was a different human being when that intense change was happening. I was very young. I was 23 when I met her. So I was still finding my ground.
Trushna: You mentioned it affected not only your way of living and interacting but also has influenced your design. Can you talk a little bit more about how it has influenced your work and your design and your creativity.
Miti: Yes definitely. As a human being when one changes, when one understands a larger picture of life, when one understands and experiences that life is much more than mundane existence, then the way you approach work is also with a certain kind of detachment and with a lot of reverence to work in itself. So the quality in which one works is important. It teaches you to work well, that's something I got from this practice. Whatever the work is, you do it really well. Whether it's a letter that I'm writing, or a big project that I'm designing. You do it well. You do it, without feeling that this is the end of the world, because in a profession things go up and down. Professionally there is sometimes stress, the work may not be received well, sometimes you just don't meet timelines. So it's not something that I let control me. I do it with a lot of love and I do it with a lot of intensity. Everything that I do, my aim is to try and do it as well as I can, but if it doesn't happen then there is a sense of understanding, that this is not the whole of my life there's much more in life than this. So it’s a sense that you don’t belong to anything -- the work doesn't control me. I do it well and then I let it be. So it's a sense of freedom that you have. And there's a lot of joy and working like that because you work well and then you let it be. And you let it go. So that is one way in which my approach to work and design in itself is influenced. And through dance I have understood a larger framework of design. Design education in India emerges from the colonial formation. So when we trained in graphic design in India I did a five-year undergraduate program, and there was nowhere the Indian aesthetic or Indian design that was talked about. And it's a pity that you don't learn that at all in design school. And then of course the latter part of my design education was in the United States so obviously that was another aspect of design that I trained in. So through the medium of dance, the literature and culture and painting and philosophy and aesthetic the whole world view of Indian design was revealed to me. So that really comes into my visual treatment. Because it's so integral to me because of the practice of the dance and the study of the Indian design framework. That really comes into my graphic design work somewhere. And just the understanding of holistic education the understanding of that aesthetic -- so when I work with a certain kind of client it really helps. And I try to work with clients that I resonate more with than clients who are corporate in real sense.
Trushna: That sounds amazing so it sounds like the commercial aspects that you were initially a little apprehensive about, you feel more and more comfortable now that you have your roots grounded and something that you feel you're connecting with on a deeper level.
Miti: Yes and now I feel like I can do commercial work also. And I do it as a part of Miti Design Lab as a part of our work we work with all kinds of clients as long as there's a certain integrity in what they are doing. I'm a little picky when it comes to the kind of clients that I work with. But as long as there is an integrity and what they do in their field then I would feel comfortable working with them. So yes I do a lot of corporate work also. I work with a lot of art institutions. I work with a lot of artists. I work with the education sector for all kinds of design work.
Trushna: Sounds like you have a full plate there! I was curious as somewhat of a dancer myself I wanted to learn a little more and understand more about what role the audience plays in not only the classical dance but in the form of design. How does the audience fit into the process of transcendent or do they?
Miti: Well if you talk from the term of classical Indian dance the form itself has been devised and designed by the tradition in a way that it gives energy. It gives energy not only to the practitioner but it gives energy to the audience also. Because of the themes because of the music because of the movement, and the science of how it was designed. So when an audience sees a classical dance performance or a classical music recital they will feel a sense of integration and so does the artist and as much as the artist will feel it in purity the audience will feel it in that much purity. Because it is the communication, it is a conversation that is happening. If I believe in what I am doing and if I'm feeling it, you will feel it. So the audience is very important in the classical dance because it's a performing art, and it is about a relationship between the practitioner and the audience.
Trushna: That was beautiful that's what I was wondering because I know so often when we talk about transcendence particularly in dance, there's an inner journey that is happening and while you're performing and I was just curious as to how is it necessary to have an audience there to still have that Journey because dance itself creates that ladder.
Miti: It’s not necessary to have an audience -- you can dance in your room and experience what the form has to give you. But it is a creation-- when you feel the need to create you feel the need to express and when you have a need to express then that expression has to be shared. So sharing is with the audience. So the audience are the one’s with whom you share. It’s like if you’re a good cook you can cook and you can eat and the food is delicious but the moment you cook well you want to share your food. So it’s more an innate human creative energy that springs out. And the same with the dance it’s a form of sharing. It’s a form of giving.
