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Malini Pararajasingham’s journey through dance from Sri Lanka to Canada

When Malini Pararajasingham immigrated to Canada in the mid-90s with her daughter, she had already known she was going to teach classical Indian dance....
HomeFeaturesMalini Pararajasingham's journey through dance from Sri Lanka to Canada

Malini Pararajasingham’s journey through dance from Sri Lanka to Canada

When Malini Pararajasingham immigrated to Canada in the mid-90s with her daughter, she had already known she was going to teach classical Indian dance.

She had begun her study of Bharatanatyam at the age of four in 1968, as she watched her elder sister and learned from the sidelines. Her teacher, Armpu Suppia, agreed to take her on as a student and was struck by how quickly she picked up the skills.

She walked proudly, with her chin held high, and with her bold personality she was often cast as the male roles in performances. At home, Pararajasingham’s entire family was studying something artistic, whether it was dance, vocal or instrumental like the mridangam, a percussion drum used in Carnatic music.

With so much artistic talent being cultivated among her siblings and herself, there was no doubt that Pararajasingham would continue on to mature into being an artist that displays excellence.

She grew up with five siblings; her mother was a teacher and her father, a station master.

Pararajasingham became independent at the age of 14, when she began teaching yoga to people along with her elder sister. She learned Carnatic music, the veena and even martials arts, as well.

She grew up in a strict and traditional household, especially for the girls. She very rarely left the home alone, and she had very little contact with the opposite sex.

The social barrier was broken in 1983 when she entered university for fine arts and began drama classes.

“When I go to the drama class in university, everything is changed in my life. Like open up with others, like a butterfly,” said Pararajasingham.

She graduated in 1987 and became a lecturer at her alma mater in India, and then a teacher in Sri Lanka.

After immigrating to Canada, Pararajasingham began Kalasaakaram School of Fine Arts. She was a traditional teacher, emphasizing the basics and the foundation of the dance form before anything else. To Pararajasingham, teaching Bharatanatyam was more than for performing or a business, it was what gave her happiness.

She was confident in her abilities and the people around her praised her for her resolve and dedication to the traditional way of teaching.

“Mostly people ask me, ‘Teacher, that teacher teaches this song. I need my daughter to perform it.’ I said ‘No, I’m not that kind of teacher,’” said Pararajasingham.

Her daughter and pupil, Ushanthy Kirubakaran said her mother was a fair and balanced teacher. She never showed any type of favouritism and always treated everyone equally. She left what happened at dance classes at dance class and never brought it home with her.

“I do remember staying backstage with my little teddy bear, watching her perform and seeing all the spotlights on her. And I honestly looked up to that. I was like, you know what? That looks amazing,” said Kirubakaran.

Pararajasingham is proud of her students, including her daughter, for succeeding and performing their own arangetram when they are ready. Arangetrams are graduations for students of classical Indian art forms and when Pararajasingham’s students graduate, she feels the joy of seeing her student’s talent and her own talent on stage.

“I put one seed, now the seed is growing so many branches, full of happiness and the root is very strong. I am happy,” she said.

According to Pararajasingham, an arangetram is just the beginning of a student’s journey. They know the basics and the proper skills but there is still a lot they need to learn. They excelled in their studies, becoming professionals in their own right “but after that they need to learn how to teach, how to create how to choreograph, the techniques.”

It isn’t only Bharatanatyam that Pararajasingham does, she is also a community aide, helping people in her own community, especially the elderly, make their way in Canada despite the isolation they may face due to the language barriers.

Pararajasingham talks to them, understands them and then takes that information and creates workshops for them, including yoga, badminton, drama and even folk dances during celebrations. She helps them come out of their isolation and helps them grow their confidence.

She wants them to learn how to be independent, even when they are struggling with something like taking a bus.

“They don’t know how to go in the bus, or they don’t know how to go outside,” Pararajasingham said. “They’re scared so I give them strength. Note the address and show the address to the bus driver and they can drop you.”

Pararajasingham has not only used her expressive eyes to portray characters in her dance performances but also as a storyteller on the acting stage. Over the years, Pararajasingham has written and performed stories about the dowry system, about gender, sexuality, racism and even about what happens after death.

“There’s one core memory that I will never forget. I was about four or five years old, and she was doing a performance on stage with another dancer,” said Kirubakaran. “And at that time, it was very out of the box, very creative, also pushing boundaries for especially South Asian women.”

With so many talents, skills and hobbies, Pararajasingham says her agenda never overwhelms her. She takes the time in her day to meditate, to become familiar with her schedule and knows she will be surrounded by people, old and new.

According to Pararajasingham, she is a people person and the kind to always keep busy. She loves surrounding herself with students, friends and family, it’s how she keeps her strength.

“This morning, I am teaching yoga and I said 11 o’clock I have an interview, I need to go. After that I have a class, after that I have a class,” said Pararajasingham.

Just as the people in her life are important to her, Pararajasingham says her mother’s voice still echoes in her ear, telling her that she should stand on her own two feet and to be a good student. Pararajasingham has followed her advice for the last 60 years.

Now that she is older, Pararajasingham does not do active dancing anymore, but she is still there on the stage, performing and passing her skills and talent on to the next generation. Even now, Pararajasingham is learning too, studying African drumming last year and doing so much more.

“I’m just so in love with how she carries herself. She’s just like a ball of energy and she’s not ready to slow down any time soon,” said Kirubakaran.