Ive known Nirathi since she moved into the area, fresh out of college and went to the same Indian dance school to learn Kuchipudi. She is one of those who leaves an impression on you when you meet her. Vivacious and always smiling, Ive never seen her tired or down, and is always up for a challenge, outing and some talk. When I think back, I doubt Ive ever seen her angry, upset, with anyone or anything and always seems to be in control or at least in ever adapting mode to the changing world and situations we are thrown in. Patience and bigger picture acceptance and recognition form the pillars of how she runs her life and company, and I have always admired her through the last 13 years Ive known her.
She is inspirational, from the way she charts her course and how she manages and juggles home, work and how determined she is to make it through her goals to get to where she wants to be. To turn a passion into something tangible takes more than just talent and a dream, and Nirathi definitely has it figured out, for the most part, at that young age!
The interview below is long, but I assure you is worth every bit, so do read on!
Nirathi Rao: Director of Rhythmaya
Contact: Rhythmaya (Website)
Alright Nirathi, let’s start off from the beginning! Tell us where you are originally from:
My parents hail from Andhra Pradesh, India and settled in Alabama in 1968. They lived with so many challenges: Racism, low income, learned the ways of a new country with a newborn and no available ‘daal’ to cook (their biggest adjustment!). But they look back on those days as an adventure, not sadness. That is what makes them amazing people: positive and selfless individuals who helped so many people even in their difficult times. These were the values I was raised on.
I was born in a city called Huntsville. When my parents first moved there, it was about 20 Indian Families and my dad was the president of the Small Cultural Association they formed. By the time I graduated high school, it grew to 100s of families but everyone still knew each other’s name, and that is the true beauty of the south—genuine hospitality that came in all forms and from every nationality which habituated there.
Okay, so tell us about your schooling and how you landed in Virginia from Alabama?
I majored in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, something my dad ‘let’ me venture into as opposed to the regular pre-med and engineering paths most of my peers followed. It was my dream to be that CNN Anchorwoman. I thoroughly enjoyed attaining this degree for four years-from being in Campus News TV to running behind a cameraman catching stories at my ABC Network internships. After college graduation, my parents moved Northern Virginia for their jobs and I joined them and looked to Capitol Hill for my first gig.
I luckily landed a Press Job working for a Florida Senator and Presidential Candidate for two years. It was an intense time of life, learning so much about the real world and what actually goes into News and Politics was hard for me, I was not sure how long I could last in that environment but still so thankful for the experience.
Since I was single and chilling on the weekends and finally moved to an area where the Indian Arts was heavy, I explored dance schools and joined Kalamandapam led by reknowned artist, Smt. Mrinalani Sadananda, and instantly fell in love with the fluid movement and expression of Kuchipudi. After participating in several dance dramas with Kalamandpam, it was like I could stop searching for my soul-It was right there within the art.
During this span of two years, I started to teach Bollywood to teens and children on the side for community functions. Then I realized, I lived for the weekends not to sleep in and have Sunday-Funday with my other 20-something friends, but because I felt most alive by teaching the art to young people. I knew it was the path meant for me at the time, regardless of the salary cut I was about to take.
Have you always danced as a kid? How did it start? Do you remember?
Kamal Haasan’s Sagara Sangamam released in the early 80s and I was a mere 3 year old dancing on the coffee table trying to copy his every move. My mom frantically searched for aunties in our community to help us “copy the movie” but not too many people were available. Eventually my sister Pallavi, 5 years my senior and a pretty moody teen, somehow agreed to teach me my first dance and I am ever so appreciative.
So what Ive noticed is that you are very current with movies and even remember really old ones (from way back when I was a kid!). How much do you think Tollywood or movies has had an influence on your dance and passion?
Tollywood is no Bollywood, it is just now gaining that glamorous effect as it entered the 21st century. Before, it was considered “nerdy” by the American Born Desi, but I have always loved actors like NTR and ANR and particularly their dance moves But in the 80s, they would do some wacky things, costume and steps wise! I think it was those people that took my choreography creativity to another level, you can move your body anyway you want, and if you have swag, you can pull it off. That’s what those “nerdy” men taught me.
