Malini Nair (India)

Malini Nair, a trained classical dance and an accomplished IT professional says, “So, this IT job, I was just working because I just wanted to have a career and good income. That is why, but I never enjoyed it. Every time, I was thinking, like, “Oh, my God, I should stop it, and then, switch the career, because this is not something I enjoy.” She wanted to do something that involved body movement instead of sitting in front of the computer all day. So, after ten years of working in IT she final “had the willpower to say that I can succeed if I open my own dance school.” Even when her husband tried to dissuade her, she said, “No, there is no coming back. I have made up my mind.” The rest is history. Sowparnika Dance Academy founded by Malini Nair is today one of the most well-respected dance studios in Middlesex County and Malini Nair well regarded dance teacher and performer.

Malini’s story of grit, confidence, and determination to pursue her dreams started in India. Born on August 13, 1975 in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) she remembers her childhood as happy and tranquil. While her maternal family lived in Kondayoor near Trichur her paternal family were always residents of Thiruvananthapuram. 

Her maternal grandfather worked in Singapore and was able to afford higher education for all his eight children. This focus on education gave her mother P. Rugmini the opportunity to pursue architecture at the Government Engineering College in Thrissur and that is where she met her future husband V. Ravindranathan, a fellow classmate. Her father established Wizards Consulting as a business venture while working as an architect for the Thiruvananthapuram Public Works Department. Her mother worked at the Kerala Small Industries Development Corporation, Ltd. (SIDCO). Growing up in a city bustling with life was fun and exciting.

Malini started learning classical dance at the age of three and received training in Carnatic music. She went to Chinmaya Mission School with her sister Manjula. She participated in talent shows, youth festivals, sports, and other extra-curricular activities while maintaining an impeccable academic record. Malini recalls being introduced to meditation, yoga, bhajans (devotional songs), Hindu traditions, and culture as Chinmaya Mission School had a strong curriculum guided by Hindu philosophy.

Malini continued to learn Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam because she was very “rhythmic”, loved wearing beautiful clothes, and performing on stage. “That was the attraction, but as I grew up, I started enjoying the art form. I wanted to know more depth, to understand,” reminisces Malini. “These classical dance forms , they are very intense. Like, without opening the mouth, you can convey, a complete story to the audience…with the mudras (codified hand gestures) and your facial expressions, like eye movements and everything you are able to captivate the audience and keep them embedded to their seats watching the show.”

The power of dance and the ability to narrate stories through it fascinated Malini and she continued to learn dance for sixteen years and even started working as an assistant dance teacher for her guru. “That was good experience for me, because to learn is different and to teach somebody is even more different…I had to prepare myself before the class, because I was worried whether kids would be asking me something which I don’t know.” While she loved dancing, she did not think that it would become “a major part of my life.” She wanted to make engineering her profession after graduating in 1993 from Government Higher Secondary School for Girls Cotton Hill, the largest girls’ high school in Asia. So, she joined The Maharaja’s College for Women for her pre-degree program and prepare for special entrance exams required to get admission in engineering and/or medical colleges. She graduated in 1997 with a degree in Civil Engineering from her parent’s alma mater Government College of Engineering.

Throughout her High School and college years dance, drama, and music remained the central focus of all her extra-curricular activities. The culture of youth festivals and inter-collegiate competitions was gaining momentum and Malini found herself “playing another role as a manager” and choreographer”. She became instrumental in bringing performing arts especially dance to the forefront. “They still call me “guru”. They call me that still now” shares Malini as she recalls the hectic days of organizing events and festivals in her college. This gave her to learn skills that would later help her organize her own shows and presentations. Besides this Malini also recalls visiting the major metros and major historical building like the Taj Mahal in 1997 with her fellow students as part of a study tour during her final year of college. This was an eyeopener for Malini who had not traveled much beyond her hometown until then. It filled her with excitement and gave her a chance to see the world beyond.

She grew up in beautiful and lush Kerala where people prized good education, cultural learning, societal harmony. College opened new doors for her. Her confidence in her abilities grew and she was ready to explore further. Even though her father wanted her to join the family business she did not feel passionate about civil engineering. She decided to take a course in mainframe at the Electronic Research and Development Corporation to explore the growing field of computer science. In 1998 she landed her first job with Syntel in Chennai and so began her journey as an IT professional. However, before she could immerse herself in her career, she met Jaykrishnan (Jay)  Maniyal, her husband, through an “arranged marriage” proposal from a family member. Jay was working in the USA and after a whirlwind courtship over the telephone and video they decided to get married. Then Jay came to India on a 3-week vacation and we left for the USA soon after the marriage ceremony. “It was like a miracle, like in a fantasy. The US means it is something like an unachievable entry, that was what, in my mind, it was…In had never entered into a flight before.” They traveled from JFK airport to Poughkeepsie where Jay worked in IBM and so began a chapter in the life of Malini.

