Meet Aarti Saikia, Bangkok’s only Indian ballerina.
By Krishna Mawani
The connection between Indians and ballet has never been a strong one. Many have tried but none have lasted. However, nine years ago, one 30 year-old Indian expat was determined to break this stereotype. When Aarti Saikia first read the words, “there are no Indians doing ballet in Bangkok” in a newspaper interview with Ms. Fay Pansringarm, Director of Rising Star Dance Studio, her curiosity reached an all-time high. Aarti was in shock. How could this be true, considering the large number of Indian expats and locals settled in Bangkok? She knew she had to go to the ballet studio and see for herself. She signed up for her first ballet class that day, and hasn’t looked back since. Despite the three ankle injuries, exhaustion and demanding classes, Aarti talks about her ballet experience with a fierce passion as we sit down for a face-to-face interview.
I asked the graceful ballerina what her biggest challenges were when learning ballet. She said, “I was introduced to a totally different style. I was learning from scratch, which was also to my advantage. I was just so open to learning and there was nothing I had to unlearn first. I used to get physically tired. It was challenging, but I never looked at it as negative. I’m a curious learner. I want to learn more and that’s what keeps me going.” This mother of two is not only an avid ballerina, but also a trained classical Indian dancer, vocalist, artist and poet. In the words of Aarti herself, she is a creative expressionist.
The journey of this creative expressionist began at an early stage. Aarti was raised in India, in a family of creative individuals. Her upbringing fostered her artistic pursuits and an empathetic soul. She shared a love for words with her family. For her, language is a “dance between words”. She says, “One of the most important things as a human is being able to express yourself. And how do you do that? Through the arts.” Her bare words became beautiful stanzas in poems. Her classical dance moves were fused with contemporary music and translated into stylised choreographed college performances. Her thoughts were transformed in to charcoal drawings.
As her journey progressed, Aarti’s belief became stronger in the power of expressive arts to support sustainable development. Her time spent working as a volunteer in New Delhi with the NGO Maximising Employment to Serve the Handicapped had a deep impact. It instilled a passion for social and sustainable development in her. She not only wanted to empower the handicapped community, but also to ensure the same level of development even when she wasn’t there or, in other words, make it sustainable. And she was successful. The community is still moving on with the work she started. Aarti went on to work in the United Nations in New Delhi and Rome with her husband, Anshuman, after completing her Master’s in Political Science and a Post Graduate specialisation in International Human Rights, Humanitarian and Refugee Laws. The family moved from Rome to Sri Lanka, and then to Bangkok after the birth of their son in 2008.
Aarti quit her job in the UN, but she didn’t let her passion for the arts and sustainable development take a backseat. Her focus is now on making the creative arts sustainable and keeping the wheel of progression spinning. “It’s not about one performance, it’s about sustained performances. I’m trying to link up all my knowledge, experience and education in development and sustainable livelihoods with the creative paths. I really believe that art has a big impact on individual and social development.” This imaginative thinker continues to write and recite thought-provoking poems, learn and perform ballet, and teach art as a healing method for children and adults who find it difficult to openly express themselves. She explains, “There are no miracles. You can be mindful of your emotion and appropriately express it. Through colours, you can convey that emotion.”
Last year, Aarti decided to spin the wheel one more time, and came out more satisfied. The child of her inventive genius and months of dedication led to SoulVilla, two original theatre productions performed in January and April 2017 at Alliance Française. The show is a live showcase of international artists, in poetry, dance, music and visual performances, who are all interconnected through one theme. Performed in April, SoulVilla saw 10 artists (including Aarti) come together on the stage to explore organic language negotiations. The success of the show and her desire to keep the wheel moving forward promise more artistic endeavours ahead from Aarti, but she is giving nothing away just yet. For now, she is happy living in the moment and embracing the Thai culture of sabai sabai.