Then I was ecstatic as the heroes got better and better looking: Nagarjun and Chiranjeevi ruled my teens and then of course Mahesh Babu having no mustache really put a spin on telugu movies! :-)
So the answer is yes, the changing times of Tollywood has a had a great influence on me. Whether it is a traditional K. Viswanathan song or a meaningless modern item song, I have always opened my mind up to look at what was on the screen as “art” .
Movies always have some impact on us and I agree! So now coming to the studio, dance school – forming Rhythmaya – tell us the story. How and where did the seed happen?
So my co-worker Mihira Patel and I were sitting at our desks one day at work in 2005 and she saw me busily typing an email to all my students about the upcoming Ugadi function. And she said to me “wouldn’t it be cool if we could just open a dance school?” and together, we embarked on a new journey.
Just like that huh? Sweet! Best things in life usually just spark into us. So the name’s interesting. Is there a story behind that?
I have always loved the word “Rhythm”, I believe a Tamil movie was named Rhythm and when I heard that, I thought, what a pretty name, maybe I can name my daughter “Rhythm” Of course, Jay would not have that. So when Mihira suggested something with “Maya” since it’s a word westerners could relate to, I decided to put my “Rhythm fix” to the school’s name and combined the two words as “Rhythmaya”. So, co-founder Mihira Patel and I came up with that together.
How many years now?
We began in 2005, so 8 years
Really? 8? Wow, time does fly! So every business or organization has milestones. Personal and industry, what do you think yours and Rhythmaya’s are?
2005, we held our first classes in people’s basement. Ashburn and Falls Church were our branches.
2006, we got our first gig as a troupe at Cherry Blossom Festival and were ecstatic
2007, we landed a front page picture in the Arts section of the Washington Post performing a fusion dance at Howard University’s Homecoming
2007, the Washington DC Convention center hosts the Telugu Association of North America and 100 dancers shine on stage with a colorful decades piece of Tollywood
2008, through NetSAP DC, we performed our first semi-classical piece, “Natya’s Evolution” at the Kennedy Center
2009, the Troupe produces its first message piece “Bhoomi’s Tribe” about saving the environment and with a first place win at the Legg Mason Asian Festival, we decide our mission is “art for a cause” meaning, whatever troupe does from now on will have a message and aim to perform for nonprofits and charitable causes
2010, we hold our first of many Annual Charity events, it snowed on that day but we managed to pull in 200 people in the audience to benefit Hope for Humanity of DC and since then, we have been a sold out showcase every April trying to manage crowds of 500 plus. We have also been involved with many Indian and local DC charities since our mission had become clear in 2009.
2011, the Ashburn Branch hits 150 students
2012, Madame Toussads wax museum of DC asks us to be the show opener for the unveiling of their Bollywood Stars, a very high profile Media Event since it was the first time South Asian Actors were recognized in the museum
2013, Rhythmaya Franchises out to Rockville and opens up a Kathak branch, finally ventures into classical dance after years of thinking about it!
2013, the Troupe performs “Raksha” message piece about Lord Shiva saving the world with the arts for Congress at a Capitol Hill Event
Fabulous!! So all these milestones are obviously with a ton of planning, creating and hard work! How do you manage all of this juggling?
Well my hours are flexible because I run my own business but I do follow the schedule very strictly once I have created it.
For example, 8 AM to 3 PM on weekdays is completely dedicated to administrative duties for the school (making music, communicating with parents, arranging for performances) and also for Household chores and errands, cooking and working out (the last thing is SO hard to do but Hot Yoga makes everything more exciting)
Then 3 PM to 6 PM is completely dedicated to my kids after school pick up, this includes their homework time, mommy playtime and after school activities
6 to 9 PM on the weeknights (Monday to Thursday) is dedicated to class time
Friday nights is family night or night out with my friends, the latter only happens once in awhile , I’m pretty sure facebook makes it look like I go out a lot more than that haha but you know it has a way of glorifying our experiences as you say Rads! :)
Saturdays we will do one social activity and then try our best to have one meal at home with just the four of us. This becomes really challenging, its really really hard for a person like me to decline fun invites, but its about prioritizing. Also, Sat night is performance night in high seasons like Diwali etc, but I do what I can. I’ll go to the performance, get the students through it then race home to be with the family.
