True Philanthropy: Govind Pillai’s journey of social change through art

Govind Pillai is an accomplished classical Indian dancer living in Melbourne. One of only few male performers of Bharathanatyam in Australia, Govind is noted by reviewers as keenly adept at his chosen style and is well regarded by his peers and students. His presence in the arts is growing fast. He performs at various local and international festivals and events, recently worked with internationally acclaimed contemporary dancer/choreographer Annalousie Paul, and currently sits on the board of The National Theatre (St Kilda).

Yet Govind’s reputation reaches beyond dancer and teacher to one who uses art for cultural integration, social wellbeing, and philanthropy. He has built a not-for-profit dance company, called Karma Dance Inc., which promotes social harmony to a wide audience and donates performance profits to charity. Now, he is also developing an affiliated teaching academy and in-school program so he can share these philosophies with the next generation.

“When I started [dancing] I didn’t really have ambitions and hopes. It was just something I loved doing and wanted to keep doing.”

Govind began dancing when he was about seven years old. Curiosity had sprung from watching his older sister learning in class as he waited with his mother for her to finish. Though Govind was drawn to “quite masculine qualities” in the dance, being a boy meant he was overlooked for dance study. He would remedy this by asking his sister to secretly ‘play’ at teaching him, until eventually their game, and Govind’s joy in dancing, were discovered. Only then was he accompanied to his own classes.

Learning as an adolescent became more difficult. The family had moved from Papua New Guinea, a place rich with differing cultures, to Dunedin in New Zealand, where suddenly Govind’s dancing was far less accepted by his peers. Lacking in self-confidence, he stopped for a while.

It wasn’t until he was at university in Sydney, Australia that he became more confident and self-aware – and realised his life was missing something he described as fundamental. He returned to his beloved art form, training at the Samskriti School of Dance. From then on Govind would give dance his complete and wholehearted commitment.

The dedication demonstrated in perfecting his craft is illustrated well by the story of his Arangetram, a solo debut or ‘graduation’ he presented in 2009. Within months of committing to perform this most demanding event, Govind had to move to Melbourne for the corporate work he continues full-time today. He managed, however, to maintain regular weekly practice with his guru in Sydney.

“I would catch a train from Melbourne to Sydney every Friday night after work, an overnight one, and I’d rehearse Saturdays and Sundays full time. Then on Sunday night I’d catch a train, overnight. Then I’d quickly have a shower and go straight to work,” he recalled.

“I never at the time thought of the burden, I just thought, ‘oh well, got to keep training.’ ”

Such determination and exertion has secured Govind opportunities to perform at festivals and events as varied and as distant as the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, choreographer Annalouise Paul’s contemporary production Mother Tongue at Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, and the Melaka Art and Performance Festival in Malaysia.

Coming to the close of an almost endlessly busy year, Govind is finally able to sit down and have a chat with us. He is polite and gentle, a real contrast to his commanding presence and strength on stage. He has an eagerness that, though restrained, is infectious, and after a while in conversation he relaxes and reveals an intelligence and passion that is deep and serious.

“I always felt there were two things I wanted from dancing: I always wanted to dance for myself, but I wanted more to bring it into the mainstream so people are able to absorb it’s wisdom and antiquity and drive social change.”

For Govind, forging social change is as simple as nurturing an appreciation through education. Karma Dance productions offer a unique perspective of ancient Indian dance and culture via the integration of video narration and performance. Explaining the stories and traditions behind the dance routines seen, the presentation takes audiences on an immersive and informative journey.

Further to this educative component is Karma Dance’s more direct action of beneficence in which net proceeds raised are donated to charity. So far, the group have consistently helped migrant and refugee women’s support group, Shakti.

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To date, Karma Dance have acquired local and international attention in events where multiculturalism is the focus, but Govind wants to see them included in a wider public discourse.

“We want to take things to more mainstream venues. We’re still performing in schools, university venues, in community halls. We cannot access the best performance spaces because of the nature [of our art], because we’re not doing ballet, doing popular arts, and we’re not-for-profit so we’re not considered professional.”

“If we can get into the mainstream and to some regular venues we can start being recognised as able to comment on policy.”

Integration with the mainstream is a regular theme in our conversation. Reflecting on why this would be, Govind makes a connection between this preoccupation and his youth.

“I think that came from the experience of moving from a very multicultural childhood to a fairly mono-cultural place like Dunedin,” he said.

