Author Sudha Rao on poetry, performing, and moving overseas

By Sarah Lang
Photography by Ebony Lamb

Featured in Capital #84.
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Poet and public-policy strategist Sudha Rao tells Sarah Lang about her background in classical Indian dancing, and learning to be a New Zealander.

You’d never know Sudha Rao is shy. She exudes warmth and positivity. “I love being with people and the energy they bring,” Sudha says. But she also needs space to recharge. And to write.

She’s been writing poems for pleasure since the 1970s. Her debut book – a lyrical poetry collection called On Elephant’s Shoulders – will be published in July. Much of it speaks to the migrant experience.

Sudha, who has two adult sons and lives with her policy-analyst husband in Wadestown, grew up in South India. “My mother was a classical musician and beautiful singer who encouraged me in dancing.”

“Classical dance in South India used to be the domain of men, passed on from father to son over generations. Men performed both male and female parts. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that women were taught dance as a form of praise in temples supported by rulers of the area. Women of higher castes weren’t allowed to dance, though they participated in other art forms.”

“Aged six, I started learning Bharatanatyam.” This is the pre-eminent Indian classical dance form, in which dance and music are utterly inseparable. “At nine, I performed my ‘Arangetram’: my first solo performance, which lasted over two-and-a-half hours.” (The word “Arangetram” means “ascending the stage”, via a performance that is the culmination of years of work.) Aged 12, she won the junior category for Bharatanatyam in the fiercely-competitive All India Dance Competition.

Sudha was in her early teens when she moved with her father, mother, and three brothers to New Zealand. Her father, a doctor, came to take up a research fellowship at the University of Otago’s Medical School. A two-year stay became permanent when he got a teaching role.

“Dunedin was where I began to learn to become a New Zealander. We may have been the first Indian family to live in Dunedin.” Was it hard to adjust? “Yes and no. It’s just how things were.”

“My life in India was all school and dance. Arriving in Dunedin, I felt lost – until Shona MacTavish [the late dancer and choreographer] appeared on our doorstep after reading an article about our family and my dance background in the Otago Daily Times.” So Sudha began teaching Bharatanatyam to Shona’s students.

“Our family, along with two other Indian couples, introduced classical Indian music and dance to Dunedin, with our first performance at the Globe Theatre. My mother sang, I danced and my father was programme director. In the late 1970s, the audience had very few Indians!”

Halfway through her degree in education at University of Otago, Sudha travelled to Madras in South India, to complete a degree in dance at the Kalakshetra Dance School: a cultural academy dedicated to the preservation of traditional South Indian arts, with an international reputation for training dancers and musicians. Sudha was a live-in student for four years. “Life on campus was simple and austere – focused on learning dance, music, and reading Indian literature.” Sudha became part of Kalakshetra’s touring troupe and performed around India.

Returning to New Zealand, she gave well-received solo performances around the country. But Sudha found it less satisfying to perform to New Zealand audiences, to whom Indian classical dance “was still an unknown language.”

Sudha and former student Bronwyn Judge collaborated to create performances meshing Sudha’s classical Indian style and Bronwyn’s very expressive “Bodenwiesser” style. “The shows weren’t very successful, and we were a little bruised, because I don’t think the audience understood what we were trying to achieve. It wasn’t the right time, I think.”

“And I used to get nerves before going on stage. I didn’t like costumes or makeup and would have preferred to perform in a simple sari.”

There are other reasons she gave up performing. “It was partly the need to have an audience that understood Indian classical arts. Also, I was becoming interested in New Zealand music and literature, and their intersection with dance.”

Sudha married, had two sons, and worked as a librarian in Dunedin. After divorcing, she moved to Wellington in 1994 to become the first chief executive of Dance Aotearoa New Zealand, an infrastructure organisation set up by Creative New Zealand. “My vision was to bring different New Zealand dance communities together while maintaining their individual identities, to increase the profile of dance as an artform, and especially to convey the value of dance for the community and the economy.” DANZ is still going.

After three years of juggling the job with parenting, Sudha became a strategic business analyst for Wellington City Libraries’ chief librarian. This spawned her interest in arts policy. Sudha became a National Library policy analyst and earned a Master’s in Public Management from Victoria University. She worked for six years at the Ministry of Transport. At present she is the strategic adviser at Education New Zealand, a small Crown entity that works to attract international students.

She says she has never experienced overt racism. “But there’s systemic racism. It isn’t just about colour – it’s about perceptions. Some people make assumptions about me, such as I only cook and/or eat Indian food.” She actually likes a good single malt whisky.

Some of her poems refer to her Hindu beliefs. “Hinduism is a way of life. We believe God’s spirit sits in all of us. My book’s title, On Elephant’s Shoulders, references Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, whose spirit Hindus invoke at the start of any venture or daily activity to remove any barriers and smooth the path for success. The ‘shoulders’ in the title also represent my family who brought me to New Zealand.” Does she finally feel she belongs here? Yes and no. “There’s always the sense of being the ‘other’.”

She definitely feels a sense of “belonging” to the Meow Gurrrls, a group she joined 15 years ago. At present, seven Wellington poets meet every six to eight weeks (for many years, at Meow). They often bring work in progress to critique and discuss. It’s a source of encouragement, friendship, support. “To be with people doing and talking about similar things is so important as a writer.” Their YouTube channel shows them performing their poems (it’s “performing” not “reading” because usually you know them by heart).

Sudha participated in a Verb Wellington event, performing her poems and incorporating dance movements in the classical Indian style. She also attended the International Bengaluru Poetry Festival 2019.

In 2017, she completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She submitted her manuscripts to publishers and got a yes from the Cuba Press. “I’m so pleased to contribute an Indian New Zealander’s voice through my poems. I’ve written poems about my family, parents, sons and husband as part of becoming a person living on this land, alongside tangata whenua.”

“I like to think dance and music have flowed into my poems, because these art forms all have rhythm binding them, and help me express the world around me.”

The different threads of her life have come together. “I love ambiguity. I love change. I love spontaneity. That’s where I feel most comfortable.”


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