Wow! Okay, so the secret is to create a schedule and stick to it, like your life depended on it! Is that how you manage an active social life as well? (Yes, blame Facebook ;-))
I organize weekly schedule for me and the two girls and strictly follow it, put it in the google calendar and share with whoever is involved that week: be it Jay, my parents, my in laws, sisters, my baby-sitters or my neighbors.
I think taking breaks is really important too. Even if I lose some sleep, I put the kids to bed and watch some junk tv to wind down for the night (hindi serials and Drama TV can really help a girl out!)
Other ways to take break include: inviting a girlfriend over after the kids are in bed on a weeknight and just catch up with them. Adult interaction is so key for sanity and virtual communication like Gchat and Facebook don’t count. Most important thing is getting it into the calendar and make it happen.
And most importantly, always believe you deserve the break, don’t feel guilty for taking some time away from your family and work. Especially when this includes cleaning up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Remember, you will be better at your job and your family duties if you are refreshed and have the extra sugar calories in your system once in a blue moon.
Awesome! So essentially, you are saying there is a well entwined support system around you, and with your scheduling, it all meshes in together? Yes?
Oh yes, I get a lot of support from my parents, in laws, my sisters, my aunt and my neighbors are all really good people. The kids are older now where I can put them in a car and take them to performances and classes but there are enough people who take pleasure in being with them rather than me dragging them out of their set day.
My husband Jay is really supportive of my endeavors. He runs his own business too and I think one of the reason he supports me the most is not just because he sees that following my passion makes me a happier and more fun wife :-),
It’s also because he is very ambitious himself and he has a strong belief in constantly renewing goals for success and never ever for a moment, have I seen him get lazy. It is really inspiring. He will come home at 8 or 9 PM, pretty late, they ONLY want dad and that’s what makes him amazing! But what works between us is the scheduling: bottom line is, I don’t have a day job and he doesn’t have a night and weekend job. So he does night and Sunday duty and has trained the girls to watch NFL with him. This leaves the golden question: when do Jay and Nirathi get to spend time together? Haha.
My parents and in-laws are fantastic individuals. Never once have they asked me what the heck I was doing and why didn’t I return to my job on the hill. Okay that’s a lie, I think my mom asked a few years ago when she was volunteering for the Obama campaign, when I was returning to the hill, and I said well its kind of not the right time with the girls growing up. When Natya was born, my mom was around a lot when I returned to teach after my maternity leave. She is a really a bubbly individual with an infectious personality, people just want to hang around her always and she picks out all our costumes, her fashion sense is beyond her time and she always can see the future with what looks best :-)
Taking on a new partner, Sheila Oak, has alleviated a lot of my stress. She has a day job as a financial consultant but manages to really work hard with me on the weekends. She never says “I don’t have the time”, she always finds a way to make the time and I think everyone should have that attitude. It is great to have someone to confide in about our line of work, it is certainly not easy to pass up weekend social activity as the rest of our peers are at brunch, lunch whatever it may be. I’m just glad I know someone as crazy as me now to relate to!
Am smiling knowing how encouraging and blessed you must be with the kind of people that are your pillars! So, just with anything else, ether are challenges and decisions one must take as you go along doing your thing. What are your challenges running your own show and tell us how do you handle them?
So there are a few:
1. Bollywood is no longer a PG rated genre and receives so much criticism from our traditional society. The lyrics and choreography are sometimes extremely inappropriate and it is my job to create a filter and make good judgement calls on what to teach our students. Bollywood can get repetitive, the same hip shaking step can get old but again, it is my job to keep it unique and I will try to find different angles and themes to keep the children and audiences engaged during our shows. While Bollywood has headed in a more ‘westernized’ direction, you can still dig deep and find beautiful stories and songs which keep traditions alive. At the end of the day, Bollywood is not going anywhere and big stars like Shahrukh and Kajol, have more influence on us than we think, so we should just embrace the good (and the butterflies they give us) and do the best we can with it.
