(February 14, 2023) It was 1986 when Dr. Malini Ranganathan faced one of the most difficult challenges in her journey to teach Indian classical dance – Kathak – to young French girls. She had been living in France for over two years by then and was teaching her students in English. However, her appointment at the Maison de la Culture de Loire Atlantique (MCLA), Nantes, changed the game. This was a town where no one spoke English, so the only medium of instruction she could use to teach her students was French. Not the one to be scared of a tough job, the eminent Kathak dancer took the challenge head-on and learnt to speak in French, while teaching several French dancers.
Dr Ranganathan has dedicated her life to propagating Indian art and culture in France and across Europe. In 2019, she became the first woman from France to be honoured with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman. Speaking at a press conference after being conferred with the award by former President of India, Dr. Ramnath Kovind, the Global Indian said, “This award, which I accept with great humility reinforces the responsibility of carrying forward the glorious legacy of Bharat, not only with its unbroken tradition over centuries but with a renewed vigour. Whether in India or abroad, it is our Indian identity and culture that helps us strike the right balance between being Indian at heart and living as global citizens.”
The dancer added, “My parents’ message had always highlighted the importance of assimilating with whichever country we live in, guided by respect for local customs and protocol and simultaneously orienting them with our unique Indian culture. I thank them and my sisters immensely for their guidance as well as my husband and children for their patience and encouragement, thus enabling me to continue my passion in France. I also thank the Embassy of India, Paris, and the members of Association Bindi in Nantes, led by Mr. Rostaing and Mrs. Mazenot for extending their full support to all my Indo-French cultural activities.”
The land of love
While not much is known about the dancer’s initial years in India, Dr. Ranganathan moved to France in the early 80s as a young bride of 24. With a textile design degree from the well-known Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, it wasn’t difficult for the dancer to find a job soon after she arrived in Lyon. She started her career at the Textile Museum in Lyon – which is also known as the silk hub of France. Not too good at French, the young dancer was shy and hesitant at the beginning of her career, however, her dedication and handwork helped her not only get recognised, but also handle several prestigious projects. At the Textile Museum, Dr. Ranganathan curated one of the first ‘India Year’ exhibitions, along with famous Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake.
However, while she was climbing higher at her workplace, the dancer inside her was waiting for an opportunity to take on the stage. A disciple of Roshan Kumari of Jaipur gharana and Damayanti Joshi of Lucknow gharana, Dr. Ranganathan started taking weekend classes at the National Conservatory of Dance in Lyon, and soon joined the Merce Cunningham School of Dance as a professor. Interestingly, her lack of local language proved to be quite beneficial for her students, who would also use her classes to practice their English skills. During this time, the dancer also got opportunities to perform across Europe, including the inauguration of the Royal Mughal Jewellery Exhibition at Sotheby’s.
After two years in Lyon, the couple shifted to Nantes, where she eventually brushed up on her French skills and took over 300 French kathak aspirants under her wings. In 1990, the dancer presented 30 of her senior students in a two-hour performance titled ‘Prayas’ at the National Stage in Nantes, with costumes and props made in-house. Her affair with French continued as she went on to complete her M.Phil and Ph.D. in ‘Didactics in Cross-Cultural Teaching as an Educational Science,’, which helped her qualify as a Researcher-Professor in Humanities and Educational Science to MBA students in ISG, Nantes.
Spreading her wings
In 1996, having trained over 400 dancers, Dr. Ranganathan established the NGO Association Bindi with the single aim of pedagogical transmission of classical Kathak and Bollywood dance to thousands of French students. The dancer is the pioneer in creating a new teaching protocol for Kathak dance recognised by the French University, which combines traditional teaching contents with new methods of transmission tailored especially for non-Indian students.
Over the years, the NGO has organised several cultural festivals in France, giving a stage to veteran as well as new Kathak exponents from across the globe. For the last 15 years, the dancer has single-handedly organised the Indian and Asia cultural components of the Summer Festival of Nantes and Routes Indiennes International Festival. She regularly presents new choreographies — in 2011, she presented ‘Parampara’ with presentations on the mother-daughter family parampara and the guru-sishya parampara. The dancer was honoured by the French government for her extraordinary cultural service and contribution to the promotion of India in France from 1983 with the “Medal of Excellence” in May 2019 (French Ministry and the City Council of Nantes) and the “Certificate of Recognition” by CID-UNESCO, Paris, France.
Dr. Ranganathan has several international scientific publications to her credit, both in English and in French, besides paper presentations at international conferences. While the dancer’s vision towards global recognition for Indian dance is driven by her passion for performance, her mission to share the benefits of the art is driven by her passion for teaching, grounded as she is in Indian art and culture.