“There was a very communal culture in the streets [of PNG] so we grew up with neighbours and friends as siblings. It was like a big extended family. We went to a school which had children from 90 different countries…It was ok to be an Indian dancer ‘cause that was kind of normal to have your own culture.”

“Moving to New Zealand was a big contrast. I was the first brown person in the school and it was all very different. Their culture was very different. People were far more individualistic.”

It was for this individualist ideology that Govind and sister Sandhya decided, just one year after his debut, to create a show that introduced the beauty of classical Indian culture and its dance to a wider New Zealand audience. Enlisting their parents as administrative organisers, the dancers plunged into putting together an event that would ultimately set Govind on his current trajectory.

The pair decided they would use the opportunity of this performance to raise community awareness and much needed funds for a cause close to their hearts: Shakti Community Council’s Second Chance Program, helping migrant and refugee women overcome disadvantage and domestic violence and gain independence.

“It wasn’t a grand plan or anything. We said, ‘let’s do a fundraiser for them,’ and from there, that was the inspiring moment…People just came [to volunteer]. People who we didn’t know, who had skills, suddenly turned up, and before you knew it we had ambitiously hired a hall with about 800 seats thinking we’d sell about a quarter – it sold out.”

With that performance, they raised over $8000 for Shakti. Such success made them realise there really was a need for events that connected and empowered communities, and Govind was moved to “establish something whose purpose was to do that”. He flew back home to Melbourne, founded Karma Dance Inc. and, continuing to work with Sandhya and their family, took Shakti to Sydney, Hobart, and Melbourne.

“Karma Dance was entirely inspired by those ambitions [of] wanting the art to give something back, integration into mainstream Australia, and allowing Australians broadly, wherever they come from, to draw from each others culture.”

To achieve these ambitions, Govind has evolved Karma Dance beyond a performance company. He established a dance education program that takes his teachings straight into Australian schools, solidifying infiltration into mainstream Australia. The group offer workshops of varying lengths and provide education and immersion into Indian culture in a way that may otherwise not be encountered by the wider student population.

Since their commencement two years ago, more than 20 schools across New South Wales and Victoria have adopted the programs for increasingly longer visits. What began as half hour demonstrations has progressed in some locations to day-long training sessions where, at the end of the day, the children perform what they have learnt.

Additionally, Govind now shares his philosophies with an ever-growing sum of future performers through the Karma Dance teaching academy. These students attend weekly night-time Bharathanatyam lessons in an ordinary classroom in Epping in Melbourne’s north. Last October, the students had their first opportunity to partake in a presentation of their skills.

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With both the school kids and his regular students, Govind finds a different approach from the traditional is needed in passing on the folklore, and a developing empathy, to children of a multicultural country.

“The way we teach is not the way our teachers were taught in India. We’ve had to think about how to teach classical Indian dance to kids growing up in Australia because we can’t do it the same way.”

So far, the girls that have joined the regular dance classes are girls and women of Indian nationality, ranging from 3 years to adulthood. Most are at school age, which Govind takes as a framework for his teachings, aware of their particular struggles and concerns.

“The girls that come at that age are often Indian girls who are trying to integrate into Western schools and what not, and have a family culture that’s very different to the prevailing culture. I want a lot of that reconciliation that comes through the dance education to rub off on them.”

“I definitely want the girls to come out of this process feeling embedded, feeling proud of who they are, how they look, what that means to other people when they see them, and that’s all part of dance.”

Looking back, with invitations to perform at more and more events, a fast uptake of the school education program, and increasing numbers of students, Govind feels Karma Dance is beginning to achieve “broader recognition”.

“I think that recognition is permission to do more,” he said.

“Most people I talk to say we really need more diverse art forms out there. We really need art to bring social change and audiences together.”

Govind’s way of using art to unite and enrich lives seems to come very easily to him. Acting on gut feeling and with pure passion, his approach is to keep a ‘play it by ear’ attitude, remaining flexible and open to opportunities rather than plotting out a rigid plan.

“I still don’t have a big vision or anything. One step at a time.”

“I think it’s ok not to have a plan when you’re starting out. If you’ve got an idea you’re really passionate about, and you can make (shows short distance between thumb and forefinger) that much difference, that would be amazing. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, it’s just got to do its thing for a period.”

Photo credits:
Cover photo by Adrian van Raay
Govind performing by Fotoholics
Govind’s students in Maathaa by Sanjeev Singh