The Russian Kathak dancer of Indian descent, Svetlana Tulasi was a semi-finalist on this year’s Russia’s Got Talent who mesmerised dance lovers around the world with her gracious performance. Svetlana’s eloquently fluent Bollywood-inspired Kathak dance to ‘Jag Ghoomeya’ from the Bollywood movie Sultan (2015) has acquired her with much national and international recognition. Prior to this performance though, Svetlana had already managed to attain attention from Bollywood filmmaker Imtiaz Ali! Consequently, this landed her with her first acting role in the movie Tamasha starring Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone in 2015 which has now opened her up to the possibility of acting.
Svetlana on the poster of Tamasha depicting the Hindu Goddess Sita, seen here on the right, behind actress Deepika Padukone.
Svetlana began learning Kathak from the age of 10, it was one of her most loved hobbies. Kathak is an ancient storytelling devise and one of six major forms of Indian Classical Dance originating from North India. Kathak can be traced back to the ‘Natya Shastra’, a Sanskrit Hindu text written on the performing arts. Kathak dancers (also referred to as Kathakas) would typically portray stories from religious Hindu scriptures through dance, songs and music.
As Kathak travelled throughout India, Kathakas began adding facial expressions with elements of mime to the footwork, transitioning the dance from a devotional art into a multi-disciplined entertainment tradition; thus, Kathak evolved as a classical art. The technique of Kathak is highly elaborate, using rhythmic footwork adorned with small bells (Ghungroo) harmonized to music, combined with hand gestures, grace, sophistication and speed. The rhythmic precision to which Kathak is performed gives the dance it’s unique qualities, something that Svetlana fell in love with as a young girl.
The first thing that strikes me about Svetlana as we began talking was her delightful and warm demeanor. There is an attractive presence about her, she was friendly in her approach yet professional in her manner. Honest in her answers whilst somewhat guarded when sharing experiences personal to her. What can’t be denied is that Svetlana is an immensely passionate young woman who does not shy away when talking about her appetite for Kathak and future ambitions concerning her dancing and acting career.
Her semi-finals performance on Russia’s Got Talent (which acquired her a place in the finals) has gone viral on Odyssey receiving over 2.5 million views to date, a number which continues to grow. Svetlana is clearly at the peak of her dancing career. In her interview we discussed family life, future ambitions and her passion for Kathak, and here’s what she had to share.
How has the public responded to you after Russia’s Got Talent?
The response has been really positive. People from all over the world comment on my videos, not just Indians from India or Russians who followed the show, but people from all over the world! It’s an amazing feeling! I’ve read so many comments from people in Italy, Germany, China, Latin America, people from all over commenting on how beautiful Kathak is and how watching me dance makes them want to learn the art form. It’s amazing to know my dancing can inspire so many people! I truly love how this ancient and traditional classical dance from one part of the world, can reach and inspire people from different cultures in another part. This is what I truly love about Kathak and dance, its ability to unite people.
You performed with Kumar Sharma in the semi-finals, who himself is a very popular Kathak dancer in India, appearing on numerous successful dance reality shows. What was that experience like?
I was very particular about who I wanted to perform with in the semi-finals, I looked at many Kathak dancers and was clear that Kumar Sharma was who I wanted to work with. He is a wonderful person, not only is he attractive, he is humble and most importantly he is talented! Kumar is a gracious dancer who brings both sensitivity and masculinity to his performances. His precision alone is praiseworthy, his footwork, facial expressions and technique was exactly what I was looking for in my partner. We only had five days to rehearse and get the performance right, the time flew by working hard and having fun, we had a lot of fun working together.
A photograph of Svetlana performing with dancing star Kumar Sharma from India.
Do you ever get stage fright?
Apart from in my first dance contest, where I was petrified to the point of feeling myself shake (laughs audibly) on stage while I was dancing! No, I don’t get stage fright. I just get excited because I’m eager to embrace the stage and perform. Although I can’t look back and watch my own performances! I hate watching myself perform!
What?! Why? You are evidently a very capable and meticulous dancer. Why would you not want to see how you performed?
I just can’t, I am far too self-critical. I never see a good performance, just flaws so I don’t watch any of my performance’s back.
What has your journey been like transitioning from your office job to having a full-fledged dancing career?
I have always enjoyed dancing, always. When I was 17 I decided to take part in my first national dance contest. I was competing against a girl that was far better than me and I knew she was better, she was very good! However, to my surprise I won that competition. After that I really started to take my passion for dance, specifically Kathak, seriously, I wanted to take this talent of mine as far as I could.
I’d been working as a HR manager for five years and whilst I was in a good position in my life, there was no real passion. I soon realised that something was missing, and that something was my yearning for dance. I had a good secure job, worked in a great team and met some wonderful people in my line of work. I had also faced some very promising career prospects but it was simply time to escape the day to day grind of the office work life. I knew what I wanted and I knew what was missing so I decided to do something drastic about it!
What did you do, because whatever it was clearly changed your life, so what was it?
