Shoba Narayan is a trailblazer. She’s made history not once but twice in four years. Her Broadway Principal debut in 2017 as Natasha in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 was not only a personal milestone but one that also marked a key moment for the industry—she was the first South Asian female in a Broadway principal role since the 2004 premiere of Bombay Dreams. In 2020 (pre-shutdown), Narayan became the first South Asian actor to play Nessarose in Wicked on Broadway.
Being the “first” is often a cause for fanfare and celebration—it means records are set, glass ceilings are broken, and legacies are born. When “first” is attached to someone of one or more marginalized identities, it also means representation in the mainstream has been elevated in a new way.
But what does this moniker mean for the artist who is assigned the label? Their “first” title becomes a symbol of what their career means to the larger ecosystem, but who are they as an artist on their own terms? In a musical theatre career that has been filled with “firsts,” there's no question that Narayan has still been able to define her own artistry on the Broadway stage and beyond. She has a full and rich history as a Bharatanatyam dancer—a classical South Indian dance style that is rooted in honoring her heritage and identity.
Even with the many differences between the artforms, Narayan has nurtured both artistic identities in a way that has allowed her to flourish whether she is dancing in a Bharatanatyam competition or dancing through life with Boq on the Gershwin stage.
Watch Narayan perform in the video above, and get to know her more through the Q&A below.
When was your introduction to Bharatanatyam? Was it before or after you got involved with musical theatre?
My first introduction to Bharatanatyam (Buh-ruh-thuh-naa-ti-um) was at the age of five, when my mom took me to observe a dance class. Unfortunately, because I was so young, I watched my mom the whole time instead of the class itself. Needless to say, it wasn’t for me at the time! She made a second attempt when I was seven, and it was a success. From that point on, as soon as I was finished with my class, I’d sit and observe the senior dancers for a couple hours. I loved practicing dance at home, and wore out any performance videos we had on tape.
I was introduced to musical theatre when I was nine. One day, I brought a flyer home from school advertising an audition for a production of The King and I. It was my very first audition and I was thrilled to book a small role. That was a pivotal experience for me, as I realized all the things I loved about music, dance, and theatricality existed in one artform. I was instantly hooked—learning every actor’s lines and memorizing every lyric in the score.
Can you share a bit about your Bharatanatyam training and competition experiences?
I began my training in Pennsylvania with Shoba Sharma, a wonderful teacher who gave me a phenomenal foundation in technique. She was adamant that my lines and alignment were clean, and that my understanding of dance theory was thorough. The training was paced so that students mastered the basics before they could move on to more challenging repertoire. She emphasized the importance of being in class, the art, and refused to put me on a stage until she felt I was ready, which would be six years later.
Every summer was spent immersing myself in dance and culture at Bharatanatyam camps. I studied with esteemed gurus who would visit from India. In my teens, I began spending my summers at the Yogaville Ashram in Virginia where I’d study with my guru’s gurus (I call them my grand-gurus, the Dhananjayans). With them, I started receiving rigorous training in the U.S. and in India.
When I was in high school, I began to prepare for my arangetram (uh-rung-ge-trum), which is an important milestone in the artistic development of a young dancer and is traditionally considered a professional debut. It is initiated when the Guru feels the dancer has attained the required skill set and discipline to become a solo performer. The guru then trains and presents the dancer to a discerning audience to showcase the dancer’s accomplishment. The debut literally means “ascending to the stage.” The performance itself can last up to two-and-a-half hours and is accompanied by live musicians. The format of an arangetram consists of a series of carefully chosen pieces (called the margam or “the way”) with varying complexity and differing emphasis. It is a celebration of a commitment to a life in the arts and the sacred guru/student relationship.
During the time of my arangetram, I was also preparing to enter into some international competitions. I grew a lot from the competition experience, and feel I came into my own as an artist. I began to trust my instincts and was able to self-evaluate. I think the best thing I learned from those experiences is to focus on the work and find the fun in tense situations. This mentality also serves me well in the entertainment industry. I was fortunate to win first place a couple of times, which led me to some incredible opportunities to perform in India.
What are the joys of dancing in the style of Bharatanatyam? Any challenges?
The artform has given me many gifts. It gave me a connection to my cultural identity and spirituality. I find a lot of joy and calm in the music itself, and its pure, organic quality. I love the gorgeous poetry written in Indian languages, learning the meaning and mythology behind it. As an actor, I love storytelling and the dramatic scopes I get to explore. Personally, it brought some of my closest friends into my life.
One of the biggest challenges is maintaining proper positioning. One of the main stances is a sustained plié, called Aaramandi. Since Bharathanatyam dance pieces tend to be at least 10 minutes, you can imagine the thigh burn from having to hold that position! Additionally, dancing with a full costume can add another level of challenges. The costumes tend to be fitted in silk, and we have the added weight of jewelry, headpieces, and ankle bells.
What have you learned about yourself as an artist and person through Bharatanatyam?
Bharathanatyam taught me to think of art as service and prayer, and a vehicle to promote positive social change. I take that with me no matter what I’m doing professionally, and it also informs what I choose to work on.
It also taught me discipline. I learned the amount of time and rigorous practice required to fully grasp anything—a concept, a story, culture, a step, or a character. It taught me how to be thorough in my preparation and that surface level understanding is not enough.
What’s your favorite memory of dancing in the style of Bharatanatyam?
I have wonderful memories performing and taking dance class in India. There’s something full-circle about dancing on the grounds where an artform was born and alongside those who are keeping it alive every day. It’s a truly authentic experience.
How does your training and work in Bharatanatyam and musical theatre inform each other/intersect?
These two cultures—despite many differences—share similar traits that have influenced me. Musical theatre exists when a character is taken to a point where they can’t do anything else but sing. Bharathanatyam lives in a similarly heightened world. The same questions are asked in preparation: Where is the character physically? Emotionally? What does the character want? What’s going on in the song? Who is the character communicating to? What’s your own point of view? The cross pollination of the two cultures deepened my understanding and appreciation for the two worlds I explore.
Some multi-hyphenate artists who work in multiple spaces have described feeling like they have to choose one artistic identity over the other. Do you feel that way with Bharatanatyam and musical theatre? How are you able to nurture and balance both?
Growing up as an Indian-American, I felt like I not only had two cultural lives, but two separate artistic lives as well. They were completely different entities yet all coexisted inside of me, so the juggle is something I’ve always dealt with. I think the reality is that a multi-hyphenate artist has to be mindful about diligently practicing all the things they do, no matter where their focus is drawn professionally at the time. For example, I played violin for 12 years as a kid, but could have never anticipated using that skill in The Great Comet on Broadway. Keep in touch with all parts of your artistic self. Practice is everything.
What would you like people to know about Bharatanatyam as an artform?
Bharathanatyam is probably not what you’ve seen in Bollywood movies. It is highly stylized and can be thought of as the ballet of India. Though a decent amount of Bollywood choreography is inspired by classical dance, Bollywood is much more mainstream and urbanized, like hip hop.
What do you want to bring to theatre when it returns?
I think we’ve all had a lot of time to reflect on ourselves, how we can be better artists and how we move forward. After the year we’ve had, I want to bring my truest bravest self to everything I do, more so than I ever did before. I want open ears, inclusivity, empathy, and focus when we return.