Trushna: And that’s how a lot of the classical Indian arts are set up -- to kind of follow that tradition that pattern. Which is why they are a really big part of the community in India. And they have a feeling of unity.
Miti: Yes, so the arts really bind, but it depends on the way one engages with it. So it’s very beautiful that the classical Indian dance or the classical Indian arts by itself has been devised and designed in a way that it facilitates an inward journey. It facilitates an inward journey because of the themes, the context and also the aesthetic form of the dance. Somewhere when you sit in a dance posture certain energy circuits in your body connect and that’s why you feel more integrated. So in every way, it facilitates an inner journey but it is very important and it is also upto the practitioner, what is their intention, with what integrity they engage with it, and with what intensity they practice the art that would result in the penetrating of the form into one’s life or into the so called transcendent. As a word transcendent is -- it’s I don’t even know whether one can use it or not. Because what do you really mean when one transcends? It’s more about somewhere at the beginning of an inner journey. But it all depends on the intention. Is dance a profession for me, is it a daily sadhana, a practice, a spiritual practice for me or how do I engage with it? How do I interact with it? What is my integrity what is my intensity? It all depends on -- the ball is completely in the court of the practitioner. The form has it, but from practitioner to practitioner it can change. And I might not benefit at all from what it has to give me and I might benefit a little bit or more.
Trushna: And as you mentioned part of that has to do with the teacher as well and the philosophy and the relationship between the teacher and the student. I know Indian classical dance has this very holistic and nurturing approach. It’s not just about the technique of dance but the tradition and the philosophy and the arts and the history behind the dance form that actually transforms and allows place.
Miti: Yes it’s completely an approach - and that approach comes from your teacher. And in my particular case I had just been very fortunate that for my teacher Mandakini Trivedi., she basically had been studying and that was her lifework that - what are the yogic traditions of classical indian dance and can this yoga of Indian dance come into and live in the dancer in a way that these deep principles not only are there in the form but they somewhere enter the dancer's life and the dance school Nateshwar Dance Gurukul that I studied at and where I still study basically is dedicated to reviving the yogic traditions of classical Indian dance and reviving the practice of it being a form that lends itself to transcendence. So form has it. But as practitioners that tradition is almost lost. And she has in her teachings and her training and techniques brought that back which also requires a lot of awareness. It requires a certain penetration with and engagement with the form at a very spiritual level. So she feels that to be able to engage and practice and receive from the form fully what it has to give you, you have to practice parallel spiritual practices otherwise you will not understand what a Shiva stands for. Because you are dancing the gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses are symbols and these symbols are actually principles. And you need to pierce through the form of Shiva or Ganapathi into the symbolism and going into understanding the formless essence and the principles that they stand for, and you do that through dance and then that enters your life. And then that means you have received and you are benefitting from this form. And to be able to understand this philosophical context, a parallel spiritual practice, or a discipline is very essential is what she feels and that’s how she really trains us. That at every level you are being trained not only in the practice of the form. So that is really the journey from the formless to the form. Because there was a formless essence of what the dance is meant to touch upon, but to be able to work through that, the tradition designed this form with a philosophy, with an aesthetic, with beauty, with everything kind of folded into multiple layers. The purpose is to go back into the formless energy of a higher level of consciousness or transcendence or whatever you want to call it. But though the form, somewhere as a practitioner when you travel through the form there is a lot of parallel study that is necessary to really be able to understand that and pierce into the form and the symbolism and somewhere it comes back into your life. So this training is very very important and that’s how the teacher doesn’t teach you only the form-- that is the dance - the steps, they’ve taught you a way of thinking, they’ve taught you Shiva, Ganapathi, they’ve taught you multiple things, multi-layered engagement.
Trushna: That’s amazing being Indian myself and having studied these dance forms, I think it’s beautiful to hear that there’s a sense of making the movement but also the stories behind the movement, the mythology more relatable and breaking that down and bringing the significance into your life so one is able to relate to what they are creating in the form of dance. And I think that creates a deeper relationship with the dance as you mentioned. Going back to what you were saying about wanting to share and teach and educate I know right now you are working with the Shakti Yoga ashram. Can you tell me more a little bit about your journey there and how deeply engaged you are with the ashram?