I decided to take a career break in a bold yet thought out move and travelled to India in pursuit of finding a platform big enough to showcase my love and longing for Kathak. I stayed in Mumbai in India for around three months and participated in two dance contests, Season 5 of Dance India Dance and Season 1 of Dance Plus. I was selected by the judges on both shows, made it to the top 60 out of thousands who auditioned. I worked very hard to achieve this but for reasons unknown to me I was dropped from both shows, the filming was edited out and my performances and selection was never broadcast. To present date I am still unsure of what actually happened, it was very disappointing as I had invested a lot of my time and money into this trip. My experiences in India were somewhat bitter-sweet with some unpleasant and other important life lessons. I did get to star in my first Bollywood movie called Tamasha which was a much nicer experience.
A photograph of Svetlana shaking hands with two-time Filmfare Award for best Playback Singer recipient, Mohit Chauhan. Standing behind him is Bollywood filmmaker Imtiaz Ali.
That must have been quite exciting for you! How did you get the role in Tamasha?
I was performing at the Indian Film Festival and the director of the movie, Imtiaz Ali was the special guest. My Kathak performance was to the song ‘Aao Ge Jab Tum O Saajana’ from one of his most successful movies Jab We Met (2007). He was impressed with my performance, gave me his e-mail and asked me to contact him. I was reluctant given my previous experience but contacted him anyway. I was invited to his office in Bandra and decided to go with an open mind. I honestly did not know what to expect, this just sort of happened!! He walked in with a script and said here’s your role in my next film! I was to play the role of Sita from the Ramayan, a story taken from the Hindu scriptures. I had two weeks to rehearse the lines and was thrilled to be acting in a scene with Ranbir Kapoor. I had never spoken in Hindi before visiting India so was learning everything as I went along. I know my father’s Indian but even he spoke to us all in Russian! My mother’s Russian, my main language is Russian so speaking in Hindi was something very new to me.
Svetlana on the sets of Tamasha with director Imtiaz Ali.
What was it like acting in a scene with Ranbir Kapoor?
He is very professional, very hardworking and was good to me and other members of the cast on set. I never felt like I was in the presence of a huge Bollywood star, there was nothing pompous about him, he really didn’t have that star persona about him. He treated me as he would anyone else, with respect. In the end, my scene with the dialogue opposite Ranbir was cut out of the film leaving only one scene of us in the movie where we don’t directly speak to one another. I was so disappointed about that! But this is the nature of the film industry, it wasn’t just my scene, many scenes get deleted at the end. I just wish it hadn’t! My experience on the sets of Tamasha were positive, Deepika and Ranbir were both good to me on set as was the director Imtiaz Ali, they all treated me very well.
An additional poster for the movie Tamasha.
Do you see yourself acting in Bollywood in the foreseeable future?
It’s something I’ve considered quite recently, I am looking into it but it is not the goal and never has been. For me it’s about promoting Kathak, this beautiful art form, to anyone and everyone who wants to learn. Fame has not been and never will be a part of what I seek, it’s the message that dance can deliver and my love for Kathak that I want to spread, for me the real success lies in that.
A close-up of the above image of Svetlana on the Tamasha poster depicting the Goddess Sita.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the future who would it be and why?
Anoushka Shankar. She is an incredibly talented sitarist. I am in love with her musical talent, for me it’s not about collaborating with dancers it’s about the musicians. Kathak is all about dancing to the rhythm. There are many musicians I would love to collaborate with, but Anoushka Shankar is at the top of my list. Maybe one day…
How has your family responded to the success and attention you receive?
My family is very supportive, I have two elder sisters and one younger brother. My brother Raj is also a dancer and we’ve performed together on Bollywood numbers. They all encourage me and shower me with a lot of love, my family is my strength and always will be.
Any future projects in the pipeline?
I am touring Italy this month with my Kathak and am also choosing between two shows. I can’t give too much away at this stage but I plan to make my decision soon. I am pondering on whether or not to take part in either one of Britain’s Got Talent or America’s Got Talent. I think they are the best shows on an international level where I can bring Kathak to the audiences on a large scale which has always been the goal. I would also consider being a part of Jhalak Dhikhhla Jaa in India. However, as I said before, it’s not about the fame or even the success, it’s about the art of Kathak and spreading this around the world by inspiring people to learn the art, in turn, keeping Kathak live and well among the next generation.
What advice would you give to all the young Svetlanas and aspiring dancers out there?
Work hard! Work hard and the rest just comes to you, for sure! Whether it’s the arts you are perusing or something unrelated, if you have a dream go after it by working hard and it *will* come to you for sure. That is just a given!!
You mentioned in your interviews on Season 5 of Ukraine’s Got Talent which you also reached the semi-finals in, and this years Russia’s Got Talent, how your father who you sadly lost at a young age, inspires you in your dance. What do you think he would say seeing his daughter’s success today?
Ah!! I’m… I think, well I *hope* he’s looking down on me and my family and feels proud. We’ve all kept his cultural roots alive in the way we live our lives. For me a big part of that is through Kathak. I see him looking at me smiling and believing that what he has invested in me is not wasted. My father did not belong to this world, he was a very giving man and always gave more than he ever took back. My passion for giving anyone who wants to learn Kathak comes from that. To bring Kathak to a wider audience by fusing cultures as you saw with my performance on Russia’s Got Talent, and other performances where I fused Flamenco with Kathak. It’s my way of bringing the two worlds together. Dance has a way of connecting people, I myself am half Russian and half Indian so I believe more than anything that togetherness is a wonderful thing. I think it would make him happy and proud seeing that!
Svetlana’s performance in the semi-finals of Russia’s Got Talent that went viral.