Expat Voice: Art for Heart’s Sake
Kerala-based Bharatanatyam dancer and actress Paris Laxmi grew up loving Indian culture in France.
Paris Laxmi, who was born Myriam Sophia Lakshmi in Aix-en-Provence in France, fell in love with India when she first visited the country at the age of five.
Born to parents who are French by birth but Indian at heart, Laxmi (as she names herself) grew up listening to stories of Hindu gods. Laxmi and her brother, who has been learning mridangam and tabla in Chennai, were given a double culture education in France due to their parents’ love for everything Indian.
However, it was dancing that she was fond of the most. “I began training in contemporary dance, ballet and jazz when I was five years old,” Laxmi tells Little India. “When I visited India for the first time, I saw an Indian classical dance performance and was quite intrigued by it. I wanted to learn.”
The Bharatanatyam dancer and actress, who lives with her husband at Vaikom in Kerala, talks about her love for dance, Ganpati and more:
Ganpati Bappa Morya!
India has been a huge part of my life since birth because my parents loved the country and its culture. My brother and I grew up listening to stories of Hindu gods and watching Indian movies and listening to Indian classical music. We used to visit India every year during vacations.
I worshipped Ganpati as a child. I was intrigued by the story of how he got the elephant’s head. I remember I visited Nasik during my first trip to India. During the trip, the tip of one of my fingers accidentally got cut almost fully, and I had to be rushed to the hospital. I was crying, so my mother showed me a picture of Ganesha, after which I immediately stopped crying.
I was also fascinated by the story of Krishna dancing with the gopis.
Loving India in France
A lot of people in France couldn’t understand our love and affinity for India. My relatives could never quite understand it either, and always questioned my father about why we never visited any country except India.
Tryst with Bharatanatyam
I began training in Bharatanatyam at the age of nine years. My mother found a teacher in Aix-en-Provence after I expressed my desire to learn any form of Indian classical dance. I also lived in Chennai for a year during my late teenage years to continue training in the dance form. I used “Laxmi” as my stage name until my brother’s guru Kalaimamani Tiruvarur Bakthavathsalam added “Paris’ to it for recognition.
I think I mostly performed Bharatanatyam so that I could be accepted by the people of India. For a while, I didn’t showcase the other western dance forms that I had trained in. I thought it was important that people identified me as a classical dancer, and as someone who understood and is a part of Indian culture.
But now that they know me as a classical dancer, I am trying to break that image and perform other dance forms that I have trained in. I performed a contemporary creation called Seasons on Earth recently, which is about how humans have been destroying the planet bit by bit.
My husband, who is a Kathakali dancer, and I also started the Kalashakti School of Arts where we train students in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam and also organize annual programs and events. We also formed our duet ‘Sangamam’ and performed a creation called Krishna Mayam, which revolves around stories of Krishna.
Meeting the Husband
When I was seven years old, I went to Kochi with my parents to watch a Kathakali dance performance. We enjoyed the performance so much that we visited the show every day and became friends with the artistes. The visits stopped for a few years but I always had the memory of one particular artiste whose performance I had enjoyed immensely. At that point of time, I didn’t know that I would marry him one day.
When I was 16 years old, I visited Kochi and went to see the performance again. I spoke with that artiste, Pallippuram Sunil, about my interest in Indian classical dance forms and how I enjoyed performing in India. We became friends and got married in September 2012, after which I moved to India.
‘Can You Cook?’
People were very curious about me in the initial days of my marriage. It was difficult getting used to guests coming home to visit at any time of the day without letting us know. In France, people always inform or ask if we are available before visiting. But here it’s completely normal for people to visit whenever they want. Home is considered a very private space for people in France. That is not the case here.
They ask questions like, “Do you know how to cook?” or “Do you know how to boil water?” I used to be amused by those questions.
I joked with one woman who asked me if I knew how to cook. I told her that it was a problem since women in France do not know cooking due to which people are starving.
Dance Contests and Reality Shows
I do not like the way dance is presented on reality shows. In Kerala, many dance competitions are held in schools for which children get marks.
However, I do not agree with children learning Bharatanatyam only to perform in competitions because they do not get a chance to learn the dance form as a whole. They know dance only through what they see on TV, which is not even the purest form of classical dance. They should have access to all dance forms in India but there are no TV shows providing that.
I have tried to organize programs and invite good classical dancers here so that children understand the difference between pure classical dance and what is shown on TV. It is sad to see dancers, who hardly have any knowledge about classical dance, make money while experts struggle to make ends meet.
So many people from foreign countries wish to learn Indian classical dance now. It is something very rich and unique that India has. The government and the people of this country should preserve and promote it.
The younger generation needs to understand that any classical dance form cannot be learnt quickly. You need to invest a lot of time and energy and practice. I have been learning for so many years but have still not completed my training. Indian classical dance forms are much more complex than western forms of dance.
Foray into Films
I was with my family in Kochi having breakfast in 2007 when a film crew came looking for someone to do a passing shot of a person walking on the street. I did that scene and then met the director Amal Neerad and told him about my dance background.
Later, he called, saying that he wanted me to do a song sequence in his film called Big B that starred Mammootty. That is how I got into films. I was offered other work but I was only 16 years old at that time and I had to complete school. So I opted out.
When I moved here, Amal Neerad called me again to cast me in the film Bangalore Days directed by Anjali Menon, which turned out to be a huge success. It was a small role, but owing to the success of the film, I was recognized and offered work as well. I am currently working on a couple of movies that will be released soon.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
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