Miti: Yes sure. So Shakti Yoga Ashram is a space that was founded in 1995 by my teacher Mandakini’s spiritual master Sri Swami Madhukar. And he was a very free baba, he lived in the Himalayas and then was in Bombay where he had a few students. He had no structured institution or formula. He just taught spirituality as a way of life to his core disciples and then one fine day he just felt that this education system all around is not the way our next generation and future generations need to be trained. There has to be some holistic understanding of life of nature of art of spirituality, to be able to be a more fuller human being. So in the last year of his life he set up this space which is in the outskirts of Maharashtra, as the Shakti Yogashram and Mandakini Ji has been with them since then and she is the chairman.
The vision of the space is that it is dedicated towards the study and practice of classical indian arts, Indian sciences, Indian lifestyle, environment, ecology with spirituality at the core. And if children can be taught in an environment like this, and if gurukuls can engage in this environment, gurukul of dance, music, architecture, sculpture, painting and in midst of that a school for children -- then this holistic engagement of education is what is really needed in today’s time, when everyone is in this outward rat race. You need to find somewhere your roots and then go universally out. So this is the vision of the space, it’s been there since 1995 under the chairpersonship of Mandakini Ji. When I met her at the ashram since then I have been in whichever way just volunteering and working under her at this space doing admin, doing creative work, cleaning of the bathrooms or whatever it is. I’ve been working for that place. Because this space has actually shaped me and my thoughts. And now I am under the mentorship of my teacher. I am an executive trustee of the space. So we are working towards this vision of holistic education and holistic lifestyle with the assimilation of Arts, Science and Environment. In order to achieve that we currently hold residential retreats 2 days, 3 days, 4 days depending on the groups who connect with us and we initiate them into Indian culture. Indian thought, yoga, meditation, philosophy, ayurveda, the importance of having a dinacharya -- certain daily practices in your life, a schedule with food and also nature treks and environment and assimilation of all of that has been in our retreat at Shakti yoga ashram.
Trushna: Is the retreat open to all ages?
Miti: Yes we have children’s programs every year, for students and we also have them for adults so it depends on the group that is coming and a certain structure of the program will be curated as per them. But yes it's open to all age groups. There are programs that are nature centric. There are programs which are art centric. There are programs that are spirituality centric and sometimes the programs are a combination of all of them.
Trushna: Now okay so it's like the ability to start this journey you guys provide the environment and space and allow people basically to follow their path.
Miti: It's basically meant to begin the journey within and to find yourself, to understand your roots and culture understand who you are, understand holistic living and then the idea is to go universally out. The ashram is basically a space for intense study of any kind. As my teacher says the ashram is actually inside you. The ashrams outside facilitate tools to gather you and to give you the tools and understanding and the courage that is required to begin in your life. So that's when you come to an ashram. We come there to understand a holistic vision, Indian philosophy. The essence of coming to that space is that eventually you'll take the ashram in your heart and then wherever you go and you will live by those principles inside so you will have a fuller life. That is the larger vision of the ashram.
Trushna: And you are actively involved in the dance aspect at the ashram or various aspects in the ashram? Miti: Everything so there is no categorization because an ashram is also a space of community work. Community is coming together and working. So we do everything. If there's a need with the dance part, I will do that and if there’s a need for the infrastructure then I'll do that. So it's not a very structured, institutionalized role framework. It's a framework with an intention of giving, with an intention of doing seva (service). So you just serve in whichever way towards the development of the space and towards the development and the spreading of the work which is
Trushna: So service is the big pillar and being present to everything that is around you that allows the journey to take place and to shape the ashram as it is.
Miti: In service and selfless giving, the ashram doesn't belong to anyone. The ashram belongs to community space is called the community. I am as a worker at the moment just actually I have the opportunity to serve in that space and that's the approach to which one works in a space like that because it's not about ownership at all. Because I don't own that space. That space is a public space I am just a medium and I am working towards making and formulating the space. Like my teacher has been working for the last twenty years and I have been working with her for the last 13 years in this space. So yeah serving it’s more about giving service.
