In Vancouver, BC, Bharatanatyam is synonymous with one name: Jai Govinda. Née Benoit Villeneuve, Jai Govinda’s infectious passion for all things Indian has left an indelible mark in the Canadian arts scene. Decades before all-things-yoga became a lifestyle in Vancouver, Jai Govinda had already entrenched the city with roots in Bharatanatyam. The Jai Govinda Dance Academy, established in 1995, is now a hallmark institution boasting hundreds of students spread out across the globe, supporting local and international artists through festivals and collaborations and is a haven for those in pursuit of excellence through dance.
Guru Sri Jai Govinda’s dedication to art, culture and living his svadharma is an inspiration to all those who come across him. The zeal with which he works in tirelessly training his students, giving hours and hours of his undivided attention and the monumental effort he has put into bringing Bharatanatyam to the mainstream audience in Vancouver, is nothing short of incredible. The legacy he has built from the ground up along with the hands of fate, is a testament to the driving force of Sanatana Dharma establishing her roots on all corners of the earth.
In an engaging tête-à-tête, Jai Govinda revealed his colourful journey starting out as a Roman Catholic in small-town Quebec to becoming a Bharatanatyam sensation, to a life of giving through teaching.
How did you come into the field of dance?
It came by mistake or fate, I was not destined to be a dancer. I was born in the French- Canadian town of Quebec City, which was very small in those days. Dance was far-fetched, you had to go to the big city like Montreal to find the world of dance. But my friends used to call me a dancer even at a young age because I loved to move, I loved to dance. We used to go out and dance, we used to do our own choreography, so people used to call me a dancer even before I started training.
When I was 13 years old, they made an announcement in high school saying they were looking for dancers for a show for the upcoming year. All my friends encouraged me to audition and so I went and was selected. We were two males and a bunch of girls. We did the show throughout the year and at the end of the year, the girl who had choreographed the ballet jazz show told me I had talent and she took me to audition for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens which is eastern Canada’s top ballet school and company. Their motherhouse was in Montreal but they had a small school in Quebec City. I auditioned, was selected and started training. The training was 5 classes a week, 2 of ballet, 1 modern, 1 ballet jazz and 1 character/folk dancing to prepare for a bigger ballet production. That’s how I started. The artistic director, Ludmilla Chiriaeff had come on a visit from Montreal. She saw me dance and told me to take the summer course in Montreal and gave me a scholarship. I finished high school at 17 and was asked to join their professional training program.
Is there a reason why you discontinued ballet?
The ballet world was very competitive. Also, I lived in a different world of my own. All my friends were artists, hippies, most of them older than me. They were the anti-movement, anti-system people. Most of them were against seeing me taking to a high form of classical training. They felt that I would lose my dance. That was the philosophy in those days: you lose the essence of who you are by learning technique. They wanted me to be free.
So, I didn’t quite fit in. I was already different. At the outset, I was vegetarian. There was no concept of vegetarianism in Montreal in those days. We used to order pizza and I had to remove the pepperoni on top. Most of my schoolmates at dance school were smoking cigarettes, so they were in a very different frame of mind than I was. I had already read eastern philosophies, the Gita and visited the Hare Krishna temple on Sundays. This lifestyle had really rubbed off on me. After three years, I left western dance. Montreal was very cold and I didn’t have much money or support.
A few of my friends were leaving for Mexico in a car just at the beginning of winter, so I left with them and left dance. I came back to it six years later and when I came back, it was for Bharatanatyam.
Jai Govinda at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens at age 17.
Your parents didn’t support your ballet?
No. My parents didn’t support my other studies either. I was accepted to three other colleges. I was accepted in fine arts for drawing, painting, sculpture and fashion design. But my parents didn’t want to support me, maybe they didn’t have the means, or it wasn’t a priority, but if you move out of the city, which I did, it was understood that you’re on your own. So that was it. But some support came in the form of friendship, scholarships and in the form of community. I lived in the Hare Krishna ashram for five years. I got to travel all over the world with them.
How did you discover Bharatanatyam?
Bharatanatyam came to me in the temple. I had served in various Hare Krishna temples including Paris and Vrndavan. At that time I had come back to Montreal and was the head pujari, taking care of the deity worship and offering puja and alankara. In my time in Vrndavan, I had prayed and told someone that I would like to dance for the Lord, not knowing that there was an art form like Bharatanatyam, or any of the Indian classical forms that were born out of the ritual of dancing for the lord.
On Janmasthami, we had made a full flower dress and I had fasted the entire day. That evening, the temple was packed full of devotees and there was a cultural performance. There were two young girls who danced. One did Alaripu, the other did a Jatiswaram. I was blown over. Their teacher was also there, a Bengali woman named Mamata Nakra who was a student of Sri US Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi. I went to see her and immediately said that I wanted to learn. She accepted me as a student and the head priest of the temple allowed me to go. That was unusual because once you’re part of the temple, you don’t interact much with the outside world, but he understood who I was and my artistic need and as long as it didn’t affect my duty in the temple, he let me go.
Jai Govinda at age 19, before he discovered Indian dance.
As I started my training, I left the temple and began living outside, dedicating myself to dance. I went back to ballet classes to keep myself in shape. Mamata, not having enough repertoire to teach me till my Arangetram, invited her Gurus Sri US Krishna Rao and Smt Chandrabhaga Devi from Bangalore. They came to Montreal and stayed for two months and I took classes with them everyday. I did my Arangetram about a year and a half later, as I took that time to practice all that I had learnt.
