2022 The Martha Joseph Prize, Dance
Growing up in Chennai, India, Sujatha Srinivasan was nurtured by both of her parents, who loved Indian classical music and dance, into an internationally recognized dancer, teacher, and tireless advocate for the history and depth of Bharatanatyam classical Indian dance and South Asian artistic culture. She knew by the time she graduated high school that the arts were her life.
“Once I decided then that this was what I wanted to do, I never waivered, and my parents helped me to realize this dream,” Sujatha says. “I was fortunate to learn all of the allied arts like classical Indian music, and I had a great yearning to play the classical Indian drum. Dance was my main study, but yoga, drumming, different languages all merged as different complementary subjects to make me who I am.”
By the time she was in college, Sujatha was traveling throughout India to dance professionally, and because she was performing primarily on her own, she needed to learn choreography. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Stella Maris College in Chennai, and then completed her master’s degree in English online. Early in her career, she won a number of top awards and began to earn widespread acclaim for her performances. She eventually began to perform on television and win major modeling contracts.
“It was not an easy, smooth ride, but I learned that in life, when you put the hard work and dedication into pursuing a single-minded focus, eventually it will pay off and good things will happen,” she says.
By 1993, Sujatha had firmly established herself as a solo performer when she married Ranganathan “Srini” Srinivasan, who was completing his studies to become an IT management professional, and moved to Toledo. Two years later, the couple relocated to Cleveland. Sujatha adapted to the new landscape where performing opportunities were lesser and began teaching aspiring dancers.
“The whole community here had lots of people who had migrated to Ohio but had no opportunities to enjoy traditional dance or music,” Sujatha observes. “I thought I would just vegetate if I didn’t do something about my dance career that had come to a standstill, but I started teaching and found that I liked it and was good at it.”
At the time, she had two small children, so her time for teaching was limited to weekends until they both graduated from high school. Then seven or eight years ago, she says, she expanded her dance business. She now teaches at a studio in Parma, at her home in Strongsville, and at the Solon Community Church, which serves the sizable Indian population on Cleveland’s East Side.
“I have graduated probably 25 to 30 students, and many of them are the young leaders in the Indian dance field, with many top winners in international dance competitions,” Sujatha reveals. “Five or six of them have spun off their own dance companies, and each of them were the captains of their university dance teams, so it tells you the rigor and foundation that students get from my school.”
Despite some interruptions because of the pandemic, Sujatha continues to participate in Indian dance competitions each year. In addition to their high-level professional careers, her daughter Shriya is a professional dancer, musician and vocalist, and her son Suraj plays the drums.
Sujatha has choreographed dances and performed in Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks Series, the Cleveland Museum of Art, won a grant to create and perform a dance about global climate change at Boston Mills in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, co-founded EKAM: We Are One with theater artist, storyteller and founder of Kulture Kids Robin Pease, and provides educational programs in the schools for the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning. She founded the Shri Kalaa Mandir Center for Indian Performing Arts in 1993 to preserve her beloved native arts.
“She is a teacher who teaches with so much sincerity and dedication and expects her students to do their best,” says her fellow dancer (retired), dear friend and “older sister” Padma Rajagopal. “She is so well-read and well-versed in this field of art and researches and makes sure that what she’s teaching is absolutely correct and apt.”
For Sujatha: “Receiving the Cleveland Arts Prize is not only an honor and privilege, but an acknowledgement for my work here in Northeast Ohio for more than 25 years. I am also happy that it will put Bharatanatyam into the limelight and create an awareness for the art form and bring newer audiences. I am grateful for each and every person who has made this dance journey memorable!”