Trushna: Is there anything that you would like to share about your journey with design and dance and where you feel you are at in your life right now?
Miti: I would just maybe just like to say, that I’m just a mere traveler you know. And sometimes the introductions and these talks really sound -- I feel a little embarrassed and a little concerned. Because I’m a traveler and I’ve just been fortunate to find a medium that I really love that becomes my work. And I spend my life that way. But these large terms like transcendence and things like that -- I’m just a traveler and I’m also trying to understand and trying to live things and I do fall and I do pick myself up -- sometimes I can’t. So it’s just a very human engagement, whether it is with the dance as a form of transcendence or whether it is with the practice of holistic design or whether it is working in the ashram space or for the ashram space. It’s just a way in which I find my inner space and my inner self and I’m traveling. That’s all I would like to say.
Trushna: I really appreciate you sharing your journey because I think so many of us can benefit from it and I know I myself have just been amazed at what tenacity and strength you’ve had to stay committed and to walk the path that you have because I know it’s not always easy. I’m sure you yourself have had so many obstacles. Were there times that you questioned “Am I doing the right thing? or”Is this where I should be?
Miti: No, I never questioned whether I was doing the right thing, I was always way too headstrong that I know I am doing the right thing. But it is difficult because the moment you walk away from the tide, the other society forces what comes your way - one fights it -- so I never questioned whether I was doing the right thing at all. I was always very sure, and I think because of being so sure all throughout I was able to just stick to it with a lot of intensity. But you know it requires I think some sense of conviction. First clarity that yes this is what I want to do. When there is complete clarity I feel that you’ll get the conviction that no I need to walk this way, and I think with that conviction comes, courage comes with it. And I think courage does it all. So then -- yeah there are obstacles there are things that - it’s not been easy, It’s never easy for anyone who chooses to do anything that is very dear to them, because the moment you do that the focus becomes inner growth and somewhere the outward society is very sensitive to inner growth and they resist it again and again. So each one has to then fight their own and fight to get what they are walking towards which is not easy.
Trushna: Yeah totally. I myself have kind of been trying to figure out that path and journey so I completely understand. How pivotal were your parents? I know you mentioned that you were very young when a lot of this started happening on your journey. Were your parents and their support a really big help along the process? As you mentioned sometimes there’s a pull from society and family to say Oh no you should do this or be this and the expectations that come with that.
Miti: Well, to be very honest, I think it’s been as difficult for my parents as for me in different ways. Because I think, they found it very difficult to process what I was going through and why these changes. So yeah it’s been - but they’ve stuck by - there have been times when they did not understand which is I think very valid and I feel that somewhere they have struggled more than I have because I had the love for what I really wanted to do that held me on. They did not understand that but they stuck by me and -- but yeah it’s been difficult. So I think they have gone through a lot of pain in the process because they did not understand at certain points, which is also extremely understandable. But they've stuck on and I’m extremely thankful and grateful. I’m quite a difficult person I think, to be with at times because of just a rigor, a fierce rigor of following what one wants to do.So I think it’s been very difficult for them, but they’ve really stuck on and I’m very very thankful. And you know grateful to them for everything.
Trushna: I can't say enough about your journey. It’s just very powerful. You say you’re headstrong and you're committed and it's so beautiful to see that because I feel like there's a place inside of you that you just knew this is where you were meant to be, and you were able to follow that voice and although I know you said you weren't aware of that at such a young age, I feel like it was the inner calling of yours, to come back to dance, and to be able to share that with the community and give back. In the way that you have with the Shakti Yoga Ashram it's kind of like this full circle of your journey. Starting out, finding the path and then working toward that for so many years and then now being able to give back what you have learned and what you're learning, and sharing that, and allowing the communities and the people around you to be a part of that transformation and give them the tools to also have their own sense of transformation, I think that's really at the heart of what I feel like for me, Indian classical dance and dance in general, brings -- that sense of unity and being able to connect with people around you in a very subtle but powerful way. As you mentioned as a dancer, or the person performing the art. It's all about intention and what we bring that ultimately unlocks and potentially can tap into other people’s inner consciousness and awaken and uplift. So I really appreciate you sharing the journey with us and really being honest and candid about everything.
