Wednesday, February 10, 2016

I Interview Teaching Artists #4: Rachna Ramya Agrawal

Rachna Ramya Agrawal demonstrating the beauty of Kathak, a classical Indian dance form.

Hello, Rachna Ramya Agrawal!  How long have you been a Teaching Artist?

I have been a teaching artist since 1988.  I started teaching Kathak, a classical Indian dance form, six months after I arrived in America.  Kathak is more than 2,000 years old, and is known for its swiftness, sharpness, and emotional content.  In the beginning my basic goal was to increase awareness and understanding of Indian music, dance, arts, and culture in America.  At that time hardly anyone knew about the art of Kathak in Connecticut.  I felt it was my personal responsibility to make people aware of this beautiful dance form, at least within the Indian community of Connecticut.  I started teaching to some interested students.  In 1993, I was selected as a teaching artist for the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, now known as the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism.  I started attending the Commission’s HOT (Higher Order Thinking) Schools Summer Institutes and other professional development programs that focused on many innovative arts-integrated strategies for both the schools and the teaching artists.  My passion and commitment for teaching started to grow and teaching Kathak became more than merely spreading awareness of this art form.  Now the emphasis of my teaching is on appreciation of arts; cultivating respect for other cultures; enhancement of self-awareness, self- esteem, and self-discipline; and using dance as a form of communication and expression.  Teaching dance is a way for me to make students understand the “unity principle” in all aspects of life.  As a teaching artist, I believe that dance is one of the most dynamic art forms, where students learn to see their bodies as a vehicle to express themselves.  Through their bodies they paint the picture of life and learn to connect with others and themselves.  

What organizations do you work for?

I work for the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism and participate in their residency programs at different public schools.  I also work for Arts for Learning Connecticut.  Arts for Learning sends me to public schools in Connecticut for both workshops and my performances.  In addition to working for the above two organizations, I teach a Kathak course at Trinity College.  I am also the Artistic Director of Sumbhaav School of Kathak Dance, where I teach students looking for more in-depth Kathak training.

What are your current or most recent teaching projects?  
There are so many projects going on at the same time.  One of my favorite projects that I am working on right now is “Bringing the Connecticut Freedom Trail to Life through the Arts.”  It’s a pilot program developed by The Department of Economic and Community Development State Historic Preservation Office, Connecticut Office of the Arts, and the State Department of Education.  At present, there are eight schools in Connecticut which are participating in this program.  There is a team of eight teaching artists who are working on this project and the team is led by a renowned teaching artist, Leslie Johnson.  During the fall of 2015, I visited the Edgewood Magnet School with Page McBrier, another teaching artist.  Page McBrier is the author of forty-four books for young readers, including the award-winning New York Times best-seller, Beatrice’s Goat. The Freedom Trail designates over 120 heritage sites in Connecticut that represent the struggle towards freedom for the state’s African American community.  Page McBrier and I used theater, movement, music, art, and writing to examine the course of freedom in the United States and elsewhere.  We worked closely with the classroom teacher and the music teacher at the Edgewood Magnet school.  It was a collaborative effort that also supported the Common Core State Standards for the fifth grade curriculum.  It was a highly successful and very satisfying residency where the students gained deeper understanding about empathy, tolerance, equality, and freedom by comprehending the story of Amistad.  These fifth graders immersed themselves in the subject, especially our compelling investigation of how Americans conceive of freedom and equality, and how those conceptions have changed over the course of U.S. history, especially for various racial, ethnic, religious, and gender minority groups. Page McBrier and I’ll be visiting another school in the spring and will be working on the Freedom Trail project with eighth graders. 

Another project very close to my heart is preparing students at the Sumbhaav School of Kathak Dance for the school’s year-end recital.  I work with over sixty of my Kathak students on a weekly basis and teach them traditional and contemporary choreography for this recital. 

I am also truly looking forward to another Connecticut Commission on the Culture and Tourism project which will begin in March, where I’ll be collaborating with fifth grade teachers to teach the American Revolution through movement and arts.

What's the most memorable moment teaching you've had recently?

With the Freedom Trail Project, every day was special and memorable.  Freedom is a fundamental human right and it was great to see students so actively participate in all art-based exercises to explore what it means to be free, how free we really are, etc.  The same is true with the projects at the Sumbhaav School of Kathak dance.  Every class, every rehearsal seems so important and substantial.  Each day there is an “Aha” moment and this is what I love about my work.  All those moments are memorable when I see sparkles in my students’ eyes that tell me that something has struck the chord within.  The great and memorable moments don’t lurk in some shadowy corner…in the art field they are always with us.  And we experience them every day.

What other creative projects of your own are you working on right now?

