Art as a Tool to Fight Racism: Interview with Choreographer Shyamla Eswaran

Shyamla Eswaran is a performer, choreographer, educator, and writer. When she submitted some gorgeous bollywood-inspired photographs expressing female sexuality through dance, we knew right away we had to know more about her. Shyamla specialises in cultural dance (Hip Hop, Bollywood, Classical Indian and Brazilian Samba) having trained and performed each style in its country of origin. She was recently featured on Daily Mail for a viral racist incident, which makes the fact that she works with young people to alleviate intolerance through dance even more powerful.  

Tell us a bit about yourself…
I am a full-time Performing Artist, Choreographer, Educator and Writer with a Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law and a BA in Communications. I specialise in cultural dance (Hip Hop, Bollywood, Semi-Classical Indian and Brazilian Samba), having trained and performed each style in its country of origin. In 2017 I paraded in Rio Carnival with samba school division-winners Império Serrano. I’ve trained with Brazil’s top Choreographers and Samba Queens, practice Classical Indian dance (Kuchipudi) with Shri Raghavan Nair Ji and regularly travel to India to train and to further her cultural knowledge. My workshops and classes promote cross-cultural interactions, diversity and belonging through the arts and through working with children. I regularly tour my range of cultural dance workshops and shows around Australia.
What are some of your current projects…
In May I had the pleasure of performing my choreography along with four other dancers at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Sydney to open the runway show for @camillawithlove “The Long Way Home” Indian-inspired collection. Last month I ran my “Hip Hopping From Bollywood to Brazil” cultural dance workshop at TEDxSydney amidst a crowd of 5000 people (the biggest ever in the event’s history in Sydney). This month I was confirmed as the Bollywood choreographer for this year’s Schools Spectacular, a huge arena show that showcases the talent in NSW public schools including a 2700-strong choir, 2300 diverse dancers, an 80-piece symphony orchestra, a world-class stage band and incredible solo performers. I also recently became a regular contributor to the Arts & Culture section of Desi Australia, Australia’s most popular Indian Magazine, and am currently developing a welfare workshop to deal with racism in schools.
What is a topic you are passionate about?
I am passionate about The Arts and using it as a tool to fight racism. Growing up in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire I was bullied for my Indianness from the age of 4 onwards. I tried to fit in with the white Aussies around me. It never worked. Now, thanks to my work as a cultural educator and Indian/fusion dancer and choreographer, I spend most of my days in a kurta, rocking my ghungroos (Indian ankle bells), jhumkas (Indian earrings), maang tikka (head jewel), big red pottu. I’ve performed Bollywood gigs since I was 20 but only started training Classical Indian Dance (Kuchipudi) last year with my Guru Shri Raghavan Nair Ji. It has changed my life. Through dance I heal from the racial bullying I experienced as I child, I develop pride for my culture and I remember who I am as a person. I am also very passionate about Aboriginal and Indigenous rights, having worked as the Associate Publisher of Australia’s first Aboriginal Rights Magazine “Tracker.”
Do you think women need an online space for free expression? 
Absolutely. One of the most powerful things I have experienced in the last year is connecting with strong, passionate women through Instagram from around the world who are interested in the the same intersecting areas as myself (Indian dance, human rights, working with children, education etc.) On the flip side, as a female performer I struggle to deal with and filter unwanted interactions with men trying to flirt and connect on a non-artistic basis. I make it clear that I am engaged and use social media as a self-employed artist to promote my work but it doesn’t stop the requests, “waves,” random “hi’s” and subsequent abuse when some men don’t get the response or attention they want. I think it’s a massive problem so have taken it upon myself to repost these interactions in the hopes it will make them think twice about doing it again. I also try to explain to them why what they are doing and expecting is not appropriate in as logical and kind a manner as I can. Every interaction is an opportunity to educate.
What is art to you? What is the philosophy behind your art?
For me art is about expression and connection, both with myself and others. I aim to promote cross-cultural interactions, diversity and cross-cultural appreciation to try and open eyes and hearts. Changing someone’s mind can take a very, very long time (if at all) – but through the arts we can reach people’s hearts and that’s where true, lasting, positive change begins. After years of working in human rights, I realised one of the best ways to effect social change is through the arts and working with children and kids learn best when they are having fun and given the freedom to create.
When did you start dancing? 
My dancing life began when I was 4 years old. My mum thought it would help with my coordination and focus as I was a clumsy and hyperactive child. Dance classes were the only place I felt appreciated amongst my peers for being myself. Because of the racial bullying (being the only Indian in my school at the time) I never felt like I belonged. Through dance classes, I grew more confident and developed a skill that, to this day, allows me to feel good about myself. But I still run into door frames (often!)
Could you discuss the incident of racism we mentioned above and the work you are doing to fight racism through hip hop classes for youths?
I was told “go back to where you came from” by three teenagers as I sat in my parked car curating a playlist for my Hip Hop Flashmob workshop in Bathurst, NSW. It’s classic Aussie racism. On the plus side, their suggestion to “F@#$ off and go eat a curry” helped me decide what to have for dinner! People were shocked and appalled but it’s nothing new to me. Last year a 3 year old boy said it during my show! By the end he was dancing the hardest and smiling the most and it was a perfect opportunity to educate those with no exposure to Indian culture, encouraging them to embrace and appreciate difference before they start school, but so much more needs to be done when they receive toxic messages like that at home. My dance workshops encourage participants to express/explore their own cultural and personal stories through movement and dance while allowing them to learn about and appreciate other cultures. I teach that behind the joyful appearance of cultural dance (Brazilian Samba, Hip Hop and Bollywood) are stories about day-to-day life, struggle, resistance and triumph. They are: “Hip Hopping from Bollywood to Brazil”, “Dance Through India” and “Hip Hop Flashmob”. Beyond introducing children to Indian culture, my preschool shows “Bollykids” and “The Bollydance Express!” are about promoting multiculturalism, diversity and belonging. They are fully immersive shows that bring the sights, smells and sounds of India to preschool students and promote cultural diversity as something to be appreciated and celebrated, as opposed to merely tolerated.
Is dance therapeutic for you? How so? 
Absofuckinglutely! Dance is life. It is my release, my place for self-exploration and expression, my way to give thanks for the gift of my body and the only place where I can truly lose myself for hours and hours on end. If I don’t dance I get depressed. I know because I stopped at one point to focus on my studies and it was the most down I had ever been. It is where I turn to release AND replenish physically, emotionally and spiritually.
What are some under-the-radar female artists you admire?

So, so many…where to begin?! See my “Queens” Insta story highlight for longer list but as far as the lesser-known ones go: @amritha.shakti (Singer/Songwriter), @poojakannan90 (Dancer), @probablyjustart (Painter), @hibakhanart (Visual Artist), @reena.paints (Painter) @sudarsnak (Tamil-American ballet dancer), @poornima_23 (Dancer, Creative Director & Stylist).

You can follow Shyamla on Instagram @shyamladance

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