Pavi: I’m going to jump in here and I can’t believe how fast this first hour has gone. It’s amazing to hear both of you in conversation. I wanted to share a reflection that came in for Miti from our invitation to this call from a woman named Anissa. And it’s a beautiful reflection that really relates to this conversation: “I began studying ballet at three years old and was trained as a professional ballerina for fifteen years. The grace and beauty of ballet called me to step out of the idea of who I am into a discovery of what I am not. Many would not understand it but I danced professionally travelling and teaching for twenty years. Dance brought me to an altar of reflection like a divine mirror where I could recognize myself without seeing a form and now as my body deteriorates it is called to be still in the reflection that I dance but for no one I dance but as no one I dance as the immoveable. I look forward to hearing Miti sharing because it sounds like she has also been shown her truest grace through dance and music in discovering her story I am encouraged and inspired to share in her story. “
Vocabulary is a tricky thing. We talk about the form and formless. Miti you talk about being a little embarrassed by the words moving towards the transcendent. But there is something there. You talked about earlier in the training with your teacher the intensity of that process and the invitation to have a parallel spiritual process alongside the dance-- I can’t help but think of some of these classic teacher student movie moments like the Mr Miyagi and the Karate Kid where your mind isn't able to fully comprehend what you’re being asked to do and that’s part of the point. Because the mind has to drop away and I was wondering do you have any stories from that time as you were beginning to work with your teacher? Stories that illustrate for some of us who don’t have a dance practice, how that journey of stepping away from, or working on dissolving the ego played out?
Miti: I can’t think of anything particular but it’s all very kind of one into the other. The training is not that - today you learn about the form, and then tomorrow about spiritual. No it’s more in conversation, it’s more understanding when a movement is taught -- the movement goes from left to right it curves like this and it's demonstrated but when you do it, the approach to how you do it, and what you’re thinking -- it’s in conversation and movement that it comes together. I'm sorry but I don’t know if I can really verbalize this. But yes there is importance to fitness, because the respect to the body, there is importance to what you eat and don’t eat. Food fitness there is also meditation. So that is the parallel spiritual practice where stillness- because dance is eventually all about stillness in movement in motion. So there is a quality -- they say when a dancer dances she’s compared to a sculpture-- she’s as still as a sculpture and in an architectural way you’ll see the space is moving. So there is always a parallel quality in an allied art that has become the strength of that form. So dance is all about stillness. So there is a spiritual base of meditating and practicing that along with the practice of the dance that is taught and reinforced again and again that only the mere practice of the form is not important, the understanding of the philosophy, the gods, the goddesses, because that’s the content. If you don’t believe in the content then how are you going to be true to the content and thus to the dance? So it’s kind of one into the other. And of course the ego really drops. Because these are really demanding disciplines and your body just gives up at points. And there are times when you really just don’t get movements, you just don’t get moods or an understanding and it’s all about discipline in the end. And somewhere the ego resists discipline of all kinds, that human ego. We don’t like a certain disciplines. But these forms travel through intense disciplines to take you to a stage of a certain equilibrium and then you can break the grid, you learn to travel in the grid in a framework and then when you have mastered it you have the liberty to break it. So yeah, it requires just doing and just letting the ego be, and letting the questions, leave a certain kind of aggressive questioning be, ‘No the elbow needs to be there. It needs to be there,” But of course there is a science because when the elbow is in a certain position a certain body circuit is being formed which is connecting certain dots inside so that is why the elbow needs to be there so I can’t demand, “I don’t like the elbow there I’ll put it here.” No the elbow goes there. So it works on the ego too because you know you can’t decide everything.
Pavi: When you’re hearing that what’s coming to mind is how we are so unconsciously in the mainstream paradigm conditioned to use our will power and what you’re saying is that you can’t use your mind to execute this way. It’s almost like you have to embrace surrender. But a disciplined surrender not just Oh take it as it comes, do whatever you feel like doing. Does that play in? What does that word surrender mean for you? How do you understand that in your own practice?
