The Dance from Maths to Art

Posted on September 6, 2013

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The Dance from Maths to Art, Sejal Sood

A committed dancer and painter and a new-ish transplant to Bangkok, Gujarati-American Sejal Sood has performed at the Indian Cultural Centre, Warp 54 Gallery by the river, and at art festivals in Phuket, combining movement work with energetic paintings of dancers in motion. People are usually confused when they learn that she actually was a financial analyst at one point and studied Mathematics at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). How could you move from that to art? they ask. But the transition was quite intuitive for her. “When you do theoretical maths,” she explains, “you’re talking about things that are so abstract. It’s not observational. It’s more like poetry than mathematics. I was thinking about dancing even when I was studying maths.” Sejal has studied with various teachers throughout her life, from the time she was a child in New Jersey till relatively recently, when she moved to India to become a dancer. But what makes her work unique is her insistence on combining movement with paintings of movement. Here, she talks to us about why the two go hand in hand and why married women are not always taken seriously as artists. —REENA KARIM

What was your childhood like?
I was born and brought up in the US. My parents migrated from India, so I was raised in a Gujarati household with a conservative Indian values system. But at the same time, they liked us to go out and explore different cultures and
what’s happening in the world.

When did you first discover your talents?
I’ve danced all my life. I started off at home with folk forms like garba. My grandmother would teach me, and we’d go to Navratri every year. Then, because I enjoyed it so much, I started doing Bharatnatyam. From there I did my Iyengatram [debut as a professional dancer] in high school, and even at MIT, I applied for arts grants and got scholarships to go to India to study dance. At some point, I decided, “This is going to be my life.”

When was that turning point in your life?
It was a clear moment: I was in second year of college and was driving home. I thought that there is more to life than just using your brain or writing on a piece of paper or sitting at a desk, and I have to experience it, and dance is the way to experience it.

When did you start painting?
When I graduated I got a nine-to-five job. I wanted to do something outside office hours that would allow me to feel like I was creative. But dance companies required professionals, which I wasn’t yet. And there were these Bollywood pop troupes that I had no interest in. So I found myself hanging in between. My only solution was to get a piece of paper and start drawing dance. That’s how the whole drawing and painting dance started.

Why only paint about dancing?
Because there is nothing else I want to paint. Dance is my life. I can’t paint if I don’t dance and vice versa. It is interconnected. From an early age, I remember thinking about dance and being completely consumed when a song played. Even now, I get lost in movement.

Have you had to face any kind of obstacles?
The art world is difficult; one of the most common misconceptions is that when you are married and you’re an artist, then it’s just your hobby. Plus, it is also  conversations when you say you area dancer and an artist. They think, “Oh, she’s just having fun.” But that’s fine, because anyone who has seen my work won’t have that impression.

What’s it like to manage both a home and a career?
The generalised notion in Indian families is that the woman is supposed to keep the house a certain way. But when I met my husband Vishal we dated for three years before we got married, so there was no new expectation of homemaking. I am sure when I have a child, it will be different, but it’s just the two of us now. Painting, balancing work, and eating—I’d have to do that even if I were not married. Creating something is the most beautiful thing, and that is my life. If there are pressures eating up my creativity, then I find a way to balance both.

What does your husband think about the work you do?
He is my biggest support. He has seen me since the beginning, from working and then taking the decision to stop working and pursue this full time. And he is a pretty creative person himself, so he also enjoys the process, peeking at the progress of the painting as I paint.

Where do you see yourself going from here?
This is just the beginning. It was a long road to get to this point. I have gone through a lot of experiences—studying a lot of different things and working with a lot of different choreographers. Now I have put my foot down and established myself as my own person, my own artist, and my own director, in a way. I know creatively where I want to be three years from now.

Published in Masala magazine, October 2012

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