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Light on Her Feet

8 months ago / by Abhijit Masih

A Nepalese-American teenager makes her mark in an Indian dance form, Kuchipudi

Shilu Maharjan
Shilu Maharjan

Shilu Maharjan has a lot to do in high school. She manages a great many co-curricular activities, and wades through oceans of academic material. One thing that keeps her going is her passion for dance. Her parents, originally from the Kathmandu valley in Nepal, but now settled in  Montgomery County, Maryland, enrolled their only child to learn Kuchipudi when she was just 6. And that made all the difference.

What began as additional classes became both a passion and stress reliever. The young child who froze before the klieg lights at her first public performance when just 6, is now a confident performer, having displayed her skills throughout the DC metro area. After graduating high school, Maharjan is considering a career in technology but will rely on Kuchipudi to keep her on her toes. In a chat with SEEMA, the young dancer discusses her past, and her future plans. 

Most parents choose Bharatnatyam for their children. How did you take up Kuchipudi?

When I was 5 years old, I went to see a family friend’s daughter’s dance recital. At that time, I didn’t know anything about the dance. When I saw all the dancers with their gorgeous costumes, hair, and make up, I was fascinated. Post the show, our family friend’s daughter introduced me to her teacher, Nilimma Devi. They casually asked me if I wanted to learn to dance. I didn’t think my parents were seriously considering enrolling me in the lessons, but they did … the next semester. 

As a child, I was very timid and had a hard time adjusting to a new environment, but enrolling in dance classes was a blessing. As it became part of my regular schedule, I [felt] less tense and realized how much fun it was to dance. {It] and made me fall in love with the style. The story-telling aspect and the graceful movements in Kuchipudi had caught my eyes as a child. I think that even if I did know about Bharatnatyam, I would have still found Kuchipudi more entertaining.

Cultural dance training that begins in childhood takes a back seat in a few years. How did you continue to train and perform Kuchipudi while managing work in high school?

As a child, I faced fewer obstacles when it came to balancing education and dance. When I got older, time management has become challenging. As a high school student, I am still learning how to balance my school life and dance. My first year of high school was marred by the pandemic. My motivation to dance wore off a little as it got harder for me to manage homework and classwork. Dance was my escape.

[Still], I took about a year-and-a-half long break as I thought it was best for me to focus on school, because virtual dance just didn’t feel right for me. Although the break from dance made school easier, I realized that the art form was stress relieving and I didn’t realize it until I took the break. So, I decided to rejoin the dance institute again. Seeing all my friends and my teachers, I realized how much I missed the place. Now, although it hasn’t been easy balancing school, other curricular activities and dance, I feel that letting go of my passion is a mistake I am not willing to make again. 

What is different about Kuchipudi from other Indian classical dance forms?

All forms of dance have their own unique style and characteristics.

The difference between Kuchipudi and other Indian classical dance [lies in] some core elements of Kuchipudi.

For example, in Kuchipudi the dance focuses more on storytelling. It relies on strong facial expressions, like the use of the eyes, mouth, fingers, hands and the whole body to express emotion. It emphasizes symmetry and pristine movement. The dance is a mixture of both masculine and feminine energies. One [unique aspect of] Kuchipudi is its brass plate dance, where the dance [is performed] on a rim of the plate.

You have done many live performances. Which was the most satisfying for you as an artist?

As clichéd as it might sound, my first two performances have been the most prominent for me. Not because they were the best, but because they made me face my fear head on.

Being shy and performing in front of a big crowd do not mix very well. My very first performance was when I was 6, on a big stage with a large crowd. Getting ready for the performance was a breeze. It was all fun until it was time to start the show. When it was my turn to go on stage, I could feel all the lights pointing at me. The stage, being so huge, was quite intimidating. I froze in place and had a nervous breakdown. I remembered being calmed down by my parents and my teacher. She told me it was OK to be scared, and if I didn’t feel like performing that day, there would be many more opportunities ahead for me.

My second performance was at a Nepalese cultural program, and in front of a large audience. This time I had built up enough courage to perform a solo dance in front of hundreds of people. I was still nervous but my parents were more nervous than me. I was so relieved and felt so free when I completed my routine this time. That was probably the most important event of my life. I could break free from my fear and anxiety for the first time.

Besides school activities and dance, what are your other interests?

I have liked technology and learning about it for as long as I know. My goal, as of now, is to create my career path involving technology. Now that I’m in high school, I have had more opportunities to enroll in classes that peak my interests. So far, I have enrolled in a computer science class, a programming class and an engineering class involving hands-on machinery tools. As I have grown older, I enjoy the tech industry a lot more because young girls, even women, are so underrepresented in this field. I am now used to being one of the few girls enrolled in classes involving technology, and the funny looks have yet to faze me.

What are your plans, professionally and as a performer?

I would like to pursue a career in technology…, but not necessarily being a developer. I like the idea of working with technology, solving problems and analyzing data. As a performer, I would like to continue as long as I can. I know I will be dancing for a long time as it has been my escape, something I do to re-energize myself – my mind and body.