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MFA graduate uses dance to examine traditions in India

Siva Pooja Ramachadran photographed by Chloe DeMarce

December 07, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Originally from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, Siva Pooja Ramachadran studied mechanical engineering in India and finished her undergraduate degree in Connecticut. She considered pursuing an MBA but realized engineering was not her true passion.

“I wanted to do something where I felt more alive,” said Pooja Ramachadran. “Dance is the language that I communicate with.”

Now she is a graduating MFA dance student in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University. 

Pooja Ramachadran had been dancing since she was 5 years old. As an only child, she valued the connections and friendships she developed in dance. She said she chose to pursue a master’s degree at ASU because the program offered a range of dance styles.

“The program is not focused on a particular dance form,” she said. “It has a lot of pathways that you can explore with the dance form you are experiencing. I really love that.”

A recipient of the Herbert Smith Fellowship, Pooja Ramachadran also worked as a teaching assistant during her time at ASU. She’s living in India again and working to slowly build a non-profit organization focused on examining traditions and understanding culture.

“It comes from my project and looking at questioning the traditions that we come from — not questioning in the sense to critique it but to really understand,” Pooja Ramachadran said. “I want the organization to be a place where individuals come and try to understand themselves and understand the culture that they are a part of.”

She shared what she learned during her master’s program, the impact her professors made, advice she has for those in the program and how she would spend money to provide for artists.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: My cohort was large and most had experience in ballet. I thought that maybe there was a misunderstanding and I had to know ballet. So the first semesters were hard to adapt, and the pandemic was a factor in that. After that, I was able to navigate the pathways. I found I really enjoyed somatics because it helped me understand you don’t necessarily have to move a certain way; you can do what your body tells you to do. That experience let me be myself. At the same time, it always pulled me out of my comfort zone to explore the dance form that I come from, bharatanatyam. It’s very structurally oriented and is the national dance of India. That experience made me explore (the question), "What is tradition?" Negotiating all of that became the start of my project.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: There are so many! They made me feel comfortable and gave me a sense of home. 

My project chair, Naomi Jackson, was very helpful. I met her during my second semester. She has a lot of knowledge in the dance form that I come from and also the literature and background of mythologies in India. It was really easy to communicate and work with her. She was a good place to bounce ideas. She would always question me to think about new theories. We had a lot of conversations about philosophy and about how being a woman you can still play a man’s role. 

I want to thank Liz Lerman for her time. She was one of my committee members. She has always been the person I go to when I’m lost or when I don’t know how to put things together. The way she frames questions feels like she’s thinking along with me. She acted like a torchlight to me. 

My conversations with Cynthia Roses-Thema have always been very philosophical as well. She actually helped me to get personal and understand the struggles I was dealing with.

I met Professor LaTasha Barnes toward the end of my time here. She helped put into words what I was trying to say. Of course professor Mary Fitzgerald as well. She has always been there. You can go to her if you need something. And she always sincerely asks, "How are you?"

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I would definitely say to voice whatever you want or need and are seeking. We have an amazing faculty group who are there and who really want to help get whatever you need, however little it may be. Rather than just thinking it doesn’t exist so I can’t do it, turn it around and ask. That connection — when we reach out, the faculty are there to help. I would also say stick to what you believe and at the same time be open to what they want you to explore. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I bike from my apartment to campus from the light on Rural and Lemon to Bulldog Hall. It passes along the intramural fields. I miss that road because it makes me feel like "OK, we have reached school" or "Now it’s the time to go." It's been the place of coming out of wherever you are and going to where you're headed next. I also like the Secret Garden because of the beautiful space there.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would want to make dance and arts and literature more accessible and to provide those meaningful things for free. In order to get quality music or quality dance education, you have to pay. It is necessary because the teacher needs a living, but it’s slowly becoming an extracurricular activity. But historically it has been a very, very important part of life. During the times of kings, people were awarded with lands and money so that they could practice their art. Bringing back value to the arts is important to me.

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