Miti: For me it is love. I think when you love then everything melts. The ego melts and what results is surrender. So you love first the subject that you are practicing, second you love the medium through which it is coming to you, the teacher, the connection with the teacher is very important because it is almost a certain kind of transmission that happens, where you also start looking like your teacher for some time. Because there is so much energy that has been given, because it is a performing art, I cannot see a video and learn it. I need a living energy. As many tutorials and videos are put up -- if you want to really understand the dance you’ll never be able to do without a living energy so it is about loving first the subject and loving the goal behind it. So what is the purpose of this training? What is the purpose? The purpose for me somewhere in my life is to find a higher self or find an inner self, something that is more than the mundane. And the medium that I have found is through dance. So first the love for the goal, then the love for the form and its philosophy and content, but that is also not enough. Finally the love for the teacher. If you love the teacher immensely then you’ll receive what is really being given. Love doesn't mean cushy love but real love where you give yourself in service, where you do things for the teacher, where you really let your ego go and listen to things that are being told to you, when you’re not very happy about what you’re being told because you’re pulled up. When you love you’ll trust, and when you trust then you’ll receive and that I feel is surrender. And then you surrender to the form, to the teacher, to everything that is going into taking me to that inner space. And the teacher is extremely important because if that link was not there then it is impossible for the dots to connect. And that is grace. That you find a teacher who is also ready, who gives you in abundance.
Pavi: It’s so energizing to hear that and in a way I think that the approach that you are talking about goes beyond dance, to any field these principles can be applied. And each form is like a unique doorway. There is beauty in the variety of doorways that we have. Until hearing you speak, I hadn’t realized how dance is at a unique intersection - it works at so many different levels because there is music involved, there is a visual element involved, there is movement involved. Can you speak a little bit about how dance works?
Miti: Yes, dance is a multi-dimensional form, and that's why is more difficult to understand classical Indian dance when you compare it to music, sometimes music is easier. And instrumental music is easier than vocal music. Dance at once has poetry which is classical The Poetry is either in a regional language or in Sanskrit. And the Poetry is in itself a classical poetry which means it has a philosophically multi-layered meaning and context and that is layered to classical music. It's not linear music, it’s layered in classical music which in itself has its own science. So that poetry layered into music then put in a framework of movement and movement in classical Indian dance has two aspects, there is pure dance which is pure movement which is geometric movement based on the style, so Mohiniyattam has a swinging swaying circling movement but Bharatnatyam has triangular and angular movements, Mohiniyattam is softer but Bharatanatyam is more angular and diagonal. So there is a certain geometry and that movement also has a science. There is a core which is the navel the center of the body from where all movements arise and it's a whole yogic experience and a yogic design formation. These forms were visualized at the physical level. They were designed so that somewhere all the circuits of the body connect, so when you dance you will feel energized. So basically that is pure dance, there is movement which represents pure joy so classical Indian dance has pure dance and the focus of it is just beauty and joy and then there is traditional dance which is more representational which is storytelling and the storytelling comes in and layers itself with the myth and the gods and goddesses and the philosophy and the principles that they stand for. So at once there is poetry, there is music, and there is movement, and in the movement there is your movement which is connecting your energy circuits and energizing your body and thus the space and thus the audience. And along with that some dances are layered with storytelling so I might be dancing Shiva or Ganapathy, I might be dancing Krishna but Shiva, Ganapathi and Krishna are themselves forms that need to be pierced into, and understood for what they are. So it's a very intensely compact engagement I would say. And so if you understood it, it will give you much more in abundance than any other form because of the framework. It's also difficult to comprehend at times so you need to learn the language of understanding classical Indian dance.
Pavi: I feel like it also forces your mind to become comfortable with the vastness of what it doesn't know. Because it's not like you can ever finish this study.
Miti: It's a lifelong journey and one is learning and one is trying to pull oneself up again and again because it's a body discipline and it requires a constant practice. So it requires to be at it all the time. So that's at the level of the body but at the level of philosophy content and context there is never enough that you have studied. You might have done this but that was not done. Deeper and deeper and deeper as much as you want. And they said lifetimes are also not enough.
Pavi: Given how ancient these forms are and how they have been passed down the centuries, what is that intersection between preserving a certain purity of the form and yet also having it be a living thing?
