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Family Ties: Alumna’s Ancestry Linked to India’s Nonviolence Movement

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Power of Protest: Arts and Civil Disobedience is motivated by the increasingly contentious climate in America as demonstrated by world-wide protests for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, and other controversial topics. Texas Performing Arts has partnered with The Andrew C. Mellon Foundation to highlight key performances that support these ideas.  


When Neha Sukumar ’18 was a young girl, she loved to watch her sister dance.

“I would watch my older sister in her Bharathanatyam class, and I would discretely dance on the side [of the room]—trying out all the steps and poses,” said Neha. “I was always in awe of Bharathanatyam and I knew from a really young age I wanted to pursue it.” Soon after, Neha’s mother signed her up for Indian classical dance lessons.

Bharathanatyam, a form of dance dating back more than two thousand years, was originally a Hindu temple dance from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like many Indian families, the women in Neha’s family passed down this art form from generation to generation. 

Neha Sukumar at a dance performance

Neha worked for years to prepare for her Arrangetam, a debut Bharathanatyam performance, in India. Through practice and performance of this art form, she built a personal and spiritual connection.

“For many years now, it has been my own way of worshipping God and connecting to my heritage despite living so far from India,” said Neha. “I love that I can tell a story and translate emotions through this dance—it’s more than just movement to music and always has a deeper meaning behind it.”

Growing up locally as a first generation American in a large Indian immigrant community, she learned Bharathanatyam as a way celebrate her cultural heritage and share it with others. This traditional dance had been performed by her sister, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. In the future, Neha looks forward to watching her own daughter’s Arrangetam performance.

“One day, I was telling my family story to Judith, the Texas Performing Arts Campus & Community Engagement Assistant Director, when she asked me if I would be willing to share my family history to create this exhibit.”

Feeling honored, Neha gladly agreed to have a collection of personal photos and items showcased in Bass Concert Hall in support of the Ragamala performance associated with The Power of Protest.

Vajapeyam Venkatasubbaiyah

Part of the exhibit features Neha’s great-grandfather Vajapeyam Venkatasubbaiya’s involvement in India’s nonviolent movement and his personal relationship with Mahatma Ghandi.

“My father would tell me these family stories to teach me how important the freedom movement was in India—what it meant for the country and our people,” she said. “These stories are close to my heart because they remind me that the fight for freedom led my family to a successful life in America.”

Over the past months, the Sukumar family sifted through the family collection of photographs and memorabilia from both the US and India to share in this exhibit. Within the photographs, Neha’s relatives can be seen interacting with important leaders related to India’s struggle for independence.

“Everyone that we have featured in this exhibit has protested and fought for their freedom; whether that was freedom from the British Raj, freedom from unfair imprisonment, freedom from being physically and brutally beaten for because of their skin color in their own homeland, or freedom from any type of persecution.”

It is the Sukumar family’s goal that through sharing these personal stories, the audience can discuss the civil disobedience philosophy and visualize the connection between art and freedom.

“The beauty about this exhibit to me is the interconnectedness of it all,” said Neha. “I feel so blessed that I can honor my family on both my mother and father’s side as well as my cultural heritage and love for performing arts.”


View Gandhi and the Nonviolence Movement and Bharatanatyam in Photos Sep 4- Dec 20, on Level 4 of Bass Concert Hall. Don't miss Ragamala Dance Company's Written in Water on Oct 18 at Bass Concert Hall for a live performance of Bharathanatyam.