She had me teach in her school as well. I used to teach ballet for her students so they could understand basic posture. After my Arangetram, she had me teaching her beginner’s class.
Did you also study in India?
I did. I met nattuvanar Sri KG Govindarajan in Delhi. In the process of bringing them to Canada and preparing a show, I learned a lot in terms of how to put a choreography together. I later went back to Guru Govindarajan to study nattuvangam.
I did three Canadian tours which ended with a performance in India. Although I was touring and quite popular and had a few good reviews of my performances, there was something in me that was unsatisfied. I went to Kalanidhi Mami to learn abhinaya but she refused saying that she was not teaching boys. After her husband passed away she did start teaching boys, but she wasn’t at the time. So I met Smt. Jamuna Krishnan, a senior disciple of Kalanidhi Mami, who happened to be visiting Montreal.
She knew I was kind of giving up on dance, some bad situations made me not want to do it anymore and I had kind of lost direction to push and to fight for it. She heard about that and spent a day with me. We shared a meal together and she said, “What is it that you want to do? I will help you.”
I told her I wanted to improve my abhinaya and I want to do a full repertoire on Krishna. She told me that I had come to the perfect place. She was very involved with the poetry of Surdas, she was a rare person to do that.
I got a scholarship from Canada to study with her in Delhi and we presented this repertoire in the first Videshi Kalotsav by Kalaparishad. I got a fantastic review from Smt Leela Venkataramanji, which really boosted my career and my confidence.
I will always remember a review from Subbudu, who saw my first performance in Delhi and he called me the Prince Charming of Bharatanatyam. He stayed for my full show and came to congratulate me on stage after the show.
Jai Govinda as part of a panel on the “Discussion on Emerging Trends in New Age Training” during the 2019 Natya Kala Conference, Chennai.
Did you ever feel like a foreigner doing a foreign dance?
Never. Look at me! I have been teaching hundreds of Canadian-born Indian students. Once you’re in it, race is not a differentiation you make anymore. You’re a part of it. It’s like an Indian teaching Shakespeare at a university. He won’t bat an eye because he knows what he knows.
When I was performing, more than being hung up about my ethnicity, people were shocked at seeing a solo male dancer. There were hardly any male dancers in those days and if there were, they danced with a female partner.
Why have you strictly adhered to the Pandanallur style and not experimented with forms and styles in your teaching, in order to appeal to children growing up in both cultures?
I have never felt the need to do so. Being a Caucasian teacher, I had to prove that I’m doing the real thing so I had to be more traditional, more strict. And I didn’t feel the need either. If I did, I went and did creative work outside my school using dancers trained in western dancing.
Teaching a vocabulary takes years, as does the learning. You can’t just imitate.
What is your take on the Bharatanatyam scene today?
The young dancers in India today are much better than we were twenty years ago. Their technique is impeccable, their choreography is ingenious at times; they have good use of lighting, music and stage as well, but somehow they look like they’re coming out of a manufacturing unit. They all look the same. The same malaise is there in western culture. Some choreographer comes out with a new move and the next day it’s on YouTube and everyone’s doing it. There are one or two top dancers and everyone imitates them.
Earlier, there was pride in being the student of one or two Gurus. There was a pride in maintaining bani. Now it’s all about how to make it different, how to improvise, how to do things that are not the norm, that people have not done before. In that pursuit, everyone is starting to look the same.
The dancers who came out sixty years ago were not as well-known for their fantastic technical abilities. They were known for their individuality and personality. That’s what moved the audience. Nobody knew about bending more, sitting more, dropped elbows etc. They would see the strength and power of the individual on stage. I feel that is a bit lost now.
How is Bharatanatyam relevant? That is up to you. The authenticity in a person who performs it is important.
Students of the Jai Govinda Dance Academy
What do you think about people who pursue different dance forms simultaneously, ballet, Bharatanatyam, jazz, hip-hop…?
If they have the time and if they want to do something out of that puzzle, why not? Everyone has their own path and everyone has their own way of doing. Padma Subrahmanyam was so criticized when she started doing her karanas. Now she’s a legend and everyone is imitating her by hook or crook. Those who dare to be different are great. The only thing is they should be able to back it up. I see very few people successful in learning different forms. If you really want to succeed in one, you have to give it time and attention.
Artistically, I don’t like to judge. Is it traditional? Not traditional? Sometimes it doesn’t work for me but it works for others. I respect artists who have a vision and who give respect to what they have learnt in the past.
What advice to do you have for those in pursuit of dance?
Hard work. Don’t look for fame or instant recognition. Do what you do because you love it because it gives you satisfaction and because you enrich the life of others. Through your interpretation, you give this gift to others. The rest will come. When I started dancing, I never intended to be a professional Bharatanatyam dancer outside of India. I know how difficult it is to be a male dancer in India. Right from the start I had a wide audience and most of the people who came to see me were non-Indians and they loved it. What they saw was probably something very genuine. I did it because I loved it, because it was a way of life, because I was a devotee.
When I dance, I enter a space which is my own, my sacred temple. My greatest enjoyment was to give.
I was very young when I started. All my friends would want to go party, but if I had a performance, I would become a nun. I would go to the studio and work very hard because I didn’t want to disappoint myself and my audience who had paid a ticket to come and see me and who expected me to give them what I’m supposed to give them.
I also wanted to be inspired. I read books that were conducive to my state on stage so that when I go there, it’s genuine. You cannot always be on every night you go on stage. But there’s a little place where you can go, that little sacred spot, so I always made sure that I made my preparation to reach there.