Miti: So these are Living Traditions and they are passed from one generation to the other so that's why when you train in any classical art the most important thing is teaching because it is almost a responsibility that everything that I have received I need to empty it out in at least one human body before I leave, because then the tradition Will Go On. Teaching is extremely integral to all classical art Indian art. Always a teacher taught relationship. If I meet someone and if I tell them that I am a Mohiniyattam dancer, they will immediately ask, “Who is your teacher?” Because your identity is from the tradition that you come from. The teacher taught aspect is extremely important. I might have the most interesting workbook and drawings of the dance and the steps but it is of no use to me unless I have a living energy who deconstructs and transmits it into my body. The tradition has moved over the years and fortunately somewhere it's unbroken, there are lots of dancers and lots of teachers in that sense who are still practicing it and still teaching it. Of course, the social structure is not supporting it, but the tradition continues and the teacher is extremely important. Nothing is really archived very well in India because they didn't believe in it. They believed in human-to-human connection giving it to the student whether it is spirituality or art, it is given to the student. Student is the focus and the student is the living archive. Of course archiving is happening and parallel things are happening which is good also in a certain way because of technology you can take the benefit of that but it is still important that somewhere it enters another human being then you are safe. With the responsibility that one has to give it back in all its purity to another human being and for that -- it's just work and one just feels that the most important thing to be able to teach it to someone else.
Pavi: I think that there is incredible generosity in that field and that you don’t want to have anything end with you and you have to be part of a chain and that pay it forward approach is embedded into the tradition. I was wondering just because that Mohiniattam, and the mythologies and the stories it comes from is so rich and for most of our listeners probably completely unfamiliar, was wondering if you could maybe share a particular dance or symbol that you have developed a particularly deep relationship with and what it means.
Miti: Lots actually. Somewhere through this, I have understood what the Gods, Goddesses, rituals means. I can take the most simplest example of the elephant headed God which is Ganapathy which is a god in the Indian pantheon. Every dance recital begins with the praise of Ganapathy just as every Indian ritual or Hindu ritual or pooja begins with praise of Ganapathy because he is remover of obstacles. Through the practice of dance and the understanding of symbolism, the essence of what really Ganapathy means and what these ritual means -- teacher has taught us that Ganapathy is not really just elephant head God. He is the one who is the remover of obstacles. He is the one who is prayed at the very beginning of everything. So every aspect of his body is going to be deconstructed. First of all elephant head, elephant as an animal is a strong animal, completely vegetarian, completely positive and has a great memory. Ganapathy is actually a symbol of all these. It is environmentally friendly and ecological and yet strong. That is the essence from where it comes and it is completely non-violent and positivity. The ears of the elephant are winnows where you can put the grain in and remove the chaff. The ears of the Ganapathy stand for that you listen to everything and take what is good and leave the bad out. Symbols like he rides the mouse and the mouse is a vahana. Every Indian God has an animal that they ride or they are associated with and vahana of Ganapathy is the mouse. What is really the mouse standing for? Why is Ganapathy riding the mouse? The whole meaning is that what in our body is like the mouse. It is really the mind. The mind can be anywhere. Right now, we can be talking but we can go somewhere else and come back. Ganapathy is the master of the mouse. Be the master of your mind and don’t let it control. These are simple logical symbols that somewhere enter your life and if you want that abundance or positivity, his big belly is actually supposed to be belly full of creative energy and positivity and that is why it is always big. If you want that then you connect to that force that is how somewhere through the dance, you first of all understand these intricacies. When you understand these symbols and principles makes you think that is how I can listen or that is how I can live or that is how I engage with my life, that is where Ganapathy is entering my life and then it becomes real to me. If I want those qualities to enter me then I will pray to Ganapathy because Ganapathy stands for that not because you are told to pray to Ganapathy. It should not be that way. Somewhere you need to understand, connect, feel for that form. Eventually it is just the form -- essentially it is the same principle of the formless taking the form and the form taking back to the formless. There is formless energy that is manifested through the form of Ganapathy. I connect with the form, travel through it, and enter into the realm of the essence of what really Ganapathy stands for. That is what the rituals also are meant for. When we do these poojas, which are exactly like the dance. We need forms. We are humans with senses of touch, taste and sight. It is very difficult for at least majority of individuals of formless gnana margam (through discipline of mind). The purpose of life in Indian … is always moksha or liberation or transcendence. To support these art forms, ladders have been created and thus are the poojas and thus are the rituals that we travel through. So, through the dance, I have understood these things and experience the essence of trying to assimilate the principles that Lord Ganesh stands for me in my life. In the same way every God is somewhere deconstructed like this, as you travel through, as you dance. If you dance with understanding then somewhere it gets deconstructed and for someone who feels that “I don’t believe in Ganapathy”, may be they will start believing in that energy of Ganapathy and when you believe in that energy, you will connect with the form. Forms are meant only for … connect with that energy back.
