One of the best outcomes of a cultural exchange is when the person on the visiting end has their stereotypes shattered.

“Before I visited India, I had this image that everyone in India loves dancing,” recalls Hiromi Maruhashi, who moved to the country to study when she was 24. “But, only after I got there did I realize that not everyone likes or learns classical dance. It’s a minority, and I became one of them.”

Maruhashi, now 55, is an expert in Mohiniyattam dance, one of the recognized classical dances of India. It was developed in the southern state of Kerala, which is also referred to as “God’s own country,” and remains popular there to this day. Traditionally, the dance is performed solo by women and requires extensive training.

Originally from Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, Maruhashi initially chose to study Balinese dance at a university in Tokyo, which resulted in a trip to Indonesia.

Hiromi Maruhashi says one thing she admires about Indians in Japan is that they are very appreciative when you take an interest in their culture. | COURTESY OF HIROMI MARUHASHI
Hiromi Maruhashi says one thing she admires about Indians in Japan is that they are very appreciative when you take an interest in their culture. | COURTESY OF HIROMI MARUHASHI

When you first open the door to learning about other cultures, it’s hard to stop at just one. Likewise, Maruhashi’s own interests expanded and, eventually, her studies introduced her to the narratives and dances of South India. This is how she ended up at Kerala Kalamandalam, a public institute for art and culture where she learned Mohiniyattam.

“I loved Kerala so much that I didn’t want to come back to Japan,” she says. “But at the same time, I wanted to introduce this culture to Japan.”

For Maruhashi, the best part of the Mohiniyattam is the way the dancer uses their face. This performative element may have also been the reason she was drawn to learning about Nangiarkoothu, an ancient form of Sanskrit theater.

“A person on their own can express anything,” she says. “In many other dances and performances, you need more than one person but, in this dance, you alone express everything, or you can even be different characters like a child, an animal, a hero or a killer — one person alone can narrate the whole story.”

When Maruhashi returned to Japan she began performing and teaching Mohiniyattam to others. This hasn’t been without its challenges, as the dancer feels a general lack of knowledge about Indian culture means local audiences aren’t able to fully understand the stories the performances are conveying. As a way to get around this, she has tried adding a screen with subtitles to her shows, but she also feels that when your mind is open to art and culture, full understanding isn’t required to have a meaningful experience.

“Sometimes a person just needs to enjoy art and not necessarily understand it,” she says, adding that she encourages Japanese audiences to come to a performance with that idea in mind. “You have to have imagination.”

Conversely, Maruhashi presents Japanese stories through Indian dance to audiences in India. She says these stories are understood well, perhaps as Indians are more accustomed to the medium. She even speculates that Indians might have better imaginations than her fellow Japanese.

As a way to rectify this imagination deficiency, Maruhashi hopes that her performances can introduce younger Japanese audiences to ideas they haven’t encountered before, and to show them how this is possible with classical dance.

“You could learn dance even if it is not the main source of income,” she says. “Your main job can support your hobby and, if you want, eventually your hobby, your passion, could become your main source of income. But you need to make an effort.”

Reflecting on her own experience, Maruhashi mentions her main source of income comes from translation jobs, from Malayalam to Japanese or English. Even though she now earns money through teaching dance and yoga, her passion was also, in the beginning, just a hobby.

In September 2019, Maruashi attended an event put on by Nihonkairali, a community group that supports Keralites living in Japan. They were celebrating Onam, a harvest festival from Kerala. She received an award for her efforts in spreading Kerala culture in Japan, though she says the results are bittersweet.

“I love Indian culture,” she says. “And the best thing about Indian people is that they show interest and appreciation in other people representing their culture. They show a lot of gratitude when someone makes the effort to learn their culture.”

She hopes that through this art form she can serve as a bridge for cultural understanding and social interactions between India and Japan.

“(What I learned) from India was the art of loving my family and friends with all my heart,” she says, before adding with a laugh “and my connections in India often tell me that they learned punctuality and valuing time, from me.”

For more information, visit Hiromi Maruhashi’s website (in Japanese).

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