2. You really have to pick and choose your venues carefully, like you work so hard, both you and the students and you want to go to places where the audience appreciates your efforts. But then, you have parents who want you to perform at certain places that might not be at the standards just mention. So in a business like Bollywood-Tollywood Dance, you have to find a draw a certain balance in making the client (parent) happy and the student appreciated.
3. Discipline and Responsibility. Well, you have to make deadlines for yourself instead of someone else doing that for you and that gets hard, cause you can put them off forever, so you always have to be ‘on’ and responsible. And you have constantly make your own plan and not follow instructions of anyone else. I mean that is a good thing definitely, but sometimes its nice to take orders….or not.
4. I miss having co-workers to go eat lunch with. I am a one-man show and only see Sheila and the other troupe members once a week, not daily. Working from your home computer is not always the funnest!
That’s true, I agree. There is a whole social interaction that we miss when we work form home, and it takes a fair amount of self-discipline and perseverance to not fall off the path. You’ve been doing this for give or take 8 years! How do you feel when you look back? Is Rhythmaya where you want it to be? Have you stuck to your goal and path?
Yes I am really happy about what Rhythmaya has become, a school where children not only dance and link to their culture but a place of mentorship and safety within a world we are trying to make more peaceful. I think the community we have created is the safest thing a child can lean on when in trouble. We still have such a long way to go in improving our strategies and growth with our new branches and franchises. But I am today, a happy person, a good wife and mom (I think) and I manage to keep up relationships with the wonderful wonderful people who surround me.
Are you one of those constantly dreaming up and working towards new challenges in a road map or do you adapt, take and tweak what comes to you?
Yes, I think a life with challenges can get exhausting and possible give me a coronary at the age of 40 but a life without it would be very boring for both me and Jay with our normal lives as well as our businesses. As for Rhythmaya, Sheila Oak and the other Senior members Shriya Kothur and Madhuri Giri constantly keep me on my feet with their unique themes and ideas.
Are you a planner to the tee? I know you schedule and prioritize, but you know am talking about taking it to the next level of OCD :-)
Actually no. I think I am nothing like a Type A personality and more like Type Creative (ie scatter brained)
I have tried my best to improve with that. Finally started shifting my life into outlook calendars and such but the best Ideas come to me while scribbling on an ugly scratch sheet of paper! Jay and Type A’s like my sister Pallavi constantly criticize my lack of planning skills, but I think my energy levels to commit to the actual work makes it a win-win situation at the end.
Of course, it’s all a balance! Professionally, where do you see yourself going? What’s next for Rhythmaya? Say in a year’s time, in 5 years time?
I would love to continue to do what we do with our students by motivating them to grow up to become confident and strong individuals. I want my students to be proud of spreading their culture and maintain their unique identity as Indian-Americans. If I have the capacity to dream further, I think more gigs in downtown DC like Smithsonian type places, downtown NYC (directing one show or one dance piece on Broadway would definitely complete my heart’s desires) , grow our dance audience and student population to clientele outside of Indian-Americans is especially important to us, especially with the Bollywood frenzy around our society It’s the new Salsa!
What are your proudest moments as the director, as a teacher and as a performer?
Reaching down for my parents blessings at the end of every Annual Charity Show. Everything that happens on and off that stage is because of their beautiful journey as immigrants in this giving country.
A child beaming after a performance makes me the most proud, they have one more dose of confidence to live their life with a free spirit and with no fear as challenges approach them. Any hand written thank you card from a student makes my heart melt. When we gather socially with the students for holiday events, the way the kids all bond outside of dance and form friendships makes me proud.
A student’s father said to me “Just like I talk about Tendulkar, my daughter talks about you”, pretty intense comparison but I appreciated the compliment, very nice thing to say to someone….
Was that fun to read or what? Inspired? Did you go ‘wow, that IS a lot of work” and “how cool it must be do choreograph and teach dance all day?”
It was an absolute pleasure getting to know Nirathi and how she ticks and works to create and establish such a fabulous school and to make a difference in so many children’s lives!