Pavi: There are so many different directions we can go to but I want to zoom out a little bit and ask you in your life and in the work you have done in the internal journey and the external discipline and other works you have done with Miti Design Lab, if someone were to ask you, in a way we are all designing life whether we are good at it or bad at it, whether we are conscious of it or unconscious of it, design as a principle is there from your experience what do you consider to be a good design or design that is manifesting its potential?
Miti: When I think of good design, I think of nature which is all engrained within multilayer that which is beautiful, that which is harmless, that which is functional, that which is giving, that which is sharing and yet without any expectations. There is a tree, flower and the tree gives without any expectations. I can also talk about it in a very pragmatic sense, I can say that a good design is that which is functional, that which is aesthetic and that is which doesn’t harm society is an outward manifestation of design but an inward manifestation of design is almost like a space that you experience of beauty, stillness, no negativity of any kind and that I feel is the state of consciousness which is the highest essence of design. Can you reach that framework? Nature has this. There is no competition in nature, there is no aggression in nature. There is stillness in nature. It is giving. Inspiration comes from nature and it is also aesthetic. So much beauty in nature. If you look at it at the spiritual level, it is different. If you look at the pragmatic level, I would say design which is at once beautiful, aesthetically powerful, at once which has meaning, function and that does not hinder with equilibrium and it is sustainable. That is a good design.
Pavi: Beautiful answer and it is such a reminder because that is something we all have access to drawing inspiration from. I would like to close with a final question that we ask each of our guests. How can we as the larger ServiceSpace community support your work and what you are doing?
Miti: I see the fact that you all invited me is a great support. Somewhere sharing the work of an Ashram is more important to me than anything else. Because we are looking for more people to experience what we have to offer, we are looking at spreading the work, we are looking at more people understanding this holistic engagement with life so life becomes beautiful, simpler, more meaningful. I am first of all extremely thankful to the awakin calls, to the service space community, to all the volunteers for inviting me and giving me an opportunity to share my journey. Though I feel embarrassed as I don’t think it is any profound journey. It is just that something has revealed and it happens to be through me and I feel that somewhere the Shakthi yogashram work adds any meaning to your community that is being engaged. We will be more happy to host more people at the ashram through residential retreat. It may happen anytime of the year and you can get in touch with us with a group of people and we will curate a retreat for you in a given time that you want. Support for the work at the ashram would be a great support.
Trushna: Is there a website where people can get this info?
Miti: The website is http://shaktiyogashrama.com/ which has most of the information. We are in the process of redesigning it and the new website will be up in a month. The current website also has information about our programs and you can write to us and if someone is traveling to India as a group and would like to be part of a retreat then they can write to us with dates and background and we will curate a retreat for you within a larger vision we have. We will be happy to host you and give you what we have and what that space has to offer.
Trushna: That is beautiful and makes more accessible for everyone to go on this journey and be part of it and in any way that we can support your work, we are more than willing to do that.
Miti: It is very touching. Here is a community which is just out of love, generosity and sharing, doing these goals, running the space and it is extremely touching that work happens at multiple layers and avenues and all needs to continue for larger work. I feel that we are one community but working in different places with similar larger goal. I am feeling very proud being part of a community that I am sharing and I would be more than happy to do anything that you would feel that I can give. Just let me know and I will do it.
Pavi: Thank you Miti for that generosity. I think what you said earlier hits on it -- you have followed the path of love -- the deep love you have for your dance, for your teacher and the principles behind the form, make your journey such a gift. Though you are very humble about it so have so much to offer by virtue of being so engaged with what you love, and you kindle that possibility in all of us who are listening. It is a beautiful gift to offer. Thank you.
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