“Embrace the Unexpected”

“Embrace the Unexpected”

Celebrating 75 Years of Fulbright Stories

In celebration of the Fulbright Program’s 75th anniversary, we’re looking back at the experiences of Fulbrighters Dr. Sudha Haley and Aparna Keshaviah. We asked the two alumnae about their experiences abroad with Fulbright, their shared expertise in classical Indian dance, and their advice for the next generation of Fulbright artists.

Dr. Sudha Haley has a long history in the public sector. She traveled to Israel on a Fulbright grant in 1984 and has since worked on countless pieces of public policy for the U.S. government, all the while performing Kathak classical Indian dance. She is a long-term Fulbright advocate and currently serves on the Fulbright Advocacy Task Force and leads the AARP Maryland AAPI Consortium Steering Committee. Dr. Haley currently performs her Kathak dances accompanied by Arun Bhagwat, retired IBM executive and world-renowned musician.

Aparna Keshaviah holds a dual career as a classical dancer/choreographer and senior statistician at Mathematica—a health policy research company. In 2006, she traveled on a Fulbright grant to India to conduct a statistical study of a classic Indian dance form called Bharatanatyam. Since then, she has continued to hone her craft and perform at local, national, and international institutions.

Note: Dr. Haley and Aparna were interviewed separately. Their answers have been condensed into a single interview for ease of reading.


When and where did your Fulbright take place? What did you study?

Dr. Sudha Haley: I was a Fulbrighter in Israel in the early 1980s studying Public Administration and their political system and their elections.

Aparna Keshaviah: I received a 2006-2007 Fulbright grant in Dance to India for a project entitled “Decoding the Modern Practice of Bharatanatyam.” I traveled to three Indian cities that are hubs of classical dance – Chennai, Bangalore, and Delhi – to survey dance teachers and students about their practice and notions of what is traditional in this form. In total, I visited 62 dance schools and surveyed 212 dancers ranging in age from 20 to 81 years.

What were you expecting to learn during your Fulbright? How did reality meet your expectation?

Dr. Haley: I had expected to attend lectures. However, the dynamism, the brilliance, and the inclusion of my Israeli counterparts was thrilling. They opened their minds, their homes, and their hearts to me. Taking me to rallies and other sites. To fully immerse me in the process. To this day, I revere and feel extreme affection for the Israelis.

Keshaviah: My hypothesis going in was that there’s no singular tradition within Bharatanatyam that can be consistently measured, and that’s exactly what I found. Of the 50 questions I asked around teachers’ movement execution, values, historical knowledge, and pedagogy, I heard strong majority opinion around only 7 of those questions. The most striking association I found was that the less teachers knew about Bharatanatyam’s history, theory, and current events, the more conservative they tended to be. This pattern held up across cities, genders, and age groups.

How did your interest in dance influenced your Fulbright?

Dr. Haley: As a child in India my father, an alumnus from Princeton and Colombia, and my mother who studied at a University in London, instilled the idea of raising me as a renaissance woman. I studied in classical piano and Indian classical Kathak dance. I loved dancing so much I wanted to be a professional dancer.

When I was on my Fulbright to Israel, one evening, I was at dinner with supreme court justices, and it was by chance really that the lady next to me was Justice Cohen’s wife. We talked for a while and then the topic of dance came up, and to my extreme delight Ms. Cohen told me she was the head of the Rubin Academy of Jerusalem, and more exciting was that she wanted me to dance there. She sent her car to pick me up at Hebrew University, and I danced at the Rubin Academy for Soviet Israeli ballerinas and other students. It was one of the most exciting times of my performing life. From the Rubin Academy, I made several Israeli friends who shared their knowledge and time to help me exceed my Fulbright’s goals.

Keshaviah: Having trained with several different dance teachers in India and in the U.S. growing up, I saw a lot of variability in how Bharatanatyam was practiced. On the one hand, that seemed natural for a living, moving art form. On the other hand, I repeatedly heard that Bharatanatyam is an ancient form with a 2,000-year-old tradition that should not be tainted by Western commercialization.

As an American-born daughter of south Indian immigrants, I felt caught between overly simplistic notions voiced about East versus West, tradition versus innovation. I wanted to better understand whether the nuances I saw in the form were aberrations or the rule. I saw statistics as the perfect tool to measure such, and thus developed this hybrid statistical study of dance that combined my two careers.

How has your interest in dance evolved since your Fulbright?

Dr. Haley: Throughout my professional career at the United States government at the sub-cabinet level I used my annual leave and my weekends to continue dancing. I danced globally and in the United States. I have danced at the Kennedy Center in solos and in ensembles, for New York opera’s production of Lakmé, at the Shakespeare Theater, and for universities and communities all over the world.

Keshaviah: The opportunity to witness so many dance performances and classes around India expanded my view of Bharatanatyam and boosted my confidence to strike out as a solo artist. For the past decade, I’ve been exploring ways to expand classical into contemporary, and have performed my modern reformulation of Bharatanatyam at institutions like the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Himalayan Institute, and the American Academy in Rome. I also co-founded a dance residency, called Dance ARĪS, that brought together different styles of classical and contemporary dance to Western North Carolina.