I am also a performer, writer, and a student of music.  When I am not teaching, I am always practicing my dance and music.  I spend a lot of time choreographing different dance pieces.  Right now I am collaborating with an Odissi (another classical dance form of India) dancer and we are creating different dance pieces together, which we will be performing this year at different venues.  I am also working on a book project, which is going very slow because of lack of time.  But then as they say in India - “bund bund kar ke ghara bharta hai” (a water pot fills drop by drop).

How do you find balance between your teaching and other creative work?  What systems or strategies do you have for balancing the many things that you do?

In this world of multi-tasking, finding balance between all the things that we do can be overwhelming.  I have to thank my Kathak training that has taught me the art of time and energy management.  It’s important to acknowledge how much time and energy we have and how to use them effectively.  I feel that it’s very important to identify the areas of life that are important for us.  For me, my family, my teaching endeavors, my performing career, and other creative projects that I pursue as my hobby are all equally important.  I try to make sure that one area is not burdening the others and that I am able to nourish each area, which in turn nourishes me at emotional and mental levels.  I truly believe that in order to find balance in different areas of life, we need to find the components within ourselves that need to be balanced. This is why meditation and contemplation are substantial parts of my life.   Meditation helps me stay calm and has helped my critical and creative thinking.    

I also studied Business Management in college, where I learned the benefits of goal setting, planning, preparing, and reflecting.   I set goals for each year, each week, and then for every day.  I plan things out, periodically reflect on what’s going on with my life, and examine whether all aspects of my life are working properly.   None of this takes too much time.  It’s mainly an awareness of what’s going on in my life and an awareness of where I need to be.

There are days when I feel overpowered by external circumstances, especially the weeks when I end up working seven days a week and twelve plus hours a day.  I simply try to accept my situation and wait for the moment when I can again bring my life back to where I feel calm, creative, and inspired.  Also, when I feel overwhelmed, I consciously turn my attention to the fact that I am so blessed to be doing what I love to do.

Describe the overlap between your teaching work and your creative work.

It’s hard to separate my teaching work and creative work since they both involve art, imagination, and creative thought.  My creative work inspires my teaching and my teaching gives me opportunity to learn more.  I became a better artist after I started teaching.  Teaching helps me realize the areas of understanding and practicing my art that need to be strengthened.  This is why I am both a teacher and a student.  Being a student always keeps me in a state of awe, which is so important for my creative work. 
Do the organizations you work for actively support and encourage the connections between your teaching practice and your creative practice? 

Definitely.  All the organizations that I work with give me tremendous opportunity to grow as a performer and as a creative artist.  For example, whenever I go to a school system to teach, I am given the opportunity to perform so that the students can truly see my creative work and know me as an artist.
If you could change one thing about your life as a Teaching Artist, what would it be?

There is room for betterment and change in every field that we work.  But at this point I feel that there is only one thing that will truly improve my teaching life: less paperwork.  All school projects require a lot of paper work.  I forget about energy management as soon as I see a pile of paperwork in front of me.

Offer any plugs for upcoming teaching/creative projects of your own or of people you admire.

I have a website where anyone can read more about my projects:

The Ted Hershey Dance and Music Marathon is an inspiring event in Hartford on April 9th. The Marathon celebrates the life and work of Ted Hershey, who was a principal dancer with the Hartford Ballet and the co-founder of Works Contemporary Dance.  About twenty five very talented dance companies and dance institutions will showcase their work at The Marathon annual dance concert.  The details will be posted on The Marathon’s website:

The 23rd Annual HOT Schools Summer Institute from Connecticut Office of the Arts will take place from July 11-15th 2016 in Hartford, CT.  This year’s theme is STORYTELLING: An Artful Journey.  The Institute faculty includes national experts and noted artists, such as Gerald Richards, Carmen Agra Deedy, Cindy Myers Foley, Gayle Danley, Jonathan Gottschall, and many more.  Online registration will open on February 26th.  Details will be posted on

I am really excited about Pt. Birju Maharaj’s upcoming production in New York.  He is considered the greatest Kathak dancer of the world, an institution in himself.  He is auditioning Kathak students in America for his production, which will have three shows at Madison Square Garden.   A few of my Kathak students have been chosen for this production.  They haven’t started to advertise it yet, but there should be more information on his website:

I am also looking forward to the program “Traversing Traditions” coming in fall 2016, in which I will be dancing, along with my students and fellow artists.  It will be a month-long celebration of Indian arts and culture at Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, CT.  The focus will be on classical, traditional, and contemporary arts of India.  Charter Oak Cultural Center received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for this event.  The details will be posted on Charter Oak’s website:

Rachna with some of her students from the Sumbhaav School of Kathak Dance.

1 comment:

  1. such a good artist and a wonderful character i have ever met i love you ma'm.