“Everything was like an Alice in Wonderland kind of feeling.  Everything was new to me– the bridges, the structure, the roads, the people, everything.  Even pizza and Coke was such an attraction for me.  It was such a wonderful experience, something which I never imagined happening to my life.  From back home, it’s a prestigious thing to come to a foreign land.” While exploring her new surroundings it was also difficult because she was far away from her family and it was not easy to connect with them. There were no temples that you could visit like she did in India and lighting a lamp or camphor during prayers was not considered safe because the houses were made of wood. She had to quickly learn to adapt her traditional cooking with whatever was available in the local market and while people were friendly one had to concentrate hard to understand what they were speaking.

In addition to all the newness she had to get to know her husband who she had met for a very short duration before her wedding. So, for almost a year reflects Malini “I was in a learning stage to overcome all the hurdles, challenges, but looking back, I would think everything made my efficiency a little better. So, all those challenges are a blessing for me, I would say. I was able to push myself and get things done.” For a 23-year-old who had never stepped too far from home everything from getting a driver’s license to groceries to figuring out life in a foreign country became an adventure and a challenge.

Malini moved to Edison, New Jersey when Jay joined ADP. After the initial phase Malini found herself getting frustrated because even though the computer field was booming because of the looming Y2K issue that companies needed to deal with she could not work because of her H-4 Visa status as a spouse. Eager to continue working she approached an Indian company Comet who were hiring people to teach computer basics. They agreed to apply for H-1 status for her if she worked for them for four months. Taking courses and teaching at the same time proved to be a good way to enhance her skills and gain confidence. Malini started working as a programmer for AT&T as soon as she received her H-1 visa in 2000. Contract positions gave her the opportunity to work in many different industries like pharmaceuticals, insurance, and others.

Even while leading a busy life as a programmer and raising her twins she continued to find ways to perform and take part in cultural activities through local community organizations. Over time she realized that she was working because she just wanted to have a “career and good income but was not truly enjoying it.” Dance was her passion. So finally, in 2008 she took the bold step of establishing her own dance school.

“Sowparnika is the name of a river in India. I called in Sowparnika Dance Academy. I wanted something unique” and with the opening of the studio in South Brunswick she became fully committed to making her new venture a success. While she received the full support of her community, she knew there would be a lot of competition because well established dance schools had a presence in the area. According to Malini “You have to keep improving yourself…even as a teacher, I am still trying to improve myself by taking workshops, learning new things, reading new things” to offer something unique and to distinguish yourself from the competition.

Many young students learn dance from Malini, but she is especially proud of the six students who went through a rigorous training of almost eight years to graduate from her dance school. Graduating students must go through special training for a 3-hour non-stop debut performance or the Arangetram which makes it a super exciting time for young dancers and the guru. Malini also organizes an annual event where students can showcase their skills and gain confidence in performing before audiences. Her students also perform concerts for various organizations to instill in them a sense of pride for their culture and traditions.

Besides teaching young students Malini also has over thirty adult students many whom had to take a break from dance because of family and work. “Many of the other institutions, if you notice, they’re not very keen on dealing with adults because adult students, they are not very focused. They have a lot of distractions happening on their end – family, kids, work. So ‘m the only one who encourages them, and then trains them exactly like the kids and makes sure they are ready to perform on stage.” Through her teaching she has encouraged them to start teaching and performing again.

While Malini’s focus is teaching the Indian classical dances Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam she also teaches folk, Bollywood, and other semi-classical dance styles to her students. Both her sons are good dancers although one of her twins Arjun is as passionate as her about dance. He is the captain of the South Asian Performing Arts Team at Rutgers and teaches hip-hop, and Bollywood dances to her students. “I always tried to instill cultural values and the moral values in the boys” but did not force them because that would not necessarily make them ‘like” it. Malini is of the firm belief that dance, music, culture, or tradition cannot be forced upon anyone. It must come from within and when that happens there is genuine curiosity and a passion for learning that is long lasting. Her sons while interested in dance did not learn Indian classical dance form while growing up. However, she is happy that Arjun’s growing passion for dance made him want to learn the north Indian classical dance of Kathak for one of his performances.

Malini has been involved in philanthropic endeavors and promoting the culture of Kerala since her arrival in America and is well-respected in the community for her sincere contributions. She anchored local news in Malayalam language for Asianet USA from 2003 till 2010. A dedicated member of the Kerala Association of New Jersey (KANJ) since 2002 she has served on their Executive Committee, as President in 2012, and as a Board of Trustee. Additionally, she is an active member of the Kerala Chamber of Commerce, and the Kerala Engineers Association of North America (KEAN). She has presented many concerts at events organized by the various local organizations has introduced Indian classical dance to hundreds of people in the mainstream through her performances. Malini looks forward to “more opportunities where I can merge with the mainstream and bring this art form or convey this art form to them also, the beauty of this art form.”

While COVID has had a tremendous financial impact on her business Malini continues to offer virtual classes so that students can continue learning and practicing their art. “I’m still old-school type, so it is hard to teach” but the survivor in her is motivating her to learn new ways of teaching and connecting with her students. She recently presented “Shakti” a virtual concert sponsored by the Indian American Club from her dance studio. Dancers had to follow COVID guidelines and each performance was recorded separately. The event was then presented on YouTube by the Indian American Club. “So, people’s enthusiasm got affected with this COVID” but “I am looking forward to the days, like brighter days ahead, so I can get back to the studio and be in full swing.”