What did you do after returning from your Fulbright? What are you up to now?

Dr. Haley: Since retiring from the federal government position and in the International Bureau, I have become a volunteer mostly advocating for the less advantaged. Currently I am the Maryland State President for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE). I also serve on AARP’s Maryland Executive Council, and I am the leader for the State of Maryland’s Asian American Pacific Islander Consortium. I also serve as County Commissioner on the commission on aging, and I am a Blue Star Mother, with my husband Dr. Kenneth Haley, for our Active-Duty Engineer Lt. Colonel twin son. Serving the people is what I really enjoy.

Keshaviah: In my first year back, I put my statistical skills to work to analyze the data I collected, and then I presented and published my findings through the Congress on Research in Dance. Since then, I’ve been evolving Bharatanatyam choreography and staging and have even begun composing original music for my work (as a classically trained pianist and vocalist). In parallel, I’m leading studies on the use of wastewater testing to measure population health and direct research on the health effects of climate change.

How have you engaged with other Fulbrighters with similar interests to your own?

Dr. Haley: When I first joined the Fulbright Association and became a member of the 1946 Society, I closely connected with several Fulbright Board Members. Dr. Bruce Fowler, who is also the head of our Federal legislation for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees, is a very dear friend. I connected with him, and of course, Dr. Mary Ellen Schmider and attorney John Vogel, all are on or have been on the Fulbright Association Board of Directors. We even created and developed a presentation at last year’s Fulbright Association Annual Conference.

Additionally, because of close ties to another Fulbrighter, Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes, we were able to procure an assembly room for all Fulbright conference participants for our crusade to Capitol Hill. Along with Executive Director Dr. John Bader, we met with another dear friend and ally, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen whose sister is a Fulbrighter. He is also on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and we went to him in-person. He welcomed us full-heartedly to request a slight increase in our Fulbright federal budget.

Keshaviah: I haven’t really travelled in Fulbright circles but am always excited to meet other Fulbrighters. With the time constraints that come with pursuing two careers, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to connect virtually with other Fulbrighters during this pandemic through Fulbright’s 75th Anniversary events.

Do you have any messages for your fellow Fulbright alums?

Dr. Haley: I would ask my fellow Fulbrighters if they consider themselves generally blessed to have achieved this high honor of being a Fulbrighter, which I take very close to my heart. We are respected across the globe, and I would ask my fellow Fulbrighters if they would want to give back to their communities some of their precious time and effort to help those in need. If they respond in the affirmative, I would ask them to contact their closest non-profit, faith organization, or any other organizations they belong to, to volunteer as a Fulbrighter on behalf of the Fulbright Association.

Keshaviah: To my fellow serious performing artists out there, and particularly the percussionists and musicians, I’m always interested in fertile opportunities to collaborate. During my Fulbright, I enjoyed staging an impromptu performance with two fellow Fulbrighters – a vocalist and violinist – during the annual Fulbright Association conference. Since then, I’ve collaborated with percussionists from a range of world music traditions, from African djembe to the middle eastern Riq and doumbek to the Cuban batá.

Do you have any advice to young people studying dance?

Dr. Haley: I would advise young people wanting to study dance to follow what my parents advised me: keep studying dance and performing but balance it with skills and education that can help you earn a livelihood and lead a productive, giving life.

Keshaviah: While it’s important to gain a solid technical foundation in the dance form you study, performance is about much more than mastering technique, and includes developing confidence and stage presence, reading and connecting with the audience, and harnessing your own creativity. I’d advise young dancers to develop their own vision for their dance, rather than following entirely in the footsteps of their teachers.

Beyond performance, there are many other areas that people interested in dance can pursue. It’s important for young dancers to think about what it is about dance that moves them; is it performance, choreography, institutional development, educational outreach, or something else?

Do you have any advice for future or current Fulbrighters?

Dr. Haley:  Fulbright is the Flagship for all international exchanges.  You have laid the foundation to have been selected as a Fulbrighter.  Now take some of your time and use your talents and skills to go forth, as a Fulbrighter, to serve your communities’ less fortunate.

Keshaviah: Embrace the unexpected, expand your core, and create the space to be surprised. One of my most memorable experiences during my Fulbright year was leaving my research in the cities behind for a few weeks to see elephants, tigers, and other wildlife in the jungles. Sometimes clarity comes from peripheral vision, and creativity can be inspired by adjacent pursuits.

Fulbright Interns Samuel Lachance and Nathan Vince contributed to this piece.


Photo 1: Aparna Keshaviah by Casey Lance Brown

Photo 2: Aparna Keshaviah by Casey Lance Brown

Photo 3: Dr. Sudha Haley with Leader Steny Hoyer

Photo 4: Dr. Sudha Haley

Photo 5: Aparna Keshaviah by Casey Lance Brown

Photo 6: Dr. Sudha Haley and friends

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