(September 5, 2023) Teachers possess a unique and transformative power — the ability to shape the destinies of their students, instilling knowledge, nurturing talents, and inspiring dreams. In the United Kingdom, one remarkable Indian-British artist, Dr. Chithra Ramakrishnan, has harnessed this power to not only change lives but to help children with disabilities perceive and savour life from an entirely different perspective.
The founder of a non-profit South Asian arts and culture organisation, ShruthiUK, the artist has played a pivotal role in making South Indian Classical Dance accessible to a wider audience. Their non-invasive, holistic approach caters to children with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, learning and behavioural disorders. It also offers solace and support to senior citizens grappling with autism, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. The recipient of the honour ‘Member of the Order of the British Empire’ (MBE), Dr. Ramakrishnan also launched a first-of-its-kind Carnatic Choir group, which aims at creating and exploring choral singing in the South Indian classical music genre.
“Using our shared language – music – to cultivate deeper connections among us and to bring joy into people’s lives, one song at a time holds immense significance for me,” the artist says, as she connects with Global Indian from the UK, adding, “I aspire to harness the power of Indian classical dance as a holistic form of healing. Thankfully, my efforts have successfully bolstered the confidence of individuals of all age groups and abilities, while enhancing their mental and social well-being.”
Young artistic prelude
“I come from a typical Tamil, Brahmin Iyer family. I spent a part of my childhood, in a small town near Trichy, called Lalgudi, which is very famous for its musicians and artists. A few years later my parents and I moved to the Gulf for some time, post which we returned to the country for my pre-university education. I spent most of my childhood outside India, however, music was a big part of my life – we would listen to classical South Indian music, or devotional songs at home. My mother was my greatest influence, she was a musician and dancer herself and instilled a love of music in me from a very young age. She would teach me,” says the artist.
While music gave her joy, her lifelong passion for South Indian arts started when she was about eight years old and witnessed a television concert by the legendary Bharat Ratna Dr. M.S. Subbalakshmi. That incident gave her a dream – to become a playback singer one day. Realising her potential, Dr. Ramakrishnan’s parents encouraged her, and soon the artist started training under renowned gurus. “Dr. M.S. Subbalakshmi was a big influence – I remember trying to sing several of her songs including Bhaja Govindam during practice. Thankfully, I came to realise at a young age that true excellence can only be achieved where passion exists. When my parents noticed my enthusiasm, they took the initiative to introduce me to exceptional mentors, with the hope of nurturing my talents even further,” shares the artist.
Eventually, Dr. Ramakrishnan – who was also being trained in Bharatnatyam apart from classical music – started performing on various stages. “But, as I come from a South Indian household, and a family of academician, I also had to equally balance my studies,” says the artist, laughing, “I pursued an MBA from Manipal University specialising in marketing and finance. While I was in the UK, I also pursued another MBA from the University of Frankfurt in human resources and later earned my Ph.D. in disaster management from the USA, under my father’s guidance.”
Setting the stage
After her marriage, Dr. Ramakrishnan shifted to the Gulf for a while, and in 2001, arrived in the UK. “I was so out of my comfort zone,” she reminisces. “I had spent time in the Gulf growing up so that certainly wasn’t an issue. However, the UK was a different world for me. Frankly, my biggest challenge was to get used to the weather of this land. So, it took me a couple of years before I could start calling this country my home.”
While she did not work full-time, choosing instead to take care of her two children during those early years in the UK, Dr. Ramakrishnan started freelancing as an artist for a few organisations in the northern parts of the country. “I started building my network slowly and giving vocal support for Bharatnatyam performers. Eventually, I also started performing at concerts across the UK,” recalls the artist.
As she travelled the lengths and breadths of the country, Dr. Ramakrishnan noticed that while young kids wanted to learn South Indian art forms, there was a severe lack of institutions providing courses in the discipline. It was around this time that the artist established her organisation – ShruthiUK. “I am a dreamer! I believe that everyone should have the chance to immerse themselves in the diverse art forms of South India, irrespective of their geographical location. This dream inspired me to assume the role of an ‘Indian cultural ambassador’ and educator based in the UK,” the artist says.
She adds, “At ShruthiUK, our central objective in arts education is to cultivate an environment that fosters the development of artistic skills and a passion for the arts through consistent training and engaging projects. I aspire to impart my own love for Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam to the younger generation, the future leaders of tomorrow, by encouraging them to embrace their cultures and beliefs. We aim to achieve this through a range of avenues, including classes, festivals, conferences, and school outreach programme.”
Of compassion and giving back
Through ShruthiUK, Dr. Ramakrishnan organises the annual Birmingham Thyagaraja Festival, a celebration of Carnatic music held in Solihull. “This festival holds a special place in my heart as it serves as a unifying platform for budding singers, musicians, and dancers, all of us passionately dedicated to showcasing the timeless compositions, rhythms, and teachings of Saint Thyagaraja, a revered figure in the world of Indian Carnatic classical music.
Over the next few years, Dr. Ramakrishnan started working actively with many mental-health-focused and non-profit organisations in the UK. “Giving back to the community holds deep significance for me. It means contributing to the well-being and progress of the place I call home and the people I share it with. To encourage others to participate similarly, I believe in leading by example,” share the artist, adding, “Ultimately, it’s about recognising our responsibility to contribute to the greater good and finding ways, big or small, to give back to the community that nurtures us. I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the flourishing of Carnatic music and Indian Classical dance in the younger generation, as well as their ability to empower individuals from underprivileged backgrounds and provide strength to those facing mental and physical challenges. The knowledge that I play a pivotal role in this journey fills me with immense joy.”
But while she has taught several students, this teacher never stopped learning herself. “During my artistic journey, I’ve accumulated invaluable experiences and life lessons,” Dr. Ramakrishnan says, adding, “Some of my most treasured memories stem from my performances in South Indian classical music and dance on various stages. These opportunities to showcase my cultural traditions have amplified my sense of pride in my heritage. I was inspired to share this profound connection with others, which led me to embrace the roles of both performer and teacher, spreading these art forms in the UK. Although my path as an educator and student has been marked by unexpected twists and challenges, my unwavering dedication and deep appreciation for these art forms have smoothed the way. I will forever consider myself fortunate to have had the privilege of being a student of these culturally rich art forms.”
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